Running a Marathon Session

Image by: Allie_Caulfield

I wrote last week about the DM’s Gauntlet that I am going to be running through at GenCon, this summer. As I mentioned in that post, the whole thing is scheduled to last for 7.5 hours. That’s a full work-day’s worth of GMing in one fell swoop. Normally, my gaming sessions are lucky to make it to the 3-hour mark. We tend to have a lot going on around the game, so it’s not always easy to find the time to play for longer. However, I have run 7+ hour sessions before, and I was lucky enough to have been able to do so this past weekend.

Playing for that long, and planning to play for that long at Gen Con got me to thinking about what it takes to do that. So, without further ado, here are my tips for running a marathon game session. (As an aside, for the purposes of this post, a marathon game session is defined as a session lasting longer than 4 hours. I realize that many groups play for a lot, lot longer than that, but 7+ is a marathon for myself and my group, so that’s what I am writing about).

Plan Your Work, and Work Your Plan

I wrote before about organizing your game, and if you’re going to have the time for a marathon session, those tips become really important. You are going to, hopefully, be covering a lot of ground, game-wise, so you need to be on the ball when it comes to your planning. As always, your players may blow right through your planned content, or they may linger over a single encounter that you thought would only take them 30 minutes to handle.

All of this is especially true if you have an end goal in mind for the session. My marathon session this past weekend was for my zombie game, All That Remains, and I knew going into it that we weren’t going to be able to play this game again for almost a month. I wanted this session to really count, and to advance the story in a meaningful way. As we played, I had quite a few curveballs thrown at me, but in the end, I was able to get things to where I wanted them to be, and it didn’t feel forced. Every minute that I spent planning for the session allowed that to happen, and I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without having my stuff organized.

You Must Focus

This one is critical, especially if you have a group that tends to get off-track outside of the game. Your players are working in a world that largely resides in your head. If your focus drifts, then so will theirs. If their focus tends to drift anyway, then you have to work that much harder on keeping things together so the game can keep moving. That’s not to say that you need to be a hard-ass and crack down on the side conversation and jokes, but you need to ignore them sometimes instead of joining in.

One of the things that I felt worked really well in this regard was the act of simply continuing to talk, even though all of your players aren’t playing attention. Odds are, you’ll grab the attention of one of your players, and they’ll get what you’re saying. If a player who isn’t playing attention ask what was just said, calmly repeat yourself. This only has to happen a few times before the group gets the picture and will pay attention more. It’s not the easiest thing to explain how to do, since it sounds like I’m saying that you need to let your players conversationally walk all over your description, but give it a shot and see what happens. For me, it accomplishes a lot more than getting snarky or yelling at them to keep their focus.

Take a few breaks

If you’re gaming for this long during the day, you are likely going to cross over one, or more, mealtimes. Stop, break for half an hour, eat, relax a bit and let your brain slow down. You’re doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of mental energy, so stop and let yours recharge. We had two such breaks during our game this weekend, and they are what made it possible for me to keep going. The upshot of taking a longer break is that it gives you more time to plan some things. By the time you get 3 hours into a 7+ hour session, you’ve likely gone down some roads that you didn’t initially expect. These breaks give you a chance to turn those events over in your mind and figure out how to make the unexpected work for you.

Don’t be afraid to mess with them

Players get certain expectations about how things are going to go, and they largely expect them to go that way. Remember: they’re not the only ones who know how to throw curveballs. It has been my experience that I, and my players, think more creatively when they have fewer options to consider, or are looking like they’re being backed into a corner. The whole premise of All That Remains is that things have gone south, and the characters have to deal with the consequences. Lots of bad things are happening around them, and they have to react. The trick is balancing the trouble they’re facing with the hope that they’ll be able to get out of it. So challenge them. You have the time to throw them for a loop and see how they react, so do it.

Make the ending memorable

Even if you’re not at the conclusion of a huge story arc, do your best to make the ending of the session  a memorable one. You’ve all played for a long time, and you’ve seen a lot go down during that time. Make the ending worthwhile.

Marathon sessions can be a lot of fun if you run them properly. The next time you have the chance to play for an extended time, take the time beforehand to prepare for it, keep your focus, take some breaks during, and make the ending memorable. If you can do that, you’ll have a session worth having played in.

[tags]Gming, rpg, tabletop, Role Playing Games, tips[/tags]

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