Marathon Sessions (or, Sleep Is for the Boring)

Note: One of the problems with having a post backlog that I go through is that sometimes I talk about issues that aren’t as topical by the time the post goes live. Trust me, three weeks ago House of Cards was all the rage.

There’s an article I came across in the New York Times, of all places, talking about House of Cards. The big earth-shattering idea behind House of Cards is that it appeared on Netflix all at once instead of appearing week-by-week like any show on television. Essentially, it was like buying the DVD of the series, were all of the episodes are available from the get-go. This is a response to the on-demand movement, where viewers are getting more and more into catching up with a series rather than watching everything as it airs.

The show also looks terrible. But that’s not why we’re here.

The idea of marathon viewing doesn’t surprise me, because it’s not too different from what I’ve been doing since I was first introduced to…well, to media. I can sit down and watch an entire season of a show or catch up on a long-running comic in two days, and back when I read books I would gladly burn through whole series. Granted, it colors most of my mindset for the following days or weeks, but it’s awfully fun to do.

It’s the result of one of those facts that’s only philosophical if you think too hard (or not hard enough): most things are in the past. We can’t go into the future and watch The Hobbit 2: Electric Boogaloo, but we can spend nine hours watching the first three Lord of the Rings movies. There’s always more media present right now than there is coming out, and anybody who doesn’t get in in the ground floor is playing catch-up.

There are two topics I want to address based on this, one of which is a lot closer to the real theme of the article. But before that, I want to talk about the first thing I thought when I read this article: “People are getting use to marathon session of watching TV? Finally! I can run those marathon D&D games I’ve been wanting to do since the Wilson administration!”

Short D&D campaigns aren’t all that hard. I’ve run a five-session campaign, I’ve played in a three-session campaign, and I’ve DMed about 130 one-shots, most of which were part of our version of Wizard’s D&D Delve Night. As long as you have a story simple enough to be told in that amount of time (and many are not), you can run a campaign without having to worry about deep world-building, power creep, or the players going too far off the rails. The players in turn don’t have to worry about getting lost in the plot, future time constraints, or how their characters will look or play at later levels. Everybody knows they’re getting into something short and sweet and they act accordingly, which makes the whole thing more streamlined than a long campaign.

On the other hand marathon D&D is hard. When I was much, much younger (Two years ago? Three?) I was in three campaigns D&D each weekend. I ran D&D for five hours on Saturday, played for six to nine hours that night, and playing in a different campaign for five hours on Sunday. At a more recent point, I was playing eleven hours on Saturday and eight on Sunday (ask other players how burned out they were from participating in only the Sunday half). That kind of schedule burned me out fast, and it was a good thing the Sunday afternoon campaign only ran every other weekend. As any ten-year-old can tell you, weekends are precious and my brain wasn’t happy about doing the same thing all that time, even if it was in four different gaming systems (…actually, I’m not sure if that helped or hurt me).

But I think day-long, or even weekend-long, games of D&D can work with sufficient breaks. It’s not always easy to monopolize a group of people for a day or two, but if everybody knows what they’re getting into, the feeling of going through an entire campaign in the course of a weekend can be fairly rewarding.

I’m especially a fan of it the context of something larger. I would love to have some mini-campaigns like that for the Eight Arms to build the characters and add to the mythos of the setting. It’s not a bad way to fit something quick and dirty into an ongoing campaign, like a quick plot with a much more pressing timeline. Heck, if you’re using anime as a framing device for your campaign, having out-of-continuity “movies” is almost required.

As long as you’re able to work it into schedules, there aren’t many players turned off by the theory of a marathon game (they might not be willing to practice it, but the theory is sound). A narrativist could want to explore their character acting in an unusual situation without committing to an entire plot based around it. A simulationist could enjoy seeing some part of the world that isn’t explored in the main campaign. A gamist could be interested in new and exciting challenges to overcome that might not have fit in the original campaign.

And when you consider changing characters for that short campaign, I think it actually becomes more attractive. A narrativist gets to flesh out somebody new, a simulationist gets to see how the world works without the PCs, and the gamist can try something that doesn’t click with their original character. It allows people to scratch the itch that makes them think their character or game is in a rut, but it happens in such a short time frame that it doesn’t throw off the campaign proper. For bonus points, try doing this by asking the players to be established NPCs or even villains, and I guarantee they’ll feel closer to the temporary characters and invent some traits that you hadn’t considered.

Like most things I want to try, I know that this isn’t for everybody, and it’s highly likely that not all of the players in your current campaigns will agree with me. But if you find people who are up for it, I think there’s a lot of benefit to be had.

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