Scene Duration and Scenes-per-session

edited March 2015 in Story Games
I've been wondering about Scene Duration and number of Scenes per session. In a typical 3-4 hour session, how many scenes does your group cover? (If your favorite RPG doesn't use "scenes" per se, count "rooms" or "locations" instead.)


  • For most sessions I recall, I count fewer than 10 scenes per session. PbtA systems seems to have a faster scene rate, for me anyway, those sessions can go to 10 or 15.

  • What I know for sure is: here at our place, we play much longer, slower scenes than the Americans who chiefly design the games we play expect us to. So much, in fact, that estimates of game duration or session length found in rule texts are usually far, far off the mark.
  • Hmm. This is a tough question, because I'm super bad at counting this stuff in retrospect. Looking back at the session I have a summary of on hand, it looks like we only got through about 7 or 8 scenes in roughly a 3 hour session.

    Similarly, roughly recounting from memory my last TBZ session, we did a dozen or a bit more in 4 hours.
  • Is this a concern only for games like PTA with specific player scenes (because we're worries about fairness and screen time)? Or are we considering "scenes" in games like D&D where all the players are continuously present?

    Depends on the game: we were very happy with each player having one turn in PTA; Fiasco demands you do two; and in D&D I'm unhappy with less than 4 rooms explored in a dungeon setting. Can ya get any data from that?
  • For games that use actual scenes like say Primetime Adventures and such (there are a lot of these among the various brands of proge design, PTA just came to mind first), I'd say that the average is maybe 15 minutes per scene, including all the between-scenes stuff, but not including possible setup or takedown procedures for the session. For a 4-hour session this would make me expect something like 12-15 scenes in total.

    However, the variance is very high: there are scenes that last just three minutes (enough for a single player to soliloquy a vignette), and then there are scenes with complex interconnected conflicts and lots of dialogue, where the single scene could take e.g. an hour.

    In some ways the most purely scene-based game that I've played a lot of is Zombie Cinema, which has a basically linear tick-tock structure of cinematic scenes to it, and no particularly time-consuming mechanical procedures. A ZC game lasts at most eight rounds of play, with a scene per player each round, so with e.g. 4 players there is a maximum of 32 scenes in the game. However, in practice a quarter or so of those are skipped due to zombie attacks or passing players, and thus only maybe 25-ish scenes are played. ZC takes about 2-3 hours for playing through that amount of scenes, which makes it a pretty fast game - I would assume that it is at the upper range for any game with improvised scene framing, character dialogues, conflict rules, etc.

    So something between 10 and 25 scenes per session, depending foremost on how much time the mechanical processes - particularly confict resolution - take. Also, at least around here it is not uncommon for the "normal" 3-4 hour session to get an overtime of up to 50% if the game's going well and we just don't feel like quitting yet; this can easily make the "single session" a pretty fluid notion.
  • /nods.
    @Potemkin if your game doesn't use scenes then count rooms or locations.

  • Huh. Maybe my recolections of how PTA goes aren't as hot as I'd thought.

    I've known single rooms (really, an extended situation) to take up a productive session of play. Maybe it would be better to talk about "screen time" or "spotlight" - how often and how long a player is called to make a desisive action and all attention is focused on them. Is balance good? Should games cater to those who want less time in the spotlight and are happier to let others do more? Can games share spotlight and have two or all the players "on screen" together?
  • edited March 2015
    In my experience, more "traditional" styles of play tend to have a slower pace, and doubly so for rules-heavy "traditional" play. This may be true, to a slightly lesser extent, for OSR-style gaming.

    By "traditional" gaming, here I mean a few things:

    * A "party"-style approach to the game, where a group of players representing a character each interact with or through the GM (not generally with each other). All characters are present in almost every scene.
    * There is a lot of time and effort put into establishing fictional details and handling dialogue "in-character"; "meta" talk about "the story" is minimal or frowned-upon.
    * The scene framing is "naturalistic" ("What do you do next?" "Ok, so you spend a few hours walking down the road when you see a town up ahead..." "Do you want to enter the town?"), as opposed to aggressive cutting and in media res framing. Other than occasional "fast-forwarding", all passing time is dealt with, as though we were going through the characters' lives/activities in strict order, without skipping anything.

    Other types tend to move a little to much quicker. I've actually timed the scenes in a handful of games I've been in, either out of design interest or for other reasons.

    Here are a few data points:

    * A very experienced GM in a convention-style game setup (with pregen characters) once told me that she expects to run through about 3 scenes every two hours. This is very much "traditional" gaming, as I've defined it, above.

    In practice, however, there must some time to handle questions, bathroom breaks, and diversions, so she said that her own personal rule for scenario design is a pretty strict "1 scene per hour of playtime", which she follows in preparing for conventions and is very happy with.

    * I played a "guest NPC" for two sessions in a "traditional" long-term campaign which ran in 7-hour sessions. Since I was often not involved in scenes, I took notes and timed each scene. Scenes with lots of discussion and debate between the players tended to run for about an hour. "Action" scenes, in contrast, were often short.

    In one 7-hour session I witnessed, there were five scenes (!!!). (Yes, I was bored out of my skull.) From my notes on the session:
    Scene 1: The four PCs go rescue that girl. Lots of planning, power use, then
    dialogue, pretty much zero conflict. Hour and a half.

    2: I show up to meet the PCs, we talk and share information, acting suspicious of each other at first, but, of course, in the end we work together without any tension, because we're all PCs, and otherwise we can't really move on with the game. No problem there, though. One hour.

    3: We track down this agent who has disappeared. Her husband's dead. We look for clues, don't find many. Again, no conflict. Approximately forty minutes.

    4: One PC gets pissed off and captures an important bad guy from "the Bureau". We then interrogate him. After involved conversation and roleplaying some torture, he spills some info. Since he's a regular human, no dice involved in any of this: it's clear that our powers can handle him easily, and we EMP-ed his body, so the Bureau can't track him to our location, so there's no pursuit. Just under one hour and a half.

    5: Our only remaining clue is to go see our "boss", who's not answering her cell phone. She turns out to be the Big Bad (newly possessed), and we have our final scene. There wasn't exactly any combat, but several people died--the prisoner got shot by one PC, the
    NPC (our boss) is killed by a powerful attack by one of the PCs (again, no dice: it was obvious her body wouldn't handle it), another almost got possessed, and then my character finally got possessed and that was that. Just under one hour.
    I played in that game a second time, and players arriving late or leaving early led the group to "rush" through the game, playing for only about 4 hours. Here, typical (talking/negotiating/bargaining, with no conflict mechanics engaged) took about 45 mins each, whereas "action scenes" (with dice rolled for combat actions and similar) flew by at 6-15 mins each! (This group tended to gravitate to "no dice" roleplaying for everything but the brief and fast "action scenes", when game mechanics would be engaged.

    In "non-action" scenes, however, there was also a lot of negotiating about the fiction ("So, is the windowframe made of wood, of plaster?"), like I've seen in some OSR gaming. This tends to take up lots of time.

    * My game "Land of Nodd" is an indie-style game with rotating spotlight, kind of like Polaris or Annalise. I timed scenes out of design interest. Individual scenes are pretty consistently 10-20 minutes, so I expect four scenes per hour. This is very reliable in practice, and appears to be an excellent pace for the game, although the rules don't mandate it in any way.

    * I've played a few 2-hour sessions of IaWA. In most sessions, approximately 5-8 scenes would get played out. However, in one session (which ended up being near three hours) there were a lot of players and a fair bit of confusion, which turned into the entire session encompassing only one scene! (I have a write-up of this game on the forum, if someone wants a link.)

    * In Dogs in the Vineyard, scenes were often longer due to the handling time of the conflict mechanics (although they're integrated with the fiction, so "stuff" keeps happening while you go through the mechanical process). In the sessions I ran, we had approximately 3-5 scenes in a 2-1/2 hour session. Two scenes per hour seems fairly typical, with occasional much shorter scenes.
  • edited March 2015
    Scene 1:
    "Oh, hey, before we enter the cursed castle, I want to make sure my flask is full of holy water. I ask the village elders if I can fill up from the sacred stream."

    "Elder Vigdis tells you that only holy endeavors can do so, but that your mission qualifies, so she says, 'Aradin bless you,' and points you to the stream."

    "Great! I vow that I shall follow Aradin's guidance in battling evil, and fill my flask."
    Scene 2:
    In the cursed castle, we decode a message, mix a potion, and cast a spell, all while killing mooks and dodging the Big Bad.
    In freeform play, Scene 1 can take 30 seconds and Scene 2 can take 3 hours. So the number of scenes per session depends on where we are in the dramatic and goal-oriented arcs of play.

    Some players prefer that the arc of a session conform to this type of arc, such that we start with medium-length establishing scenes, speed through short set-up scenes, move cautiously through some approach scenes, and then dig into a setpiece. This is ideal for conventions and one-shots. In an ongoing game, though, some players don't care, and are happy to spend one session building up and then a second session in the cursed castle.

    I'd say a typical Delve con game looks something like this:
    - brief village exterior intro
    - brief first villager met in field
    - medium-length with village leaders in square
    - medium-length with lord or steward at manor
    - brief with sketchy folks thus far mentioned at outskirts (2)
    - brief digging at danger (2)
    - long encounter with danger
    - long strategy session in hiding
    - super-short prep scenes with various folks (5)
    - super-long climactic struggle
    - brief immediate aftermath
    - brief fallout, getting paid & congratulated, etc.

    Dunno if those all count as scenes in your book, but if so, that's 18 in 3 hrs & 30 mins (assuming 20-min intro & set-up, 10 min break, 4 hr slot). Average scene length of about 12 minutes, but virtually zero of them are actually 12 minutes.

    In Primetime Adventures, or any game where a conflict resolution procedure traditionally ends a scene, this "30 seconds / 3 hours" disparity is greatly compressed (in my experience), and my guess for a typical scene accords with Eero's.
  • edited March 2015
    I found some more notes, this time from a long-ago Fudge campaign I ran. Our sessions were nominally 4 hours, but, in practice, varied from 2 to 4 hours.

    Each session consisted of approximately 8 noteworthy scenes (other minor things happened, like discussions of equipment carried, minor points of conversation, and so on, but not too many). Looking through the notes, this is surprisingly consistent!

    I remember feeling the game's pace was decent but wishing it could be a bit faster.

    The game style was somewhere in-between "traditional" gaming and a more "modern" style, with lots of individual character scenes, and more common "fast-forwarding" or scene framing. (But still not to the extent of something like a Primetime Adventures game.)
  • This is all excellent data so far, thank you all, you are corroborating what I expected to find.

  • Another data point:

    In the Tabletop episode featuring Fiasco (you can find it on YouTube), they play out 16 scenes in about an hour. There's both lots of extra material (player interviews, explanation of the game) and surely time which has been cut out (brainstorming, awkward pauses, etc), so the scenes are VERY short by RPG standards. I'd imagine the actual game took more than an hour, but we're still taking 16 scenes (+ Aftermath, almost a scene in itself) in a short time: let's estimate 6 mins per scene (as in Eero's estimate for Zombie Cinema), with a possible range that's a little more or less, maybe 4-10 mins per scene.

    I agree with Eero that this is likely the very "top end" of this spectrum in terms of speed, and probably (just a guess here, on my part) well above the comfort level of many gamers in terms of pace.

    I sincerely hope that my example (five scenes in seven hours) is, if not quite, at least somewhere very near the "bottom end" (1h 30min-1h 40m per scene).

    I've seen scenes which take up two hours or more on occasion, but never (in my experience) in a functional, fun situation everyone was enjoying. (Even long "immersive" LARP scenes I've seen didn't last more than an hour - but my experience here is not extensive at all.)
  • Totally depends on the game, the size of the group, the type of play, and the individual situations. Early edition D&D munchkin style game with 3-4 players we could go through a 20-40 room dungeon in 4-8 hours, and an entire normal size module in under 12. A Shadowrun 3E mystery story game with 8 players may take 4 6 hour sessions easily, especially if it involves astral, matrix, and physical aspects as well as multiple combats. What's interesting about that is that the module itself would be half the size of the D&D one, but take easily twice as long.

    With our current five person group in 3.5 D&D a single module within a larger campaign (with its own subplots and character plots) took us 8 sessions of 4-6 hours (not including 2 sessions of character creation and campaign planning). It did, however, include one large and one average size dungeon (just over 100 rooms altogether), along with several other parts.

    A game of Star Trek, emulating the tv show model of scene creation favored by that game, with 6 players, took only 3-5 hours for a full episode. A session of Battletech or Frontiers (both of which focus on miniature gaming, with roleplaying elements thrown in), with 4 people participating, could finish an adventure (basic scene layout of setup, investigate, conflict, surpass adversity, main tactical fight, conclusion, same as any 80s tv show) in 2-4 hours quite easily.
  • @Phoenix182 - when you say "module" or "episode" - any estimate how many scenes or locations we're talking about there?

  • Well there is no set number due to the number of variables, which was kind of my point. Some modules have 30 room dungeons, some have two dungeons with over a hundred rooms, some have no dungeons but instead a series of encounters, many include random encounters which may or may not happen, some are wilderness explorations where the group will only experience a small part of the prepared encounters, some are all about negotiation and problem solving while others are a series of combats, etc.

    I noted specifics where known (like our current 3.5, or the most common construction of TVesque game), but regardless of the exact number the general time requirement usually stayed fairly constant according to game, group, style of play, length of the adventure, etc. Munchkin style early edition D&D went very fast (5 rooms per hour), later editions were much slower as were adventures which were part of larger campaigns (2 rooms + all the other stuff per hour). TV based episodal games seem to average a 'scene' every 30 minutes, but the entire story is very short start to finish.

    Not sure how else to quantify it given the variables.

  • * There is a lot of time and effort put into establishing fictional details and handling dialogue "in-character"; "meta" talk about "the story" is minimal or frowned-upon.
    Slight nitpick; Most "traditional" games I've been party to have TONS of meta-talk and non-in-character conversation, they're just about different things. You're not allowed to metatalk about "story" because everyone is supposed to act like there isn't one, but you totally metatalk about world details and what "makes sense" and possibly even courses of action.

    In the cursed castle, we decode a message, mix a potion, and cast a spell, all while killing mooks and dodging the Big Bad.
    How can that POSSIBLY all be one scene?
  • Maybe it was a video montage with a snappy soundtrack? :-)

  • Maybe it was a video montage with a snappy soundtrack? :-)
    Everything is better with montages!
  • Right now we're playing Jedi Blackbird, the awesome Star Wars hack for Lady Blackbird, we play it with the Star Wars soundtrack playing, a session takes about 2-3 hours. We have about as much scenes as a movie, some taking longer than others (remember how downtime/refreshment scenes are important in LB). Each session we have the best villain stand-offs at the end, with the right music playing.

    I've noticed players pacing their heroic speech or narration so the Imperial March or so can be heard in dramatic pauses. Last time the end exactly coincided with the end credits theme.
  • Across a variety of games I'd say 2-40 scenes in about 4 hours, with a game like Homeworld Project (which specifically thumbs its nose at the typical notion of RPG scenes) being as much as twice that on the high end. For example, my Firefly game from Thursday had about 6 scenes on the ship involving getting the job, planning, and setup, about that many during the kidnapping the crew was hired to do, and two additional scenes - one with a side plot and one with the twist reveal at the end. It was a shorter session, barely 2 hours - extrapolating to 4 hours puts the number of scenes close to 35 (assuming the pace slows a little bit over 4 hours).

    Then again, I find scenes to be just one way to think about the action. I tend to think of the action as a continuum that we relate using techniques focused on concise communication, rather than concise dramaturgy. So, by necessity I am cutting up simultaneous action with different people in different locations to post-hoc produce scenes.
  • We don't really do scenes, but going by locations (depending on how you cut them up), our last session had 15 by my count (Here is the ADVENTURE LOG). There was a lot of connective tissue though, because we take each day of travel at a time. I don't really elapse much. But in all these are the locations I have (keeping in mind you could carve some of these up further, for example the Silk Tavern could be divided into the meal, the combat and the interaction with Dancing Hawk when he was recovering later).

    1) Water Village
    2) Boat journey
    3) The Jade Pit
    4) The City of Rong-Yao
    5) Purple cavern headquarters (in Rong-Yao)
    6) Road
    7) Silk Tavern
    8) Road through Zun Forest and Zun Ambush
    9) Attack of Zun Horsemen
    10) Falls of Sura
    11) Heiping Temple
    12) Gold Fin Tavern
    13) Heiping Tunnels
    14) Kushen Encampment
    15) Princess Sarnai's Yurt

  • edited March 2015
    In the cursed castle, we decode a message, mix a potion, and cast a spell, all while killing mooks and dodging the Big Bad.
    How can that POSSIBLY all be one scene?
    It just depends on how you define "scene". There were no cuts, no jumps ahead in time, no jumps from one location to another, no discreet transitions between one bounded space and another. (The characters did move around, but all within the large courtyard.)

    Perhaps I should say this: in retrospect, it's not hard to divide the cursed castle encounter into 5 scenes, but at the time, in the moment, it all felt like one scene, and it would not have been natural to note a transition between any one moment and the next as "new scene"/"new room"/"new location". So, AsIf, count that as 1 or 5 as you see fit.
    I tend to think of the action as a continuum that we relate using techniques focused on concise communication, rather than concise dramaturgy. So, by necessity I am cutting up simultaneous action with different people in different locations to post-hoc produce scenes.
    This is my experience as well.
  • edited March 2015
    Yeah I count that as 5. Since you don't use scenes I'm counting locations. :-)
    Thanks for the input!

  • 6-8 an hour, on average. Anecdotally, this is why Fiasco is paced the way it is.
  • edited March 2015
    Interestingly, playing Hillfolk recently offered compact scenes of ca. 15-20minutes that worked well. This was possible because each time a specific player framed the scene and it was focused mostly on the dynamic between two characters (PvP mostly).

    Then there is also the topic of how to manage Scene-in-Scene play, Flashbacks, "Meanwhile" scenes , scenes that naturally morph into another, groups that split up etc.
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