The Remembering Self and Session Structure

How do you structure your sessions, GMs? I remember when I first started out, I had a big event prepared that would throw the heroes in together and much past that was totally unplanned. It was so unplanned, in fact, that when my players desperately wanted to keep playing for another five hours I had to think pretty quick to give them something to do. In the end, it was a cross-country journey involving a few magical hazards – nothing special, but oddly enough I still remember this session as among my best despite all of its shortfalls. The opening combat was new to most players, and one took upwards of 30 minutes (!) for his turn(s). There was no actual navigation involved, but a vague direction-finding with the hazards Schrodingered in at appropriate lulls in player conversation. One of the players checked out of the session, and the campaign itself a few sessions later; I’m to this day concerned that I didn’t quite handle the “you are now all motivated to be a team” moment correctly… and yet, still, I consider this a pretty good session and so do the players who were there that are still with me. Why?

The answer may surprise you if you aren’t a student of psychology: the Remembering Self is influencing my feelings and hard. There are two selves when it comes to experiences, say contemporary psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman. The Experiencing Self is extremely transitory – it is what you experience in the present moment that is forever fleeting (for an undetermined handful of seconds – the amount varies by the study, but a good low end is a second or two and a good high end is a short handful of minutes, no more than 5). The Remembering Self, however, is what you REMEMBER experiencing in the moment or moments that is or are now gone by. This is most well illustrated by strange situations like the one I describe. Anyone watching a recording of this introductory session would say “the combat was long, uninvolved, and boring; you gave minimal engrossing description and had put forth little effort to move things along more briskly when they dragged; the mashing together of the group was somewhat uninspired from a motivational perspective, and the following trek through the woods was contrived at best”, and yet when I remember it the thing seems wonderful. So what gives? Experiences are broadly defined in memory (since literal photographic memory would take too much room in our brains and be too hard, simply put) by only three factors: high points/low points, changes, and the end. Therefore, when I remember this session, I remember the worst (and really only pointedly bad) point (30 minute turns), the best parts, and the end, which was satisfying. Was a lot of it bad? If I REALLY think hard about it, yes, a lot was. But a cursory remembrance would inform me “good job, Hydra DM, keep doing that!” Well, if I should keep having players take 30 minutes for their turn in combat I reckon I’d be out of a job as GM, so why would I want to “keep doing that”?

The moral of the story here is pretty simple: you should structure the session around the big moments (high points), contrasts (changes), and the end. If you have a “best part” and a satisfactory ending, chances are your players will think about the session a couple of days later and go “wow, that was really quite good”. If, on the other hand, you have a flat experience of going through the motions, and a nonsatisfactory end to the session, your players will be less than impressed (and so will you!)

The Three Act Structure

The three act structure is well known in story-writing, and goes a little something like this: the context and interesting situation are introduced (act 1), which sucks the protagonist into a series of events that have a rising action (act 2), followed by their culmination and a denoument (act 3). Sometimes the culmination point is in act 2, but let’s stick to the simple model for now. Typical boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end we’ve all seen a million times, right? The issue with this is that the three act structure is designed for use in a self-contained and cohesive work. A roleplaying game’s campaign, however, is the self-contained and cohesive work, not the game’s single session (except for one-shots, you say? Clever observation, I’ll get to that in a minute). Therefore, the most traditional advice given for structuring sessions (“three things happen”, “use the three act structure”, etc.) should be taken with a grain of salt… a large one. If we treat each session as a self-contained unit, the end is not going to evoke the sort of emotion you want. A proper resolution in the third act (or, rather, a resolution that “feels good”) means that the questions have been answered and the audience has been sated. On the contrary, in a roleplaying game you do not want the audience to be sated; you want them to try to get more!

So, what is one to do? Simple: borrow from serials. Your end should not be an end, but a glorious cliffhanger. A well-known GMing resource (that if you haven’t read I recommend) in fact maintains that the use of the three act structure is inherently flawed for similar, though distinct, reasons. However, it goes so far as to say that the three act structure of beginning, middle, and nice solid end is actually not at all feasible, and I disagree with the absolutism of that statement. Perhaps I’ll write about why some other time, but for now our thrusts are in the same direction, simply not to the same extent.

When to Use It

You should use a three act structure when you know the end is coming, and the end is basically final. For my example here I name a game designed and redesigned for the past decades with a one-shot game focus heavily in mind: Paranoia. In Paranoia you are assigned six clones of your character due to the rapidity of character death, and due to this character death there cannot be a meaningful “campaign” in Paranoia with much ease (Paranoia XP is notable in adding clear rules for a “Straight” play-style that is meant to be a campaign, but it changes a lot of the game to fit that). Therefore, the default mode of play is the one-shot adventure session. It handles this one-shot adventure session model beautifully through use of the traditional three act model. The heroes are briefly introduced, the circumstances given, and their task assigned (at least if they’re lucky and found the briefing room; if they didn’t they will acquire a task on their own, but it probably wasn’t the one they were supposed to do), end of act 1. The heroes then get in over their heads in progressively more problematic situations as complications arise well outside of the scope they had planned for (their experimental gadget they’re required to field-test does something nutty, they’re ambushed by communists, they kill each other and say the one they killed was a traitor, etc.), end of act 2. Assuming they survive, however, they eventually resolve (or don’t resolve) the problem and report back to debriefing. It recommends so heavily that you end each session with a debriefing in fact that it is contained within their formula for a good adventure in Paranoia XP and to that ends included in the sample adventure in the back of the text.

Why does this three act structure work in Paranoia? Why do they give you a definite resolution in the form of debriefing? Because you aren’t expected to play on in a campaign fashion, of course! The session is a one-shot: a beginning, a middle, and an end with no intention of continuation.

Closing Thoughts

Using this knowledge of what points our Remembering Selves will, erm, remember is very important to structuring your session correctly. If you intend to continue, of course, giving them a debriefing is a poor idea since it creates a closed chapter in the game. Remembering how you resolved everything last time when you show up for next week’s session is infinitely less useful than remembering how you were engaged in combat with the big scary monster or treacherous villain (and, indeed, often leads to a lot of “um… what now?” upon conclusion). At the same time, ending a one-shot on a cliffhanger is sending mixed messages (“there’s more here that you can find out next week!”); when what you wanted to do was give a clearly demarcated (although potentially ambiguous in contents, for instance in Call of Cthulhu) finish you instead left the door wide open.

In short: structure your sessions, and especially the ending, according to what you want people to remember in relation to how you wish to continue (or not).

That’s all for now,
The Hydra DM

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Posted on May 17, 2012, in Meta and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think this also ties into how we can sometimes unfairly judge our own games. When comparing our games to those he hear or read about, we are measuring our own performance against the recollection of another. Rarely do others talk about the akward pauses, break in logic, or other missteps in their game. They remember what stood out and summarize it. No actual game-play can really compete with the excitment and efficiency of such a recollection. I think we should always strive for excellence and improvement, but we shouldn’t get down on ourselves for the quality of our games — they are probably cooler than we probably give them credit for.

    Nice post (sorry for being kind of off-topic; it just got me thinking).

    • It’s not off-topic at all, this is precisely related to what I was getting at! The Remembering Self can act as an experience enhancer in the respect that it makes an experience seem either better or worse than it was when you experienced it, and so when it gets down to comparing a session that is fresh in the mind as of 5 minutes ago with a session that had its highlight reel posted in Chris Perkins’ column on the Wizards of the Coast website all of ours are bound to fall extremely flat.

      Admittedly Chris’s sessions ARE better than everyone else’s, but not by as much as it seems 😉

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