Accepting Limits: The One-Hour Online Role-Play Experience

Accepting Limits: The One-Hour Online Role-Play Experience

“An hour?!” someone asked me the other day, incredulous. “How can you run a whole tabletop RPG session in an hour?!”

I’m all too happy to answer that question.

My recent practice of running one-hour-length role-playing sessions over voice channels on the online social platform Discord apparently baffles people. What else can I say? I am proud of the format and, furthermore, know of many folks who might benefit from adopting it as their own. In this short piece, I describe how I run one-hour sessions, whilst also painting a portrait of what “role-play” looks for me now at present.

Let’s start with the “why.” Why do this brutally short format with my players? Don’t I enjoy their company? Isn’t role-play supposed to be a many-houred, luxurious affair, with chips and conversation aplenty?

As with anything, we can blame society for my current constraints. With the advent of not only the Covid-19 pandemic but also pressures of modern parenthood of two small children under late capitalism, it has been difficult for myself and others to larp or even schedule regular RPG sessions. Larp seems largely consigned to a life I once led, now rapidly receding into the past.

Nevertheless, I’ve refused to give up role-playing the past several years, as I’ve kinda devoted my life to it and am disinclined to give up my favorite medium in the world. Moreover, Nordic larp design principles emphasizing that “everything is a designable surface” help us accept our seemingly-impossible limitations as simply constraints on design. Live-action online games (LAOGs) have also normalized this form of play, for which Gerrit Reininghaus and the Open Hearth Gaming Community (formerly known as The Gauntlet) can take credit (see also Reininghaus and Hermann). And almost no one in my circles can find a proper 2-4 hours to spend online and role-playing, but everyone seems to, at least, have an hour to spare.

The simple constraints of compressed time and remote play have forced me to prioritize the following principles:

  • Scheduling, the great beast that every successful role-playing group must slay
  • Grace in negotiation, or assuming the best and remaining affirmative with the group
  • Efficiency of play, in which the group voluntarily adopts different norms of speaking and turn-taking to facilitate a memorable hour of role-play
  • Minimalism, both in the systems used and in “special time” situations, such as combat
  • Externalized memory, because you never know when you might play next

Putting these principles into practice means choosing to accept the limits on one’s time, energy, and format, in exchange for regular, rich hours of role-play with folks all around the world. 

It works as follows. I gather everyone who has communicated interest in playing in a regular one-hour session into a single private Discord channel. This “general” chat will be used for scheduling, logistics, meme-posting, etc. A second Discord text channel is created for campaign notes, which will become the externalized memory of the group. A third “voice” channel is created for the actual play of the campaign. In the “general” logistics chat, we then attempt to find a shared hour in our schedules within the next month. 

screen shot of discord chat

Getting everyone together for an RPG session can be tricky, and flexibility is important. Screen shot of discord chat taken by Evan Torner.

Scheduling happens with the pre-understanding that it is a difficult task, often crossing many time zones! If one month doesn’t seem to have availability for everyone, we skip it and go to the next month. For example, a recent game went on hiatus for 18 months on account of a baby’s birth, and then resumed as soon as players gradually found a shared hour to resume play. Because the time unit is only an hour in length, no major child care or babysitter needs to be pursued, and any players who need to drop the session last-minute are easily forgiven: a game that’s one hour in length can always be rescheduled, no questions asked. This is what I call grace in negotiation, which always assumes the best of others. Players should in no way be punished or shamed for scheduling issues. It should remain a pleasure to show up, sit down, and play.

Play itself will be regulated by the principles of efficiency of play and minimalism. Players cannot make overlapping table conversations on Discord, so everyone must wait their turn to speak. Contributions must therefore be kept short, meaning that one should  think about one’s 1-3 sentences of description beforehand. Dialogue is conducted like a fanfic table read, with players being very transparent about their characters’ motivations and actions as they speak. Dramatic irony is a great tool to create tension between what a player knows and what a character says and does. 

Above all, the facilitator must keep track of time. Resolve any fights within 30 minutes, or maybe within two full character actions by a player, whichever way is quicker. Your own system of distributing player agency over combat, and the fiction in general, is worth far more than following the letter of the rules for every game. Every player should get the spotlight on their character at least once during a session, and that spotlight should be reasonably evenly distributed. This also means the maximum group size is usually four or five players. Short scenes that are cut abruptly are magnitudes better than ones that drag on in the hopes of more drama.

Critical to this model is the externalized memory of writing down the general results of a session in the appropriate Discord channel. Who knows when you’ll get your next hour together? Preferably on the same day as the play session, you will write down a brief summary of what “happened” in the fiction during the session, tracking in particular characters, locations, and actions taken. Make sure there’s an easily accessible link to any shared character sheets, either on a platform such as Roll20 or an online character keeper.

screen shot of externalized memory chat in discord

Example of the externalized memory log. Screen shot taken by Evan Torner.

In summary, the one-hour online role-play experience helps us busy adults “fit in” role-play while accepting limits on our time, money, patience, and memory. It acknowledges care-givers, overburdened employees, and neurodivergent adults. It celebrates the fact that even smaller campaigns shared among a few people are just as valuable as more-ambitious projects and, for some isolated by their circumstances, can indeed serve as a lifeline to the hobby and communities they cherish. Open your Discord and see if anyone is up for an hour of role-play.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

Torner, Evan. 2024. “Accepting Limits: The One-Hour Online Role-Play Experience.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo by Sadia from Pixabay. Image has been cropped.

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Evan Torner (b. 1982) is an American professor of German and Film & Media who began doing larp theory and design a decade ago. He co-founded the Analog Game Studies journal and the Golden Cobra Challenge. Photo by Jenni Toivanen.