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Off-topic: Strongholds, downtime, and slow gaming in tabletop RPGs

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The Dwarves in The Hobbit having dinner in Bag End

The term slow gaming has recently been used to describe video games with a slower pace and without obvious, predefined goals. Like other parts of the “slow moment”, slow gaming encourages people to take their time with something in order to gain a deeper appreciation of it.

While slow gaming is certainly a part of recent successes like Minecraft, Pokémon Go, and No Man’s Sky, there are also clear elements of slow gaming in older titles like Harvest Moon, The Legend of Zelda, and Shenmue. Even games that are not intended for slow gaming can sometimes be used for that purpose anyway; while Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is ultimately centered around stealth, combat, and linear missions, I personally play it solely for the treasure hunting.

Slowness in tabletop RPGs

As with many other gaming innovations, one early source of slow gaming is the tabletop RPG hobby. Tabletop RPGs are often considered the first form of gaming to introduce a persistent world that exists and evolves between sessions. A persistent world is a central feature of many slow games, as it greatly increases the player’s chance to play the game at their own pace. While early tabletop RPGs may not have included slowness as a part of their rules, it is easy to imagine some of the first Dungeons & Dragons groups spending entire sessions within the walls of the local tavern, simply gossiping between each other and interacting with NPCs.

Another early feature of tabletop RPGs—made possible by a persistent world—is the idea of strongholds. A stronghold is a base of operations for PCs during a campaign, so beloved in Dungeons & Dragons culture that their inclusion in Baldur’s Gate 2 was one of that game’s main selling points. While a stronghold itself may not automatically lead to slow gaming—after all, the stronghold can be attacked by invaders or otherwise affected by troubles nearby—they are closely related to another concept that inherently promotes slow gaming: downtime.

Downtime is the answer to a question that inevitably gets asked in a long-running campaign about adventurers in a persistent world: What do adventurers do between adventures? While downtime can be used simply for mechanical effects like healing, crafting, and training, many players seem instinctively attracted to the prospect of acting out their characters just living their daily lives.

In a downtime “adventure”, the goal may be nothing more than stocking the nation’s best library or finding out which hero is stealing cookies from the cookie jar. One of the most vivid memories from my earliest Dungeons & Dragons campaign involves the PCs enthusiastically decorating their new stronghold and discussing what color drapes they should put in, with the barbarian vigorously championing pink.

Slow gaming is also closely related to sandbox play, which is a popular style of campaign that places PCs in a world where they, rather than their superiors or antagonists, drive the action. While sandbox play is easily combined with slow gaming, one does not necessarily lead to the other. In many sandbox campaigns, the setting has been designed with the same emphasis on clear goals as in a typical campaign, differing only in how and when PCs achieve those goals.

Features of slow games

A beach on a planet in No Man’s Sky

What are some common features of slow games? Below is a partial list:

Adding slowness to your game

The cover of 1001 Nights by Night Sky GamesThe cover of Golden Sky Stories by Star Line PublishingThe cover of Og by Firefly Games

If the idea of slow gaming appeals to you, there are effectively two ways to create the slow experience for your own group: either switch to a system with slowness built in or add slowness to your current system.

While the slow elements of most popular tabletop RPGs generally originate from culture rather than rules, there are games, especially indie titles, where slow gaming is not only possible but actually designed into the rules. Examples of such games include 1001 Nights, Golden Sky Stories, and even Og. If you go this route, it is crucial to make sure that all players are excited about the premise of the game itself, or any slowness provided by the rules will quickly turn to dullness instead.

If you are adding slowness to an existing system, there are without a doubt countless ways to slip them into the rules, but all of them carry some degree of risk. After all, the very idea of imposing slow gaming as a necessary goal goes against the concept of slowness itself. For better or worse, the only effective way of achieving slowness might be to let it develop on its own. It may well be a slow process—but wasn’t that what we were looking for all along?

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