Worlds of Design: Quality vs. Quantity of RPG Play

I tend to evaluate games beginning with the assumption that most published games are played only one to three times before gamers move on to the next game. This is a consequence of the thousands of new tabletop games published every year - among other things.

About how many times (sessions) do you typically play/GM a particular set of RPG rules?

I tend to evaluate games beginning with the assumption that most published games are played only one to three times before gamers move on to the next game. This is a consequence of the thousands of new tabletop games published every year - among other things.


Picture courtesy of Unsplash.

A Lot of Games​

I tend to evaluate games starting from the assumption that most published games are played only one to three times before gamers move on to the next game. This is a consequence of the thousands of new board and card games published every year, and of the large segment of gamers who are “Explorers”, who want to explore (play) a game just enough to understand it and then move on to the next.

Forty years ago, with a small number of new hobby games each year, those who were explorers gave individual games more play, but most players weren’t explorers, they were interested in “mastery” as an objective in game playing. There are other motivations of course, such as people who play to help someone else win, people who play solely to participate in the social comradery around a table, and people who play to partake of a story to name a few.

Categories of Repeat Play​

I divide games into the 1-3 play category, the 10-25 play category, the 50ish play category, the 100 play category, the unlimited category, and others in between. Can RPGs be viewed the same way? Yes, though the GM plays a big part in enjoyment and continued play of a set of rules, so there’s not a direct comparison.

Number of times played depends so much on the length of the game. I know people who’ve played Britannia more than 500 times, but this is much more impressive for a four to five hour game than it would be for a 15 minute (or shorter) game like Love Letter. So maybe an “hour standard” should be used (where 500 x 4.5 hours = 2,000 hours, while 500 x 15 minutes is 125 hours). The hour standard is even more relevant for role-playing games.

Some RPG players like to play by the same rules year in and year out, while others (the explorers?) frequently try new rules. Most of you have played more RPG rule sets than I have, because in games I’m the opposite of an explorer.

Repeatability of Play​

Those RPGs that are devised to support a specific setting appear to be of the 1-3 or 10 play category. Dystopia Rising RPG, for example, has a very atmospheric (zombie apocalypse) setting but doesn’t have, in my opinion, a strong rules set. In general, when all the advertising and conversation is about the setting, I don’t expect much from the game’s rules, though of course there can be exceptions. (Like movies based on games, once in a while there will be a really good one . . .)

D&D is a peculiar case in RPGs, as it occupies a kind of “Monopoly”-like position, that people play it by habit, or it’s the only RPG many people have ever heard of. (Monopoly is by far the best-selling tabletop game, and one often played, but is regarded as a poor game by game designers.)

Hours of Play vs. Number of Sessions​

Once again, hours of play might be better than number of sessions, given the variety of average lengths in different campaigns. Yet some people play in a very leisurely way, while others play quite fast.

Unfortunately, collecting statistics for face-to-face play is challenging. Yet the online GM assistant programs such as Fantasy Grounds may be able to count hours just as they count the title being played.

Some will argue that quality and length of time are not related. I see the point, and one can conduct polls to try to determine quality, but is that practically going to give us an answer? Let's find out.

No evaluation method can be perfect. Let me know in the comments and in your response to the poll what you think.

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


If I'm going to drop $50+ on a RPG per book, it's going to get a fair amount of use. Granted, I have run one-shots of some of the RPGs I've bought as test runs, but they invariably get dragged out again and again for other groups or expanded into a campaign game down the road.

Modules/Adventures are a special case. Those usually only get one play, but I have had a couple I've trotted out twice or a few times over the years (White Plume Mountain and Ravenloft, for me).

Of course, the data on this forum is going to be skewed somewhat as we're a bit more than a casual fan of RPGs. But I think the overall logic holds - unlike board games, you can play RPGs without personally owning any books. It's the ones you expect to play over and over again (or have) that you will put your money into.

There's a lot of games that I never actually play - some because I don't have a group or the time (or both), some because they are just inspiration, some because I lost interested while reading.
Among those that I play, the categories are probably roughly equivalent to what it is outlined in the article:
  • Games that see only a couple of sessions (typically 1 or 2) are games that I played, but where I have no strong desire to continue (either because they deliver a very specific experience or because they simply weren't that great)
  • Games that I like but which work better for shorter games for me, typically see a lower, but steadily (if slowly) growing number of sessions (e.g. I mostly play DCC at conventions and though I like Broken Compass a lot, it has, so far, mostly been a system for smaller adventures)
  • Games that see about a dozen of sessions or so are those for which campaigns are either short of which didn't really work out well for campaign play or the group I played with (examples would be Dungeon World or The Sprawl).
  • Everything else is basically just infinite play - there are arguably still differences between systems that support a lot of mechanical progression and those which don't do that, but for me that doesn't really matter so much (it's been quite a while since I played in or ran a campaign that lasted longer than 2 years, and now that there are so many easily accessible games, I typically want to switch to something else after a campaign anyway).
So with regard to the last question in the article: I think there is indeed merit in evaluating how well systems (or adventures) manage to fulfill their intended purpose, and their respective quality is indeed not necessarily correlated with the amount of content they contain.

As for the poll: I don't know what to answer - I think my game time has at least a bimodal distribution :)

For the last ten years I've tried to get at least 6 sessions out of each RPG purchase.
We have a lot at zero plays as we haven't go to it yet.
Of our new games this year we have had 6+ sessions out of:
Talisman adventures.

I voted the 11-25, but it is usually 10 times that.
Our group plays decade long campaigns, we also tend to use the same RPG ruleset for it. We have been a HERO group and started playing in 1990 or so. Multiple GMs with us rotating who GMs when one campaign hits a milestone, to someone else, then back to the original.

Note that we tend towards games that don't have levels, so it's easier to grow wider in abilities in addition to more powerful, who's genre (usually Supers) - you can start someone at early Teen Titans or new Mutants level and grow them until they are the JLA/Avengers and into Legion maybe.


I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I'll try most games if there is an enthusiastic GM (besides me). Typically, I start with quick start and the cheapest route as a try before buy. If I dont dig the game it falls into that 1-3 session category. Though, if I like it I'll run it much more. I would say probably about 1/3 of the games I try become regular games.

My evaluation of a "good" game is two parts. One is the mechanics. If they are easy to use, make sense, and stay under the hood during play, I'm likely to become a fan. The other part is setting/flavor/genre/experience. If the material helps me immerse in the genre and have the expected experience, I'll likely become a fan. Sometimes I can become a fan with one or the other, but usually I need to feel both work in tandem for a good RPG experience.


I didn't vote because me experience varied greatly depending on which group I was playing with.

With hardcore D&D players I would say we never played more than 2-4 games before I would get the 'can we continue the D&D campaign now?'

With players who enjoy other games, we range between 8-12 games, by design. Once the adventure (module) is over we switch to another game system. We are all GMs. There are cases, like Coriolis, in which I played more games with a new group. So, instead of 8-12 games, I'm now at close to 20. It's my default sci-fi game.

There are exceptions regardless of the group. For example, we played only one game of Aliens. It was (scary) fun but players and the GM didn't want to continue. Other times, we played only one game as a one-shot fun session like, for example, Villains & Vigilantes.

The amount of fun is not dependent on the number of games. There were several periods in the last 41 years during which I played D&D because it is the only RPG people would play but I wanted to play something else. Maybe 1 in 5.

Finally, I do buy RPGs just to read them and I'm perfectly fine if I don't play them with a group. If I really want to play them I use my solitary role-playing technics to generate a story.
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Jimmy Dick

I prefer organized play and sustained play, so that means I am investing well over a thousand dollars in a game system. I like to play and run Pathfinder 2e via Pathfinder Society. I have spent over a thousand on those rulebooks and Lost Omens setting books, 500 or more on maps, and a several hundred more on adventures and other accessories like spell cards and adventure paths. That's just for 2e. I spent a similar amount of 1e. Between those two game systems, I have ran 400 sessions and played probably 300. Nothing like getting your money's worth out of your game!

We tend to have certain rulesets that are our go-to games, that we play into the 100s of sessions (1000s of hours) over the years.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are games run specifically as one-shots, or very short mini-series (2-3 sessions).

Somewhere in the middle are games we play intermittently, that gradually accumulate into the mid-to-high 10s of sessions (example: Apocalypse World will get bursts of 5-6 sessions about once a year). Also in the middle are games intended as a one-shot that we liked and stuck with for a while (for example, I was surprised to find we have run 20 sessions of Trail of Cthulhu, which started as a one-shot).

The above is more or less true for my group overall.

For me personally, obviously all of the above is true, and in addition there are dozens if not scores of games I have played 1 or 2 times at conventions... but I would consider convention play an entirely separate category when evaluating things. (Indeed, "is this game designed FOR or at least TO SUPPORT FULLY convention play" is an important evaluative factor!)


I'd look more at the idea above of playing a game 1-3 times as something that applies more to the boardgame market than the RPG market.

In Boardgames there are games that I only play 1-3 times, games I play several times (3-10) and games I'll play very often and many times beyond that I can count.

RPGs on the other hand seem to be a more black and white issue. I'll either not play it at all or I'll play many sessions of it (far beyond the options given). It is true that there are MANY RPGs that never get played because I don't want to sink the time into them, the ones that I DO choose to play I try to get as much usage out of as possible.

Even Pathfinder 2e which my group doesn't play as much, it is still currently on the menu of games to play with others occasionally. If not with the current group, with groups down the line. That's the least favorite RPG that I currently have in my line up that I play, and that one will still have more sessions that will be played over the years.

Of course, others get played a LOT more. I've had 4 sessions of RPG games over the past week (lucky I get as much I suppose), which makes for a LOT of gaming I guess. Overall, I'll have a LOT of sessions each year, but it's spread about among just a few RPGS that we actually play (D&D, WFRP, Fantasy AGE, PF, SF, and C&C currently).

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