One of the gaming topics that I find most fascinating is that of formats – what’s the structure of the game session’s like, how and where we meet, in what manner is our game played. Familiarity with the format is a big part of managing the expectations before the game, but a lot of the time, it’s decided upon even before session zero. I’ll give you some examples, but there are lots more – I believe that “what format should we adapt/develop to our needs” is the second question we should ask when establishing a new RP group, right after “what are our needs”.

The Classic D&D

Given here as a baseline, it can be vaguely described as “we meet every week, continuing from where we left off last time, occasionally doing time-skips in-game to get to interesting stuff; we have an acceptable minimum number of players required to play (usually 1-2 less than maximum), and an agreed-upon way to deal with missing player characters (usually played by someone, or fade into background). The GM has an adventure, we play through it, and continue to the next one, until it feels like we reached level 20 or so with one final adventure, or until we decide to end it and move to something else”.

It’s good, it works, but it’s not the only format, nor should it be a default. 

Crystal Heart

Our game is built to feel like an animated TV show. To do so, our format includes two big, unusual concepts: Episodes, and GM-controlled PC background.

The game is presented in a serialised structure: Every “episode” begins in a situation that Nadav dictates, kind of like the beginning of an episode in a TV show (see here, and here). This situation can be detrimental to the PCs – “you’re all in jail” – but the players agreed to it, they want to come along for the ride. The in-game explanation is, that the party is following a route given to them by Syn – next episode might start with “You’ve recently arrived at the fringes of Shmorlgerburger, in search of the Breathing Statues”, because Syn told them to do so. The players don’t get a say on the location of the next adventure, or what it is about.

An episode usually takes 2-4 sessions to finish, and there are about 3-4 episodes in a “season”; the season’s plot is pre-planned in broad strokes, open to change according to the player’s decisions. Just like with most (good) TV shows, each season is its own story-arc, with some big changes between them.

The power that the players give to the GM doesn’t stop here – they also give him almost free-reign regarding their backgrounds. While the Classic D&D format also allows for some of this (I believe most players will be open the GM saying, “actually, you failed, because you have a rival“), it’s somewhat taken for granted that the PC’s past is in the player’s domain. Not so in Crystal Heart, where the GM is able to say things like “As you arrive in Shmorp-Shmorp, your hometown, you discover your pet tiger got loose and killed a few people”, despite the player never deciding on a hometown, or on any pets. This isn’t “going too far” in the format that Nadav and the others agreed upon. Nadav is allowed to establish basically any fact he deems useful for the current episode, with two caveats: he can’t say what the PC feels about these facts, and he can’t just change the world mid-episode. The PC-related facts need to be established at the start of the episode, even if the players aren’t aware of them yet. You’ll see an example of this in the next story arc.

50 Fathoms

Aviv and I, along with our spouses, recently started playing good-ole’ 50 Fathoms, for Savage Worlds. We’re playing it like an open-world, toy-filled sandbox, with a main plot-point campaign, and I’ll explain what we mean by each of these.

Open-world: The players are free to go wherever they wish, initiate adventures or follow rumours in what order they wish, usually motivated by “I want to get X” or “We need Y in order to survive”.

Sandbox: The world is just there, and will be changed by whatever the players decide to do with it. The GM does not create plots; instead, they arise organically from random encounters and from the toys.

Toy-filled: There are lots of adventures out there, already ready and waiting for you to discover them. An adventure takes about a session.

Main plot-point campaign: There’s a main story for this game, which will eventually be resolved. The players choose how and when to pursue it.

There are two more things that I would consider a part of the format. First, we keep track of stuff: Days at sea, rations, cargo prices, stuff like that. Not everyone is doing it – Dassi is in charge of ship book-keeping – and we don’t track everything – Aviv doesn’t like keeping track of ammo, so we’re using the abstract rules instead. We do it in order to encourage the players to get stuff and do stuff, which is important in a sandbox game. Second, we’re trying to play correctly, which means we agreed to stop and check the rules whenever there’s a reason to, and minimize quick GM arbitration (which I do a lot, to keep the game flowing). This is because we want to get a full Savage World experience, that will give us the right perspective as we write the Crystal Heart setting book.

The Days of Charlie Spencer

Named (incorrectly) after a song, for no reason at all, I designed this format to help me achieve a different goal altogether from the ones we discussed so far: introducing RPGs to university students. I wanted to allow for minimum commitment so that the prospective players will feel at ease to join whenever and however, and with maximum new-player-friendliness, and post-game hobby-retention. This was a few years ago, and since then I changed my views a little regarding commitment (there should be some, it actually helps), but the basis is still solid:

It’s a weekly game, always at the same place (a table at the cafeteria), running during the same hours (12:00 till 18:00); there’s some advertisement of the event on social media and message boards around the campus, but there’s no pre-registration. Consistency and predictability are key.

Each session is a full 6-hour adventure. Next week’s adventure will be a stand-alone, just like this one is. Character sheets are pre-made, with big Dungeons and Dragons logos – the name is important because the students know it, and so it’ll also be printed on a little tent on the table. The character sheets are simplified and super user-friendly, of my own design, and of course, in the local language (this was in Tel-Aviv, so Hebrew).

The format requires having a GM and two players committed to the cause. The players need to sit at the table throughout the day so that there’ll always be enough people to play with, to keep the game running. Anyone who even looks toward us is invited to join, offered a character sheet and a super-quick summary of the adventure so far, and a promise that they can leave whenever they want. One of the two permanant players explain the rules to the new person while the others continue the game with the GM, and in 2 minutes you’re in.

Come when you’d like, rejoin us later if you wish, after the next class or next week, keep your character or get a new one. Oh, and here’s a flyer to the local gaming store, with links to important Facebook groups and the next big convention in the area.


Some other interesting formats include organized play, West Marches, streaming (that is, for consumption as entertainment by a viewer audience), and marathons. You should search for these if you’re interested in more information, or ask for details in the comments and I’ll gladly elaborate.