It took me a while to realize that each session of a tabletop game is like a pizza: the more slices you try to carve it into, the smaller each slice gets, and the hungrier the sad sack eating that tiny slice is going to be. Now imagine the pizza is how much time you have to game, and each slice is the focus you can put toward a given player’s character.
The hunger they feel is more or less the same.
Then I learned about the 45-Minute Rule. Years ago, I had an unfortunate Shadowrun GM who agreed to run an 8-player game every other weekend in 6-hour slots. I get nervous when my groups get over five people, but she braved the target-rich environment with remarkable ease. I found out later that she had simply done the math, and figured out that your average gamer wants about 45 minutes of spotlight out of any given gaming session.
More than that and most players either shy away from (or start to milk) the limelight. Less, and they feel jilted and shortchanged. 45 minutes was somehow the sweet spot for how much time a given player spent actively contributing to the game to feel like it was a worthwhile day. It ensured everyone got a measurably equal share in the game that day – no one ever showed up for no reason, and no one got left out of the fun.
That meant that 8 players getting 45 minutes each over a 6-hour session was somehow spot on.
I was dubious, but then I started running a weekday-night game and put the rule to the test. We only have 3-hour slots, the smallest I’d ever gamed in, especially for a campaign. I had four players, so the math worked out, but I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to get to everybody every night. But I wanted to try it out, so I started planning for 45 minutes a person, and built my plots and challenges around that core concept.
It helped that the GM explained that ‘limelight’ here didn’t necessarily mean spotlighting one player to the exclusion of all others. Sometimes it just meant providing a given player with the sort of combat they liked, or the sort of intrigue plot or social puzzle they were good at. It meant playing to their wants in the game for 45 minutes, and they didn’t all have to be back to back or exclusive. That said, even when two players like the same thing, it was important to still give them 45 minutes apiece, rather than thinking the same slice would fill them both. If your whole group likes straight-up combat, they’re likely to want sessions packed with it, which means the same 45 minutes a person.
With that guideline in mind, I ran a year-long campaign that managed to keep everyone happy and engaged every single session for over 50 sessions. Suffice it to say, I became a believer.
I started using the same rule at conventions. Typically 4-hour slots for 6 players – you’re nearly there without having to change anything at all. Naturally, in a convention game, you lose a bit of time on the front end getting people settled in, characters selected and ruled explained, but it doesn’t put you too far off the mark. 35- 40 minutes a person is often plenty in a one-shot, especially since GMs can take more liberties than are often allowed with a campaign.
The other side of the 45-minute rule was that it often let me know when to cut off showboats and longwinded characters – our scenery chewers and overplanners. If a player gets snared on a piece of scenery (chatting up an interesting NPC, following a clue that seems a lot deeper than it is, etc), I know when to give them the nudge to drop it and rejoin the plot so they don’t miss out on more and better stuff later in the session. I can also easily take away from scenes meant to spotlight them later if they seize their own moments earlier and keep the balance intact so that no one ever runs away with a whole session.
Back to our pizza pie. The 45-minute rule means that everyone gets the right size slice to sate their appetite. No one goes hungry, and no one completely pigs out and eats half the pie.
If the slices start to get smaller, it’s time to get a bigger pizza – that is, game in a larger slot – or cut a few folks from the group to get their own pizza elsewhere rather than have everyone go wanting.
The 45-minute rule is a good guideline for both what size group to recruit and what length of session to aim for. Going much over 45 minutes a person and many players will be exhausted and ready to call it a day, and going under it is really only advised in one-shots when there’s no other choice. It creates a structure that can help GMs be certain that there’s the right amount of room for everyone in your game every session.
It does mean having to learn to say ‘no’ when your group gets too big, or having to work out scheduling to get the kind of time slot you need, but I promise you, if you start to build groups and plan sessions around the 45-minute rule, you can start to feel much more confident that every single one of your players will feel like their presence mattered every single session.