A good smack in the nose can teach a valuable lesson, but sometimes the lesson fades. Last weekend, I got another smack on the nose. I let time management get away from me. The result was an unproductively long session, even though there were good elements.
Even as a player, I’ve been a part of lengthy planning leading to slow sessions. Back in 2008, I wrote about Planning and Analysis Paralysis in a pair of games. I am an active planner, much to the frustration of bored fellow players–that’s probably part of why I don’t catch it when my players start down that spiral. I love seeing the game that results from good planning. Usually.
Learning the Lesson as a GM
Pulling Together was an early article where I discussed getting whacked by a clue-by-4. A player, frustrated at the slow pace of a session, acted randomly to make the game fun for themselves–despite the cost to the rest of the group. At the time, I was frustrated, because… can’t you see that what you’re doing undoes everyone else’s effort? No, they couldn’t see… because they’d checked out, bored, hours ago.
In Pacing and Transitions, I noted how long a game can go when you advance the world action by action. Sometimes you have to step back, put on your editor’s hat, and summarize or skip over repetitive or unrewarding play.
Either of those issues would have been bad… so, last Saturday, I combined them. Ugh.
The Game, As She Was Played
This was an Adventurer’s League game, scheduled for 4 hours. It took me almost eight… for many reasons.
The first problem was that I had on an organizer hat as well as my GM hat. I interrupted my game just as we got going to seat late arrivals, cajole our backup GM into action, and print adventure copies for the newly pressed into service GM. My game finally started almost an hour late.
The adventure had a very sandbox feel; the PCs needed to ambush an enemy who was on a mysterious journey. They could research, tap contacts, and plan to trail or ambush their foes at any point along a 3 day timeline. The research went great. The players came up with a few good plans and pointed out flaws in each others’ proposals. Then they deadlocked. After much discussion, they finally decided to implement their plan, despite foot dragging (and a repeated “I told you so”) from the holdout.
They finished that fight three hours after the nominal start time (due in part to the reluctant player turtling instead of helping, stretching out the fight). My first instinct was to quit an hour early since they had solved the apparent problem, but they’d seen less than half of the scenario. I didn’t want the players to be cheated, particularly since the late start was my fault. I then spent way too long showing them every bit of the second half of the adventure.
That’s where the lessons I should have learned in Pacing and Transitions haunted me. Instead of showing them the beginning of part two, skipping over the mini-dungeon of repetitive fights and tangential exploration, and engaging the end boss, we instead went through the dungeon room by room. By the end, we were all drooping with exhaustion–which only made things slower.
I was going to let them negotiate their way through the final fight, since they were gamely trying. Just as they were about to secure success, one character attacked and blew up the negotiations. So we fought. At least this was an exciting, dangerous fight… or should have been, if I could roll above a six.
But we finished! They earned every XP.
Lessons Learned… No, Really Learned!
- The thought “when the players come to consensus” is a red flag. As the GM, waiting for consensus means the ball is in the players’ court… as is pacing. That’s not good. Consensus is also prone to a Holdout’s Veto.
- Holdout’s Veto: Waiting for consensus allows a single holdout to prevent the group from moving on. For an ongoing game group, it’s not uncommon for a lone holdout to give, with an expectation that the other players will make up for it later. In a one-off group, there’s no incentive to give, because you’re playing with these guys only once. If you do it their way, your only session of [game X] is less good, and there’s no compensation. So the holdout fights harder, delaying the decision.
Potential Solution: Limit planning discussions to 5 minutes, then ask for each player to describe a plan of action and support it in no more than two sentences. After everyone’s had their say, call for a vote.
- Sometimes players have to be right. They want acknowledgement as leader and as the player to determine the mission, or they’re engaged in a positioning dance, or dragging personal disagreements into the game. That has to be shut down.
- Running a table takes your brain. Shifting to think about the overall event is a big transition; you’re not going to make the best decisions for the event as a whole while you’re in GM mode.
- When you’re running behind, call for a 5 minute break. Evaluate the adventure and weigh what can be excised. Don’t try and adjust on the fly. The GM is always on; you’re not going to get the space to read and plan while answering questions and running the game.
It Happens To Us All
Right? I’m not the only guy to “fix” something, then come back and realize I made the same mistake in a new context. If you have stories of your own “fixes” that have required repeated application of a clue-by-4, let us know in comments. (I would also appreciate any time management and pacing tips you’re willing to share.)
I also struggle with keeping games within their allotted or expected time length. This is particularly the case when players either over think the situation and take a longer than expected time to take a course of action or I fail to give them enough information to make a decision easier.
I can only think of two solutions. The first would be an out-of-game solution of basically saying, “You guys have ten minutes to plan your operation and then we carry it out.” How much of my life would I gain back from Shadowrun games had this been adopted? 🙂
The second solution is more tricky. You have to present a situation in game where acting quickly is rewarded OR perhaps not acting quickly could have a detriment. I recall a Star Wars game where the rebel PCs were going to blow up an Imperial Garrison. There was a sense of urgency in game because it was known that Darth Vader was going to inspect the facility in 24-48 hours and the job would need to be completed before his arrival sparked a huge increase in security personnel and their level of scrutiny.
It’s critical to keep planning/table time aligned with game world time when you’re doing the second. So, when they’re talking, you mention the wall clock clicking over to the next hour.
Sometimes talking about “game rule” elements is viewed as basically a time out (since it’s players talking, not characters). You absolutely want to avoid this, if you’re trying to keep pace.
Your idea of a five-minute break is never a bad thing. There is usually something that you can cut out to shorten the game when behind the pace, especially if you wrote the adventure yourself and know it well.
There are a couple of issues here
1) Your dual role as both a DM and an event coordinator.
2) The actions and decisions made by the players.
Convention and event coordination is a demanding endeavor, especially when organized play is involved. There’s a lot going on – marshaling tables, ensuring your DMs are prepared, handing various and sundry issues that arise, and making sure that the OP certs/documentation is available in a timely manner. If you plan on handling both roles for a convention, then you definitely need to have someone who can serve as your ‘deputy’ to handle the event stuff when you are DMing. Your players more than likely paid to attend the event, so you must be respectful of their time and money paid. Even if it’s local game day at a store, there is still time involved and you do them a disservice if they feel that the table you are running is of lesser importance than people who come up and interrupt.
The second part of this is the actions of the players. Unless they are completely new to organized play, they should be aware of the time limits involved. 4 hours is the standard allotted time for a typical OP scenario, and players have a responsibility to be respectful of that time. Taking too much time to make decisions, being argumentative, not cooperating, and generally being part of the problem instead of the solution are all things that are not respectful of the time. Remind them that there is a real-world time limit on playing the adventure. Your time is important too. If they choose to continue to act like time isn’t an issue, as DM (and event coordinator), it’s acceptable to end the adventure at the end of the time. It may seem like it’s penalizing them, but it’s also reminding them that they have a responsibility as much as you do.
Mind you, I coordinated organized play for 4 years during the Living Greyhawk time period, so my perspective may be a bit more formal on this than others.
Vernon L. Vincent
Verbobonc Triad (2004-2008) – Living Greyhawk
You’re very right, particularly in the general case. (This was specifically a free every other week game at the store, but still organized play.)
A big part of kicking myself is agreeing with your point one; that was one of the biggest critiques pointed out by my wife when I returned home so late. That’s probably a full hour of the game’s delay, and fell purely on my shoulder.
I like your suggestions for reminding them that we all have to work together to end on time; it’s not something I alone can make happen.
Thanks for your notes!
Time-management can be really tough. It seems like once things break down, they really can snowball. This can be especially true if the scenario allows the characters to meander. Without clear direction, some players will waffle or break out their phones or simply shut down.
When running PFS scenarios and I feel players are losing momentum, I find that it helps to reiterate what they know about the situation and to spell out their logical next steps. It can seem heavy-handed, but if the players aren’t being pro-active, it can get them moving.
That’s particularly good when they’re stuck in a mystery. I’ve found it useful to say things like, “The trap was enchanted by Loriana Higglesbottom, which it turns out is a red herring. Good thinking though.”