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.)