Pacing in RPG’s is not unlike pacing during sex. Too slow and minds wander, blood re-allocates itself…you get the idea. Too fast and not everyone gets to have a satisfying finish. Much like in sex, pacing during a session is important if you want to be asked to play again. So other than thinking about baseball or Bea Arthur while you are running your game, how can you keep a reasonable pace?

Called Out

This article is for a friend of mine, Drew, who was a guest host on a recent Misdirect Mark podcast (Episode #97). During the podcast, he called me out to write an article about Pacing. The title is actually from Drew, who explained pacing as going to the zoo and you keep looking at the different animals, but all you really want to do is to get to the F-ing Monkeys.

Specifically, Drew wanted to know how and why you move to the next scene while running your game. To address this question we need to look at two things: where are you going, and how fast are you getting there?

Where Are You Going?

In order to properly understand pacing for a session, we need to know what the session is designed to accomplish. Every session has some kind of goal or objective. In a dungeon crawl, the objective of a session may be to explore the 5th level. In an exploration SciFi game the goal may be to understand the properties of a stellar anomaly.

Sessions are typically broken into scenes, and if your session is designed properly, your scenes should each have a goal or purpose; with the majority of the scenes supporting the goal of the session. There will be other ancillary scenes, such as sub-plots, personal exposition, etc. which will be included and do not directly support the goal of the session, but are there to make a more compelling session.

In a traditional Story-based session, the GM has the ability to lay out these goals and structure them in advance. During their prep, they can define the goal for the session and select scenes which support and move the session towards it’s goal. For instance:

Session Goal: Open Trade with the Gnomes

  • Scene 1: Travel to Gnome Mountain; encounter with dire wolves.
  • Scene 2: Dialog with Gnome Chieftain; find out what they need.
  • Scene 3: Return to city, find goods; haggle with traders.
  • Scene 4: Deliver goods to city; attack by bandits.

The challenge comes when you are playing more of a Play to Discover (i.e. ad lib) style game. In these cases the GM can select a goal for the session, but typically has far less control in detailing the goals for each scene, or even framing scenes. In those cases, in place of scenes they should come up with a list of criteria that the players need to achieve, which support the goal for the session:

Session Goal: Open Trade with the Gnomes

  • Objective: Find Gnomes
  • Objective: Convince Gnomes To Trade
  • Objective: Obtain Goods
  • Objective: Deliver Goods

This looks a lot like the original example, but in this case, we have not defined how the players will accomplish any of these. For instance, to Obtain Goods, the players may decide to rip off a black market trader rather than purchase them. The objectives are defined, but how they are achieved is open to be discovered during play. Only when all the objectives are accomplished does the goal for the session become satisfied. The best part is that this list of goals and objectives can be done in advance as prep, or could be determined during play.

How Fast Are You Going?

Now that we have an idea of what we are trying to accomplish within the session and it’s scenes, we can then gauge how fast the session is going. The velocity of a scene is a function of how many goals have been accomplished against how much time is left in that session. If you are not measuring goals or have an unlimited session time, then you cannot measure the velocity of the session.

If most of the goals are accomplished and there is ample time left in the session, then the session is going fast. If much of the time has been used and few of the goals have been accomplished, the session is going slow. If a reasonable amount of goals are accomplished in a reasonable amount of time, then the session is moving at an acceptable velocity.

The speed of a scene – that is how fast the players achieve the goal for the scene – will vary greatly depending on the scene itself, their interest, the type of game you are playing, etc. For instance, if the goal of a scene is to fight the Orcs in Room 3, the amount of actual time it will take to complete the scene will differ greatly if you are playing AD&D or 4e D&D. Scenes which involve planning or dialog can have great variance in speed, based on the actions of the players.

Knowing about the session’s velocity, lets look at some techniques for getting the speed back on track. Keep in mind that the efficacy of these techniques will vary based on your group, game, etc.

Going Too Slow…Speed Up

When things are going too slow, we need to move through scenes or achieve goals faster. The first thing we need to do when we sense things are going slow is to look at the current scene and determine if its objective has been met. Sometimes we tend to let a scene draw out after we reach the goal. If the objective has been met, then guide the scene to a conclusion and start the next scene. If the goal has not been reached, look to see what needs to happen for this scene to reach its goal, and guide the play towards that direction.

Here are some ways to speed up your session:

  • Use a summary narrative- switch your narrative from real-time to a summary and close out the scene.
  • Ask a closing question – prompt the players that the scene is done by asking if there is anything else they want to do at their location, in the scene, etc.
  • Aggressive Scene cutting – move from real-time in one scene to opening a new scene. This can be jarring, but effective in the right types of games.
  • Weaken the opposition – If a combat is dragging on, remove some hit points, signal a retreat, surrender, etc.
  • Drop upcoming scenes/goals – If there is a scene which is not essential for completing the goal of the session, drop it.
  • Add Time – If it’s possible, extend the gaming session giving you more time to achieve the goal.
  • Adjust your goal for the session – sometimes you have to accept that you will get less done in the session and adjust your goal accordingly, saving the rest for the next session.

Going too Fast…Slow It Down

When things are going too fast, we need to slow down the progress of the players for achieving the scene and session goals. The good part is that it is very easy to slow players down.

Here are some techniques to slow the session down:

  • Add complications – add something to the current scene to increase what needs to be done to achieve the goal. If the players are negotiating with the Queen, have her comedic but drunk brother barge in and insult a character.
  • Create a dilemma – nothing slows players down more than a disagreement. A moral dilemma is a great way to get players to stop and debate. Have the villain surrender, present them with a bribe, or just one powerful piece of treasure.
  • Ask for a plan – the only thing that creates more drag than a dilemma is a plan. Before you move to the next scene, have the players work out a plan for their characters.
  • Strengthen the opposition – tack on hit points to the bad guys, have reinforcements arrive, have a new threat appear.
  • Add in non-essential scenes – this can be an NPC-PC conversation, or shopping for new gear, listening for some rumors at the inn, etc. Adding in a non-essential scene will slow down the progress towards the session’s goal.
  • End Early – sometimes you just finish early. If you do, take that unused time to talk about the session, story development, and characters.

Arriving On Time

Pacing is a tricky thing, and one that is nearly impossible to plan in advance. Its something that has to be continuously monitored and adjusted while the game is running. To pace properly you need to know what you are playing for and how fast (or slow) you are in achieving it. With those two pieces of information, you can employ a number of techniques to adjust your velocity and hopefully bring your session in on time.

How do you monitor the velocity of your game? What are some of your favorite techniques for speeding up or slowing down a session?