Let’s talk about pacing. It’s a subject that’s come up before here on the Stew for very good reason. You can check out some of the previous articles on the subject here, here, and heck, just do a search for ‘pacing’. From the number of times the subject has been broached, it’s obvious pacing is a key skill that GMs need to develop for their figurative toolbox. A good handle on pacing can turn a just okay game into something fantastic that the players will talk about for a long time afterwards.
Most game systems out there have a built in method for handling the pacing of action or combat, some of which are better than others helping to keep the game moving. No matter how good the mechanical system is, though, it doesn’t really help a GM understand how to handle the pacing of the in between moments. There might be some advice in the book’s game master section, but most of the skills needed to handle transitions and timing come from experience. I’m sure there are some GMs who start out with an innate skill for pacing, but the rest of us need to work it at to get good at it.
I’ve found one of the best ways to get better at using pacing to turn games into something good is to use your players as a barometer for how the game is going. GMs who are good at reading their players know how to adjust the flow of the game so they keep the right level of excitement and involvement ebbing and flowing throughout the entire session. Of course, with everything else a GM has to keep track of, it can be challenging to try and also keep an eye on the mood of your players, but it is a pretty important skill.
These suggestions aren’t the end-all be-all, but they’re a start:
Signs of Boredom — Keep an eye out for some of the obvious signs you’re losing your players to boredom. They may start paying more attention to their phones or tablets, or doodling in the margins of their character sheet without paying attention to the game, or even creating a dreaded ‘dice tower’. These things all occasionally happen throughout a game, so don’t panic the moment you see a player doodling during a game (I have one player who tends to draw scenes from the game as we play, so is obviously paying attention), but if it takes a couple of tries to get their attention back on the game, you might want to transition to a new scene to get everyone back in the game.
Know Your Story Beats — While not everyone is as narrative focused in their GMing as I am, it’s still a handy thing to understand the general structure of stories and how different beats in the story can be translated into making the game thrilling for your players. Having a grasp of rising and falling action and how one scene transitions to another will give you many tools in your arsenal to be able to adapt to points in the game where things are starting to lag. If the conversation with an important NPC is starting to lose some of your players (see the signs of boredom above), it might be time to throw an action scene at the table. Conversely, if they’re enjoying roleplaying with one another and the NPCs in the scene, it’s okay to let that scene go on for a little longer than you thought you would need.
(I highly recommend checking out ‘Save the Cat!’. Though it’s very specific to screenwriting, I found much of the advice valuable when presenting a story to my players and especially in introducing NPCs.)
Eye on the Clock — Whether you’re running your weekly game or a one-shot at a convention, you have a limited amount of time for the game. I have fond memories of playing ALL DAY when I was in high school, but those days are long gone. More than likely, you’ve got a few hours to fit the game into and it’s your job to make sure to stay on schedule. This is especially crucial for one-shots where you absolutely need to give the players a satisfying conclusion to the game at the end of the session, but it’s important for ongoing campaigns as well. Even if you can’t fit everything you’ve planned into the game, it’s your job as the GM to give the players a satisfying game from start to finish. This includes knowing when to move the action along as well as when to call it a night.
Speaking of which…
Don’t Fear The Cliffhanger — When I was little, my father read ‘The Hobbit’ to me. Each night when it came time to stop so I could go to bed, he would invariably choose the most exciting or tensest moment to end, leaving me literally hanging on the edge of my seat, wanting to know what happened next. All of my players can blame him for any cliffhangers I end games on. While they won’t work for one-shots and they shouldn’t be used too frequently, ending the session on a cliffhanger can be an exciting and enticing way to get your players eager to come back for the next session. Of course, you don’t want to cut a game off in the middle of a combat, but sometimes right before or after a fight is a good time to drop the curtain on the game for that night.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Learning how to pace a game is an ongoing process and something I know I’m always trying to get better at. I bet many of you have your own tips and tricks on how to pace a game, so let’s hear them!
Cut the dull travel time. If the players are going from point A to point B and nothing happens, then don’t drag out the travel time. If something is going to happen, then cut the dead air time between when the journey began and the key scene happens and then back to rapid transit mode to finally get to point B. The players should be moving on a map like Indiana Jones and the red lines, unless something important is occurring.
I once played in a D&D game where the GM ran an exploration expedition into a jungle. We went through the Jungle for hours making our spot, listen, and other assorted checks. One round at a time. One turn at a time. In the jungle. In a session I can only call Jungle Hack, we were bored to tears. The GM thought the tension and realism would be found by doing it the way that he did. I told him that if I really wanted that experience, I’d buy a machete and head for a real jungle. It would have been a lot more fun that that game was! 🙂
Years ago one of my players made a simple suggestion that drastically reduces the dice-rolling when PCs are moving cautiously. Instead of demanding checks for Spot, Listen, etc. every round, we do one set of rolls. Those rolls apply when something happens. This keeps the game moving smartly whether it’s a 5-room dungeon the party is exploring while checking for traps or a day-long trek on a dangerous road.
Of course, the “something happens” may be a bump in the night– a false positive. Including a judicious number of these, along with actual threats, makes the tension in the story more palpable.
Great idea! I can go one better on that score, I do not allow my players to roll for anything that would be a surprise for them, I roll Spot, Listen, and other assorted checks for each character, and what’s more, I don’t even let them know I rolled (I use a simple formula on a spreadsheet). I have a list of randomly rolled numbers that I go down and check off each time one of them needs some kind of perceptual check. This way they don’t even need to know that there is a need, and will be more surprised when something actually happens. (And it cuts down on the time they spend rolling dice and checking the results).
GMs who don’t have a computer on the table can simply have a list of prerolled numbers on a scrap of paper. They can even let the players roll them the previous week (so they can’t remember that they have a critical failure for the next check).
Pacing is really hard, and while the GM bears the brunt of the responsibility, the whole table needs to keep and eye on the clock and (at least) not fight cutting a scene or skimming over uninteresting time.