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Pacing: Five Key Things to Consider (Mar. 2007)

Treasure Tables is in reruns [1] from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month [2], and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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Pacing came up in the comments on Have You Ever Padded a Session? [3], and TT readers Cliff “kaelbane” Nickerson and Rocket Lettuce suggested that I cover the topic in a follow-up post (thanks, Cliff and RL!). It’s a big topic, so I’m going to come at it from a few different directions.

In thinking about pacing, it’s important to consider these five things: how you start sessions, how structured your sessions are, what bogs your players down, how to pick up the pace and how your sessions end.

Starting Your Sessions

There are lots of ways to get the ball rolling, but they boil down to just two basic approaches.

Start with a bang. One way to get your players fired up right away is to jump straight into the action. You can start in media res [4], or kick off with a brief recap of the last session and then quickly lead into an action scene.

This works best when your players start the game refreshed (not right after a huge dinner, for example), and the whole group has already had a chance to chat and socialize before sitting down to the gaming table.

Start slow. Not slow as in boring, but slow as in easing into the game. This gives everyone a chance to get back into the swing of playing, and back into the mindset of their PCs.

If you don’t get together for a meal before games or otherwise have a chance to blow off some steam, you can use a slow start to allow everyone time to do just that before getting into the meat of the session.

Session Structure

Some groups prefer a fairly rigid structure for their games, while others enjoy more freeform play, where the players drive the action. (This is a social contract [5] issue, and is discussed in Active vs. Reactive [6].)

The Long/Short Truism. Sometimes, things you expected to take your players a long time will be over in a flash — and things you thought would be resolved quickly will be analyzed and agonized over. That’s the Long/Short Truism, and it’s why having some wiggle room in your session timing is so important.

This has a lot to do with the difference between your players’ flashlight [7] and your 150 watt bulb [8], and it does vary by group. It’s a safe bet that your group will surprise you in both ways (taking longer and blowing through something) at least every session or two, though.

Trim the fat. There’s no reason to play through boring stuff — just skip it. At its leanest, a session should be composed entirely of fun scenes, with a minimum amount of time spent getting from encounter to encounter. (See the third tip in More Fun, Less Work [9] for more on this topic.)

Each session is an adventure. If you want each session to be its own discrete adventure, you’ll need to do some careful planning. Block out individual scenes and establish a theoretical timeline (see Getting Bogged Down, below, for potential roadblocks) and allow some room for error.

If you’re gaming with a group you know well, this process is a lot easier. Jean likes to make detailed plans, so you allow time for that; Dave loves social scenes, so you plan on those running long. With a group you don’t know well (or at all, like at a convention), it’s best to err on the short side — and even with your weekly group, it isn’t a bad idea.

Alternately, you can include more more material than you think you’ll actually get to, and then cut scenes on the fly to make sure that your session comes in on time. This gives you a different kind of leeway, but it can also be tricky to pull off if winging it isn’t one of your strengths.

Letting your players choose the flow. If you don’t follow the epsodic, one-adventure-per-session model, then your players will be determining more of the session’s pacing. This tends to lead to sessions ending wherever you happen to be when your gaming time is up for the evening, and starting up again the next time wherever you left off.

This works well for longer campaigns, because it has a more organic feel. It also means that scenes can stretch and shrink on the fly according to player interest, and you don’t have to worry as much about pacing overall.

Getting Bogged Down

The two biggest factors in avoiding slow spots and roadblocks are knowing your players and identifying potential time sinks in advance.

Know your group. Every group is different, obviously, so what takes one set of players an hour to resolve, another set of players might breeze through in ten minutes. If you’ve been gaming with your group for years, you know the score; if not, you’ll have to learn by trial and error.

Some things are always potential roadblocks. That said, there are session elements that are much more likely to take any group a long time to work through than others. They are:

  1. Combat: The PCs’ lives are on the line (usually), lucky/unlucky rolls make a big difference, tactical planning is involved and there are a lot of moving parts. (D&D 3.x lends itself to exceptionally long combats.)
  2. Planning Scenes: If you give your players something reasonably complicated to plan out in advance — like assaulting a warehouse full of MIBs, ambushing an enemy patrol or laying siege to a castle — expect it to take quite a bit of time.
  3. Riddles and Puzzles: Puzzles and riddles are very susceptible to the Long/Short Truism, but they tend towards the long side of the spectrum.
  4. Item Management: This can be a huge time sink — see Speeding Up Item Management [10] for a few suggestions on making it a less arduous process.

Picking Up the Pace

If things do slow down, you need to take an active role in getting the session back on track. Slow doesn’t always mean bad — just like scenes in a movie, some scenes in a game have a naturally slower pace. But when your players are bored or frustrated, it’s time to step in.

What next? If you spot signs that some of your players may not be having fun [11], get everyone’s attention and ask what the party wants to do next. This is part of your role as meeting facilitator [12], and it’s a simple way to get the game moving again.

Help your players out. Whether due to option paralysis, confusion about what to do next or some other factor, there are times when it can be helpful to take off your GM hat and have a quick metagame discussion with your players.

For example: “Okay, if you go this way, you’ll face one really tough enemy. If you go that way, you’ll fight a couple of smaller groups and have to get past a nasty trap. They both lead to the same place, so it comes down to which one sounds more fun to you.”

Take a break. Sometimes, all that you need to pick up the pacing is a five minute full-stop. Let everyone stretch their legs, pee, grab a bite to eat or otherwise unwind for a little bit, and the whole group will come back to the table refreshed and ready to kick ass. In fact, it’s best to build a few breaks into your sessions — tack them onto the ends of particularly active scenes, like combats.

When all else fails, have ninjas attack. If the session is dragging and nothing seems likely to change that, you can always fall back on Raymond Chandler’s old standby: have someone kick in the door and attack the PCs. It might not always make sense, but hopefully the excitement of a quick combat (emphasis on quick — it shouldn’t be a huge, complicated fight) will get things back on track.

Ending Your Sessions

There are three basic ways to end gaming sessions, and which one you use is largely a matter of taste.

End with a bang. As a general rule, you should end sessions with something really cool, rather than just letting them peter out. If you don’t do much after the session-ending event, consider turning it into a cliffhanger. You can also wind down a bit with a denouement [13] — a slightly slower scene that wraps up the session.

End at a certain time. If you always stop gaming at midnight, that’s something to take into account when you plan out your sessions. You don’t want your preset end time to be right in the middle of a big battle, for example — that would just be frustrating for your players.

End at a natural time. It’s pretty easy to identify logical stopping points — either beforehand, during prep, or at the gaming table. When you choose a stopping point, think about what’s coming up, too. If pressing on for another hour will produce a much better endpoint, ask your players if they’re up for that. Conversely, if stopping earlier than usual makes for a cleaner break, it’s probably worth it.

What Do You Do?

Like I said at the start of this post, pacing is a big topic — and in a lot of ways, a fairly personal one. I know my own experiences and preferences as a GM colored and informed the different aspects of this topic that I tackled here, and the same would be true if you had written this post.

So how about it: What are your favorite tricks, tips and techniques for ensuring good pacing during your sessions? What did I miss? What do you have trouble with?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post [14], and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums [15]?