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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Let's Talk About Pacing!

The idea, I think, is that the RPG is ultimately about the long game.  Even rolling back to the early days of Basic & Expert, the goal of the player was to keep the character alive for as long as possible.  For many DM's, new and old, it's tough to keep a game on track in order to fulfill this desire.  With character death hanging over the party like a never-ending storm cloud, getting the player character to the next adventure was (and is) key.

Whether it's the DM worrying desperately that the players are bored, or wanting to explore every moment in real time, it can be a real challenge for any DM to keep a steady and enjoyable game pace.  I'm pretty sure we ALL suffer from it, either directly as the DM, or on the receiving end as the player.  We feel game time speeding up to 'Go Plaid', or slowing down to the speed of golf.  So the question that needs answering is, how do we moderate the pace of the game to make sense for the DM, the players, and the story (if story is a part of your game).

Some guys just wanna go fast.  There is a bad guy to snuff out and a treasure to be taken, and there exists a mostly straight line between the lonely village and the deepest dungeon.  Other folks want you to feel every campfire, smell every roasting rabbit, and manage every item in your backpack.  These extremes can drive a player mad unless you happen to be of a like mind.  For every game there is a player, and a player for every type of game.

I must assume that there are players who want to simply move from one plot point to the next, one battle to another, without ever experiencing the 'in between' time.  These folks don't care to experience the road less taken, but simply wish to get to the end, the final boss, the big pile of gold that sits waiting at the end of some game adventures.

By that logic there are certainly folks who wish to live the 'slow foods movement' gaming life-style.  For some DM's, the adventure is what the PC's get to between hunting for dinner, breaking camp, and random encounters.  While this is fine in certain circumstances, it's going to be difficult to keep the players engaged for very long if it's the primary game mode, all...the...time.  Even the most dedicated inventory accountant occasionally wants to see a goal met, an enemy vanquished, and a maiden saved.

In my experience, not unlike the Sandbox VS. Railroad play style examination, this is not a matter of finding your perfect extreme but instead locating the happy medium along the infinite number line of options available to us as DMs.  There is a time and a place for both pacing styles to exist in your game, and your job is to know when and where to speed things up, or slow them down.  Here are some guidelines I use to try and pace my games, and BTW, i'm NOT always successful.  Sometimes my game is off-the-rails too fast, and other times things are moving so slowly that I can hear the screams of my player's internal dialogue.

1. Low level games aka In The Beginning games should pace on the slower side.  This means fewer planned encounters, fewer random encounters, and more NPC interaction.  Don't misunderstand me here, you DON'T need to introduce plot hooks or get everybody on the train at the 'railroad' station here.  Instead, use the extreme danger and high risk of PC death at lower levels drive the pace.  This is the time for a good city adventure, or a more sand-boxy small jobs environment.  Let your players drive the game a bit here by providing a variety of NPC interaction.

Party staying at a large-ish inn?  It's got a BIG rat problem in the cellar.
Is the group looking to leave town?  The drovers need a few extra hands for that load of bear-pelts they are taking north for sale, and the road has some bandits.

If a few hours are consumed by roleplaying at the inn, and then another few in a very short dungeon with a few enemies, a few traps, and even a one-off odd encounter then you have produced an enjoyable session, even if a PC died. 

Yup.  I said it.

You can get alot done in one game session where the play radius is 500 yards.

2. The Monty Haul is the HOV lane to terrible pacing.  If you give out gold pieces and magic items (especially at low levels, but really any time) and the players have not earned them through significant game play/hardship, you are going to speed up play.  More powerful players will trample their way through your encounters, necessitating more frequent AND more dangerous encounters, which in turn requires you to keep pace with gold and magic and's a runaway train that quickly runs short of track.  Anyone who has played for a while has experienced this game, great on session 2, dead by session 5.  The DM has lost control, the players know it, and going back is no longer an option because those bridges have been fire-balled.

Keep your magic items rare, give the players enough gold to enjoy life and purchase incremental upgrades to equipment and skills, and the game pace will naturally slow. 

3. Need to speed up the game?  I've got one word for you...PORTALS!  No matter what game world I run my players through I make sure that the fairie folk, or a magical cataclysm, or some ancient race of higher beings have left behind a mode of magical transport from one place to another.  It's not a device that I make available at lower levels, but if the party makes it to level 4/5, it's a good way to cut down on travel between important or integral places on the map.  

Maybe access to these portals is an adventure of it's own!  Perhaps travel between places through portals is somehow dangerous?!?  There are loads of ways to make this both useful to increase the pace of the game, and at the same time a risky option that may not warrant use without deeper consideration.

4. Manage that XP sir!  If the players level from 1 to 3 in a single game session, your pace is blown.  Your players don't need XP for every little thing they do.  Maybe leveling is contingent upon plot-line landmarks being reached.  Perhaps you shouldn't give XP for every gold piece, but instead, for every ten.  I have ruined a game the fast way by doling out the experience points like the Mad Hatter pouring tea.  Beyond magic items and gold pieces, xp is the ultimate pace management tool.  Use it with discretion, but remember...a player who goes too long between levels will lose interest as quickly as a player who speeds through levels like a hot knife through butter.

5. The False McGuffin. 

Definition: In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation

If you want to slow the pace of play, there's nothing more satisfying as a DM than watching the party chase after something that is utterly, 100% meaningless.  I will often throw one or two highly desirable objects into the fray that the party is certain they require in order to complete a quest.  They don't.  But if you need to sidetrack them the only thing that beats a McGuffin is to have something stolen from the party in plain sight.  They will chase a thief to the ends of the earth, even if it's to the detriment of the entire quest.  

There are likely endless ways to either slow down or speed up the pace of a game.  The important thing as the DM is to be aware of the pace, to manage and control the pace, and to be mindful of the ways in which the pace has and can be thrown off.  Keeping the players engaged, but not pandering to them, is not an easy task.  It takes time and skill to master game pacing, and not even the most experienced DM can control it 100%.  At the end of each session, assess.  How far did the players get, did they level too quickly, or did they complete a quest or goal far too soon?  If the answer is yes, adjust.  It's only when you ignore the warning signs that the game falls apart too quickly, or players lose interest.  

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