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?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.


11 Responses to Get To The F&%$#ing Monkey

  1. My biggest technique in speeding up or slowing down a game is the “random” encounter. I quote that term because my encounters are never truly random. They’re always planned to enhance some element of the plot, the setting, or character development. I will adjust the timing to help. When the party is losing direction or struggling to understand the situation I’ll spring on them a minor encounter that clarifies the situation. If the party’s moving along at a good pace I’ll let them stay in the groove– unless the point of the story is that well laid plans are interrupted.

    After adjusting timing to keep things moving I’ll adjust encounter difficulty. But usually it’s not my quasi-random encounters that need adjustment, as I typically plan them below the party’s ability level anyway. (If they’re easy, they’re easy. If they’re hard, they’re average.) It’s the turning point or climactic encounters I have to adjust sometimes. Those should present a difficult challenge without being TPKs.

  2. Great article Phil, and very timely for me. Last week’s game dragged on forever and mostly included action by one, and only one, player. This particular session suffered from “planning to death”. Being that we only get a whopping two hours of solid gaming in each week, spending 1.5 planning what we are going to do is (at least for me) not awesome.

    For me the “Summary Narrative” or a montage-like scene would have been great. Move on, and get to the next part….

    Of course, different players like different things. For some,the planning is perfect and the PC who got most of the attention and did most of the die rolling for the night really got to shine.

    It takes a focused GM to really read his players and make the adjustments you talk about, or be willing to sacrifice a scene or some detail if the players are taking the game in a direction he had not expected (and hey, when don’t they?).

  3. In terms of planning an adventure I use a hybrid of the scene and objective outlines you described. I organize the adventure in terms of chapters, like “Chapter 2: Getting the Gnomes to Trade”. These are like your objectives. Then I try to imagine 3 ways the party might accomplish each objective based on the setting and NPCs I’ve chosen. These approaches are like your scenes.

    Figuring out the potential scenes is an important part of planning. First, it validates your adventure design. If you can’t work out a scene that the PCs can a) reasonably find their way into and then b) reasonably resolve successfully, your players are just going to get frustrated. Probably you will, too. Your design needs improvement.

    The second benefit of identifying 3 possible scenes for resolving each objective is that it guides your planning. You’ll know which places to detail, which NPCs to create, and which encounters to plan out the stats for. Usually one of the possible approaches is the most obvious one for the party to attempt, so if you’re squeezed for time you can spend the most effort detailing that while only sketching out the alternatives.

    Now, 3 is not a hard-and-fast number. It’s just a useful rule of thumb for planning. You as a GM can’t reasonably plan out everything that could happen. Though my most fun times as a GM came when the party did something unexpected, and it succeeded. Having planned out the first 3 ways of a scene unfolding makes it a lot easier to extemporize when the group comes up with a great idea #4.

  4. MORE PLEASE! Pacing is one of the toughest things for me to manage as a GM, so this stuff is super helpful. (I especially like the “ask for a plan” trick.)

    The other day I had a novel (to me) thought about measuring velocity in terms of twists. Like, dragging out a boring scene is not good pacing; adding a twist to make it an interesting scene is great pacing. Then add a few more! The scene ends when you can’t think of any satisfying twists. And it ends too early if there were still plenty of good twists unexplored.

    Or another way to look at it, if “a game is a series of interesting decisions,” then the proper pace is one that gives players just barely enough time to digest each new piece of information and react to it.

    • Plot twists can be a lot of fun, but to be a good storyteller you must use them judiciously. At some point the players are ready to be done with a scene, to have a sense of closure, to mark it as a success and move on, to take their lumps and move on, etc. If you drag that scene out too long with additional twists it becomes tiring and frustrating.

      In addition, if every scene you design contains a twist your players will get jaded about the story as they try to second-guess the surprise. “Which one of these beggars is actually the local lord in disguise this time?” they’ll ask one another as they roll their eyes.

      • Great points, Blackjack. Especially the second one.

      • Very true. But when I say twists I don’t mean “plot twists” of this level; I just mean any development that forces you to re-think your tactics. Like, a second wave of badguys shows up; or the middle section of the bridge turns out to be illusory; or the poison damage gradually increases each round; or the monster activates its damaging aura; or (a classic) the room catches fire.

        That sort of thing. It’s what Phil refers to as Complications or Strengthen the Opposition. I guess my point is that just adding difficulty (e.g. more HP) is usually boring; it should be accompanied by some change that makes the PCs start thinking again.

        • I agree, 77IM. I’ll add that “more HP” usually results in the players putting all their XP into doing more damage, while complications make them think “hmm, I really should have some points in _______ for when that kind of thing happens”.

  5. First of all, excellent article. It made me say “huh” enough to create an account just to comment, for whatever its worth.

    Pacing has always been an interesting thing to me over the years; my players seem to be unaware of its complications (though they certainly are aware of the “symptoms”), but I find myself constantly aware of how things are moving.
    Now that I think about it, I’ve never had a hard time slowing down a session- but frequently the “get it moving” can be difficult. I’ll try to briefly explain both of those.

    First, slowing things down. I’m a big fan of player options; in fact, I could probably write an article on sandbox vs. epic story lines, and all the pros and cons of both. Options are great to get players feeling like they’re “really DOING things”, and while I certainly agree with the “let them make a plan” part of this fine article, I’ll add that another way to slow things down is to give players something that has a wide range of uses; thinking of how to apply it will create a lot of lag, and may end up creating a fantastic story. Examples off the top of my head? Sure, why not. A wand (with limited charges) that changes the direction of gravity, a corrupt judge that now owes the players a favor, a single use time machine (oh my) that could allow players to undo a single event in the story. Not only does this get their little gerbil wheels spinning, they’ll be driven to make it through whatever fiendish story you’ve got for them- they want to survive so they can make the most of the “thing”!

    Second, speeding things up. This is something I’m challenged with, so I’m not going to be brief. I’ve found that the best way to do this is either through the NPCs (Jenkins is tired of waiting and charges into battle!) or with the environment (The bad guy turns at the sound of the unrelated but so convenient police siren and sees you!). One other thing you can do if you’ve had time to prepare is to utilize “the ticky”- a great tactic I picked up from my heroes at White Wolf; have some kind of pressing element in play the whole scene- a slowly ticking time bomb, a dam with a leak, a dragon that’s gonna wake up, an air leak in the ship’s cargo hold. Even if “the countdown” is fake (cough, ahem, I mean tied to a plot event), the players will still keep the pace up to avoid the disaster.

  6. This is Great advice. I look forward to using FATE’s “story questions” as scene-goals to help reinforce Play-to-Discover. When the question is answered, the Scene has achieved its goal.

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