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Pacing and Transitions

As a GM, pacing is one problem I often struggle to address. When you’re planning things out, you probably imagine how much time things are going to take. Then you get to the table and it doesn’t work out as you imagined at all.

In recent sessions, the characters have been harassing and besieging a dwarf controlled city. Before the mission began, the players looked over the world map and sketched out a series of strikes, steadily moving up river into the mountain holds of the dwarves. They planned something like four assaults to liberate conquered cities from their dwarven occupiers.

Their struggle with this first city has taken four and a half sessions so far, and it will take another session to finish. That’s nothing like the rapid advancement they’d casually plotted… and nothing like even the slightly tougher sequence I’d imagined. Here’s a look back at which mistakes have cost a lot of time without a good story payout in compensation.

Inevitable Fights

We’ve gotten bogged down in “inevitable” fights– fights that the PCs are assured of winning. (Or more accurately, fights where the characters are assured of a successful retreat and a return to full strength before fighting again.)

After disintegrating a pair of towers supporting the city gates, unleashing several fireballs (and other great destruction) into the responding troops, and killing hundreds of ordinary troops and their commanders, they retreated. But they didn’t retreat very quickly, so…

The city scrambled a few squads to chase the PCs away. Despite the depletion of their most powerful spells, the PCs knew they could smack around the response forces. So they found a good spot, quickly healed, and sprang an ambush on their pursuers. They slaughtered the pursuit force by the dozens, though this further depleted their spells and firepower. [The opposition didn’t have much chance; despite overwhelming numbers, they were blasted when they bunched, and slaughtered when they took on the heroes in groups at “only” ten or twenty to one.] When the characters’ spells were almost exhausted a flanking force approached and pushed the PCs into another retreat. But not very far…

So they fought again, this time with very little magical support. Despite their foes landing a few lucky swings, the PCs were never really threatened. Temporarily battered, bruised, and low on firepower, yes. Seriously concerned about their health… not really.

As quickly summarized as those paragraphs were, it took us sessions to get through those fights. Each battle, despite simplifications like auto-killing typical soldiers, took quite a while to play out. In the end, an afternoon of slaughter punctuated by a couple of of more difficult embedded encounters took several evenings of play to accomplish.


Morse Code

The players kept signaling, but I misread the signals.

After each draining fight, the PCs would retreat to regroup. They were signaling an end to the encounter and swiftly healed (etc.) to prepare for the next fight. Meanwhile, I read the retreat as a retreat, and had the troops come out to claim the ground. Which prompted the PCs to stop retreating and start a new encounter. Each new encounter wasn’t a challenge, but made sense to the players, since it reduced allied casualties and maintained a better tactical position.


Fight Breaks

After each fight I asked about their immediate plans instead of getting the big picture. (We could have skipped ahead by saying something like, “They hunker down in the city and ignore you. The next morning…”) I kept asking them if they were through, then provoked them with another few (or many) tasty units to smack around. For example, after their first assault and retreat, I asked if they were retreating to their army’s lines, about a mile back, for a rest. No, they retreated enough to heal, but set an ambush.

A clear break between scenes would have played out much better. Instead, we wound up with a series of fights against overmatched troops– the kind of thing often summarized in movies with a forty second montage and the sun passing overhead in a blur. We spent days on that montage, in unnecessary detail.


Scene Transitions

While breaking the retreat-fight sequence above was necessary, accomplishing it didn’t mean that we moved to the next exciting scene. We didn’t skip ahead to morning and the assault. Instead I started to leap forward… and got derailed.

One PC had flight running for hours. Instead of “wasting” the spell, they had camouflage cast on them and kept an eye on the city. Following my notes meant that rather than skipping ahead with a brief reply about the slumbering city and moving ahead to the morning, I mentioned ships and barges retreating upriver. Total derailment. The ships attracted his attention, and as the sole flier and only witness, it led to an hour of solo play as he investigated and dealt with the retreating ships. All when everyone was eager to skip ahead to repelling a night assault or to the next morning.


I’m not the only one, am I?

Does anyone have more hard won lessons about pacing and ending scenes that you are willing to share? If you’re good about avoiding these traps, is it just a mindset or something more? Do you and your players have to commit to imagining things as scenes, or can the GM alone think in scenes and make it work out?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Pacing and Transitions"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On March 19, 2009 @ 8:35 am

Nice article Scott! Mook fights are always hard to deal with. The PCs might go through them assured of victory, but they take forever to do. In the situation you set up, the PCs know there will be many more mook fights occurring, and so are cautious about conserving resources.

I’ve always liked when systems provide some decent mass combat options. The issues I’ve found with them are that they are either too abstract, or just a simple add on rule that doesn’t really speed up fighting a bunch of people. I like things like this to have a Dynasty Warriors type of feel. One swing does damage to multiple troops. Then you can pile on the mooks and watch them fall like bowling pins.

#2 Comment By grieve On March 19, 2009 @ 9:16 am

I have certainly made my share of mistakes as the GM, but the worst one I made was as follows:

I had set up a 3 session Call of Cthulhu campaign to fill a gap when our normal GM could not run. I sent out an email to all the normal players to see who was interested in playing, and most people responded with their yes or no. One player, we’ll call him PlayerX, never responded. I assumed that he had no interest in playing.

I had about two weeks to prepare before I actually had to run, so I had the players create their characters early. I then worked with them through email to tightly weave them into the over all plot. The campaign setting was shaping up nicely, and the players were getting enthused.

The first session went great. Everyone was on time, and the plot hooks sunk in deep. There was some great role playing and great narrative all around. We finished right on time, with everything on track for the next session.

Then session two happened. PlayerX showed up “ready to play”, though he had no character created, was unfamiliar with the rules, and was 30 minutes late. Being the first time I had GM’d I wasn’t sure how to handle it, and trying to be nice. I just gave him an NPC to play.

And that was my big mistake. The setting was light on NPCs and I was trying to give him something to do, so I gave him a rather important NPC, not realizing what that actually meant. I ended up spending an hour with him, separately, getting him up to speed on everything that NPC knew.

By the time we returned the I was beginning to realize the mess I had made, and my stress was rising. The other players were bored, and we had completely lost momentum. The next few hours were rough, but we managed to get back on track near the end.

For the third session, PlayerX failed to show. With no advance warning whatsoever. This left me scrambling to fill in the holes left, and the wrap-up for the third session was overall unsatisfactory.

Lesson learned? If a player crashes your campaign (especially one specifically crafted towards the PCs and for a short session) you have two good options:

1. The crasher can play a wallflower NPC, and will be of little importance to the game or plot.
2. Send them home.

After my experience I’d prefer the second one!

#3 Comment By trollsmyth On March 19, 2009 @ 9:26 am

Here’s an important question to ask: do your players feel like things are dragging, or is it just you?

This happens to me a lot: the players are investigating a situation, asking questions, making contacts, digging for details. I think things are dragging and try to speed it up, and my players dig in their heels. Why? Well, first, they’re not ready to jump into the more dangerous parts of the adventure yet. And second, they’re having fun interacting with the NPCs and each other. Yeah, it’s usually a good idea to leave them wanting more, but there’s no reason to stress about pacing if the players are having a good time.

– Brian

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On March 19, 2009 @ 9:41 am

@John Arcadian – I don’t know how much mass combat rules would have worked– if only because they rules probably would have underestimated the damage that mid level characters can inflict without risk, and the players would pan them as a bad model.
@grieve – Handling drop in players is very rough. It sounds like you did the best you could– and have certainly learned from it. I want to agree with your option 2, but am too soft hearted when they’re actually standing in my living room. Even though it hurts everyone else.
@trollsmyth – It depended on the player, really. The wizard was frustrated (since his big spells were spent, he wound up stuttering along with a bow and low level spells and felt like he wasn’t doing anything interesting). The Nine Swords players were happy at each moment (one kept dragging the group into new fights), but frustrated that their slaughter didn’t have much challenge associated.

#5 Comment By BryanB On March 19, 2009 @ 9:46 am

This is an interesting topic and one that I have pondered of late myself.

It can be a difficult thing to determine how long the “scenes” will take in any particular session. As Scott Martin knows, our group recently skipped an entire combat sequence because the outcome wasn’t in doubt. The PCs would have easily disposed of a cult’s leadership group, being on the inside of the enemy base, and the planetary authorities were swarming the base with at least fifteen to one odds in their favor. Since the group had disabled the security measures for the base, what was the point in spending two hours fighting it out with the system?

But that also brings up the question: What if the players WANT to fight out the battle in round-by-round detail? In attempting to speed up the pace of my game, did I leave the PCs wanting more action in their play? I probably should have asked them more directly than I did. Or maybe I did, but can’t remember. 😀

I really had no objections to fighting it out other than I saw the opportunity to wrap that section of the plot and move on to the next. I just assumed that the players wanted to speed forward to the conclusion of the battle, but maybe I shouldn’t have done that so quickly. Part of why I did it was that the session had already had a good battle scene, one that took over an hour to resolve (and was fun).

I’ve also had difficulty evaluating how long an investigation will take. I like to speed things along as much as possible, but sometimes the players seem as though they are enjoying the discussion of the investigation’s clues as the PCs debate what they should do with the information obtained. And sometimes the PCs will spin their wheels or grind their gears a bit before moving things forward. Other than making sure the investigation isn’t a huge waste of pointless time that results in absolutely nothing obtained (total GM suckage), then how does the GM increase the pacing of the clue gathering without disturbing the role playing aspects of it?

It is good food for thought.

#6 Comment By grieve On March 19, 2009 @ 9:46 am

@Scott Martin – I understand. I would prefer option 2 (send them home), but would in reality probably choose option 1 (make them a wallflower). :)

#7 Comment By Sarlax On March 19, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

I wrapped up a 3.5 game a few months ago in which I found hand-waving the assured fights saved a lot of time.

With a first group made up of a druid, dread necromancer, warlord, and sorcerer, and later a druid, dread necromancer, crusader, and psion/cleric, fights took a long time. Every player made choices about one of dozens of special powers and feat applications, and there were often three players each controlling a summoned monster.

This quickly led to me not running through most of the mediocre battles. The campaign was set in a very violent time in the world and it was a sure thing that the PCs would regularly be involved in fights – but they would almost always win. So why spend a couple hours working through the details of a battle when the outcome is effectively predetermined?

Instead, it was simply assumed that the PCs were regularly smashing the weaker bad guys. I didn’t bother running these fights, except only to remind the players of just how awesome and powerful their PCs had become. Sometime around 18th level, for instance, the group ambushed a group of about a dozen 5th-level fighters and an 18th-level cleric. The cleric was the meat of the encounter, but the fighters were the seasoning. I could have Oblivioned the encounter, making the fighters all 12th-level or so, but I didn’t because the fight would be more fun if the players got to just smash through the mooks (it also doesn’t make much sense to me that the entire planet levels with the PCs).

The fighters were destroyed with, I think, a couple of AoEs (Energy Ball / Cloudkill). The cleric took a few more rounds to go down with some more drama, but the very instant death of the fighters meant the players got to real feel just how powerful and important they were in the world – and it saved us a couple of hours for roleplaying instead rolling dice for an inevitable outcome.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On March 19, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

@BryanB – So far, your decisions match what I’d like my pacing to be much more than I’ve managed. I suspect people will stop you if you try to skip ahead too far– like my skipping to the next morning example above. The cave invasion made a lot of sense to abbreviate, since the outcome wasn’t in doubt.
@Sarlax – Yes, handwaving makes sense and saves time. It doesn’t drain resources from the characters, but I’ve discovered that what is being drained is trivial, so I’ll embrace handwaving more enthusiastically from here on out.

#9 Comment By Sarlax On March 19, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

On the resource draining – it’s pretty much impossible to drain resources from the PCs anyway, especially once teleportation gets in the game. If they don’t like the way a battle is going, BAMF and they’re healing in secret base X.

The other side is that most characters don’t have resources that get drained exactly – it’s either there or it isn’t. By that I mean that even a resource is expendable, it’s almost always recoverable and recoverable in a way under the control of the players. A sorcerer might run out of spell-slots, but then he retreats and gets them all back. Since the players will retreat whenever their recoverable resources are slimmed out, getting them to that point doesn’t affect things, as you’ve noted. IE, 20 power points with a round left is just as good as a 500 power points with a round left.

#10 Comment By Tommi On March 20, 2009 @ 7:11 am

I much prefer rules where a combat can be handled by “roll combat against their combat, success means victory, greater success means less losses on your side”. Having an option for prolonged combats is fine, but not nearly as integral as being able to quickly handle one.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 20, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

When I ran a 3.5 game, I ran into the same issue. My solution (as usual, far too late to matter) is something I’ve been dying to try.

“Tell me how you’re going to attack these guys…”

(Players explain dropping the towers, the fireballs, etc.)

“Cool. You deal them a heavy blow, but the reserve troops rush after you, furious at your attack. How will you deal with the pursuit?”

(Players describe their hasty ambush. GM asks the Ranger’s Survival modifier, etc, and describes the butt-kicking, using the relative strengths of the characters vs. the mooks.)

“OK, you thrash them soundly, burning up most of your remaining AE spells and about 20% of each your hit points, but as you make your way back to camp, a lead element of their force has circled around you, and strikes! (“Typical” combat ensues, with some moderate-level lieutenants and a number of mooks.)

So this way, we get through a lot of story, but we also get our crunch on. Use the numbers on the character sheet as a guideline, and let the players be as granular as they want when it comes down to describing their actions.


#12 Comment By Toldain On March 21, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

4e introduced for me, at least, the concept of a minion, which I think would help these mook battles. A minion dies whenever hit by anything. But a miss does nothing to them. 4e doesn’t have “saves” versus a fireball, it has the caster make a hit roll versus each of the people or minions in the AE. If they are minions, they die. No record keeping, that’s the best part. Mass slaughter, another good part. If you’re playing 3.5, you could probably come up with a decent way to implement this idea within a basic 3.5 framework. The idea is to reduce life/death of minions down to a single die roll, so you can cruise through them.

A minion might have attacks that are somewhat threatening, or might hit only on a natural 20.

This could be adapted to other systems, I think.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On March 22, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

@Tommi – In general, I too prefer those systems. Against normal mooks, I know I wouldn’t have “brought down the pain” for typical encounters– or I would have, but the “opponent” would have been divisions of troops, not individuals or units.
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – That sounds like a great solution. I overestimated the resource drain the minions would be– at this point, I’d do it exactly per your example.
@Toldain – Actually, I did treat the foes as minions [a hit is enough, don’t bother to roll damage], and it still took forever. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken if I’d actually kept track of damage…

#14 Comment By super rats On March 26, 2009 @ 11:07 am

I hate these types of scenarios. One of the things I liked about 4E D&D is the skill challenge system as providing a way to abstract the inevitable, hand-waving, while still having some sort of success/fail mechanism. In 3.5, my players thought I was cutting corners or something when I’d abstract, but now there’s a system for it that formalizes hand-waving and they’re alright with it since they can influence the toll this abstraction takes on their characters instead of me just saying you guys take X damage from that scuffle.

In this situation I’d ask the players if they mean to continue the assault in the morning at full strength and just want to find someplace to rest up. Then I’d make it a skill challenge to evade the patrols and find a secure place. Describe things as they go through the challenge…there’s probably several good spots in the forest. Someone gets a bad perception roll, and they encounter a patrol, describe that it took them a minute or so to deal with them, maybe they lost some HP, and so on.

If they succeed the challenge they rest up and continue. If they fail, they rest up and continue, but the patrols had time to put together some sort of trap for the party the next day since they had a good idea where they’ll be coming from.

Takes about 5-10 minutes.

#15 Comment By Zaraphina On August 21, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

I recently Ran somthing similar where the PC’s had taken on a contract to investigate a set of caves to find out if that was where the marauding undead were coming from. Originally the plan was to have about one or two night of combat where the PC’s would find some important clues as who the villian was, kill some zombies and return back to town. The first two enconters went as planned but did take most of the night, with about 30 minutes left for everyone to investigate, roleplay and plan for the next session. however, somewhere along the way, the PC’s got it into their head that the Cave system would make and awesome hideout. They began to push further and further into the cave. BY the third week of combat I was getting tired of what was growing into a dungeon crawl and some of my less combat heavy Players were starting to lose interest.

Here’s how I ended this situatiion

– The oppertunity arose completly by accident. A player who had been absent for a few games was told by the party that he had been left outside. At which point, the player decided it would be entertaining to hitch up the horses to a Cart and ride loudly though the cave (which my party had managed to cleverly stealthed through) while screaming the trrifying warcry of “tangarine!” ( I know…don’t get me started) At which point the party got to find out EXACTLY what they were getting into. The party made an perception check and then an insight check to find out that they could not take take ALL of what was coming for them. They fled into the caves, had a short encounter with the “boss” and found the clues as well as a comveniently placed Backdoor to the caves. They decided that they no longer wanted to completly clear the cave out, but that they were just going to seal off the last room and the back door. They havent given up on the Idea completly but for now are moving on.

I guess the lessons here are:
-Look to your players for solutions
-If they are trying to do somting that is going to take too long, make a show of force and then help them find the nesscary information.