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.
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.
- Exhausting the group’s spells doesn’t change the equation, the slaughter just takes longer.
- Extreme abstraction is necessary to wind up one-sided slaughters at all quickly.
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.
- Retreating and regrouping is an offer to end the encounter, not an offer to cede the battlefield.
- Players who express doubt about fighting a new encounter are trumped by any character choosing to engage the foe. Don’t respond to doubt by putting targets in range.
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.
- Understand the overall goal. If the PCs don’t retreat, find out what their goal is. Resolve that as an overall goal, not a blow by blow fight.
- Each fight is entirely separate if there’s a chance to heal in between.
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.
- If you want to skip ahead, alter your plans to eliminate distractions.
- Remember, notes on paper are ideas or plans, not musts. The retreating fleet would have worked just as well (and probably more dramatically) during the assault on the town.
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?