by Mike Shea on 24 August 2020
"The key to becoming a great GM, more than anything else, is an understanding of pacing."
- Monte Cook and Shanna Germain, Your Best Game Ever
As dungeon masters who take their craft seriously, we continually sharpen our skills. For some of us, this is a lifelong pursuit. The beautiful complexity of the RPG hobby gives us the opportunity to improve our craft in many different ways over the years, each leading us to run a better game for our family and friends. A few such skills include the ability to improvise, an acceptable understanding of the rules, the ability to listen and empathize, enthusiasm, time management, balanced facilitation, and on-the-spot creativity.
If we want to keep the energy up during our game, though — if we really want to keep everyone interested — there are few more important skills than pacing.
Action drives great stories. Sometimes we DMs lose ourselves in the depth and background of our adventures and campaigns. Sometimes we lose ourselves in the details of our NPCs and the history of the world. We use every one of the thousand words it takes to describe the picture. But action — the action of the characters — drives our stories. The characters need to do things.
Good pacing requires understanding how the game feels at the moment and ensuring it feels fun. It means keeping up forward momentum and also knowing when to pull back to let things just be when the time is right.
When in doubt have a gnoll come through a door with a bow in their hand.
In the book Hamlet's Hit Points RPG sage Robin Laws describes the importance of oscillating upward and downward beats to keep players interested in the game. Good things happen, then bad things happen, then good things happen. A story with too many upward beats becomes boring and stale. A story with too many downward beats feels hopeless and depressing. Mixing upward and downward beats keeps people interested.
We don't always know when we're going to be at the crest of a series of upward beats or at the valley of a bunch of downward beats. During the game, the story goes where the story goes. We have to be prepared to move the beats around on the fly. Have the characters just had a series of hard fights while traveling through the wilderness? Maybe it's time to run into two thugs in the woods. Did the characters just have a series of unfortunate events involving traps and specters in a nasty dungeon? Maybe they break through a wall and find a holy font they didn't expect.
Maintain a good pace of upward and downward beats in your game. Keep the tools and ideas on hand to change the pace as you play.
Focusing on getting quickly to this question forces us DMs to make the narrative of our story actionable. It's no good for a bunch of PCs to sit around and listen to an NPC wax history for twenty minutes. In any given scene it behooves us to understand what options the PCs have to act upon. Sometimes we might not even realize there is an opportunity to act but our players surprise us with some action. Don't negate it. Let them interact. Let the story evolve based on their actions.
When we're building out locations, for each area we build, we can ask ourselves "what can the characters do here?". Looking around a big room or watching a scene take place isn't getting the characters into the action. Even in a room full of ancient mosaics and bones the characters can investigate. They can research things. They can discover secrets and clues. Think about the verbs of the room. Look over the list of skills and think about which ones are applicable in any given situation.
Turn things over to the actions of the characters as fast as you can.
The first step of the eight steps of game preparation offered in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is to prepare the strong start. What's going on when the game begins to draw the players into our shared fantasy? Sometimes it might be a fight. Sometimes it might be a celebration in the local town. Sometimes a body might fall out of the sky with their throat cut and a bloody amulet clutched in one hand. Use the strong start to get the pace of our game off on the right track.
If you're lost for ideas for strong starts, check out the Framing Events section in chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
It's easy for DMs to lose track of time when running a game. When we run a game, we're in our element, we find "flow". Losing our sense of time is one of the truest indicators that we've found this flow, but it can be hell on our pacing. Using a timer or watching the clock throughout a game gives us an idea how much time has passed and how much time we have left in our session. Using a timer helps us ensure our scenes are as long as they need to be and not any longer.
When planning for a key encounter, keep in mind when that encounter needs to start and be ready to skip ahead to that encounter if time demands it. Setting a timer for every hour is a good way to keep a feel for the pace, but choose any time period that makes sense for you. It's always better to end a little early than to run late.
Ending on a cliffhanger is a great way to keep your players excited for the next game while also opening yourself up for an easy strong start. Don't be afraid to end the game when the characters kick in the door to the final boss's lair. At least you know where the next session begins.
As a DM, we fill the air with the most words of anyone at the table but it's our eyes and ears that tell us if our pacing is off. Watch your players. Look at their body language. They'll show you if your pacing is off. Are they leaning forward or leaning back? Are they paying attention or surfing Facebook? Some relaxation is to be expected, this is recreation after all, but if you're seeing a lot of it from more than one player, it's time to move things along.
If one player seems disconnected, gently draw them back in. Have their character make a skill check to notice something. Tug on their background or heritage.
Don't be afraid to step back and ask people how things are going. Take a five minute bio break every 90 minutes and ask people if they're having fun. Ask what they're enjoying and ask what they want to see more of.
Like all of the skills of great dungeon mastery, a mastery of pacing isn't something we'll achieve overnight. We'll never be perfect at it. Like all things, mastering pacing takes practice and continual improvement. We have to learn it for ourselves and our group. Lucky for us, we get to practice it while doing something we love and do it for the rest of our lives.
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