by Mike Shea on 23 November 2015
"Good pacing is probably the most important trait a GM can have."
- Monte Cook, Weird Discoveries
As dungeon masters who take their craft seriously, we must continually sharpen our skills. For some of us, this is a lifelong pursuit. The beautiful complexity of this hobby of ours gives us the opportunity to improve in many different skills. Improvisation, an acceptable understanding of the rules, the ability to listen and empathize, enthusiasm, time management, balanced facilitation, and on-the-spot creativity are just a few of these skills.
If we want to keep the energy up, though; if we really want to keep everyone interested, there are few more important skills than understanding pacing.
Authors without good editors love to fill prose with conversations between characters but action drives great stories. The same is true in our D&D games. Sometimes we DMs lose ourselves in the depth and background of our stories. Sometimes we lose ourselves in the details of our NPCs. But action drives our stories too, in particular the action of the PCs. This doesn't always mean combat, but it does mean doing something.
Looking over the list of D&D tips from Gencon 2015 nearly all of the tips have to do with good pacing. It really comes down to a single goal: keep things moving.
In the RPG Dungeon World designers Kobel and LaTorra focus DMs of the game on a single core question at any and every moment: "what do you do?". Making this question the cornerstone of your interaction with the players ensures your players continually think about the actions they take instead of long bouts of pontification and overplanning. "What do you do" becomes their primary interface with the world — a world of action.
Focusing on this question also 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.
There's no perfect formula for keeping up the pace in an RPG but there are some cheap tricks we can use. Starting with a fight is one of these tricks. You can start your adventure with a bang by throwing a pile of bad guys at your PCs and putting them right into the action. We talk about this a lot in Starting Strong. Starting your adventure with "roll for initiative" sure is a strong way to grab the players' attention.
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 can always give us an idea how much time has passed and how much time we have left. Using a timer helps us ensure our scenes are as long as they need to be and not any longer.
If we're planning for a key encounter, we should keep in mind when that encounter needs to start and be ready to move the action to that encounter to give it the time it needs. 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.
As a DM, we fill the air with the most words of anyone at the table but it's our eyes and ears that will tell us if our pacing is off. Watch your players. Look at their body language. They will 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, its time to move things along. Set something on fire.
Too much action with no clear breaks can go too far. Even action movies have occasional slow bits just to ensure we have time to go pee. Find the right clock cycle for your game, a series of scenes of high action and moments of calm and interesting exploration or interaction. Pure action alone will overload everyone. Take a break from time to time.
Like all of the arts of the great dungeon mastery, a mastery of pacing isn't something we'll get overnight. Like all things, mastering pacing takes practice and continual improvement. Lucky for us, we get to practice it doing something we love.