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The Eternal Conundrum of Session Pacing

Somehow, the stars have aligned, the schedules enmeshed, and all (or enough) players are present.  Now, whether you’re thoroughly prepared or winging it (you will always be winging it), it’s time to get things going. But how do you roll it all out, making sure that everything happens in the best possible places, and for the most appropriate length of times? How do you know when to ramp up, slow down, turn the tables, or call the cops it a night? Let’s talk about pacing your gaming sessions. - B

B: Working out how to pace a gaming session is something GMs have had to deal with since the very beginning, and even though there’s never been a one-size-fits all approach, it must have been particularly vexing in the early days, before there was any basis of comparison. Board games and wargames have rhythms entirely determined by their rulesets and the players’ actions, concluding only under specific circumstances: when someone wins, or everyone gets bored and stops playing.

Besides trial-and-error, the only guidelines available to that first generation would have been narrative and performative, drawing from traditional methods of storytelling structure and gauging an audience’s interest and energy. None of these have gone anywhere, of course, but now GMs can draw from their own and the predecessors' practical and learned experiences that can span decades.  Concepts like three/five act structure and rising/falling action apply just as much to tabletop games as to the media they originally described, but here they need to be worked out in real time, shaped both by the participants’ expectations and agreed-upon forms of the game itself.

Andy, before you sit down at the table, how much structure have you already envisioned, and how closely do your actual sessions come to that?

A: My structures change from the beginning of the campaign to the main part. At the start, everything tends to go slower, and you need a little more effort to get things rolling. This isn’t to mean that things can’t start fast-paced. I’ve seen, or ran, games that started out with combat, a skill challenge, or some sort of disaster (shipwreck, hailstorm, etc.). Generally, I’ll open with a larger overall outline for the campaign, and then a smaller one for the first session. If you don’t know where you’re planning to go, you can’t nudge the players there. This may sound like railroading, but having a loosely-drawn skeleton is really helpful to guide the story you want to tell with your players. Even if the players decide to veer away from it, at least you’ll have an idea of what's going on in the world outside of their adventures. They didn’t follow the plot hook of the missing dead bodies? The necromancer is getting more powerful. They didn’t go after the magic maguffin? It falls into the hands of an enemy, or perhaps a rival adventuring group.

Once the campaign is underway, I prefer to end sessions (that aren’t in the middle of something) with asking the players for a list. What are their goals? What is their next destination? Do they have something specific they want to accomplish in the next session? This gives you time to prepare for their shopping trips by prepping items and costs, or plan that ambush encounter you’ve been meaning to spring on them. Perhaps this sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen (or been) too many an unprepared DM. It can really make a session tedious if you aren’t prepared for it.

I sometimes find difficulty moving along within a session. My advice is, if you’re having trouble here, get used to saying “unless someone else has a goal they’d like to work on, we’ll be flash-forwarding to…” This gives players a chance to speak up and cuts through that small bit of awkward silence. Another problem you may run into is “splitting the party.” This is when one or two players have something they want to accomplish away from the group. Taking a non-combat initiative here may help you to keep players involved and the game moving. Bugsy, what do you do when the players decide to go in different directions?

B: My experiences tend to be more with one-and-done games, or loosely-connected campaigns with players dropping in and out, so I need to make sure to do as much as I can for each participant, every session. So, when things break off into different areas, I try to keep the energy level consistent across the table to keep everyone invested, whether they're currently active or not, and avoid the whiplash of action suddenly starting or stopping. As with so many things, I draw a lot of my inspiration from film - even when a movie is switching between two different locations in a scene (or series of scenes), the momentum of action and dialogue stays consistent. I try to see the players who aren't the current focus as as the “audience” for the scene, and throw in details for them to pick up that may come in handy later on.

Another thing I take from movies is the “rule of threes.” In this case, it means generally dividing the session into three parts (opening/ramp-up, action, wind-down), and aiming for three distinct events to take place within that middle “action” part. Having these events in mind gives me reference points to structure my pacing - although they can also be shifted to fit the mood of the table. If people are having fun in a particular moment, fast or slow, I’ll try to keep it going. If people are drifting, I’ll start accelerating to the next inciting incident.

In my experience, reading the players is the most important factor in terms of setting your pace, and that can only come with experience. Everyone has their own “tell” for when they’re done for the night, and you’ll want to start moving towards your conclusion once you see those. Andy, how do you know when it’s time to start wrapping things up? Do you tend to taper off, leave on an exciting cliffhanger, or try to aim for somewhere in between?

A: The best way to end a session is always on an exciting cliffhanger, right? Unfortunately, those aren’t always easy to manufacture without feeling forced. There are only so many times ninjas can come crashing through the windows at the end of the session, before your players wise up and their characters start habitating in rooms without windows. My sessions are typically fairly limited for time as I usually have to get up early (aren’t there mythical brunch D&D sessions out there somewhere? Probably for people without kids.) I’d say the best time to end things is when a scene has come to a close. The goblins have been defeated, the discussion is over, or the party has reached their destination. Try to leave them wanting more if you can, but don’t narratively overextend yourself.
When it comes down to it, pacing is one of the GM's more delicate tasks. Keeping the players engaged and the story moving is arguably your main role. It isn’t always easy, but like so many things, it mostly comes down to communication and planning. Set some goals, check in with your players, and don’t be afraid to flash-forward if the silence gets too awkward. Draw your inspiration from media, and make sure the audience (your players) are engaged even when it isn’t their turn by including clues for other plot threads.  Until next session, get out there and break some dice!

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