RPT#196 – When You Need To Stall – 9 Tips
A Brief Word From Johnn
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By Johnn Four
Stalling well is part art and part science. It’s a valuable GM tool that helps you manage pacing, unexpected turns of events, and various session management issues. Plus, sometimes you just get stumped and need to buy some time until inspiration hits. Following is a bit of analysis of stalling and some tangible techniques you can use when in a jam.
- Why Do You Need To Stall?
Once you realize you need to buy some time, draw in some deep, calming breaths, take a mental step backwards, and ask yourself why you need to stall. Pinpointing the problem helps ensure that the solution you choose is going to be relevant and effective.
For example, the party takes an unexpected turn into unplanned territory. You panic and unleash a random encounter. Random encounters aren’t intrinsically good or bad, but in this case, the remedy might not be appropriate because you’ll soon be stuck once again after the encounter is over.
So, during sessions, why would you need to stall? If you pare things down to their essence, you need to stall because something is not ready:
- The GM’s Not Ready
- You didn’t have time to finish planning
- You can’t think of what to do next
- The characters make an unexpected turn
- You need more time to think
- The pacing is too fast
- You want to hold off on something for effect
- The Players Aren’t Ready
- Someone’s away from the table
- A player’s late
- An important player can’t make it for the session
- The group’s mood is wrong at the moment
- The PCs Aren’t Ready
- They’re too wounded for what’s coming next
- They’re not depleted enough to be challenged by what’s coming next
- They don’t have enough clues or information yet
- They’re not tough or capable enough yet
- They don’t have the necessary equipment or special items
- A PC has died and the replacement isn’t finished being made yet
- The Adventure’s Not Ready
- More story needs telling
- More background information needs revealing so things will make sense or be more entertaining
- You don’t want to deploy a planned encounter just yet
- Re-enforcements are coming and you need to buy time or keep the foes alive just a little longer
- The Campaign’s Not Ready
- You need to do more world development
- You haven’t fully decided on consequences to various PC actions
- The world is revolving too much around the PCs again
- Much game time has passed suddenly and you need to evaluate
It’s important to know why you need to stall so that you can slant the solution accordingly. What’s not ready? The GM, players, characters, adventure, or campaign?
Analyzing the example from the top of the tip, if the PCs have ventured into unplanned territory then it’s the GM and the campaign that aren’t ready. So, a random encounter could become a viable solution if it’s used to buy some time (so the GM can do some quick planning) or guide the PCs in different direction (until the campaign region is ready).
- The GM’s Not Ready
- Session, Encounter, And Round Stalling
Another key piece of analysis is to calculate how long you need to stall for. If you stall too long, game play might suffer. If you don’t stall long enough, you’ll have to come up with another stall tactic where just one would have sufficed.
Here are three handy time categories to help you quickly assess stall length:
- Session Stall
You need to put something off for a whole session. Perhaps a key player had to cancel at the last minute, or you didn’t finish planning out the adventure and it’s not ready. Session stalls are easy to do in that you don’t have to worry about complex story weaving or session management because they’re open-ended–your goal is to get the PCs on a temporary new path until the end of the session.
On the other hand, these stalls are difficult in that you need a body of game material that’s enough to keep things going for the rest of the session.
- Encounter Stall
At the encounter level, your goal here is to delay or re-order a planned encounter until the proper time or situation arises. You either have to uproot an encounter or delay initiating it.
- Round Stall
At the turn-by-turn character decision and action level you need to stall for a bit of tactical time. Depending on your game system, this level occurs in combat rounds, phases, turns, etc.
Unless you need to actually stop or pause the game, it’s probably not worth the effort to guesstimate how long in real time you need to delay things because everything ultimately gets translated into an in-game unit of round(s), encounter(s), or session(s).
Also, due to the interactive nature of our hobby 🙂 you can’t control to a precise degree how long players and their characters will take for their actions, discussions, and plans.
- Session Stall
- Time, Location, And Event Stalls
What are you stalling for? What are you aiming to hook-up with once the stall is done? Keeping the end goal in mind will help you tweak game play accordingly so you can gracefully resume standard game play without breaking stride.
For the most part, we can boil stalls down into three core types:
- Time Stall
More game play or campaign calendar time must elapse before you can continue on with regular game play. Perhaps the PCs need to heal up or gain more experience, or maybe you want to wait for a seasonal festival to begin so the next chapter of the story can unfold.
Another type of time stall is a real-time stall. Here, you need to pause or stop the game, or you need to vacate the GM chair for a bit while you think, plan, or design.
- Location Stall
In this case, you’re not concerned about a time factor but with a specific location in the campaign area. You want to prevent the PCs from entering this location until certain requirements are met, such as key plot points, special items, specific NPCs encountered, and so on. Once everything is in place you can then make the location accessible again.
- Event Stall
Here, you want to prevent an event from triggering until the moment is right because the campaign, the PCs, or you aren’t ready for the consequences of the event. The location and time don’t necessarily matter either. Perhaps the PCs have mishandled a diplomatic encounter and a war could be triggered–but you want to avoid that war until you have time to detail the armies and key NPCs. Another example might be a theft encounter you had designed, but the characters neglected to find the item you had planned on stealing.
Knowing what you’re stalling for and how the game should resume after the stall is important. This knowledge lets you make those tiny on-the-fly GMing tweaks to help the game resume its normal course without headaches.
- Time Stall
- Stalling Methods
Stalling well involves assessing many variables that will be unique and time-sensitive to your campaigns. Some specific techniques are discussed in the next few tips, but it might be of value looking at stalling methods from a theoretical standpoint to help arm you with a framework that you can flesh out as suits your own campaigns’ needs.
- Interpose An Obstacle
You put in place something that blocks or hinders the PCs’ progress, thus buying you a little time. Some examples are:
- Adding a tough lock or key puzzle to a door. While the PCs figure out how to open the portal you can do some extra planning or decide what’s behind the door.
- Rolling up a random road encounter. This obstacle can slow the PCs down in several ways, such as making them more cautious, wounding them, or taking up session time to resolve a battle.
- Create A Distraction
You throw the PCs off the scent or divert them until you’re ready to proceed with regular game play.
- Just as the PCs are about to climb through the Baron’s window you distract them with a nearby noise. If the PCs investigate and the noise turns up nothing, you’ve created a short distraction. If the noise was caused by some lurking thugs, then you’ve created a longer distraction.
- As a discussion comes to a close, you can see the party is about to decide to do something you hadn’t planned for. So, you decide to have an NPC bearing an irresistible plot hook concerning shiny treasure knock on the door…
- Use Misdirection
A little misdirection can cause the party to hesitate, choose another path, or delay. This is a great type of stall because it often fits in seamlessly with game play and the players will think you planned the trick all along.
- The PCs have made faster progress than you anticipated and are just about to reach the village. You haven’t finished planning all the events that are to take place in the village though, so you decide to place a similar village in their path that’s just a mile down-road. You plan on delaying them with a bar fight and a couple of NPC side plots until they party figures out they’re in the wrong place.
- The players decide they’ll visit the crematorium next in their investigation, but you don’t want that location triggered just yet because the necromancer player couldn’t make the session. So, when the PCs ask for directions, you have an NPC mistakenly send them to the wrong building where other encounters occur.
You secretly take your plans and notes, neatly bundle them up, and put them back into your GM binder. You reach for a module, another encounter, or Plan B and use that instead, saving your other designs for a better time.
Sometimes, it’s too difficult patching things together and making your existing material fit the new situation. In these cases, consider replacing your plans with something else entirely.
- Two players called in sick but the game must go on. You decide to pause the game for 10 minutes to do some planning and then come up with a dream adventure for the three remaining PCs.
- The plan was for the PCs to discover the prophecy scroll and thenhead out on the road. However, the party missed finding the scroll, so you decide to run a different adventure on-the-fly using the latest book you’re reading for story line, encounter, and NPC ideas.
- Interpose An Obstacle
- Increase Long Range Senses
At the turn-by-turn, combat round, or action sequence level, you can delay neatly by starting encounters off at the edge of the PCs’ long range senses. While the PCs prepare, discuss tactics, and use all the means at their disposal to clarify what’s happening, you buy time to think, plan, or wait for the player in the bathroom to return.
- Line of site. You can see pretty far on flat, open terrain in daylight. Long range vision encounter distance is great because most details will be too small to clearly see and so cause lots of PC activity, questions, and suspense.
- Visions. Give one or more PCs a vivid dream or strange vision about what’s coming up. This requires a little advance recognition for the need to stall, but works well. You’ll need to give the PCs clues though that the situation they’re currently in is the same as their visions so they can react.
- 6th sense. This work well for any game, even non-spiritual genres or game systems without spiritual oriented PC statistics. You can just let one or more players know that their characters have a hunch or feeling that something’s about to happen. Perhaps they feel like they’re being watched, or the hair rises on the back of their necks.
- Hearing. Noises can travel far under certain conditions. Even better, the source of a noise doesn’t have to reveal itself nor give its exact location way, which gives you more stall time to play with.
- Knowledge. Clues, information, and character skills can alert the party before a threat enters close range. For example, a silent forest might warn the woodsman, or the strange burn marks might tip off the wizard.
- Side Plots
Side plots are great stalling devices because they can be inserted at almost any time during a game and resolve themselves right away (for a short stall), take a little time (long stall), or be open-ended (variable length stall that you can exit and resume again when desired).
For example, the PCs have just crushed the villain’s chief lieutenant and are on the trail of the villain himself. Problem is, the campaign needs the villain alive a little longer and you haven’t fully fleshed out the NPC’s stats for combat. Just as the PCs are about to catch up to him they spot their employer being mugged in an alley. Initiative is rolled and during the fray one of the thugs manages to pull the employer through a secret door. A PC hears his boss pleading just before the door closes, “Please, I’ll tell you all I know about his secret lair if you just let me go…”
- Keep A Few Access Type Puzzles Handy
Delaying PC progress with a trap or puzzle is a good way to stall. The best delays of this type should involve doors, gates, and portals. Passageway, tunnel, road, and path traps and puzzles often seem out of place if none have been encountered before in the region, not to mention dangerous if the area is travelled frequently by others. However, it’s always easy to fit in a door, fence, hedgerow, gate, and such, on-the-fly to make the party pause. So, keep a few generic access type puzzles handy, just in case.
- Start Some Intra-Party Conflict
Sow a little party dissension and stir up some PC-to-PC roleplaying to launch side plots, short discussions, or player initiated encounters. Make the situation fairly innocuous though as you don’t want to forge deep rifts that might derail an adventure or campaign.
- Secrets. Give each character a secret that the other PCs would find very interesting. The best secrets for the purposes of stalling are ones that get revealed or are in danger of being revealed and cause suspicion. Note that the secrets don’t need to be serious or damaging–it’s just the process of discovery and investigation you’re wanting to spawn in order to delay things.
- Identity. Put a PC’s identity in question. The other players will want to spend time on verification, which should cause some good roleplaying. Dopplegangers (real or imagined) are a great fantasy stalling tool.
- Mind control. Similar to identity, putting a PCs’ mental control in question can cause fairly benign intra party conflicts. Psionics, telepathy, charm, and such are typical devices.
- Note passing. Frequent note-trading between a player and GM is sure to raise eyebrows, if not suspicion.
- Alliances. PC alliances (with other party members or NPCs) can cause great conflicts. Conflicts between employers, mentors, and masters can also trickle down to the party level and create some interesting points of discussion and game delaying opposing actions.
- Conflicting goals. Give each player a different goal or motive for using an artefact that has one charge left and then throw them a fake version when you need to stall.
- Low powered treasure piles with lots of items. Give the PCs 11 different potions as a reward, for example, and they’ll spend at least five minutes discussing how to divide them up. (Note: the potions would have to be labelled or identified somehow, otherwise there would be little worth discussing.)
- A Few Additional Stalling Techniques
Here are a few other stalling ideas that have been discussed in previous issues:
- Take a break. Stop the game, order food, chit chat, go to the store, visit the washroom, etc.
- Drop in an encounter, random or otherwise.
- Bring on the administration. Announce surprise encumbrance audits, allow shopping trips, hand out EXPs mid-game so the PCs can level-up, etc.
- Ask questions. Questions are a good way to stall as it slows game play down a little. Good questions can lead to good answers as well, which can help you generate ideas or figure out what to do next.
- Use Card Envelopes Until Magic Items Are Identified
From: John Gallagher
I’ve always used 3×5 cards for magic items in my campaign. On the card, across the top, I write the name of the item, and (more importantly) where it was found, i.e. name of the adventure, room or encounter number, and also, the number of charges, if applicable.
Next comes the rulebook description of the item.
The cards help eliminate a lot of questions about whether or not the party ever used that potion of giant strength or not. Once they use it, I rip up the card. So, if they don’t have a card for it, guess what? They can’t use it.
Another nifty add-on to this system is that, anytime the players find an item that they think is magical, I hand them the card for the item in its own little envelope. They hold on to the envelope until they have the item identified, or until they start experimenting with it.
I read them a description of the item, and they can make whatever notes they want right on the envelope. Once they identify the item, they can take it out of the envelope and use it. But, as often happens, if they wait 3 or 4 weeks to ID it, I don’t have to go scrambling back through my notes for it. They simply hand me back the envelope, and say “we want this ID’d.” Once it’s done, I don’t have to look up the item, I just open the envelope and look at the card.
- One Player Game Tips
I am a member of the Strolen’s Citadel at strolen.com and still a beginning DM. Your weekly advice often helps me or inspires me to new ideas, and much of my game world would look worse without it.
Your last tips interested me quite a lot, because I too run a one-player campaign. Please allow me to add/expand to some of your ideas a little:
In regards to animal companions, they often come from a character’s background and are emotionally close to him or her. Give the character a companion and give the companion character. It must be named and have quirk or two (I still remember a pony, trusty and obedient, just with those little smelly digestive problems…).
Animals have keen senses and so are useful for DMs. Animals can be on guard instead of the character. What’s more, even if you fail with a description, you can easily convey emotions and foreshadow important events/monsters/NPCs with companions. Lone characters are much more attentive to this! Companions can be threatened as well, but never harm a companion just for a bit of drama!
In combat, special care should be given to what I call ‘blind monsters.
Blind monsters may or may not be initially hostile to the PC, but once they are, they have no reason to stop fighting. These monsters are extremely hard to parley with, appease, or scare away. Typical examples are lower undead and insectoids, though certain aggressive flesh-eaters and man- eaters may fall into this category as well in the form of sick or crazed animals and mad characters.
Lesson: when using blind monsters, have some other being at hand that could theoretically save a wounded character. Even orcs may be good for this purpose. You can make the saving some kind of mystery, but not every time. Give extra care to monsters able to kill with one special attack!
- Be Prepared To Drop The Rules
Playing with one player way is simply different and the rules tend to get simplified over time–up to the point of dropping most rules in many cases, agreement being reached through talking, not rolling. Roll for things that are important on the larger scale or where you just want to decide randomly.
- Players Love Stuff
Another tip about equipment. Players love stuff. Big shiny piles of stuff. Mysterious unopened boxes, piles of treasure, or just dusty, forgotten things in the backs of old storerooms.
Stuff is good.
You can easily get an entire (and entirely enjoyable) session out of handing players a huuuge list describing an inventory made available to them by a patron – and then just go round, combat-rounds style, asking the PCs which box they each want to investigate or take with them.
Make sure they can’t carry everything with them, throw in a little time pressure, and you end up with the most astoundingly strange decision-making process ever. “It MUST be magical – it came in a funny box!”
Of similar amusement is the “Emergency, throw everything you don’t need overboard or you are going to sink/drop out of the sky” cliche. Then, later on in the game, they berate themselves for throwing away something that would have been really useful. Oddly, they seem to come up with more plans involving equipment they no longer have than they do when they still have the equipment available. Funnier ones too.
Anyway – Stuff. Stuff is good. Give the players a huge list of stuff, as a printed list or on index cards, and watch them play with it.
- Toss Game Balance To Suit Single Player Games
From: Caleb Brumfield
In single player games there’s no need to balance things between players, so the rules can be bent to make the PC more powerful than he/she would normally be. This provides better role-playing opportunities, and also makes a lone character more viable in a game system that’s designed for a large party of people who specialize in different fields.
For example, in a class-based system, a new unique class could be created for the PC that combines the abilities of several different classes without needing to have additional drawbacks added for balancing purposes. This class could provide all the combat abilities of a warrior but also provide spellcasting powers and expertise in a wide range of skills. The PC might be much more powerful than a character with a normal class, but as there is only one player, it’s less likely to cause problems.
In addition, equipment that would normally be overpowered can be granted to the PC to compensate for weaknesses. Especially helpful are powers or items that increase the PC’s defensive capabilities and provide methods of escape.
In one solo campaign I ran, for example, the PC had an intelligent sword with the ability to teleport him away from danger a limited number of times and instantly heal all of his wounds once per day. (This would take effect if the PC suffered a mortal wound; the PC would be healed, but would often accept partial defeat and leave until he regained his safety net.) The sword also served as a humorous commentator and provided suggestions when the PC was out of ideas.