A Change of Pace: How To Evaluate Pacing In Your Game
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- A Change of Pace: How to Evaluate Pacing in Your Game
- Three Types of Pacing
- How Do We Measure Pacing?
- Example Mid-Game Pacing Self-Assessment Checklist
- How To Slow Things Down When You Need: A Change of Pace Part III
- How To Speed Things Up When You Need: A Change of Pace Part IV
A Brief Word From Johnn
Before we dig into pacing tips though, a couple of quick items.
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5E Encounter Generator
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Ok, let’s get into my pacing tips now.
A Change of Pace: How to Evaluate Pacing in Your Game
RPT Wizard of Adventure Stephan asks:
How would a new GM measure whether his pacing is good?
Thanks for the very interesting question, Stephan!
A Quick Definition
Let me start with my broad definition of pacing:
Pacing is the perception of your game’s speed and flow.
The key word is perception, which I don’t think other definitions include.
A two-hour thrilling movie could seem short. But if you’ve ever been stuck on the wrong side of the bathroom door, a minute of CON checks can seem like a lifetime.
Therefore, I contend that our job as GM is to guide pacing for best perceived narrative and gameplay experience. And it’s another tool in our GM Toolbox.
Note #1: I purposefully do not advise slow or fast pace. Instead, I suggest that you read the table at any given moment, decide if you want to speed up or slow down the pace, and then make GM Moves accordingly. And that you do this with the intent of helping players have more fun via their perception of the game’s pace.
For example, you might detect on round two that combat’s feeling like a boring slugfest. So you take actions to make the combat seem faster. Alternatively, you might be running a travel sequence, but it’s going too fast and you want to slow things down so players can savor your world and its choices and details more.
Note #2: Changing the perception of pacing might actually involve changing the actual pace. Confused yet? Sorry. Here’s an example: to make our slugfest feel faster we can amp up the stakes to make it more exciting, and thereby make time seem to go by faster. Or, we could have half the foes flee because the leader was just smashed, and have the other half surrender, thereby actually ending the fight faster.
Note #3: Finally, I caution against prepping pace. We are playing a game. We cannot control our players, and we do not want to control their characters. So we are not the only arbiters of pace. If the party wants to slow down and search for traps and secret doors every five feet, that’s their decision.
My approach instead is akin to how I balance encounters. I let gameplay dictate my current GMing situation. I then respond via GM Moves to attempt to affect challenge and pace. This reduces prep, removes GMing cognitive load and stress, and makes the game a lot more fun to run (and hopefully play, too). To summarize, I care a lot about player engagement. Perception of pace contributes greatly to this. Managing pace can involve actual speed of gameplay and flow, or the perception of it. I do not plan pacing because I cannot control players or their PCs. Instead, I try to master my table-reads and GM tools so I can tweak pace on-the-fly to reduce my overall GMing burden.
Three Types of Pacing
When we look at speed of gameplay and flow, we can break pacing into three big buckets:
- Plot Progression
- Exploration & Downtime
The rate at which our adventure, story, or campaign progresses. A fast-paced game might see players traveling across the world and confronting major villains in a single session, while a slow-paced game might spend multiple sessions on a single location or event.
This bucket has historically foiled me the most. On the one hand, I want to drop several plot points onto the table every session for a faster pace. Players engage with great stories, and great stories in general need to advance fast enough so players don’t forget their goals or get bored.
On the other hand, I struggled for years trying to drop more plot. Either I protected secrets too much, waiting for perfect reveal moments that never came, or I wrote complex plots with too many layers thinking that would give me more points to share, but I just ended up confusing myself or burning out.
One GM Tool we can wield to help keep plot progression going steady is 5 Room Dungeons. 5RDs are short adventures, so you will tell complete stories more often, including Room V: Reward & Revelation. In addition, as I teach in the Master of the 5 Room Dungeon Workshop, you can add a twist to each Room, resulting in fantastic perception of plot progression.
Combat, action scenes, skill challenges, and edge cases like grappling and underwater encounters, can trigger many rounds of activity and density of game rules.
If we’ve mastered the rules and referee them smoothly, we increase the pace. But if we get bogged down in the mechanics, engagement suffers.
We can study the rules and get better at them with practice. But I also see rules serving as puzzle pieces. There’s the narrative part of our game where players request to do stuff and make choices, and we don’t roll but instead just decide and describe what happens. And then there’s a mechanics part of our game where we have an agreed upon contract (such as the Player’s Handbook) with everyone at the table that we’ll use specific rules in specific situations.
By mastering our rules knowledge, we can then create amazing puzzle encounters. Think of it like building encounters attuned to the character sheets. We still leave it up to our players to decide what to do. But if they figure out how certain choices are better than others in each encounter, they’ll feel like your pacing is very strong.
Exploration & Downtime
This category is a coin with two sides.
Some games involve figuring out what the party does while not adventuring. Pathfinder, for example, has extensive options ranging from training to running kingdoms. This is heads.
Tails is exploring your world. For example, when players roleplay with NPCs just for the fun of it or head to a destination on the map because it’s blank or has a cool name. Those are exploration type activities.
Pacing might be hardest to manage here, because different players like different aspects of the game. One player wants to farm something, another wants discover the area’s history and legends, and a third player just wants to attack monsters and get loot.
It’s important we understand player motivations so we can cater to each group’s unique mix of preferences. Then we can plan sessions and campaigns according to ratio of time spent on adventuring versus downtime versus exploring – not to say those are always mutually exclusive activities.
Knowing what types of pacing we want to manage helps us understand our GM Move options for each, which I’ll cover in a later part. I see three types of pacing we want to optimize for during sessions:
- Core Gameplay
- Non-core gameplay
How Do We Measure Pacing?
Now that we’ve delved deep into the intricacies of pacing, we can see how how pivotal it is to having more fun at every game. We understand its different types and the role of perception in determining its effectiveness.
However, knowing what pacing is and its importance isn’t enough. The crux lies in being able to evaluate and adjust it according to the flow of the game. So, let’s embark on the next leg of this journey and answer Stephan’s pressing question:
How would a new GM measure whether his pacing is good?
To answer, we must indeed measure the pace. But there’s a problem. By my definition, pacing becomes a relative measure. I’ve been in combats that ended in 15 minutes but felt much longer because they were boring, repetitive, or had no purpose. And I’ve been in combats that took whole sessions, but almost every action and round was dramatic, so while it was hours of gaming, the pace was exciting.
Therefore, if you told me your combat was 2 rounds or 20, 2 minutes or 200, I could not from that data alone advise on if your pace was great.
This is partly why I do not prepare for specific pacing. You won’t know if the session is exciting or dragging at any given moment until you are in that moment. So, we are better off learning and mastering the GM Moves for tweaking pace mid-session and mid-encounter than planning it out in advance.
Our main task, then, is to figure out how to read the game table during sessions and decide whether the pacing is ok or needs to change. A fantastic tool we can pull out of our GM Toolbox is a rapid self-assessment test:
Example Mid-Game Pacing Self-Assessment Checklist
- Is there drama, conflict, or story tension right now?
- Have players made any decisions or taken any actions based on a plot development recently?
- Are players on a mission or pursuing a goal?
- Is the battlefield changing and are foes provoking player thinking?
- Is it taking only a short time between each player’s next turn?
- Have interesting sections on character sheets changed recently?
Exploration & Downtime
- Have players discovered something interesting recently?
- Do these new details have players talking about and deciding on future actions?
- Has there been a balance of action, narration, and exploration so far this session?
Such checklists are difficult to make. I try to focus on player behavior as much as possible because we can actually observe that.
The questions also lean towards a faster pace via the conclusions they draw, which is my default. If unsure, I start with a brisk pace if possible. And I increase pace if player engagement is flagging and I’m not sure why. At the least, increasing pace will let you know if it’s overwhelm or confusion causing issues – you can always slow the pace down again.
In addition, our perception of the pacing often differs from that of our players because it’s often a lot busier being behind the screen than in front of it. Our Fog of War also sets us apart – we see a lot more on what’s happening than the players.
For example, let’s say we introduced a plot point a short while back, which informs us that the party is making progress towards their objective. However, the real question is, have the players identified this plot development and its significance, and therefore feel like pacing is good right now?
The assessment questions above are a good start. Each yes indicates a faster pace. Each no means you’ve potentially got a slower pace right now.
Once you’ve got a feel for your current pace, you then ask one final question:
10. Is the pace right now too fast, too slow, or just right?
Note that we can also use this assessment between games to evaluate sessions. And we can ask players how they’re feeling about pace overall to further bolster our assessment.
This self-assessment gets you some qualitative data. Timing turn lengths can help you quantify the pace. For example, Campaign Logger’s Combat Manager widget helps you run initiative and time each player’s turn. You should also have a clock app on your phone that’ll allow multiple timers. You don’t need to time the pace often – just once in awhile as a reality check and to benchmark to help your planning.
How To Slow Things Down When You Need: A Change of Pace Part III
How To Slow Things Down
In Part I I laid out some of the theory of pacing. I contend we should improvise this aspect of storytelling, because that lets us read the table and adjust it based on the current situation.
In Part II, you received a 10 question self-assessment checklist. I find this thinking becomes natural during sessions with some repetition. So you might want to keep that checklist handy as you GM and set a timer to check it each hour.
We’ve now laid out some theory behind pacing and have a checklist to help us decide if we need to change it during the session. Let’s now delve into how to slow it down. But first, why would we want to slow the pace? Here are ten reasons:
d10 Reasons to Slow the Pace
- Depth and Immersion. We spend precious time building our world and milieu. We not only want to show them off, but we also want to allow players to immerse themselves in our setting and appreciate its depth or unique features, absorbing details that might be missed at a faster pace.
- CharDev. Faster combats and quick encounters help us chew through more story each session – a key goal I have. But sometimes we need to slow things down to let players explore character development. We might want to take the time to delve into character backstories, emotions, and relationships for richer roleplaying experiences and deeper character arcs.
- Player Engagement. A more leisurely pace gives players the chance to engage with each other and the environment, fostering teamwork, collaboration, and table morale.
- More Room For Clues. Slowing down allows us to introduce more plot details, subplots, and foreshadowing, enriching the overall story. For example, it allows players to trigger a Back Pocket Event.
- Process Gameplay. Sometimes the game gets heavy. When this happens, we can slow things down to let players process what’s happened, their feelings about that, and their characters’ responses.
- Wrangling Dilemmas. When faced with tough decisions, we might want to give players more time to discuss, debate, and weigh their options. Encourage them to do this in-character!
- Recharge. Continuous high-stakes action, drama, and tension becomes exhausting. Inserting slower-paced segments and easy encounters can give everyone a mental breather.
- Build Tension. Paradoxically, slowing down can actually increase tension. Drawing out suspenseful moments to delay resolution can make encounters even more dramatic.
- Teaching Mechanics. Consider pausing the game to teach newer players rules about to be relevant, to refresh everyone on an important mechanic, or to review gameplay that just stumbled because of rules issues.
- Show the Consequences. The 4Cs of encounter building I teach in Wizard of Storytelling are Conflicts, Constraints, Costs, and Consequences. And consequences are how people, places, things, and situations change as a result of party actions. Sometimes, we need to slow down and demonstrate, narrate, or game out the consequences as a valuable feedback loop for our murder hobos players and move the plot forward.
d12 GM Moves to Slow the Pace
Armed now with specific instances that might trigger the need to hold up the pace, let’s explore solutions. Here are a dozen GM Moves we can make to slow things down:
- Add More Detail. Extra information gives players more to noodle on. Provide deeper descriptions of People, Places, Things, and Events when you introduce them into play or while narrating the action.
- Create a Character Moment. Whatever is happening right now, ask each player about their character’s perspective. What are the PCs thinking, hoping, and concerned about?
- Add Encounter Complexity. Increase foe count and variety. Add hazards or traps. Drop in a puzzle. Add NPCs.
- Add a Subplot. Introduce a non-urgent side quest that offers interesting opportunities for exploration and character development.
- Run a Downtime Activity. Encourage downtime activities like crafting, shopping, or researching. Have an event trigger that affects a downtime activity, like the store stock burning up (hat tip to M.U.L.E.) and the party needing to source their supply of XYZ elsewhere.
- Add More Sandbox. Present situations and dilemmas without clear solutions. Add more details or variables and invite players to collaborate and plan with NPCs.
- Add More Exploration. Put another way, add more cool stuff to discover and poke the party to start finding it.
- Increase NPC Depth. While my 3-Line NPC technique is perfect for rapid NPC creation that hits all the important notes, go further and drill deeper into NPC goals, personalities, relationships, and backstories for players to discover through roleplay.
- Add Long-Term Consequences. Reveal how the party’s recent actions could have repercussions over a long period. This will often cause your group to pause, debate, and plan on a potential corrective course of action.
- Trigger Debate and Discussion. Specifically for the short-term, trigger a dilemma, puzzle, or complication (possibly via failing forward) to encourage in-character debate and player discussion.
- Character Audit. Stop play for a bit and review current character conditions, treasure and equipment allocation, and party situation. This can help players become more strategic, and it helps remind you of character sheet levers you can pull in upcoming encounters.
- Open a Curiosity Loop. Turn any detail or situation into a mystery, causing skill checks, player questions, and some problem-solving or puzzling. For example, instead of five goblins in a room waiting to roll initiative, give one goblin three eyes and the others masks to provoke some roleplay.
How To Speed Things Up When You Need: A Change of Pace Part IV
How To Speed Things Up When You Need
We conclude with ways to ramp up the perceived pace with your players. Like the previous part about slowing things down, I’ve got a list of reasons you might want to quicken the pace, followed by twelve GM Moves we can make to accomplish that feat.
Speeding Things Up
Now that we’ve got a bunch of tools in our GM Toolbox to slow the game down when we need, let’s explore how we can quicken the pace. But first, let’s talk about several specific use cases on why we’d want to prompt faster gameplay.
d12 Reasons to Speed Up the Pace
- Amp Up the Excitement. A faster pace increases drama, adrenaline, and excitement, making encounters feel more dynamic and exhilarating.
- Maintain Engagement. If players seem to be losing interest or getting distracted, speeding up the game can re-engage them and maintain their attention.
- Beat Analysis Paralysis. If your group gets bogged down in decision-making, increasing the pace can push them to make decisions faster due to the added sense of urgency.
- Narrative Momentum. When the story needs to move forward, especially if there’s a lull or a scene is dragging on, quickening the pace can help progress the plot.
- Cover More Ground. If there are many events or locations the GM wants to cover in a single session, a faster pace is necessary to ensure everything fits in. In addition, I like to chew through as much plot as possible in a session, and when the pace flags this defeats my goal.
- Ramp Up Danger. If characters are in a situation of immediate peril (like escaping a burning building or being chased), a quick pace can further increase the danger, and therefore, the excitement.
- Short Session Time. If you run short sessions, or a session needs to end early, speed up the pace to ensure you reach a satisfying conclusion, especially if you can arrange a cliffhanger.
- Faster Combats. Fighting to the last hit point or rolling repetitively to attack toe-to-toe gets boring fast. I have an online course devoted entirely on how to cut your combat speed in half while doubling the story here.
- Sew Chaos. Sometimes we want to overwhelm the players a bit to get pulses pounding. Adding situations of chaos or confusion can accomplish this.
- Scale Up the Challenge. A faster pace can test players’ adaptability and quick thinking, pushing them out of their comfort zones and scaling up encounter difficulty.
- Improve Story Rhythm. A constant pace gets boring after awhile, so we want to vary the rhythm of pacing with high and low moments for better storytelling.
- Achieve Session Objectives. If you aim to reach certain milestones or goals in a session, speeding up encounters helps you meet your objectives.
d12 GM Moves to Speed Up the Pace
If we decide the game needs a bit of a pick-up right now, here are some ideas on what to do.
- Limit Decision Time. Set a turn time limit so players keep things moving swiftly. Apply some in-game complication if the timer dings, such as a wandering monster or a foe gets an extra action.
- Speed Up Combat Turns. If you can speed up each character action, player turn, and combat round, these time savings will compound to greatly reduce your battle lengths!
- Quicken the Narrative. Gloss over less important details. Make situations easier so you can decide the results of player choices instead of running through mechanics.
- Add Time Pressure. Add in-game deadlines and time crunches, such as a ticking bomb type trap or a closing gate.
- Rotate the Spotlight. Jump between players faster. For example, go around the table and ask each player for their action. Then go around again and present a complication to each and ask for a reaction. Then go around again and adjudicate each.
- Run a Cut Scene. This great tactic came up during discussion in a recent Master of the 5 Room Dungeon Workshop session. Flip to a purely narrative scene that reveals what the foe or villain is doing or thinking.
- Drop in an Urgent Quest. Interrupt the current mission or thread with a 5 Room Dungeon that demands immediate attention.
- Add More Cliffhangers. End more actions, rounds, or encounters with a dramatic reveal.
- Run Immediate Consequences. Make actions have immediate results, often in the form of a setback or complication, showing players their impact on the world.
- Trigger a Back-Pocket Encounter. Plan some snappy, standalone encounters that resolve in 5 minutes or less.
- Clarify Goals. Best done via NPC, but you can also speak directly as GM to players. Roleplay or advise so the group knows exactly what their mission is and the next step they can take.
- Skip Over Downtime. Gloss over periods of rest or travel to quickly advance to the next scene, situation, or conflict.
I hope these tips help, Stephan. To wrap this series up:
- Use the three pacing buckets to improve gameplay experience (Plot Progression, Mechanics, and Exploration & Downtime).
- Rather than prep for pacing, try instead to improvise it based on reading your table and choosing a good GM Move.
- Create a self-assessment or use mine to triage current play.
- Master the GM Moves for slowing down or speeding up the pace.