How Do You Pace Game Sessions Well?
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1022
Long-time RPT Patron Eric Gosselin (thanks Eric!) asks about how to pace game sessions:
I recently awoke to the concept of game session pacing, you know, how to put slow and fast scenes during a game session?
I’m looking for advice on the topic.
How do I plan my session?
Do I make a schedule, complete with the time a scene should last?
How do I decide if I should drop a battle to keep my players engaged and on their toes?
Should I create a pacing frame for each session?
It seems like a lot of work, so is there a rule of thumb like:
- Battle scene
- Skill check scene
- More roleplay
- Final Battle
- End of session/conclusion/cliffhanger
Great question, Eric. Thank you.
Pacing is a big topic. I’m going to boil it down here today with some tips, and hopefully answer your questions.
When I GM I put stuff into two major buckets:
- What stuff do I need to have on hand and prepped for the next session?
- What stuff can I make up during the session?
Understanding oneself becomes key to this strategy of GM agility and efficiency.
Which means your combo of things to prep could be different from mine.
But for my games, I leave pacing to Bucket #2: Improv.
Pacing Is About One Thing
There’s lots of stuff to say about pacing, which is the rhythm and speed of a story or gameplay.
I wrote a long Dragon Magazine article on this years ago.
You could look at structure, like you have, to ensure gameplay varies. As you switch encounter types up you maintain player interest.
You could also look at amplitude, which measures the scale of change. Bloody combat in a dungeon and then serene roleplay in the palace carries a larger amplitude of pacing change than an easy combat with a street thug and then roleplay with the captured thugs.
In addition, you could look at encounter timing and spotlight length. In the first lesson of Faster Combat I ask students to measure their combats in real-time on a per-player basis to get actual data on where you’re losing session time to inefficiency.
However, flip this around and such an experiment shows you which players get more screen time — we might see a bad cycle of long turns equals getting more attention in some cases there.
Likewise, short encounters and short player turns versus long ones also affect pacing.
So we’ve got a mix of factors that go into pacing.
Which is why I like to boil this important GM Toolbox tool down to one thing.
This Makes It Easy To Improv
Pacing equals energy.
Our brains are pattern matching machines. We’re designed to pattern match for dangers and food, amongst other things. We can instantly detect contrasts and obvious differences.
While pacing is about structure, timing, and the force of change, all this boils down to how that change makes us feel.
We get excited because of the amplitude of change in a story (e.g., spiking drama, twists, sudden action).
We get excited when gameplay switches up. We go from combat to puzzle to intense roleplay. We go from dominance to discovery to risk. We go from one side of our character sheet to the other.
And we get excited when things go from slow to fast. More exciting when the speed of change is also fast, too!
However, all these techniques of pacing result in one thing — the gameplay experience.
Therefore, I focus on that and work backwards, like every good strategy requires.
As I GM I ask myself, “What do I change up to affect the energy at the table in a few minutes?”
It’s All About The Energy
You might argue that pacing is about emotions. We are changing player emotions.
We’re getting pulses pounding. We’re triggering different parts of their brains to evoke emotions. We’re changing aspects of sessions to cause reactions.
We get players angry at the bad guys, sad for losses, happy for treasures, scared at risks, and tense over stakes.
So you are right. Pacing is about emotions.
I feel those emotions all boil down to energy. Brain energy and physiological responses transform into game table behaviour like cheering, tense roleplaying, and nervous dice rolling.
If you agree, then we can focus on one job: changing the energy of the session.
Indeed, Hollywood scriptwriter mentor Robert McKee teaches this. He mandates each scene in a movie script must take the audience on a journey.
That scene journey starts with one emotion or type of energy and ends in another, much different energy state.
That’s why when you see a scene start tranquil you know violence is about to erupt. Or when a scene begins with conflict, characters will make peace, end the violence, or make an inner discovery by scene end (with some exceptions based on genre and location in the storyline).
It’s all about changing up player energy.
And we can do this by changing up encounter types, as you’ve laid out Eric.
You can also change energy levels within encounters (my preference) ala McKee.
An encounter begins with peaceful negotiation and ends in violence or a nasty trick.
An encounter begins with fearful exploration of dark corners and ends in a treasure drop.
An encounter begins with scary violence and ends with triumphant victory.
Focus On Timing
You can also change encounter timing.
Short encounter, long encounter, short encounter.
This naturally affects pacing and keeps your game exciting. And this is probably the easiest lever within pacing for you to control during a session.
- Empty room with major clue (fast)
- Next room battle with minions (slow)
- Next room surprise trap (fast)
- Next room stage boss battle (slow)
- Next room treasure (who cares how long, it’s treasure!)
This example used the 5 Room Dungeon model, but the key piece was the pacing of fast encounter, slow encounter, repeat.
Now, what if the Entrance that greeted players with a major clue — telling the party they’ve found the legendary site they’ve been questing for — what if that took 20 minutes of gameplay?
- Players would not leave without searching every five feet.
- You tried hand-waving that with passive skill checks and certainty via description, but then players debated over the meaning of the clue.
- You tried solving that with NPC roleplay offering insights, but then players took time to check the exit for traps.
Each group action piled on until the encounter was 20 minutes and still running.
Not only was pacing slow because of the time, but the mid-encounter amplitude of changes were small => clue, search, debate, search.
Your planned fast pace encounter became the slow one.
The Killer Pacing Mistake I Try To Avoid
This is why I don’t prep in advance for pacing.
It’s why I put pacing into Bucket #2: Improv.
The GM Trap here is to come with a plan that either does not survive contact with players or play out due to unexpected die rolls or situations.
The more agency your GMing style gives players, the greater the risk your plans go awry.
Much better, then, to learn the skill of improv pacing.
And that’s pretty simple to try.
When the game is slow, speed it up. When the game is faster, slow it down or make it go twice as fast.
I’ve made the mistake of pre-planning the pace and being foiled many times. I realized I am far better off managing the pace dynamically during sessions than forcing a brittle, planned structure.
When players turn an encounter you anticipate will be fast into an over-thinking grind, then pivot. Have those minions from Room #2 barge in and cause a ruckus.
Pacing Options Beyond Encounter Type
Here’s a crazy thing. You can make exciting pacing happen even with back-to-back encounters of the same type.
For example, you can have a fast combat, then a dangerous long one. A tense roleplay, then a comedic one. A player-stumping puzzle, then a single-roll trap.
You can also have great pacing with player turns within an encounter.
For example, Terri experiences:
- A simple choice and roll
- A dilemma and roleplay
- A simple choice and consequence
And Sandy experiences:
- Opponent hits
- Opponent misses
- Opponent hits
And Tracy experiences:
- A spell blasts foes apart
- A carefully laid spell controls foes and slows them down
- A spell kill-steals a foe from the rogue haha!
This is approaching GM mastery, now. It takes a lot of presence in a session to manage pacing per player per turn. The trick is keeping your cognitive load low so you have the brain cycles to observe, decide, and act upon mid-encounter pacing opportunities.
My main point is to focus on the energy.
Use your tools to change energy up at every level of a campaign:
- Epic story arc (spanning multiple adventures)
- Adventure by adventure (5RD by 5RD)
- Session by session
- Encounter by encounter
- Turn by turn
- Die roll by die roll
Pacing options and levers quickly become a complex array of choices for beginning GMs and experienced GMs alike.
That’s why I like to boil pacing down to just one simple thing: change energy level when you spot the opportunity to keep the game experience varied, interesting, and exciting.
Focus on the current energy level and figure out how to amplify it or drop it. And make the amplitude of change as big as you can.
How Do We Improv Pacing?
If we take this strategy of opportune pacing changes, then we see why planning for pacing in advance often gets foiled.
We must develop our improv skills to pace sessions well.
What tools do we have to affect pacing during sessions on an improv basis?
The good news: we have several. And we’ve talked a lot about some of these in previous tips.
- Player turn efficiency
- Encounter type
- GM prep
Many Musings of late on descriptions, so I won’t recount those here, other than to offer a great example you can apply immediately.
Use descriptions to slow the game down or speed it up.
Long descriptions slow play down. So do descriptions that raise doubt, offer more choices (often inconsequential ones), or generate puzzles (as players unpack your description and decide what it offers/means).
Short descriptions quicken the pace. Concision. Pared down choices (you highlight what’s most important right now). Truthful and direct information about the situation (faster decision making).
Let’s say the PCs enter Room #3: Trap.
If you want to slow pace down, describe several features of the room and make it initially about discovery.
As a result, Sandy wants to check the carpet out for clues. Sandy wants to smash the desk apart for treasure. Tracy wants to detect magic.
But if you wish a fast pace because you just came off a slow encounter, you get short and direct with your description, making the trap an obvious threat to focus players.
Ok, one more description tip, because it’s a gooder.
We know how a cliffhanger creates fantastic session-end energy. But you can create cliffhanger descriptions too.
As you describe something — a location, an NPC, a monster, an item — you start with a general introduction.
“The sword is magnificent. The exquisite craftsmanship is obvious. It’s a longsword. And it’s snug in a fine leather sheath.”
Then you setup a dramatic moment. A clue, mystery, or revelation.
“As you study the weapon you notice something amazing….”
Then you delay the detail you’ve set players up wanting to hear.
“A sudden tapping noise comes from the door. The quick tapping seems to be a repeated pattern. Tap-tap-tap, tap, tap, tap-tap-tap.”
The pace and amplitude spike. Do players focus on the amazing sword thing or the tapping? Does the tapping mean a threat? Could the sword help with the threat? Energy levels high!
Plots, situations, and encounters come down to what the outcomes mean to the player goals.
If PCs win, what happens?
If PCs lose, what happens?
Raise stakes to increase energy levels and therefore the pace. Players will want to speed up the game to render an outcome fast.
Lower or delay stakes to slow pace down. Offer a partial resolution, giving players a feeling of progress and reduced urgency. Or delay stakes, such as the villain suffering a setback.
Player Turn Efficiency
A lot of tricks available here, many outlined in Faster Combat.
- Use visual initiative
- Give players a heads-up their turn is next
- Be clear on whose turn it is now
- Offer choices instead of making players figure them out
- Enlist your rules lawyer
An advanced move outside initiative is to engage players you know have different turn speeds.
Ask a fast player what they’re doing, then a slow player, then a fast.
Or ask the slowest player what they’re doing, and switch to fast players while the first decides.
Eric, you gave us a great list of encounter types.
As we give players choices, we don’t always get to trigger encounter sequences for best pacing.
Instead, we design encounters to allow for Agile GMing.
- Talk/roleplay — turns into scuffle over hurt feelings
- Battle scene — turns into fast surrender or mid-combat diplomacy
- Skill check scene — turns into an extended chase
- More roleplay — with an impromptu arm-wrestle match
- Final battle — with three waves of foes or the villain fleeing in round #2
- End of session/conclusion/cliffhanger — with a cut scene setting new stakes
Those were just examples of encounter pivots to change the pacing. You don’t have to do this and mess with your plans, but I hope you consider this GM Toolbox tool for occasional pacing impact.
Players will focus on how to get the desired result. Now you can change pacing based on this new layer of story tension.
Obstacles no longer represent mere XP. They delay PCs from achieving their goal.
Quick wins now mean rapid advancement towards their objective.
Clues now give insights into mission options.
The tenor and style of game changes. And this gives you additional pacing options you can use with Descriptions, GM Prep, Encounter Type, and so on.
We don’t need to prepare what the pacing will be every moment of the game.
Instead, we prepare to change pacing based on how we’re reading each session.
Dig into your Loopy Plans and prepare a list of possible events you could trigger as encounter follow-ups or interrupts.
Create a short table of potential plot twists that makes sense to your adventure.
Query your session logs for recurring NPCs who could drop in for interesting roleplay.
Update your rewards list and add one or two potential obstacle ideas for each.
Create detail generators to help with descriptions.
Empower yourself to improv next session.
I like to prep stuff that I suck at. I’m kind of a direct-line thinker. So I like ideas for details, obstacles, and twists.
What could help you improv next session better without scripting yourself into a corner?
Finally, prep your first encounter well. End sessions so you have confidence of what the opener for next session will be.
Then design your opener to help guide the rest of the session.
For example, if the party has wrapped up some loose ends and side plots, prep encounter #1 next session to open a new side plot.
If foes dwindle, introduce a new faction.
If a cliffhanger ends mid-battle, prepare some unexpected twist, roleplay, or clue that’ll open up more player choices.
Make Pacing About One Thing
Eric, I hope this helps.
My experience has been that condensing all the ideas, options, tools, and levers into one GM mission helps me manage session pacing better.
Make it about energy.
Move the bulk of pacing management into improv instead of planning.
See pacing as a result of changing energy that can occur at multiple scales, from campaign to session to die roll.
Aim for higher amplitude, not just variety.
And avoid mistakes I’ve made about forcing the pace with planning or heavy-handed GMing. Go with the flow. While you can affect each second with a pacing change, pick your moments instead.
Start with changing energy up through encounters (type and speed).
Then experiment with descriptions and stakes.
Then get fancy with smaller pacing moments. When you get a handle on changing session energy on-the-fly, you’ll really be mastering the game.