Welcome to another edition of The Gamemaster. For those who may be new, my brief explanation: I’m new to the world of game (or dungeon) mastering. I hadn’t played any RPGs in 15 years at least and am now getting back into it. I’ve begun a campaign in a setting of my own creation using the Pathfinder rules.
This column is a way for me to explore what I’m doing, what’s working, what’s not working, what I can do better, and I hope it will be of interest to others as well.
Today, I’d like to talk about the importance of pacing.
Pacing is something that’s very hard in any medium, but throw seven people in a room together and try to get a cinematic feel out of things and you’re going to need a lot of practice. The Pathfinder books often refer to that feeling you’re working to capture as “cinematic” and I think that’s the perfect word.
The beginning of a session gives you a little bit of lead time to work with, where players are extra focused and willing to give you the benefit of the doubt to build to a climax. The same is true in a movie. More often than not, the first act in a movie is watching the main characters acclimate to their environment and the problem before them. They’re given the hook and they act from there. Movie viewers (like players) will grant that leeway as long as the information they’re being presented with is going to pay off later.
Then, things need to happen. That hook needs to pay off. It needs to lead somewhere. And once you’re there, the characters have to make more choices, and those choices have to have consequences. Let them try anything, but their plans shouldn’t always work.
But you don’t always have to start slow. The first game I GMd, I dropped the characters right in the middle of a chase, with them on the run. It kept the intrigue up. Then the middle part was catching up with the story. It works. The best stories always start with those experiencing the story asking questions and trying to catch up, putting the pieces together. You need to keep that in mind.
As you pace a game, the action needs to rise. The encounters need to grow bigger and more needs to be at stake as the game goes on.
But that doesn’t just mean, encounter number one is a couple of easy monsters, encounter number two is a couple of medium monsters, and encounter number three is a dragon. You need to pace the encounters, make them appropriate for the story, and work quickly to make the players feel the time crunch. Make them feel like time is running out for them.
When you’re running a chase sequence, make them feel like they’re on the run. Make sure you know enough about the stats of things involved so you’re able to make very quick actions and decisions and keep the pace up. Stand up. Talk faster. Use shorter sentences. You’re setting the pace for the game, you’re setting the mood. You need to make them feel it.
They’ll never feel it if there’s nothing at stake in the game besides treasure that might be had, and they’ll never feel it if you’re constantly skimming through the book for a rule or a stat block or something else. You need to have every possibility prepared, and come up with contingency plans in case things go completely off the rails. If you’ve got a bad guy they’re facing off against, for example a corrupt village mayor, establish all the things that character would have at his disposal. The city guards. The night watch. A wizard in his employ. A rogue to pick their pockets. A troll in the dungeon. And what places would he be located? His house. The town hall. The brothel he frequents. Make up a list of all of these assets and prepare stat blocks for all of them. That way, no matter what the players throw at you, the overarching story details can stay the same, you can throw whatever obstacle the situation the players call for at them quickly, and you aren’t searching through tons of books. It helps you to think about this character a lot, too. How would this guy react if his brute squad was vanquished and they used his favorite wench as a spy? Would he have them followed? Or send the wizard? Would he have the town guards come to arrest them?
There’s going to be a large degree of thinking on your feet, but if you have all of the tools for this character prepared, all the stat blocks ready, and all the possible locations mapped out, you’re going to be able to keep the pacing up. And don’t hesitate to ask them between sessions what they expect they might do during the next session. If they can talk amongst themselves online or where ever with you in view about their next steps and their goals for the next session, that gives you a huge head start in knowing what to prepare.
Everyone is there to have fun. No one wants to sit around and watch you flip through a rule book. That’s not to say you’re not allowed to. Inevitably the need to consult the books will come up. And inevitably the players will shatter your plans and you’ll need a minute to collect your thoughts and keep things moving forward. But you need to keep the action rising and everything moving forward.
That means you’ll also have to juggle all the players and what they want to do and keep them all engaged. If your party is split between rooms, run all the battles simultaneously on the same initiative rolls. Or run one situation for two rounds and then switch back to the other situation. But most importantly, make sure the players are all playing!
Then, for the final encounter, after they’ve been bruised and battered, physically and emotionally, from the trials that have preceded them, the climax of the game should be an encounter or a puzzle that is the biggest and the best of the session, with by far the most at stake. The first two acts (to borrow a writing term) should be in pursuit of their goal, the last act or encounter should be them taking the steps to achieve or fail at it. Take that corrupt mayor once more. If their goal is to topple him in one one session, the first act should offer the hook and an encounter (if any) that will give clues to the players about the different ways they can approach the problem. Perhaps they find out about the wench, or they learn where his house is, or they capture a guard and beat info out of him, or they take hostages, or whatever. This first problem will lead them to the second place. Perhaps it’s the brothel where the bouncers don’t want a disturbance, but if they make it through that, they’ll have the last key to at least find the mayor and confront him.
It’s rising action leading to a confrontation. How the confrontation goes and what happens next session is entirely up to them, though. Then, for the next session, you have to start all over again.
As the gamemaster, you’re also the storyteller. You need to be receptive to the choices they make and the goals they have, adapt what you’ve prepared to meet their actions, and do it in a fluid way that makes them feel as though they couldn’t have done it any other way and you were prepared for all of it.
Otherwise, all you’re doing is sitting around watching a dude flip through a bestiary or NPC Codex for stats for four hours and that’s not fun for anybody.