DMing 101 – Pacing
Why does a two minute fight take an hour, but travelling for three days take two minutes? It’s a classic stereotype that has it’s upsides, and major downsides. While some players love the hack and slash of constant combat, or the fast paced narrative that just montages through all the boring walking parts, it lacks a certain realism that can keep a more devoted role-player utterly involved with the world.
Pacing a game is an art in itself, finding a balance that suits your style of play set against your players’ attention span. There isn’t a right answer, and it’s something that you can only hope to experiment with until everyone’s happy. Still, here are a few ideas to toy with that may help keep your game interesting, even through the “boring bits”.
If the Lord of the Rings can get three books out of a walk from point A to point B then you can surely make it a grander affair than saying “it takes about a week to get there”. I freely admit to having been a little guilty of that in the past, and a little in the present too if there’s no need for anything extra. There’s one thing you should always have your group consider:
What preparations need to be made?
How are they travelling, foot, cart, rail, flight? How long will it take, and what environments will they pass through on the way? Do they need any special clothing, equipment, or extra food? Will they crossing any political borders, if so do they need identification, and should that identification be authentic? Are they likely to get into a fight along the way?
All of these questions can build an idea towards what kind of story you can tell along the way. Gaps between incidents can certainly bridged with phrases like “After about four hours or so – ” or “What time do you guys make camp, and who’s keeping watch?”
They say that getting there is half the fun, well it usually isn’t, but it can account for a hefty proportion if done right. A monologue about the landscape might lose interest quick, but travel is rarely completely without incident. A random encounter needn’t be with a wandering monster; it could be with an interesting landmark that investigating could reward with clues, adventure hooks, maybe a bit of loot; the vehicle they’re in could breakdown or malfunction in some way; or what about a fellow traveller looking to share the journey and actually not rob or attack the party for once!
Life for adventurers needn’t be one event after another. Days, weeks, months can pass between important events, will the characters just sit perfectly still for the intervening time? Do they have enough money to survive the wait? Where are they staying?
This is usually perfect side-questing time, perhaps your group have personal agendas and backstory to attend to, and now would be the time to do it. Alternatively, they might want to pursue training, information, even old careers, perhaps a new one! D&D has the craft – basket weaving skill for a reason after all.
Player groups have a tendency to horde wealth wherever possible. It may be worth asking them what they plan to do with it. Why not throw some insane options at them like opening a bank account. No really! Imagine what would happen if they were half the world away to find out their bank had been robbed. Simply possessing that volume of money and expensive treasures makes for a potential story all of its’ own.
The problem with combat is that players have a tendency to over-discuss things that in reality they’d maybe have a few seconds to decide upon BUT their combat training such as it may be may be enough to justify tactical thought on that level in the midst of battle. How do you balance this?
Different RPs deal with combat in different ways, and of course this impacts the time necessary to complete fights like it. You may find ways to make it that much easier within the rules, by bending them or by omitting them outright if needs be (with the consent of the group of course). The way you build your encounters also changes how quickly they’ll play out, unnamed henchman for example shouldn’t take all night to fight through unless there’s a suitably dramatic reason for it. They should fall under the classic cliché of going down in one hit, or perhaps they flee when clearly outmatched.
When it comes to villain fights, a great way to make them seem faster may be to split them across multiple fights. The mighty nemesis takes a few blows before falling back to a more defensible position. Once his defences crumble he attempts to make good his escape, only to be cornered at last!
Slowly, inexorably, I begin to reach the bottom of my ideas barrel for DMing 101, but I know that there’s still plenty more to deliberate so I put it to you:
What advice do you have to give DMs new and experienced?
What do you struggle with behind the screen that you could do with advice on?
And what else do you want to talk about? Come on now, this is a safe place. You can be open here.
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