Mastering as Game Master: Pacing Episode.001

At the break of dawn, you leave the village of Juniper with sights set on the mysterious monastery you read about in the elder’s private library. Knowing it will take weeks to reach the location, you purchased fresh, young horses to carry you most of the way. After traveling for a few hours, you begin to notice the terrain slowly changing from the prairie meadows of Juniper’s country to a light forest.  The black-eyed Susies have changed to young oak trees with wild onion growing along the base.  You travel a few more hours, and now the forest breaks away to a small valley with a shallow river that cuts along the base.  The clouds overhead are billowy and soft while the grass has a fresh, green herb-like scent that fills your nostrils with thoughts of spring.  So far you have encountered nothing except some small animals such as squirrels, rabbits, and muskrats. Towards the evening you find a decent place to camp for the night, and nothing eventful happens during dinner.

So that entire day passed and nothing happened except we traveled a while?

Yes.

Out of every aspect that makes up a good Game Master, I cannot think of anything more important than pacing. It is the basic idea of how quickly a narration flows in your mind. Even in literature, there are novels that will stop to describe the way the clouds are hanging above their heads or the types of wild flowers that are growing along the roadside. Before you know it, the book is 900+ pages of a lot of description between important scenes (I’m looking at you Wheel of Time series).

Pace is difficult for a lot of GM’s. Why? The answer is because there is a delicate line between dealing with too much detail and not enough. This is a game using our imaginations after all. However, a casual 4-hour game session can easily stretch into an 8-hour marathon if the pace isn’t properly kept.

Think about the last movie you watched. The story was told in a set amount of time by linking scenes together that give the best picture or idea of what the story is about. Often we will see someone, for example, get into a car and drive off, only to have a quick long shot of some place they are heading to such as a new city, and then the next scene they are pulling up to their destination. All of which took about 15-30 seconds. Our minds are trained to accept those shortened timeframes because we can bridge the gap of missing time by common sense. We see the car drive away, we see another city, and we see them pull up. Obviously they just traveled somewhere else. There is no need to show them driving the entire time as that would be awfully boring (much like it is in real life!).

The same concept applies to RPGs. We don’t need to explain to the players that they need to make Ride Checks after 5 hours of riding to see if they fell off at any time. They don’t need to make Balance Checks if they are just walking through mud casually to a tavern. And there is no reason to describe to them everything they see from flowers to rivers to the White Oak tree they passed by along the way.

One of the biggest factors in creating poor pace can be the game system itself. There are RPGs that are very rules light and don’t cover every situation such as when you are trying to balance one-legged on the back of a Pegasus while shooting a bow at a passing Roc. There are some rule systems that are very crunchy. These may call for those checks mentioned earlier at every corner. They may cause confusion on interpretation during situations not clearly covered in the book. Whatever the case may be, GM’s need to recognize that the ultimate goal is for the players (and GM) to have fun and reach whatever goal they set out to accomplish. If the game is constantly being stopped due to people opening up rule books to double check a rule “they were so sure it read another way” then the pace is going to be so dismal that the game will never finish.  The solution is the GM needs to make a decision, his word is final, and they need to move on.  If a GM wishes to hear a player lobby for a rule (because it always is in favor of the player’s situation), then that runs the risk of argument, which grinds the game to a stop.  Putting your foot down politely without being a jerk is key.  Establish before the game that this is how you would prefer handling rules debates during gameplay.  As a peace treaty with the players, ask them to write any situation they feel was unfair or disagree with on paper and bring it up with the GM after the game.  This avoids stoppage of play and gives the players a chance to voice their opinion on something.  GMs are not always right and make mistakes from time to time.  An idea or suggestion from a player may speed up game play and prevent any disgruntled feelings to occur.

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Another factor can be the players. This is where the GM really has to put on the big boy pants and be the coordinator of the event. Unfortunately in this world we have the type of player commonly referred to as a Rules Lawyer. This implies that the individual has read every book, every word, and every chart for that system, memorizing everything to the letter. It’s not really so he can spout rules to help the game flow and eliminate the need for looking things up. Typically those individuals are going to use their knowledge to find ways to take advantage of every situation and then gloat about it.  “I was able to wear both the +2 Dex gloves and the +2 Dex ring because in the 2nd sourcebook, it allows for rings to be worn on fingers over gloves.  I’m basically invincible now to everything.”

I’ve dealt with many Rules Lawyers in the past. They can be extremely annoying. However, a good GM will lay down the ground rules prior to playing so that everyone is not only aware of but also in agreement to those rules. One of these rules is making it perfectly clear that the GM trumps interpretation of the rules in any rule book. You are the Judge and Jury when it comes to rules. Not the players. Not the book. “But the book says it’s this!” Well if the GM explains how their interpretation is final BEFORE the game begins, then there will be less room for players to argue about that.

I have even gone as far as writing contracts with the entire playing team. These may list house rules that I want to enforce, and if a player tries to belly ache about something in the future, I’ll point to their contract that they signed being fully aware that they agreed to this before. It really should be irrelevant for most gaming groups, but there are some people who have to be worked with a little differently in order for the pace to keep going. We can’t afford to stop every few minutes to argue about rules or allowances.

One recommendation to keeping good pace is to bring a sense of urgency to the game in times of slowplay. If the players are not moving fast enough and playing far too cautiously, tell them they hear horns of an army not too far off heading this way. A powerful storm seems to be brewing quickly. Perhaps simply footsteps are heard coming in the direction they came from.

GMs should always try to recognize moments of monotony and mundane in their game. You have a series of 6 closed doors down a hallway, each one of them opening to just an empty room with similar décor? Don’t make the players open each door. Explain briefly that after the first door is opened that each of the other 5 doors open to the same type of room. Perhaps the group is taking too long searching for a trap in one room they are convinced exists. Don’t make them roll checks over and over. If there are no traps on your GM map, you can just tell them freely they find no traps before anyone rolls.

trap

Player 1: I want to check the bed for traps.

Player 2: While he’s doing that, I want to check the floor for traps.

GM: Everyone takes a part of searching the room and comes up with nothing.  The room is clean.

Certainly mix things up on occasion by having them roll for a room that you know contains nothing of interest so they can roll dice and keep them guessing, but don’t make it each room or each corridor.  Especially don’t make them search every 10 feet in a corridor for traps!

You will often find that skipping things or leaving things out will go more unnoticed and be more acceptable with your players than describing every detail. Look for situations to cut corners such as avoiding rolls and awarding them the go-ahead through a brief description instead.

Finally, part of the joy of playing these games is allowing our minds to create fantastical visions through descriptions. Keep descriptions light and brief; let the players’ mind do most of the work.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.

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