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Friday, August 26, 2016

Dungeons & Dragons - Pacing Your Game

Storm King: I just want to mention that I've been updating the guide to Storm King's Thunder with the free previews wizards has been putting out. You might want to check those out. Storm King's Thunder is out in game stores and it will be out in major stores in September. I'll probably go and buy it in a week or so at my friend's store and then I will get to work on the full guide.

Pathfinder Art: I have been going through my Pathfinder humble bundle stuff and I decided to use art in this post from Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Campaign. I think I want to use their iconic NPC Seoni in my Planescape campaign. She is so cool-looking.

Pacing: Now I am going to attempt to talk about pacing when you are running a game of D&D. I'll try to give advice and notes, but please remember that all of this is just my opinion. Feel free to throw it in the garbage if it doesn't suit you.

Every single DM has their own style and what works for one might not work for another. You should always play to your strengths and do your best to hide your weaknesses.

Here are the topics I'm going to cover:
  • Lingering in Town
  • Travel
  • You Will Get Less Done Than You Think You Will
  • Combat Preparedness
  • Filler Sessions
  • Monitoring Your Players
  • What Pacing is All About

Pacing Defined: One of the things that DMs new and old struggle with in D&D is pacing. When I say "pacing," I am referring to the flow of the game and most of all, how much table time is wasted. The tricky thing is that I think what constitutes "wasted time" varies from group to group.

I have been obsessed with "Getting things done" since the beginning of fourth edition, where we would play for 5 hours a week and I was bound and determined to get five encounters done in each session. After years of that behavior it is permanently burned into my brain.

Letting the Group Linger

This is something I really don't like. Some DMs will let their group sit in a town and just wait for them to take initiative to do something. Often, the players aren't sure what they are "supposed" to do and they kind of feel around or sit there in confused silence. Sometimes they get bored and attack each other or the town.

That kind of thing is dangerous not because the town burned down (that seems like that would be fun to play through) but because you are boring your players. That's how you lose them!

Our Job: Often this kind of thing happens when the dungeon master isn't prepared. The DM needs to fill a four hour session and they are kind of hoping the players will generate their own adventure. That might be a fun experiment to do once, but our job as DMs is to be prepared. That's our responsibility and that's why so few people want to be a DM.

I know there are a lot of DMs out there who just wing it. That's fine! But you should have a backup strategy or scheme in mind in case you are running the game and you are drawing a blank. In a way, you have to prepare for being unprepared.


This one trips up new DMs a lot. The characters have a week-long journey and the DM will kind of struggle with when to play a scene and when to "fast forward."

Here's what I do. I tell the players the weather, the terrain, a few flavor things. I might have an NPC say something to see what the group does with it. Then, I'll ask, "Does anyone want to do anything special?"

When they say no, we move into fast forward or montage mode, which basically is: "You travel for X hours, and then..."

Red Herring: Usually on a trip I ask the group to tell me their camping setup, even if I don't have any overnight encounters planned. That way, they won't pick up on the fact that you only ask them about their camping setup when you do have a night time encounter planned.

On trips, I always try to cook up a few tiny flavor moments to help drive home the setting and to make the players feel into it. Something like the group spotting a harmless, wounded animal. This gives the players a chance to display what their characters personalities are like.

I heartily recommend coming up with a travel montage, possibly based on a montage from an 80's movie. I did this a lot in 4e for skill challenges, and it was always a success. Also, if you can somehow work out a workout montage based on the one from Rocky 4, you have my eternal respect.

You ultimately want to give them the "D&D feeling," and the little touches go a really long way towards accomplishing that. You want to help them imagine their character and where they are.

Combat Preparedness

I am a big believer in preparedness, especially when it comes to combat. In my opinion, prior to the game you should read up on the monsters you are going to use and especially the spells you want to use.

Looking up spells is the single biggest cause of slowdown, in my opinion. You should write down the page numbers in advance, at the very least.

This goes for players, too. The thing I've noticed the most is that players tend to not know their DC and spell attack bonus. We want to keep things moving rather than stopping everything to figure it out. It might sound like a small thing, but it adds up really quick.

I think players should write down the page number of every spell their character has. Personally, I write down a page number and a shorthand description of every spell my character has on a piece of paper. That way, it's all right there and we can look up the spell if there's some question about a specific effect.

You Get Less Done Than You Think You Will

Almost every session, I am amazed that we only did one or two things in the game. Time really flies when you are DMing. In my last Planescape session, we basically did a few little things and one sprawling encounter in the plane of Limbo. I looked at the clock and I was astonished. We were already done.

That's OK. The pacing wasn't a problem. We ate up a lot of time on that one encounter because we zoomed in.

What I mean by "zoomed in" is that I really tried to give lots of detail and flavor. In real life, I have this little pirate ship scaled for D&D minis, so we used it (the group is flying a pirate ship through Limbo). We've got the minis, the ship, and the encounter started out with a negotiation with a genie that went south. All that stuff eats up time.

Really, the key to pacing is to know when to fast forward and when to zoom in. When you aren't sure if you should move along to the next thing in your adventure, just ask the group, "Do you do anything special here, or should we move forward?"

Weirdly enough, to a degree, your group actually controls the pacing of the D&D game.


I have seen groups that have entire sessions where they do nothing but buy things in town. They roleplay out every conversation with an NPC shopkeep or bartender. If that's the group's thing and they like it, then there's no problem. I think that could be fun once or twice, but I wouldn't want that to be the norm.

When you have a D&D session, you should treat it as special. You got 5 people to come over to your house and commit a few hours of their time. I would honestly say that more than half of the campaigns I've seen start collapse within about 7 sessions due to one reason or another (usually either a group chemistry problem or the DM is having trouble).

So, if you have a game where players actually show up every single week, or month, or whatever, you're already doing better than a lot of people. You should keep in mind that you are lucky and obviously you are doing a good job.

To me, each session is special. Fun things should happen. You want to make it worth everybody's time. If you have a few flat sessions in a row, you might start losing player interest. To me, a "shopping session" is a flat session. If I was player, I'd see it as a waste of time. I'd also suspect that the DM didn't prepare and is trying to filibuster an entire session, which to me is bogus.

Every Campaign Sags: I should note that most, if not every campaign out there has a "malaise" period. Once the shine of the new campaign wears off, the game starts to feel stale. That's not the same as a flat session, that's just the quagmire that DMs have to deal with and overcome.

The best way to battle campaign fatigue is to shake things up in a big way. Don't junk your campaign, just throw in a twist or an unexpected scenario. You don't need to start killing NPCs left and right. Really, it's more about variety. If you have a whole bunch of sessions where the group is in the same place fighting undead, you could have them fall through a vortex to some other realm that they need to get out of before the undead threat that they were battling reaches their town or kingdom or whatever.

Sometimes malaise also occurs because of your style. It's easy to lose perspective as a DM. Once players "see the invisible walls" of your campaign, the game loses some of its luster.

You Will Be Exposed: That will happen every single time you get a new player. About ten sessions in, the player will see your limitations as a DM. They'll get a peek behind the curtain and deflate a bit, maybe just in a subconscious manner.

That's OK! It's a natural thing. I was so relieved when I watched Chris Perkins and Matt Mercer DM. We're all in the same boat. Being a DM requires a huge amount of multi-tasking. You literally can not do all the things you need to do at once. So you have to pick your priorities and, to me, that defines your DMing style.

As an example, if we're in the middle of an encounter and a question comes up about a monster's power or some trait of a plane, I'll usually make a call right there and look it up after the game. I prioritize the flow of the game over rules accuracy.

For my type of game, the rules are a tool - they are just one part of the D&D experience. My focus is on the group and their hijinks. I will gladly junk a rule if someone has a good idea, particularly if a character wants to do some wacky maneuver in a combat situation that technically they couldn't achieve in a round.

I know other people are different. They will stop and look up the rule. Those people are prioritizing rules accuracy over the flow of the game. Their choice isn't worse or better than mine. It depends on what the group wants out of the game.

There's a lot of groups that are all about combat, gaining levels and treasure. In some of these groups, the players don't even know the names of the other characters. Some characters might not even have a name, they're just "Mike's Fighter."

That is not a problem unless the players decide it is a problem.

What Pacing is All About

I think what pacing is really all about is avoiding boredom. What is boring to one person is interesting to another. So you have to read your group at the table. You want everyone engaged. Sometimes certain types of players won't be engaged and they might look bored, but they are not. It's a tricky thing. Just do the best you can. Identify the things that bore the players and avoid them.

Human Nature: A lot of people have 4 hour sessions. Some are even longer. Human beings rarely have the capacity to laugh or be excited for an entire 4 hours. You will notice an ebb and flow in the mood of the group at the table.

If you watched episode 12 of Acquisitions Inc., you might notice that the group is a little giddy and they are very loose. That happens a lot in longer sessions. I think it's just how humans are. I suspect that there comes a point in a session where each person becomes relaxed, comfortable, and a bit mentally fatigued. They become more comfortable in their own skin.

So keep in mind that you can't control the mood of the group. Sometimes their reactions have absolutely nothing to do with the game and it's just a biological thing.

Your Enemy: What you can control is what is going on in the game. In my opinion, you should be more than willing to cut a combat short if it gets boring and ultimately meaningless. You don't necessarily have to just declare "You kill it," and move on. You could have the villain surrender or run away.

Always remember what really matters. Don't get married to certain encounters, NPCs or scenarios. You should think about what your players enjoy and what is important to them. We're trying to entertain them as well as ourselves. Indulge them!

The whole point of the game is to have fun. Stay loose and fair-minded. Our job is not easy at all but if you're like me, you will find it very rewarding.


Dennis said...

Hey - just wanted to say you've got a new reader. I'd bookmarked your page initially for your guide to Princes of the Apocalypse (which I'll hopefully be running soon), and have read some more of your 5E stuff and reviews. As a new 5E DM I've found your advice to be valuable and insightful.

So thanks for sharing!

Sean said...

Dennis: Awesome! Thank you. I had a hard time running Princes. I hope it goes well for you!

Michael English said...

My recent experience running a shopping session might illustrate how it can work. They desperately wanted one! Playing PoA and they got lots of treasure. Once in a while the caravans traveling through Red Larch would bring and sell a potion of healing or try to bring a scroll the party wanted back for them, but I kept it pretty lean and expensive. They were begging for a trip to the big city! When they got there, I gave a good dose of flavor descriptions, but had prepared a couple of shady dealers and their goons. Then I put it to the players - sell your jewelry/books where it is safe at 50%+skill and role-playing or go risky for more profit. Only one player went for risky, so we did it quick and dirty right in front of the group. Got one great deal. Got away alive from an ambush on another. Another player found a noble to exchange one magic weapon+1 AND $ for one they had prof in. Made sure to set their expectations that good deals would be hard to get, then when they got a little better than they thought they were very pleased. I usually don't poll the group after a session, but I was concerned that since it was mostly DMG chart rolling and negotiating...everyone said they had a blast!

Sean said...

Michael English: Cool! DMG chart rolling can be fun, I just get worried sometimes that it will grind the game to a halt. What you did sounds awesome. When I say "shopping" session, i envision a scene where the players all open the books and look through the equipment lists for hours at a time. I had a friend who was in a group where they played out every second of the campaign - they roleplayed every purchase. In two years of weekly play, they only got to level 3. I wouldn't want t play in that kind of game!

Konrad Ferlangen said...

Thanks again for a great article.
Could you use tags for your artikels? I would like to find more of your thought of DMing. ANd wihh tags that would be easy.

Sean said...

Konrad: I'll see if I can figure out how to make tags. If you go to my table of contents, all of those DMing articles are listed down at the bottom:

Anonymous said...

Hey! Great article. You should add this to Dungeon Master Advice in the index. :)