I've done a lot of writing about pacing, but I managed not to include a detailed discussion of the key techniques that contribute to solid session pacing. I gave some quick tips during the series, and Carlos, one of the authors of the upcoming Asylum RPG wrote a guest post on pacing con games for me but that's the extent of it.
It deserves more. And because I love you, dear readers, I have decided to set my little listicle to the haunting lyricism of Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming.” Because sleep deprivation. Or something.
The Five Basic Techniques of Session Pacing
There are five basic techniques that make for good session pacing.
- Open with a Bang
- Modulate Opportunities and Threats
- Prep Several Climatic Events
- Build Toward an Eleventh Hour Climax
- Close on a Hook
Open with a Bang
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
Every action-adventure television show opens with a teaser scene, where something exciting happens. Bond movies do a great job of this. If you can, start your session off with something fast-paced, exciting, and fun. Make it connect to the plot if you can.
The benefits of opening with a bang are numerous. First, it gets the table focused on the game. It's hard to ignore a bang! Second, it cuts past the "loose ends" discussions that start most RPG sessions, and can often go on for hours. The players will have to skip a lot of those and get to the most important ones when they get a chance. A bang is always an unexpected threat (see below) that must be dealt with now, now, now!
Example: Let's say you're on session #2 of your hex crawl through some demon-haunted city ruins. Last session, the PCs made it to the ruins, and the session ended with a big reveal: The “guide” the party brought with them turned out to be a mad wizard in disguise, who ran off when they got inside the city. So let's open this session with a bang!
"Where we last left off, your guide had just teleported away in a fit of mad cackling. But he seems to have forgotten his Bag of Holding. As you move to examine it, four one-hundred-pound iron cobra snake constructs come slithering out. But that's not the worst of it! The sudden increase in weight causes the ruined barracks floor to collapse under you, dropping you into a root cellar! Everybody make reflex saves!"
Modulate Opportunities and Threats
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...
I’ve talked about modulating scene types before. It’s important to change things up frequently to keep interest up. In the moment to moment of an RPG session, the easiest way to do this is to simply switch back and forth between opportunities and threats.
Every event in your RPG either opens with a threat, or opens with an opportunity. An opportunity is a chance for the PCs to take action. A dungeon to explore is an opportunity. A mystic portal is an opportunity. A nosy bartender who might have information is an opportunity. To use Robin D. Laws' beat terms from Hamlet's Hit Points, an opportunity is a scene that opens with a dramatic or procedural upward beat. That means the audience members (the players) feel an increase in hope for the protagonists (their characters) at the start.
A threat is a scene that opens with a dramatic or procedural downward beat - a scene that starts by making the audience members (the players) feel fear for the protagonists (their characters). It’s a danger at least initially out of the PCs' control. An ambush is a threat. Ominous news about the Dark Lord is a threat. A sentry guarding the enemy camp is a threat. The example session-opening-bang! scene opener, above, is a threat.
So here's what you do: If you just opened a scene with a danger out of the PCs’ control, open the next scene by giving them something enticing and hopeful.
Example: We started the session with a threat. Let's give them an opportunity: "Aarom the Evoker is very skilled in Spellcraft, so he knows that a Type II Bag of Holding can carry up to about a hundred more pounds of weight than those snakes. Wonder what else could be in there? Also, the wall in this cellar has a riddle painted on it in dretch blood that is several weeks old:
I AM A PEACEMAKER
THOSE WHO ARE SMART ENOUGH TO PROCEED
WILL FIND THE CENTER OF THE STRUCTURE THAT JOINS TWO SIDES
Prep Several Climatic Events
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand...
Most websites that give tips to GMs will tell you not to prep the things that happen. Instead prep the things that the antagonists do. This is very sound advice, but there are exceptions. Big, exciting scenes are better when the GM has done at least a little work ahead of time; and session climax scenes make a lot more sense if the session has been building toward them. To build toward a cool climax, you need to have a few cool climax ideas in your head to build toward.
Here’s how you do it: In your session prep, or during the session itself, think of a handful of cool things that could happen as the climax of the upcoming session. Go for quality over quantity -- three good ones that inspire you to think more about them are better than a quick list of ten ideas with no meat on them.
If you’ve got a dungeon planned out with everything down to the five foot square, this should be easy: Just find the two to five coolest things in the dungeon within a session’s reach of the PCs, and imagine how they’d make great climatic endings for this session. (If there’s not much exciting nearby, your dungeon sucks. No offense. Modify it so that there are dramatic and cool things that the PCs might discover within a session’s span.)
Example: When you looked at your ruined, demon-haunted city, you could see that the PCs could easily get to any one of four points of interest within one session:
- The PCs could have a long fight in a big ruined palace, where the palace starts to collapse, and they have to flee for the exits while being pursued by monsters. The mad wizard has golems that will take a long time to beat, and he’ll open with a fireball that shakes the building and starts the collapse.
- The PCs encounter a demon hive, with minor dretches or other little demons climbing out of slimy egg sacs constantly. They have a prayer ritual that will get the cleric's god to banish the whole hive and lock the location down from future incursions, but it will take five successful religion checks on the cleric's turns (each a standard action), so they have to hold fast in the middle of the hive under constant onslaught by nearly infinite opponents, without the cleric’s help, until the ritual is complete.
- The PCs follow a series of clues left by a Glabrezu to lead adventurers to him. He's too powerful for them to fight, but he’s slothful and bored to tears here; so he offers them two choices: First, they can play a game of cards against him, and if they win, he will leave forever and grant them each one wish. If they lose, he will eat them. His name is Immortal Wynorax, and he's known to have a tell -- there's even an old song about "Immortal Win" (i.e. Immortal Wyn) that the bard knows. And the chorus goes, "He whistles when he draws and he snaps his claws | He snaps his claws when he's bluffing." Play poker with the PCs, and snap your fingers every time you bluff, so there's no way they can lose. The real drama here is that Glabrezu wishes are always poisoned.
- A variant collapsing building: The PCs are in an old library with 6 tall shelves covered in old, cracked clay tablets. It's a super hard fight against spined devils or something tough, but the PCs can shove the old rusty copper shelves full of clay tablets over to instantly kill the monsters (or deal 10d6 damage, ref DC 20 for half, to any PC caught under them!). At the end, they find 1d4 intact magic scrolls (on clay tablets) on each shelf they didn't knock over (but none on the shelves that fell). The devils don’t think about pushing the shelves over on the PCs. They want to taste living flesh.
Build Toward an Eleventh Hour Climax
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds...
When the clock on the wall tells you there’s one hour left before the session is over, lead right into the climax scene you prepared that best fits the route the PCs have taken up to this point. Tailor the scene so it makes sense as a response to the PCs’ actions. Then make it big, loud, and exciting. Ramp up the stakes.
This is not railroading. You're not leading the players by the nose. They're choosing the route they want to take, and you're selecting the cool scene that best fits their path, tailoring it to their actions, and unleashing it at just the right time. Conflict takes protagonists and antagonists. As the GM, you control the antagonists, so you control half of the equation. The climactic confrontation of the session happens when the protagonists and antagonists clash in a cool, decisive way.
Here's how you do it: One hour before the end of your session, start a scene that raises the stakes dramatically. In D&D, it might be as simple as ending your session on a hard, exciting fight. But the stakes are more than just hit points and 5,000gp diamonds: The goals of the PCs and antagonists are in conflict, and those goals are the stakes.
But the real challenge is literally pacing yourself. As the players advance along the story at their own pace and discretion, drop in clues and plot elements that are necessary to foreshadow the climactic scene that best fits the direction the players are moving. If they focus on clues going in a particular direction, reinforce that and give more clues pointing in that direction.
Here, again, we need to look at dungeon games versus non-dungeon games.
Pacing a Dungeon
In typical dungeon-based games, the path is often literally a path. The PCs follow strange sounds through Door #1 into hallway A that leads to the East wing of the dungeon, which means they will be in the vicinity of Climatic Event #4. Once they commit to a path, they usually stick with it. The challenge is getting them to the climax scene at the right time. Dungeons tend to be pre-drawn, down to the 5’ square.
- If you need to speed things up in a dungeon, you can use secret passages to bypass rooms, tip the PCs off to traps that would slow them down, or make combat encounters go faster by calling the fight sooner.
- If you need to slow things down in a dungeon, use random encounters (but try to connect them to the plot), beef up combat encounters, add traps to slow the PCs down, or take a snack break. Sometimes taking 15 minutes to eat some cheetos is a better use of the group’s time than a throwaway wandering monster with no plot relevance.
Pacing in Non-Dungeon Games
Non-dungeon games (modern horror, mysery, thriller, space opera, etc.) are distinctly different from dungeon games.
- Without a mapped dungeon, the PCs can pursue multiple paths of investigation at once, which means you may not know which climax they’re going to hit at the end of the session until just before.
- It’s a lot more common to split the party in non-dungeon games, especially modern-day RPGs where cell phones are common. When the climax comes, you have to get the PCs back together. A good way to do that is to start the climatic scene for the largest PC group, and have the other PCs show up a moment later.
- If you need to speed things up in non-dungeon games, it’s a lot easier: There’s not a literal map of the dungeon forcing you to find a way to cut around plot to get to the climax. Just make sure there’s been enough build-up that the climax makes sense.
- It’s a lot harder to slow things down, though. If the PCs know where the russian mob boss is meeting, there’s not a dungeon full of potential traps and monsters in the way. And traffic on the 405 doesn’t take as long in game time as it does in real life. So you have to stick a filler encounter in that doesn’t feel like a filler encounter. That’s tough. Here are my suggestions:
- Use an encounter that advances a totally different plot. If the PCs are tracking toward the climax of the Russian mob plot, give them an encounter that lets them know what’s new in the femme fatale plot.
- Use a friendly-unfriendly NPC. Maybe it’s the chief telling you this time you’ve gone too far! You’re on suspension until IAD can look into this mess! Turn in your badge and gun! Maybe it’s the landlord demanding to know why there was a hidden camera in the light fixture, and what are you really doing in these offices and should I be reporting this to the FBI?
- Use aggressive scene framing, if your group is OK with that technique
Example: The books in the mad wizard's bag of holding point towards the palace. The PCs will also notice dretch demons spawning from the old sewer. There are mysterious riddles that lead from one to another and eventually to the Glabrezu. And the PCs will recognize off in the distance, a library that might contain ancient secrets that could help them here.
If the PCs choose to follow the chain of riddles, keep giving them demon encounters, athletic challenges as they negotiate crumbling bridges, flooded avenues, and rubble-clogged streets, and riddles painted on walls in dretch blood. If your sessions usually end at 10:00pm, somewhere around 9:00, the travels lead to the smoky temple where Immortal Wynorax takes his leisure.
If you've drawn the dungeon out in 5' squares, it's still easy to improvise the climax into the 9:00pm slot. Just make sure to hurry or stretch the 8:00 scene to make it fit one hour. Say the 8:00 scene was a riddle, but the PCs figured it out too soon. Easy - just throw in a fight with some dretches (to remind them of the other hooks). What if they're going too slow? You wrote 6 riddles, and they only got through 3 of them. They still have to go to the fountain and the lighthouse before they get the clue for the temple. No problemo! Just make the last riddle the one that leads to the temple instead of the fountain.
Close on a Hook
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The best ending to a session is an unforgettable ending. In an RPG, where the audience members play the protagonists, the most unforgettable endings are those that leave the PCs with a question.
After the climax, make something happen or give the PCs some information that leaves them with more questions than answers.
Example: Let's say, using the example above, that the PCs won the card game, and they refused the Glabrezu's offer to grant their wishes. Well, almost. The party rogue (who had 21 Dexterity) wished for more Dexterity. Naturally, the wish is twisted, so the DM takes the rogue's player aside and discusses options. When they're done, they've agreed that the rogue gains +1 Dexterity but also shifts to Evil alignment.
The session ends with the GM describing what happens.
"As the Glabrezu vanishes across the barrier between planes, you all sigh with relief, except Banor the Paladin, who suddenly feels a chilling spiritual wind coming off Dogfinger the Rogue. A quick glance confirms it: Her aura is evil. She must have secretly made a wish! And that's a wrap folks! You can email me any questions you have about that aura and I'll get back to you before next game."
Here’s another quick tip: Remember all those climaxes you prepped? Use them for your end-of-session hook. So an alternative session ender in the running example could have been like this:
“As Immortal Wynorax vanishes, you all breathe a sigh of relief. In the chamber you find [treasure parcel.] As you’re collecting the loot, you notice a few clay tablets. Arrom the Evoker can tell they come from the great library that once stood in this city before its downfall. The library must be close to this old temple.”