How fast do you burn through a storyline? If you’re like me, sometimes that core conflict is approaching a climax halfway through what you thought was your campaign. Or, if you’re like me at a different point in time, you find your players have cracked the advancement mechanics on the cool new system you wanted to try and now the power curve is shooting upwards, taking the storyline in places you weren’t ready for it to go. Whether it’s from game mechanics or your own writing, it’s easy for a GM to find themselves with a pacing problem.
There are a few issues with figuring out how to pace a role-playing campaign that don’t appear in other media. The first one is simply that other media have it way easier. It might be challenging to write a novel or direct a movie, but that author or director has complete control over how fast or slow events progress. When you’re GMing a game, with players staring back at you and wondering what’s going to happen next, that control is illusory. The second is that many of the tricks we’re taught in interactive media, like video games, either don’t translate or translate poorly back to the tabletop. Once again, a lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s more than one person playing and setting the clock.
In order to get your campaign going at a pace you like, there are a few things to consider. You must create the right amount of urgency; not having enough urgency is just as bad as too much because you then risk losing the thread entirely if the characters want to do something else. You must also understand how the mechanics of the game affect pace; what your players are doing has a dramatic impact on whether the GM or the players feel like speeding things up. In the end, though, it’s about how much screen time you spend on each beat before moving to the next; if you look at your characters and your setting you’ll find there’s a lot more stuff you could be spending time on.
How Mechanics Force Pace
The D&D ‘adventuring day’ is an attempt at pacing gone wrong. If you’re lucky enough not to know, the ‘adventuring day’ construct in D&D Fifth Edition is a framework which attempts to balance the amount of resources D&D player characters have between daily long rests with the number of combat encounters it takes to drain those resources. This comes down to ~7 ‘medium’ encounters, a smaller number of more difficult ones, or a larger number of easier ones. Now, raise your hands if you run, on average, more than seven combats in a single session. This math drives D&D parties to spend inordinate amounts of time in combat, and tends to make the entire game easier if a DM wants to run a lower-combat game. The ‘adventuring day’ creates a lot of problems if you want to run something other than the high-combat hex- or dungeon crawl that D&D was invented for, but its impact on pacing itself is a bit more indirect. The ‘adventuring day’ creates a relatively even pace of advancement, just in the most boring way possible. What many, many DMs do to get around the ‘adventuring day’ math and keep the game challenging is to throw fewer, tougher encounters at their players, often tough enough that they’re above the bounds of the XP math that the ‘adventuring day’ was calculated with. As characters advance faster, they become more powerful, hop up the power curve faster, and often drive the campaign faster as a result.
D&D provides the most concrete example, but across most RPGs, advancement mechanics drive pace because the game changes as characters grow and become more powerful. Even in Cyberpunk Red, problems which are severe and immediate right after character creation often become minor at best with a few special ability promotions, skill buffs, and guns. At a certain level, slowing the pace of the game either requires slowing the pace of advancement, or putting certain goals far enough out of reach that advancement mechanics themselves don’t allow players to leapfrog to the endgame.
The other group of mechanics which force pacing are timing mechanics; while not as universal as advancement, these rules are gaining popularity in forms that can pull the game in either direction. Blades in the Dark has downtime mechanics, which force the action of each session into relief as characters and the crew as a whole look to work on long-term goals. Torchbearer, on the other hand, has the characters tracking virtually every single action as a ‘turn’, expending resources. This puts a lot of pressure on the players to choose effective actions for their immediate goal, and makes things move a bit quicker. In some ways timing mechanics are like the ‘adventuring day’ construct, though here is a(nother) place where D&D suffers from lack of concrete rules and guidance compared to other games. And like the adventuring day, most timing mechanics don’t necessarily set the pace, but they do ground it to a baseline. In general, mechanics like those in Torchbearer serve to quicken the pace, demanding focus from players, while downtime mechanics like those in Blades in the Dark serve to reduce the pace, making it easier for players to step away from the action and also hold two sets of priorities in their head. Giving your players multiple things to worry about is likely the best way to keep their characters from speeding to the final destination, but it’s also hard to pull off.
Creating The Right Amount Of Urgency
Creating a highly urgent situation demands attention. GMs often do this at the beginning of campaigns, a key example of a place where getting all the characters pointed in the right direction is the most important metagame priority. Keeping this level of urgency and tension, though, only works for a relatively short time before players either resolve it or burn out on it. At the same time, having no urgency, feeling like players can do whatever they want, is an easy way to have the group drift apart barring some other context keeping them together. In reality, TTRPG campaigns are much more likely to bias towards the first option, and that has to do with the medium. When you’re running a traditional RPG, you sit at the head of a (literal or figurative) table with several players staring back at you, waiting to hear what happens next. The overwhelming psychological need in this case is to tell your players what happens next! At the very beginning of a game, you do need to do this, you need to get things off and running. What is more difficult, though, is resisting the urge to do this for every session and keeping things constantly sprinting; you’ll miss a lot of interesting opportunities for character development if everything is about the next mission or the next dungeon or the next bad guy.
One thing you can (and should) do is just cool it at the beginning of your sessions. This advice comes from a weird place, considering its legacy, but it’s incredibly valuable for slowing things down a tick and getting some free character development. In Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, the infamous GM’s guide for Cyberpunk 2020, you’re offered the advice of starting every session in the same place; in the book you’re offered the example of the PCs meeting for breakfast. Have this opening scene play out, and let it play out without any immediate hooks! Have your characters make their usual orders, let there be breakfast banter and, if you’re comfortable, offer your players some questions about what’s happened since the last session. The literal ‘meet for breakfast’ conceit may not work for every game, but having each session start out without an immediate call to action will help soften and slow everything else.
The calls to action themselves are what cause the other primary issue about pacing a campaign. Think to your favorite open world video game, be it something like Skyrim or No Man’s Sky or something else entirely. What makes open world video games compelling is that they have a lot of things you can do, a lot of choices to make. Even more narratively focused video game RPGs typically have a whole ton of quests, both for the main story and sidequests, and you can decide what you want to do at your leisure. This is more difficult in tabletop games. The traditional RPG paradigm involves the GM prepping something and then bringing it to the session for the players to do; this creates a structure more like episodic television than a video game. If you want your campaign to slow down in its run to the conclusion, you need to make it wider, not just have your players do things more slowly. This does tend to mean more prep work, but chances are you as a GM are doing too much prep work anyway. If you’re interested in the video game approach, you can provide literal sidequests; Seamus wrote up a ‘job board’ for an Edge of the Empire campaign he was running which kept us thinking about different things we could be doing to earn our keep. You can also just provide straight-up distractions; in that very same Edge of the Empire campaign a younger sibling named Barry provided constant distractions and headaches for the PCs that kept them from being too laser-focused. Whatever your choice of distraction, make it easy for the players to wander and come back; a lot of this is going to be on the GM and their prep. Even if the players chase a butterfly away from the main conflict, you the GM cannot; your notes, your prep, and your NPCs are going to guide the players back to the other stakes beyond whatever is front of their noses. If you think your games ratchet up too fast, though, being either gentler or sparser with the shepherding back to the plot may be one of the biggest changes you can make.
Running Good, Slow Games
What if you can take it to the other extreme, though? What if there is no immediate conflict or plot? While the core innovations in RPGs for the last 30 years or so have been in service to narrative, a narrative isn’t required. At all. And while some people may associate “no story” with a hack-and-slash game, I don’t, because if combat is what you want, there are better games for that than most RPGs (not to mention, combat with no purpose sounds kind of…sociopathic). When I think no story, I think characters being characters. I think Captain Salok in his quarters tinkering with ancient human coffee machines, or Gil Phillips trying to convince a bunch of surly teenagers to play RPGs with him, completely unaware of the fact that he was in fact an RPG character at the time. One of my favorite RPG moments in my entire life was when my high school gaming group tried to play Rifts. The actual game flopped horribly, we could barely figure out the rules. But. There was nearly an entire session, after wrapping up character creation, where we just riffed on these ludicrous characters we made. I don’t remember them all, but I made a Rogue Scholar who traveled across North America in a souped-up VW bus. Another one of the characters was an escaped self-aware AI who took shelter in the only piece of electronics on the bus…the tape deck. With no plot and no GM we riffed on these characters, in-character, for a solid hour, enjoying and reacting to the ridiculousness of both our characters and the setting.
Interesting characters, really, are the core of every role-playing game. It’s the only thing you actually need to role-play, a character, and letting those characters just ‘be’ in our heads is both one of the best, most transcendent parts of RPGs and also the part that’s just not in the rules. And it can’t be, really…you can’t force a character to emerge from your mind, and the various and sundry games and systems we have to put our characters through the proverbial ringer is in some ways the best we can do.
But you don’t need a plot. Consider Wanderhome. Wanderhome is about where you go next on your journey and what you find there. There could be conflict, but that’s not the point. The point is what’s there and how your character reacts to being there. However long you stay, whatever you do, whoever you meet, when it’s time you pack up and travel to the next destination. And while Jay is doing yeoman’s work in this space with Wanderhome and the upcoming Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, I don’t think you need specific rules to not have a plot. Try it for your next session. Maybe your adventuring party has a beach day while waiting for a ship to the next city, or maybe your Edgerunners go on a road trip. Ask you and your players what your characters are actually doing in all the other hours of the day. Even if you’re back to slaying dragons and stealing paydata afterwards, you probably let the campaign breathe, and maybe even learned something about your characters while doing it. The one thing, though, is that you can’t start a game like this, not easily at least. When your characters are a little more fleshed out and the party is sticking together, that’s when you can let the reins drop. If you really don’t want driving narrative at all, it’s probably best to go seek out games like Wanderhome that don’t need it.
It is my opinion that most RPGs are run too fast. This isn’t necessarily their fault, we focus on what the rules highlight without always giving enough room to the characters and events that happen around them and outside the neat confines of advancement systems and initiative systems and extended task systems. This goes for narrative games too…don’t just make Moves on the sheet in your Powered by the Apocalypse game, think about what they mean, think about what goes on in and around the character’s world. A lot of this will look like the mechanics, well, pausing. But that’s the intent, and that’s why we have pacing problems in the first place. Role-playing games are not dumbed-down board games, nor are they math exercises, nor are they prompts. They do two things: they let you build a character, and then they let you shape that character through all the different challenges and trials your game has rules for. It’s easy to say ‘don’t rush it’, but in order to actually do that you need to step back. GMs need to read between the lines with what characters are doing in their lives, while players need to read between the lines on the character sheet and see what sort of character is there beyond just the mechanics. This, in my mind, is what solves pacing problems; by looking a little more broadly than just mechanics, suddenly there’s a whole lot more you’ll need to get done before racing to the next adventure.
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!