So, how do we inject more pace into a session? In order to keep a game zipping along you need someone to push the pace. This can be a GM in more traditional games, but equally a very proactive player. In some of the newer style games there is responsibility or authority distributed among the people at the table and it can change from scene to scene, but all that is beyond the scope of this article, although the principles still apply. So, the following is in the style of what a GM can do to speed up their games, while hopefully providing the odd pointer for other styles of gamer also.
Be prepared. If its good enough for Baden Powell, its good enough for us. Aside from having an idea what’s going to happen in your session, it pays to be keeping one step ahead of what’s happening in the scene. Its all cool when the players are riffing off each other, but sooner or later they’ll stop and look in your direction, so be prepared to deliver them the next set of choices or description of what’s going on subsequently.
Description is all well and good – I love the scene being set, and the little details can really make the difference, but don’t go overboard. Provide a decent overview of what’s happening, with a touch on several senses if possible, and then let the players rock. If they want to know exact dimensions of the room, who specifically is on the scene or other information, they’ll ask you. Be ready to fill in the blanks, but don’t feel you have to give every single detail up front. By giving a good précis of the scene the characters are in and the important detail swiftly, you’re putting the action and interest back in the court of your players.
Ask them what they do. Often you’ll frame a scene, deliver some dialogue or whatever and then there’ll be a pause afterwards – it’ll extend for a while if you let it. As soon as you’re done with your bit, ask the players “What do you do?”. Ideally someone will jump in (with any luck several people), but if not, be prepared with What Happens Next. If you’ve not got a bite at this point, its because the players either can’t think of anything they can do, or don’t know what to do – so force the issue. Consider whether you’ve given them enough clues to move on, maybe review what they know so far (this can jog memories). If they’re due a conflict but seem reluctant to get involved, have an NPC come up and get in their face about it. If people in the game world need help, a favour, whatever, have them come and ask. Essentially at all times, but looking to give the players opportunity or choices to make whenever you can.
Be aware that you’re often the eyes and ears of the characters within the game world. I’ve often delivered a statement of intent to a GM and they’ve nodded or smiled or said “Yeah, you do”, and I’ve been left wondering “So then what happens?”. If players are firing questions at you, make sure they’re answered and give results back from the actions they take – this might require them taking their turn and you keeping track of what’s left outstanding, but give everyone a fair shake of the stick and this should work out. A lot of games and GMs these days encourage players to narrate their own outcomes from actions – this is fine, make sure that you tidy up any bits and pieces round the edges though that might just help people picture what’s happening. E.g. A player my dictate that his hero defeats the enemy King in the centre of the battle field – but might not bother saying what effect this has on the King’s troops. Whether they rout in disarray or surge forward looking for angry revenge can make a big difference to what the other players may want to do and a little extra pointer can trigger actions in your players, keeping things moving.
Don’t be afraid to fast forward. Don’t feel pressured into describing every day of a long journey, or every hour of a night’s watch, if nothing is going to happen. Beware also if you jump from scene to scene and thrust people into the fire at every turn, then that can be jarring. Largely though, if there’s nothing for your players to do, ask about, or discuss among themselves, then move on to the next bit of the story where there is opportunity.
Give the game space to breathe too. If players have their own “side quests” in mind, or want to have in-character dialogue, plan their next move etc., don’t feel the need to cut them short. Let it ride, just be ready to move on when the chatter peters out. Just keep an eye out for circular arguments or divisions in opinion that are stalling the session. You may have to step in at some point and call for a choice, or present a consequence if a decision is not made soon.
Have regular breaks. No matter how you pace your games, they’re naturally going to fall into places where people crack one too many jokes or someone’s got to get up and move about. Take regular breaks and let people relax a short while and get their heads together to refocus. No matter how hard you push, if people are tired, thirsty, saddle sore or whatever else, your session is going to stumble. So when the timbre of the game reaches a natural pause, take five and give everyone a chance to get their collective shizzle together.
Of course it all depends on how much actual gaming you like to get into a session – some people just play for the social aspect, but hopefully that gives you some pointers on how to keep up the pace!