Pacing Your Game

Pacing. It’s not just for marathon runners…

When you’ve been playing and running games as long as we have, you have likely seen it happen from both sides of the table.  As a GM, you are sitting there watching the players stumble around trying to put together a puzzle that should be obvious with the amount of clues you’ve given them.  Or as a player, you are surrounded by low-power henchmen that can’t escape your wrath and are now leaderless, but you continue rolling poorly on your attacks.  Both of you sit there and think, “Ugh.  This is so BORING!  Come on!  Let’s get to the good stuff!”

When that happens, you’ve got a pacing concern.  Pacing in role playing, in some ways, is still one of those “black arts” that somehow good GMs master and the rest ignore in favor of focusing on other ways to improve their games that are more concrete and that are easier to understand.  Still, pacing, while sometimes difficult to achieve, is really not that hard to understand.  Simply put, pacing is best summarized by saying “spend your time where the excitement is”.  Notice that I don’t say “spend your time where the combat is”.  Pacing has nothing to do with combat.  It has everything to do with what your personal group/table is trying to focus on, and thus differs based on the situation.  It is important, therefore, that you understand your situation.  If you are in a “one-shot” or a convention game, that is fairly easy: Get through the adventure in the time allotted.  But if it is a persistent home game (which now, increasingly, includes online “home” groups), it requires much more conversation and investment in group understanding, another reason why holding a Session Zero is so crucial to having a good campaign.

Pacing in an Encounter

Encounter pacing means some different things in different situation.  For non-combat encounters, pacing issues are most commonly found when players either aren’t sure what to do or are trying to spend time investigating the narrative aspects of a scene.  For the former, one of the keys to remember is that as a GM, you control where the clues they need to move forward in a story line are placed.  One of the things Monte Cook Games has done well recently is take this idea and codify it in a game style.  In products like Numenera’s Explorer’s Keys for instance, the scenarios presented are designed around flexible opportunities for players to find the objects/information that they need or that make the story interesting.

“The biggest difference between running typical published adventures and running the scenarios in Explorer’s Keys is that you need to manage when and where the keys show up. A key might be an object, a person, or a bit of information. Regardless, the GM determines when it shows up in the scenario rather than letting the scenario make that decision. Another way to look at it: the players and the GM working together to create a story is what determines when a key makes its appearance.”

Explorer’s Keys, page 6, emphasis added

While this may seem initially like “cheating”, it is actually more aptly described as keeping the narrative moving in the direction the story needs to go.  You do not want to break the suspension of disbelief by dropping a clue in where it seems out of place, but there is nothing wrong with taking a “generic” clue and flavoring it to fit the situation that the PCs are currently in so that narratively it still feels like it flows in an organic method.  When you analyze the story, narratively, it very rarely really matters exactly which drawer in which room someone stuck that letter/key/MacGuffin in as long as it ends up in the PCs hands.

For the narrative spectrum of lag, if your players are interested in looking around to immerse themselves in the world you’ve placed before them, wonderful.  Let them.  Spin narrative dialogue and description like it’s going out of style.  Let your mind drift and double down on the evocative language and details you give.  In that instance, look at it less as a pacing issue and more as one where the players are taking an interest in the world you’ve created.  That’s a GOOD thing.  The biggest advice here is to steep yourself in good literature and art (this includes TV shows and movies).  Anything can be an inspiration for description, and the more you stuff your head with, the more source material you have to draw on for your games when you need to describe something that you didn’t anticipate your PCs taking such an interest in on the fly.

For combat encounters, it’s a slightly different perspective.  When combat seems to bog down, end it.  In the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, Monte Cook had this excellent advice to give in Chapter 25, Running the Cypher System:

“Don’t let the end of the encounter drag out. When it’s clear how things are going to turn out,
and people might start to get bored, wrap it up. If the PCs were fighting two dozen giant rats and
only three are left, there’s nothing wrong with saying that those last three run away or that the
PCs handily dispatch them. Wrap things up and move along.”

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 428

There is literally nothing saying that you cannot end a combat early.  There is not even anything saying that you can’t simply adjudicate that the players wipe out the remaining enemies.  And if you’re not playing the Cypher System, that they get the experience from it.  Keep the session moving.  Watch the body language of your players.  When their shoulders start slumping from missing a Difficulty 3 check that they have an asset on or an AC 12 goblin yet again, consider just throwing the rest of the fight out.  Don’t wait until they’ve stopped having fun.  You’ll have to fight to get them back into the game.  It’s much easier to keep them there to begin with.  End the combat and move on to the next exciting thing.

Pacing in a Campaign Session

Pacing in an ongoing campaign session should be based almost exclusively on what you have discovered (in Session Zero and your subsequent observations) that your players wish to focus on.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with role-playing an hour-long shopping trip, if that’s the kind of thing that you and your characters enjoy.  But if they are more into combat, then bullet-point the shopping trip and move on.  There is nothing wrong with time skips to get to the action (whatever the “action” means for your group).  It is perfectly OK to tell them after one adventure ends and before another begins “Your group rests over the next two weeks, recovering from the stress of your encounter with the <insert Big Bad Evil Character here>.”  You do not need to roleplay every single portion of your party’s lives.  That said, shift focus now and again to tighten in on a potentially interesting event.  Going back and forth between a macro and a micro focus will help keep the player’s attention.

Another useful tool is to keep a clock visible to you as a GM.  Know how much time you have left in your session.  That way, you can plan to end things with either a cliffhanger or a resolution.  Do not always end the session the same.  You want to switch things up so that players end with some sessions of tension and some of relief.  Without the tension, you can’t have relief.  But if you keep them tense all the time, it becomes much like a bow.  When you leave a bow strung and taut, eventually, the material that makes up the curve of the bow loses its spring and the bow becomes useless.  Too frequent tension and too many cliffhangers will dull their overall impact.  You have to unstring the bow periodically.

If things are getting stuck in the middle, and players bog down with what we like to call in the engineering business, “analysis paralysis”, do not be afraid to step in and break up their conversation with a brief summary of what they have discussed so far and a “… OK, what do you do?” A prod to remind them that their characters should be ones of action is not necessarily a bad thing. Things that typically bog you down in a session should eventually start triggering a question like, “If this were a movie, would a screenwriter include this scene?” If the answer is no, move it along. Summarize, prompt, cut through the confusion and give answers. Do whatever it takes, but get the game moving again. Get back into the action.

Pacing in a Campaign

Pacing in a campaign is both more challenging and more forgiving than in a session.  It is more challenging as it requires a bit more guesswork on the part of the GM.  Not knowing exactly what players are going to do prevents you from spacing out and planning the beats of your campaign specifically.  However, the long-term nature of a campaign allows for more course correction as-needed.  Either way, it is often helpful to outline the flow of how you think the campaign might go.  Not as a way to force the players into doing what you want, but as a way to help prompt you to keep things on track.  This should probably be a living document, one that is updated frequently.  It might have your initial guesses as to how many sessions you anticipate each portion of the campaign to take.  It might show flow and perhaps some alternate paths from major adventure to major adventure.  But it will help focus you on what is going on and what is left to occur.

Another topic to cover here is adventures in a campaign.  There should be some variance in adventure length.  You may have some “stories” that are completed in a session, but some should go longer, with cliffhangers or some kind of transition between sessions.  The change in feel between these adventures will also help to keep a player’s attention.  Most of us would not eat the same meal every meal, on every day.  Do not do that to your players either.  Give them a variety of both length and type of adventures within the scope of what you as a group have agreed that you want the campaign to be.

Something else to consider is how you will end a campaign.  Obviously, you want a climax that is appropriate to the subject of the campaign.  The mystery gets solved, the damsel gets saved, the evil organization is toppled, or whatever your campaign is about.  But beyond that, be sure of at least two things.  First, ensure that you adequately resolve all of the individual character arcs to the satisfaction of both you and the player to whom that arc pertains.  If a player is going to invest in a character in your game, make that investment pay off or they will not be as likely to do so in the future.  And second, have a brief period of denouement after the climactic end.  Tell what happens as a result of the characters’ efforts.  Is the kingdom a better place?  Did the town that would have been wiped out by a wave of undead prosper?  What happened to the guy selling cabbages that kept showing up everywhere?  Let your players know the end to their story, even if it’s not played out.  They’ll be grateful for the closure.

Pacing in a One-Shot or Convention Game

Much the same as in a Campaign Session, having a clock here is key.  Before the convention, make sure you have read the adventure and know the flow of it well.  It might do to take notes of how long you expect each scene or encounter to take.  Ensure that those encounters add up to the length of the time slot or time allotted or less (but not by too much less).  It is always easier to cut out encounters if you are pressed for time than to come up with filler encounters if you are under-prepared.

The focus with a one-shot or convention game is always the climactic end.  You want to probably target having that occur at the very beginning of the last hour of play and having it last between 30 and 45 minutes, to allow time for a denouement as well as any bookkeeping (in a convention setting) that might have to occur (particularly for things like Pathfinder Society, Shadowrun Missions, Monte Cook Games Asset Team games, or similar “organized play” formats).  It also gives you time to get constructive feedback as to if everyone had fun (and doing what), and how you might be able to improve for next time.  We have already discussed in some detail why it is important that a GM be always trying to improve their craft.


While pacing is indeed, one of the “soft skills” of running a game, it does not have to be mysterious.  Like any other skill, it can be learned with practice and study of others who have gone before.  With that in mind, I recommend checking out the section in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook on Pacing (pages 428 – 430), as well as the one in Your Best Game Ever (pages 130 – 136).  Likewise, Michael Shea has some excellent advice on Pacing in general as well as specifically, Timing and Pacing in Adventures.  If you look, there are more discussions you could find regarding the subject, along with an ever increasing list of live plays that all showcase pacing in a session (some good, some bad).  Your inspiration and your learning as a GM can and should come from anywhere.  Take advantage of all of those sources and become the best you personally can be.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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