Behind the Screen – Chapter 11: Pacing Time

Even though I only got one message back about ideas for more Behind the Screen articles, it was a doozey. I would like to thank Lorelei for the extensive email, giving me a plethora of ideas, because in addition to the ones she suggested, I thought of more myself, inspired by what she wrote. I have perhaps another 10 more article ideas now, depending on how I want to split things up.

Chapter-11A role playing game is a fluid thing, able to be morphed, controlled, or shaped into any number of different things, for different people and their needs. Time is one part of the role playing process that can have a great impact, and sometimes one of the harder things to control. Pacing (otherwise known as time management) is our method, as GMs, that we use to control the game to suit the flow of time. I don’t know how I missed this important part of the game before. Silly me.

To be more specific, pacing is used by GMs to control how long the session goes for and to control how quickly the game flows within that session. A majority of people have some sort of time limit, such as family, work, other commitments, or even just wanting to sleep. Very few people are willing to role play for thirty straight hours, even if supplied with more energy drinks and coffee than they could possibly consume. So sessions must come to an end, usually after four to six hours, and hopefully after a good amount of content has been experienced by the players. That is where pacing comes into play.

I’m just going to say, right off the bat, that pacing is probably my weakest point when it comes to GMing, and that is because of how I run a game. My method is supplying the setting and letting the PCs explore and find things out in their own time which can lead to things taking either significantly more time (by getting lost or following the wrong clues or so on) or significantly less time (ignoring important elements or just simply lucking into a point further into the story than what I would have wanted). When it comes to steering PC’s in the direction I want, I am usually too heavy handed, and start railroading (which the players can easily identify and tell me to stop) or I am too subtle and no one notices at all. While I am rubbish at the practical side of pacing, I understand the theory of it, and that is why I can write this article.

Planning what you want to happen in a session is the start. I’ve gone over session creation before here, so you already know about what to do in the setup. Once your setup is complete, analyse it to see what your encounters or story sections contain and see how that pertains to the system you are using, so you know where the time is going. A combat encounter in Pathfinder can use up extensive blocks of time, while a skill challenge could be mere minutes. But Call of Cthulhu could be the opposite – combat comes and goes shortly (through whatever means like escape, insanity or death), while the skill challenges take hours because of the various and repeated checks needed, and all the story that comes up. Of course, you cannot determine exactly how long these encounters are going to take, but you can estimate, and should.

But, inevitably, there will be times when the players will mess with your plans – whether intentionally or not – and you must react to those situations. If the players get stuck on a puzzle that you thought they would breeze through in 10 mins, but are still trying to work it out an hour later, then you have to change your plans. Help them through that puzzle, then sacrifice some other parts of the session to make up that lost time. Adversely, the players may have blitzed a combat encounter through a series of excellent rolls, but now are ahead of schedule and will finish what you have planned too soon, and so must be slowed down. Additional encounters can be inserted, whether combat or puzzles, but this can mess with the XP budget (if you have organised that), so other things can be used; such as particularly labyrinthine dungeons, extra NPCs to get information from (who also happen to be particularly annoying) or laying out a bunch of red herrings to follow.

resizedimage400325-Timemanagement-forbloggerIt may seem like railroading players, forcing them to speed up or slow down, but it isn’t. Not really. If you organise the session to be six hours long, and it lasts six hours, players will generally be happy with that, so their post session plans are not interrupted or delayed. Finishing early is generally not a big hassle, as long as it isn’t too early. An intended six hour session which finishes in two hours can be annoying, especially to those who may have travelled a long distance to be there, or cancelled other plans because of time conflict. But that same six hour session finishing in five hours is no big deal, and actually can be good, giving the GM and players some extra time to discuss the session and the game in general, to settle rules questions or other disputes, and to generally wind down before everyone goes home.

Pacing is something that is hard to talk about singularly, because it is so subjective to each system. While typically Call of Cthulhu has minimal combat, and will spend less time on that, the game revolves around immersion. A GM focusing on that and being extremely descriptive is all well and good, until you are four hours into the session and you have only explored two rooms of the 18 room haunted mansion. Just the same with Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons – a 37 room dungeon with monsters in every room plus the hallways equals a long time in combat, and less time for anything else.

In saying that, if a session is pulling way too long, then it might be the best idea to just end the session for now and pick it up next time. Just find an appropriate point, such as just after a combat encounter, or just before one, or during a rest period, and close it there. It might end up being earlier than you expected, but finishing an hour early instead of two hours late is preferable. Players will start to grow restless and less interested if a session goes over time. Concentration drops and disputes happen a lot more frequently. At least if a game finishes early, but people don’t want to leave just yet, you can crack out a board- or card-game to fill the time until the intended finish time. You could also do this intentionally, to either shoehorn in a game you really want to play, or to counteract the mood of the role playing. Throwing in a light fun game of Munchkin after several hours of some dark, heavy Cthulhu can brighten everyones mood. Something easy and slow can help people relax after a particularly hard combat-based session in Pathfinder.


What goes on inside your typical GMs head.

Everything I’ve stated above is just a guideline; pacing is something that each GM needs to work out themselves for their own groups, games, systems and sessions. It is something that needs to be thought about on the fly and adjusted throughout the session. You cannot hope to keep the same pacing through every game, because players will always, without fail, do something you didn’t foresee and mess with your plans. And if, by some miracle, they play exactly to plan, then you will forget some key object or event, and skew the story horribly, throwing yourself completely off track. The goal then is to roll with it, and put the story back together as much as you can. Continue on, and try not to let the players see the massive stitches holding it all together. Walk them around those plot holes without them seeing, all the while ensuring it runs at a smooth and consistent pace to fit the session time.


Wow, putting it like that, GMs really do need some love sometimes. If you are a player reading this, then tell your GM they are doing a good job. If you are a GM reading this, keep at it, you are doing awesome.

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  1. Little Chris
    May 10, 2016 |
    • May 11, 2016 |