You (and I) Are DMing Wrong (Part 2) – Pacing
Before 2000, I DMed almost exclusively for the same group of people using AD&D and 2nd Edition D&D rules. I knew their play styles by heart, and I could create and run with almost no effort the kinds of sessions and adventures they wanted to play.
Since 2000, I have DMed mostly in the Organized Play programs of Wizards of the Coast — most recently the D&D Adventurers League. That means most of my DMing has taken place in public, for total strangers, under very strict time constraints. While OP campaigns tend to attract a certain type of player, there was always a question of what the next group of players would bring, in terms of play styles and what they consider a fun game of D&D.
This means, in the past 15 years of DMing, pacing has been one of my most important considerations. Whether it was a four-hour adventure from a Living campaign, a two-hour session of Encounters, or a one-hour delve event, the ticking clock loomed over each. Session after session, year after year, I honed my pacing skills to make sure that we would cover all the material in the session without running over. Running too long often meant having to skip or rush the ending of the adventure, which meant a less-than-satisfactory play experience for the players.
Even when I wasn’t playing in a public, time-sensitive environment, I was running for my local group. These gentlemen are the quintessential beer-and-pretzels group. If you, as the DM, don’t stay on task and keep their attention, this group is one clown car short of a three-ringed circus. If anything, pacing with this group is even more important than with public play in an OP program.
So let’s switch gears. Just recently I ran a game – the first in a long time – with no time constraints, no defined material to cover. The players were relatively new to 5e D&D, so they were interested in seeing the rules in action: a good story and learning the rules was more important than a quick pace. If there was ever a time where I could slow the pace and enjoy the game’s more relaxing pleasures, this was it.
Alas, when the session ended, I realized that I had kept up the scorching pace I must use in other venues. By DMing right for one set of players and circumstances, I had DMed wrong for this group. I was crestfallen. I was DMing wrong with my pacing.
If you ask for DM advice about pacing, you generally get on one end of the spectrum the typical clichés about “keep the action moving” to the more academic and esoteric but sometimes mystical advice that is best summed up in Robin D. Laws’ “Hamlet’s Hit Points” about story beats – great in theory but often hard to manage in practice, especially if you are DMing published content that you cannot just change on the fly.
So, let’s look at pacing. In any D&D game, pacing is important, but faster isn’t always better. Slightly too fast, however, is generally better than slightly too slow. The pacing I am going to look at now has more to do with pacing in terms of game speed rather than story pacing, although there is often overlap.
In those parts of the game where suspense and tension are keys to the characters’ interactions with the game world, keep these tips in mind:
- Change the cadence of your speech. Talking faster keeps people on edge because their attention is required to keep up. This is often great when running combat. Then, when you have scenes where a great deal of information is being conveyed, slow down your cadence.
- If you normally sit while DMing, stand during fast-paced scenes. Not only is this a visual cue to the players that something is different, it makes you more imposing. (I have DMed tables where when I stood, some of the players stood as well. This is a clue they are invested.) Then sit back down to convey information or manage important story points.
- Use quick hand movements or other gestures to emphasize pace. Demonstrating certain aspects of, say, combat are fine, but even just emphasizing a solid blow by hitting your open palm with a fist gets the point across. The sight and sound are engaging the players’ senses, keeping their senses keen.
- If a player is pausing for a long time when it is her turn, fill in the silence with description of what is happening elsewhere in the scene. If it is a combat, describe the looks on the enemies’ faces. This gives the player time to decide without an awkward pause, yet still keeps everyone else focused and engaged. Just keep an eye on the player whose turn it is, so you don’t keep talking when she is ready. Also, be sure not to distract the choosing player rather than engage the rest.
- When it is your turn in combat, take those turns quickly, even if you don’t use optimal tactics. And even if you get something wrong, not slowing down the game to dig through a stat block can be a big boost to the pace of the game. If you are dealing with a high-level spellcasting foe, use lower level spells you know in higher level slots rather than lesser known high-level spells that you need to look up.
- If the players are having trouble making decisions, make sure you provide enough information. Repeat the information, supply a little more information, and then prompt them again. The best prompt is the old stand-by: “WHAT DO YOU DO?”
The topic of pacing in a D&D game is enormous, and I am just getting started. When you are talking about pacing in D&D, rolling and keeping track of initiative is perhaps the most important topic. Also, map-based combat vs. descriptive combat (i.e. Theater of the Mind) is another important topic. And then there is the topic of story-based pacing as opposed to game-play pacing. All of these are fodder for future posts.