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Mastering Dungeons: Adventure Pacing

So far in this series of blog posts on pacing, I have been looking at pacing at the table, from keeping players and DMs on their toes to managing initiative. Now I’d like to look at a different kind of pacing: adventure pacing.

When designing an adventure, whether for a home group or for publication, whether for a one-shot event or as part of a long-running campaign, adventures must deal with pacing and encounter flow. Just like a work of fiction, an RPG adventure is generally made up of smaller parts. In fiction we might call those parts “scenes,” whereas in an RPG adventure we might call those parts “encounters.” The stringing together of those scenes or encounters affects the overall pace. And each scene or encounter might need to address many different elements themselves, and those elements affect the pacing within the part, as well as the work as a whole:

  • Is a particular encounter meant to highlight a certain pillar of D&D: interaction, exploration, combat, or a combination?
  • What is the tone of the encounter? Lighthearted? Chilling? Chaotic? Subdued?
  • What is the purpose of the encounter? To reveal a relevant piece of the past? Force the characters to make an important choice? Present a climactic moment? Release some of the pent-up tension?
  • Is the encounter meant to particularly highlight the storyline or capabilities of one or more characters over the others? One of the character factions?

The challenge for the DM or adventure designer is this: each encounter often needs to answer more than one of these questions at the same time, as well as play its own role in the adventure as a whole.

As a way of starting the conversation, I am going to talk about the first mini-mission of the adventure Defiance in Phlan, which I wrote as part of the D&D Adventurers League Expeditions campaign. I have talked previously about what went into the design of that adventure, but for this post I want to just talk about that first mission in terms of pacing and encounter design.

The most important design point for that mission is the timing. It needed to be playable in 45 minutes if necessary. That means the encounters must be concise and the pace quick. The design could not encourage a long, drawn-out interaction scene or an encounter that forced the characters to spend too long in a detailed exploration. However, interaction, exploration, and combat still had to play roles in the 45-minute adventure.

The adventure begins with the PCs being asked by a Harper to investigate the illegal purchase of a dangerous object: a red dragon egg. To facilitate the pace, the interaction encounter with the Harper is designed with a built-in time limit: the transaction has to take place in mere minutes, and the PCs have to play the part of the egg purchasers. This narrows the scope of the planning in the encounter. The PCs still have to come up with a cover story for all of the characters, but the gist of the story and plan is already presented for them. It allows for interaction and planning with a timer that the DM can point to, keeping the pace quick.

As the PCs approach the meeting place of the transaction, some room is left in the adventure for a bit of exploration. The PCs have an opportunity to check out the area without any pressure other than the time limit. Alternative methods into and out of the meeting area are offered, rewarding those players who take the time to explore. However the area for exploration is contained, allowing the quick pace to be continued.

When the PCs enter the meeting area, they come up against their first antagonists. Normally this situation would be a chance for either interaction or combat, but the instructions given by the Harper (hopefully) eliminates the combat option. Instead, the characters who excel at social interaction and sneakiness get to take the spotlight. This focusing of the spotlight again gives a clear course of action, letting a subset of the PC party to move the action forward.

The encounter starts out as tense, but then the pace is tweaked slightly when a twist is introduced, giving the DM a chance to add a lighthearted moment to the proceedings, as the antagonists force the PCs to adjust to a newly revealed bit of knowledge.

While this interaction is taking place, the PCs are being denied the chance to do what most want to do: kick some bad-guy tail. So when the interaction encounter concludes, that pent-up energy is allowed to be released in a big way, when some third-party baddies pick a fight with the PCs. However, if the PCs have been both lucky and good, they can actually defuse the hostilities immediately, fool their foes, and walk away without ever having drawn a weapon. This again allows the party to manage the tone of the encounter, going from a tense conflict to a humorous conclusion quickly.

So while the pacing of this 45-minute adventure has to be quick, both the DM and the players have the opportunity to turn some dials and change the pace through controlling the mood and tone. The more times that an encounter (or series of encounters) switches from one element to another—from exploration to interaction to combat, or from lighthearted to tense, or from expository to forward-moving to scene-building—the better paced the adventure is at the table.

In later posts I plan to talk more about these concepts, but on a larger scale adventure and within the frame of a campaign.

Shawn Merwin

Shawn's professional design and editing work in the roleplaying game industry has spanned 20 years and over 4 million words of content. His Dungeons & Dragons work has ranged from 3rd to 5th edition, showing up in sourcebooks, adventures, articles, and Organized Play administration. He has been a driving force in several Organized Play programs, and has written material for Wizards of the Coast (Dungeon Delve, Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Halls of Undermountain), Pelgrane Press (Dracula Dossier), Modiphius Entertainment (Star Trek Adventures), Baldman Games (as Content Manager), Kobold Press (Creature Codex, Book of Lairs), and countless others. Find his adventures here:


  • ImaginaryfriendApril 2, 2015

    Remembering that partiular encounter I have to ask; did you purposely set the scene in such a way that lead all my tables to want to burn down the barn? Or was that me?
    In general encounters like this one can be a big help for a DM at conventions, They can give you quick insight into the kind of players you have at the table, and how they mesh when working towards a shared goal. When your table just came together, that is invaluable information.

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