Picking Up the Pace

Being tricks to help enliven and quicken a role-playing session

Needing a small break from comics-related blogging, I thought I'd turn my attention to other geekly matters. RPGs, for example. Summer season is about to start, which when most of my role-playing happens. Each season, I try something new, and I learn something new. Last year's lesson was all about PACE.

We role-players have all been in those sessions that seem to drag on and on and on and where hardly anything happens. Not for lack of trying, mind you, but some game systems, when applied to the letter, slow down the action in a way that makes conversations seem action-packed, and violent confrontations incredibly tedious. And I just can't be bored or have the impression my players are bored during a session. The more bored they get, the more disconnected they get from the immersive world RPGs try to be. A bouncy 3-hour session is immensely superior to a lethargic 10-hour one.Here then are some tricks to help GameMasters keep the pace up in their games.

Listen to your players
Actively listening to your players' moods is paramount. If an encounter involves strategy and the players are having a swell time planning out (or even carrying out) that strategy, then there's no problem. Don't take the short cuts below if it would interrupt player enjoyment unless you have a good reason to (a deadline or someone's mom waiting in the car). A practiced GM will learn to gauge his group's mood and instinctively know when an encounter of any sort (investigation, interaction, combat, etc.) has gone on too long. I do say a PRACTICED GM. That means actively working on this until it does become second nature. And don't be afraid to ask until you can read their body language.

Rules Lite
It's no secret. The crunchier a game system is, the slower it will be. That's true on both ends. Players will take more time figuring out how to do something, and GMs will take longer interpreting their success. Now, some players love quadratic equations and that's fine. Your preferred system may well be Rules Heavy, and that's fine too. However, you should consider just WHEN to apply all the crunch and when NOT TO. I am perhaps speaking heresy to Simulationists here (that sect that emphasizes Rule-playing over Role-playing), but the fact remains that some story elements don't really require rules to be applied. For example, trying to pick a girl up in a bar for fun might only require a Seduction roll or simple diceless role-playing. A climax involving seducing the Faerie Queen however, might require the player to use strategy, work out bonuses, employ a multi-tiered approach, etc. Suddenly, that action has become EPIC. And the players know this because the level of detail has increased. It's the same with combat. Let the mooks fall at 0 hit points, while the bosses have access to last ditch recovery and detailed hit locations. Give events their dramatic due!

No time to think
A little trick I learned running Paranoia. In any situation where you wouldn't have much time to think (like combat or a chase), don't give the players any. When you turn to the player with the initiative and ask "What do you do?" and he hesitates and starts looking at his character sheet, simply declare that's exactly what his character does. He hesitates. Move to the next player. Pretty soon, they'll either be playing by the seat of their pants or using other characters' moves to prepare their own. Either way, no waiting.

Sometimes, things might be going well for a player, but not for another. Maybe the party's been split into more than one group. Maybe one character doesn't have much to do. Stepped into the alley during the fight, or got separated in the maze, or is stuck in engineering while the action is on the bridge. Treat it like a movie. Simply cutting from one character/area to another will create energy and momentum, but it works better if you throw a difficulty at the isolated player(s). And it's fun to see characters who have finished their encounter race to the other's side to help him with his. "While you were fighting the Zygons, Sarah Jane was hanging over a cliff", that kind of thing.

Rules Free Teaser
Now for last summer's experiment and what I learned from it... Running a cinematic game, and already loving In Medias Res, I tried to apply the James Bond/Indiana Jones format to each session. Basically, the session started at the end of the previous "mission", which you only saw the tail end of. Just a big action scene divorced of any real context. I would run these Rules Free. The players and GM simply narrating their characters' actions within the scope of their abilities. Nobody could suddenly lift an SUV, and in fact, the players were encouraged to make it look like the opposition was actually tough (or else, where's the achievement). The result is that the players entered the actual game with momentum, and having run through a big encounter without the burden of rules, dice, charts and calculus, were actually ready to get through the rest of the session as efficiently as possible. It also helped their story-telling skills, describing actions in more detail than the usual "I hit it".

The Dangers of Speed
Be warned of the side-effects of this last measure, however. First, players who have narrated not only their action but their success will sometimes go into Ruled encounters doing the same. You'll have to gently hold them back so they don't hijack that encounter, try to fit in too many actions, etc. Secondly, that momentum can work against your intended scenario. A prolonged investigation in the Call of Cthulhu style, for example, or lots of interaction, as is common at the start of a new scenario, will most likely be met with impatience. It's your own fault for winding up your players so tightly! It's all about the expectations game. If you've just participated in high-octane action, you're going to expect more of it just around the corner. Picking fights with irrelevant NPCs has been known to happen. It's up to the GM to better balance his story. maybe that investigatory game should have been preceded by a mystery-solving teaser à la Sherlock Holmes.

Lesson learned. Have you any more to teach? I'm a good listener.


Sea-of-Green said...

Sad to say, the slowness of RPGs is what kept me from ever getting interested in them. Yeah, there's nothing like sitting and twiddling your thumbs for an hour while the DM is trying to figure out what to do about Player X's last move. Sure, really good DM's are much faster -- but they can't beat the speed of a video game. ;-)

Siskoid said...

I don't like to compare different media that way anyway ;-)

That GM made a grave error, and perhaps I should have included a word about it: Make the call. In the interests of momentum, if you can't find the appropriate rule, make it up and call it. If it's something that might come up again, look it up later and let the player know how it might impact that action in the future.

For a really fast role-play experience, I recommend Toon. It's one you can even play with your kids!

Anonymous said...

Hey Siskoid. It's capita_senyera here.

Perhaps you know me: I'm a regular member of the Writeups.org mailing list.

I wanna thank you two things:

1- For your sage advises about role-playing. I'm myself a veteran dungeon master, and I can say much of them its true.

Having a good pace is important, 'cuz not every player wants the same: the youngers want continual action. The seniors are more reflexive, but wants action, too.

2- Second, becouse thanks to you I now what happened in ROM at last! I read about 10 of his comics back in the eighties, and I really loved the Spaceknight.

Siskoid said...

I had even fewer issues going in (just 4!) so I'm discovering it at the same time you are!


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