Hello and welcome to Only On Tuesdays! Last week I talked about Keeping your Players Engaged and one thing that came up in that post was the subject of pacing. Pacing is a very important part of keeping your players engaged, and is one of the more influential skills that a DM can learn. Pacing dictates not only the speed of the scene but also the level of engagement your players will have with your game. Today I am going to talk about how I approach pacing in Dnd, and how it can help you.
Length is Speed
One thing that I have come to realize over the course of my career as a Dungeon Master, is that I have far more control over how fast events occur than I initially realized. Dnd is a game where the players get to make all the decisions, and then the DM must then adjudicate for those decisions. If the players are making all of the decisions, how can I as the Dungeon Master control the speed at which the players make those decisions?
What I have come to learn is that you can control the pacing of the scene by controlling how long each player gets the spotlight. Here’s an example. The players are separated exploring the ancient tombs of Balhazarad, when suddenly. . . You all hear a moaning pierce the entirety of the dungeon. This sound echoes around the tomb for a couple of seconds and then vanishes. Zain, the wall next to you slides open revealing a skeleton who lunges at you! What do you do? . . . You make an attack at the skeleton but it unfortunately misses. The skeleton approaches and looms over you as it prepares to make its strike. Ander, it is now your turn.
The idea here is to make each individual scene with the players as short as possible. You keep the action flowing and the session moving along as long as no player hogs the spotlight. The speed at which you jump from one player to the next is the pacing of your game, and the faster that is the faster the session will feel. There are 3 things you must do each time you jump to a different player:
- Set the scene.
- What do you do?
- End on a cliffhanger.
Let’s go over each one of these individually and explain how and why they work.
Set the Scene
When you want to ramp up the pace, the very first thing you need to do is set the scene. Normally, this is a pretty easy task and is often overlooked, but in order to maintain quick and effective pacing, it is vital that you set the scene correctly. The way you describe a scene can have a major impact on the game and how the players perceive it. And pacing is all about how the players perceive the speed of the game.
If you want your scenes to be fast and action packed, then apply that logic to the way you describe your scenes. Keep your language short and terse and use words that have a lot of action in them. The scenes may be less fleshed out as a result, but your players will feel rushed and ready to jump to action. There is a stark difference between Zain, the wall next to you slides open revealing a skeleton who lunges at you! and The wall grinds against the stones revealing a skeleton inside the hidden section. The skeleton grabs a spear lying next to it and rushes towards you. In most situations, the second description would be the better one to use. But in the interest of pacing, keeping your language short and to the point gives your scenes a sense of urgency. Establishing this feeling of speed and danger is vital to building and maintaining momentum.
Setting the scene is also important because it helps to keep the players grounded when you move from one character to the next so quickly. Doing this also helps the players ready themselves for the next part of the pacing formula.
What Do You Do?
The quintessential question of the Dungeon Master is also here to help us with pacing. Asking “what do you do?” is a question that demands action. Provided you set up the scene correctly, your players will jump to answer it and will keep the pace of the scene moving forward. If one player spends too long looking through his inventory, skip them and move to the next. Maintaining momentum is vital to pacing, and can help your players feel like they are actually part of the scene. If you want to, one method you can try to implement is a little stopwatch or timer that gives the players so long to answer, forcing them to spend less time thinking and more time doing.
When your players do respond to the question, be quick about it. Don’t bother with flowery text and grandiose speech, get the meat and potatoes of what the character is doing and resolve it. Roll the dice as quickly as possible, and get the scene over with. Every player at the table will be itching for action, and the longer one character is in the spotlight, the more disengaged the other players are going to get.
End on a Cliffhanger
The primary reason this method works so well is because I am always sure to end every scene on a cliffhanger. Ending each scene at a vital point for the players makes everyone sit at the edge of their seat anticipating what will happen when it comes back to their turn. This can keep them engaged, and ready to spring to action the very moment it comes back to them. As you are dealing with the rest of the group they can have the chance to plot out their move, making the scene go by that much quicker, and thus keeping the momentum moving forward.
As soon as one player’s scene ends without them receiving a cliffhanger that is the signal for you to finish up every other scene. Just because one player dispatched their foe more quickly than everyone else, does not mean they should have to wait around as all of the other players finish up their battles. Cliffhangers are there to maintain interest as they wait for their turn again, and without that, your players will inevitably lose focus.
This method of pacing is not only limited to combat and a split party, however. Applying the 3 steps of Scene, Action, and Cliffhanger can help to control the pacing of any scene. If you are in a Ballroom trying to discover why one of the nobles were murdered, you can set the pace to be slower by using longer words, spending a little more time with each player, and ending on smaller cliffhangers. You can also subtly signal danger if during the ball you started increasing the speed of the pacing and making the interactions faster and snappier. Your players will sense this change in pace, and start preparing for the worst.
This method also works even if the party is all together in one group. If they are all battling one big monster, simply make each turn as snappy as you would if they are alone and end each of their scenes on a cliffhanger about how the monster is going to potentially attack them or one of their teammates. By ending on a cliffhanger for one player, you give the next one a chance to resolve it, making the players feel like they are part of a team.
Another thing to be aware of with pacing is that you can’t have it be high octane all the time. You have to give the players time to breathe in between scenes of action. This is important because it gives them a chance to recognize the difference between a fast-paced scene, and a slower paced scene. If you don’t give the players time to breathe, they will have to check out of the game, because the overload of information and action might become too overwhelming.
I hope that this approach to pacing is useful to you, and gives you a chance to better control the flow of your games. Thank you all for reading, have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!