Wayfarer's League

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GM Tips and Tricks – Pacing

I watched this video on youtube and after picking my melted form up from the floor (his *voice*) I realised I could talk to you about this topic: Pacing.

Pacing is a fundemental element to story telling. It’s why someone is really good at telling jokes (comedic timing). It’s why a good film holds your attention and is “easy” to watch. It’s how that ONE FRIEND is so good at telling stories. It’s why you can’t put that book down. And It’s why I want to talk about it in relation to running your D&D and TTRPGs.

A good friend of mine, and long-time GM, once told me that the GM’s job is to keep their friends from being bored. At the base level, that’s an innate sense of pacing. It’s not really something that can be taught, but it’s something that’s felt.

It’s knowing when that hug is a little too long and now awkward.

It’s recognising when that silence is coming within the crowd and catching it before it settles.

It’s when you decide to introduce that NPC to the party or have a monster attack during a long rest..

Pacing is one of the jobs of a GM. One that you may be aware of, but maybe hadn’t put a name to it. And pacing can bite new GMs in the ass. In the next few points I will share where this fundemental skill is hiding. This will give you a practical way to increase the immersion and fun of your games.

1) Story vs. Plot

I can’t remember where I heard this, but it was in relation to writing fiction. Story is feelings, emotion, and description. Plot is…well…plot. i.e. – Plot is Suzy goes from point A to point B and picks up xyz. Story is how Suzy feels about the whole process, who she’s thinking about and why.

When it comes to TTRPGs, story is the flavour of your game. It’s the descriptions of the world and the characters. It’s the themes and tone that you pepper across and does that beautiful thing called “immersion.” Plot is the building blocks, the outline. It’s the information you want your players to find.

And pacing is how, when, and where you place these things. Too much plot, and the game goes dry with exposition. Too much story, and the players get bored that “nothing is happening.” To avoid that, scenes/encounters should have both. However, you don’t need to describe every tapestry in the room, nor how each NPC has done their hair (too much story). In some cases, less is more. Give enough description to bring the characters into the scene – don’t forget smell, temperature, and sounds!

Before I move on, I do want to remind you that Story and Plot are not only your responsibility. TTRPGs are a collaborative story telling game – so feel free to use anything your players bring to the table to enhance the game. I talk more about this later.

2) You are the Editor and Director.

I play with a lot of roleplayers. They love their scenes and I love watching them. When it comes to improv, though, it’s through experience that you start to sense the beginning, middle, and end of those scenes. There is a sense when the scene comes to its natural conclusion, then you (the GM) need to “cut” to the next thing. This is another piece of the Pacing puzzle. This becomes more prevelant when you have groups that split the party frequently. This feeds into table management too, but that’s a topic for another day.

3) Prepping – Your Building Blocks of a Session

When I prep my sessions, I generally make a list of encounters and scenes. These are things I want to put in front of the players to help build the story and move the plot along. It’s the skeleton of a session. Kind of a to-do list. We don’t always get to everything, sometimes we blast through it, and other times we don’t do any of it! And that’s ok. The point I’m trying to make is, that I have my scenes, story, plot points, ready to help the pacing of the session move along as needed. Ultimately, follow the table’s lead.

4) The Back and Forth

I believe it’s in the Blades in the Dark book that describes GM’ing as a conversation with the players. Listen to what the players say and what they introduce to the story. Their characters are the heros of the story you are building together, so use them! Conversations ebb and flow, they go both ways, and the GM’s job is to keep it moving. You can sense when the scenes are more serious and the pacing slowed down. You can sense when things get heated and action ramps up, so things move quicker. And it is also your job, as the “Director” to recognise (or at least be available to your players) when things go south – and you can yell “Cut!” and check in with everyone. Keep your table fun, engaging, and safe.

I hope you take into consideration the points I’ve made and have become more aware of the sutble skill of pacing. Something we do naturally can be harnessed in far more powerful ways when we become aware of them.

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