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Recently, I posted a chance for my readers to submit proposals for my next blog post, and this would be the post I was speaking of.  “Doublebond” posted that he (or she, I have no idea which) would like to see a post on Story pacing and plot.

Let me open with a quote:  “Brevity is the soul of wit” spoken by Lord Polonius, in Hamlet.

We will come back around to that, I promise.  So keep it in mind.

We can’t talk about pacing without first touching on plot.  Plot is that great, overarching theme and progression of events you have planned out for your, or more accurately, your players’ tale.  You see, you have to remember as a GM that you are doing this for your players, and it’s really THEIR story you are endeavoring to tell.  You get to play the part of the Grand Director, the sort of cosmic meddler that sets the stage for your players, scene after scene.

As such, you have to make sure you plan out a game idea that your players will enjoy.  The best way I have found to do this is to LISTEN TO THEM.  That’s right, talk to them about what they like in a game, and use that input to get some ideas.  But, putting that aside, let’s say you have a great idea for a long-term story arc involving a tiefling descendant of one of the great Infernal Princes of Hell.  (For argumentative purposes, I am using Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons for the rule set, but you will see how easily the precepts transfer between genres and game systems.)

The first thing you have to do is go back to what I said earlier.  “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  For those of you that either do not remember your Shakespeare, never read Hamlet, or even have not had it in school, I will explain.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “brevity” as “being short in speech or writing; contraction into few words, conciseness, terseness”; and the definition of “wit” as “the utterance of brilliant or sparkling things in an amusing way”.  When we think of witty people, we think of people that think swiftly on their feet, and adapt well to situations, an almost preternatural skill at improvisation.  And I will tell you right now, improvisation will come to be one of your greatest tools.

You see, while I realize that many games have rules that truly make planning out a game a tedious process of collecting and collating information, as well as adapting that information to your game.  What I also realize is that much of that is unnecessary.

You heard me right, it’s not necessary.  Nope.  Don’t need to do it.

What you DO need to do is take notes.  And make them short but detailed.  Again, brevity is the soul of wit.  Using our above kernel of the story revolving around an NPC that is a tiefling descendant of one of the Infernal Princes, we need to set out a bare-bones framework of details.  So, we’ll start with the NPC himself.  (Right here is where my previous post about interesting characters is useful.)

So, I am going to speak from my point of view, so when you see the word “I”, realize it means “the GM”.

I decide that I want the tiefling to be completely ignorant of his past, and his ancestry.  Oh, he knows he is descended from humans that dabbled and trafficked with infernal powers, but he has no idea of his actual pedigree.  Because of this fact, I decide to make him quite the opposite of his heritage, and make him into a good-natured bounty hunter, one who enjoys doing the right thing for people, to make them safe.  I also decide that while he is not the humble Boy Scout he could easily be, he can actually be quite curmudgeonly at times.  There is also a sense of self-sacrifice to him.

Now, we have the barest seed.  Going from that, I decide that he is closest to the Avenger class (D&D 4th Edition, PHB II), a kind of loose, and crusading freedom fighter.  Granted, the Avenger is a divine class, so I have to come up with a deity for him to at least pay lip service to.  Since it is my own game, and therefore my own setting, I decide to have him be an Avenger devotee of the god Folcan.  (In my setting, Folcan is the name of a deity of bravery, valor, and the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak.)  And when I say lip service, I mean it.  I already have the impression that while the NPC truly follows the ideals and tenets of the Folcanian faith, rarely will you find him in the temples on holy days.

Now, before we go any further, I want you all to notice that I didn’t say I created him as an Avenger.  I didn’t.  There is no real need to flesh his stats out fully as if he was a PC.  I do eventually want to give him stats and such, but we are crafting plot here.  So next, I need a hook of some sort, a calling card or symbol that the PCs will come to remember him by.  Hmmm, Folcan is also the patron of craftsman and craftsmanship… so let’s give our NPC a beautifully crafted bastard sword.  You know, let’s go further and make it magical.  And hey, while we are at it, I gave him that self-sacrifical kind of personality; let’s put a little loop in where he can “sacrifice” his own health to empower the weapon.  By voluntarily taking damage he cannot avoid, he can make strikes stronger.

So you see, the NPC is really developing as a plot hook, and we haven’t given him any stats yet at all.  Now, we have to think of how we want the story to progress.  After all, the PCs have to meet our NPC, and then what way will it go?

I realize the in media res approach is used quite often in novels, but let’s face it, at the table it rarely works.  And I do mean rarely.  What DOES work is a short, preliminary adventure or two that you can use to drop a plot device and MacGuffin or two in on the game.  (For those of you that don’t know what a MacGuffin is, it’s a little plot element that catches your players’ attentions, and can help drive the plot, but is rarely of true importance to long-term plot of the story.)  So… since we are going to revolve around the history of this NPC, and how it relates to the Infernal Princes, we can do a short session at the start to put a little plot device, as well as a MacGuffin in to get our PCs to a bit larger city, and with some pocket money to boot.

Before we do that, though, we have to think of all the major events we want to occur.  This is where you have to really plumb the depths of your imagination, and spontaneously come up with ideas.  For me, it’s easy.  I want the PCs to have a run-in with an earthly avatar of the Prince of Hell that is a progenitor of the NPCs lineage (side note: this altercation will bring about the apparent death of the NPC.  Not the ACTUAL death, just the apparent one.  Evil, yes.  Fun, even more yes.)  I also want them to have to backtrack to the NPCs homeland and learn about his family there.  From there, I want them to track down the creator of the bastard sword, as well as learn of the fate of the NPC.  From there, the PCs will have a chance to save the NPC, and have one final confrontation with the hellish antagonist.

Believe it or not, that is about all you will ever need for the plot of your game.  What I said earlier about brevity and wit?  It applies here more than ever.  You see, the more you try and plan out what, exactly, your players will do, the less likely it will ever happen that way.  You see, when you plan out that way, you are assuming that the players think just like you do.  And while the movie was a serious pile of crap, there is one good quote from Under Siege II: Dark Territory.  Delivered by the character Dane, it is: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups!”

He’s right.  Assumptions, especially in games, are some serious screw-ups just begging to happen.  You see, your players don’t think like you.  They may do so in the classic chess sense, in that they can know you well enough to predict what the possibilities may be, but they can’t truly think like you do.  They’re not you.  So what you have to do is keep things down to short, sweet points, and learn how to adapt.

I said earlier that improvisation will be one of your greatest tools?  I mean it.  More than a style of rulebooks high as a midget’s ass; more than all the print-outs of errata and FAQs, the paper of which could renew an old-growth forest; you WILL use improvisation the most.  I promise you.  You see, that is where the wit part of the equation comes in.  You have to be adaptable, to think on your feet, and be ready to act at a moment’s notice.

You see, your players will write your sessions for you, in essence.  Pay attention to everything they say, and you will find them making the small mistakes that you can use (perhaps exploit would be a better term) to your advantage.  The fool called his old vampiric buddies that still are looking for him, on a land line?  Bingo, you have conflict coming up.  Learning to take the cues that are given to you by your players and use them to twist some things around, and put them on the spot is a great skill in RPGs.  It also makes players go “Aw man… didn’t see that coming” more often than anything you can plan out ahead of time.  Oh, and don’t ever give away your plans until it is too late.

I am not saying you have to be Superman.  It takes time, and there are many times, until you get comfortable with yourself, that you will call pauses in game while you puzzle through what to do next.

And here is where pacing fits in.  If you try to shoehorn every session, so that you fit everything in you absolutely want, you are going to lose your players.  It will go from a fun pastime of friends and enjoyment into a feeling of being railroaded and herded like cattle.  And that is a quicker game killer than running out of snacks and soda.  As I said earlier, it really is the players’ game.  It may be you crafting the story framework, but they are filling in the details that make it whole.  Because of that, a lot of the pacing will be up to your players.  They may not get the whole way through the module you wanted to accomplish in the first session, but they will get there.

Now, this is not me telling you to let the madmen run the asylum.   In no way, shape or form should this ever happen.  It may be their story, but it is also your game.  Every so often you are going to hustle your players along, or slow them down a bit, so that they do not gloss over something important, or spend five game sessions working out trade agreements so the coffers are full constantly.  It is a delicate balance you have to meet.  This is also where knowing your players comes in handy, and knowing what their “tells” are.  Just like in poker, everyone has certain quirks and traits that manifest when they are in certain emotional states, like boredom.  Discover them, and it will tell you when to either pick up the pace, or slow things down.

There is one other bit of pacing I would like to talk about, and that is combat pacing.  I have been at tables where combat felt like it literally took the entire four hour slot that was designated for the game.  This is most often caused by cumbersome rule sets or indecisive players (many times, it’s actually both).  There are a number of ways to change this, not the least of which being what I call the “Fair Play Timer”.  I don’t tell players that they have all of 15 seconds to decide what to do.  Instead, when I feel the player has farted around long enough, I will hold up my hand, all five fingers extended.  Every second I mentally count, I fold a finger down.  If that player hasn’t decided what to do by the time my pinky folds down to my palm, they forfeit their turn in combat.

This may sound like a really shitty thing to do to your players, but you have to remember that you oftentimes have four, five or more other players sitting around the table for their turn.  If you give Schlomo the Sorcerer half an hour to decide what to do, that means that, by rights,  you should give each player a half an hour.  Wouldn’t that be just a thrilling game?  Yeah, it isn’t.

Combat, while not the central part of the game is an integral part.  After all, action movies are so fun because they MOVE!  I mean really MOVE!  How many times does Bruce Lee crack that guy in like what, 3 seconds time?  And really, that is what RPG combat should be as well.  Maybe not as epic as Bruce in the beginning stages, but it should MOVE dammit!  And the quickest way for that not to happen is players that take forever.  There are only so many options.  And given that an average round of combat (let’s say 5 players, 6 NPCS controlled by the DM with two turns per round, one for the minions, one for the Big Bad Guy) comes out to an easy 7 minutes time, being liberal.  That is one minute per TURN to decide on actions, roll attacks and discover the results, and roll and record damage.  That is in essence three activities you have to complete in 60 seconds, averaging about 20 seconds per activity.

Now, I have found that the average game session runs for about four hours.  This may change; depending on how energetic your group is about the game, what the closing time is of the venue you are playing at, and whether or not everyone wants to break up the game for the night.  If a session is four hours, and you know that at least one of those hours is going to be spent on session prelude and wind down, which leaves three hours of play time.  Now, if combat lasts an average of 8-10 rounds (in my experience this is a good median number for how long it takes an average combat.  At higher, more epic levels, this number can vary WIDELY), that means that a good third of that time, about one hour, will be spent on a single combat.  All of a sudden the idea of pushing your PCs to know their actions and be ready to go seems a lot better eh?

Oh, and one more word on pacing: endings.  All sessions have to stop.  The pizza shop is closing, your mom (or wife, or girlfriend, whatever) is getting tired of hearing the dice clatter, and wants to get to bed already, or everyone is just plain beat; all these things happen.  So you, as the GM, have to decide where to end the game session.  And to me, there are only two places to do: the Cliffhanger or the Victory Celebration.  If you are right in the middle of plot progression, and something major is about to happen, stop the session right before it comes to be.  If your players just blew away the current antagonist, and freed the village from demonic possession, reward them with a peaceful ending, where they get to enjoy being the heroes for a short bit.

It’s not easy and yet easier than it seems when you put it all into practice.  The more you do it, the easier it will be to do in the future.  Try it out for yourself.

What do you think?

PS: When I say that, it means I really would like to hear from you, the reader, what you think of what I have written here for you.  I really try to give good quality advice, in the hopes that it will improve your game, or at least inspire you to argue (good-naturedly, mind you!  No flaming here!) my points.  So please, feel free to actually speak back.



  1. Wow, this is great! While I’m hardly qualified to judge any advice on how to run a game, I will nonetheless say that this advice seems very sound. I’m in the process of prepping for my first game, and one problem I kept running into was designing the plot. I think that your method of simply making some characters and a list of things you want done involving those characters is a much better way of doing things than painstakingly working out every possible outcome to every situation.

    Even I can tell that you’re not going to be able to anticipate what the players will do, and so letting them do their thing, and pushing, guiding, directing their way towards what you want to happen at every chance you get seems a much more sensible way to handle things. You don’t necessarily have to generate the momentum, but rather direct it.

    For instance, my story has a local knight, driven to treachery because, due to his humble origins, he had little chance of ever achieving anything greater than what he already had. So, he decides to assassinate his lord and the heir, leaving him the chance to seize power in the resulting vacuum. I had planned for there to be a specific encounter after which the PCs would find a letter from this knight (under a pseudonym) to his assassin, leaving the PCs to try and stop the assassination. However, after this intro I had struggled with shaping the plot. With this method, I don’t have to. At least, not to the level of detail I thought.

    Really all I want is: (A) the PCs to find the letter, (B) the PCs to meet the lord and have their warning ignored, (C) the PCs to be attacked while they sleep at night, (D) the knight’s identity as the lord’s would-be-killer discovered, (E) the PCs to fight the assassin, and (F) the PCs to fight the knight. And maybe (G) the assassin lives to become the antagonist in another adventure. Of course SOME things still have to be worked out beforehand, but comparatively the work is small. I don’t need to work out locations for special events and then reasons the PCs have to go to those locations, but rather events that can adapt to different locations, and locations that can adapt to different reasons.

    Anyway, that’s just what I thought. Thanks for the advice!

  2. Great piece.

    I’ve been struggling to back off on the prep and improvise more, letting the game evolve from player decisions a little more naturally. I found Graeme Walmsley’s little book “Play Unsafe” to be helpful in getting into the right mindset to do this, but it still feels like I’m about to fall on my face at any minute. I suspect it’ll take a long time (months? years?) to get used to this style, but I’m convinced that it’s the most exciting way to play for everyone at the table.

    You mentioned pausing the game to give yourself a chance to see the way forward – this was something that I never had to do when I was running purchased modules, so when it came time to create my own campaign, I wasn’t ready to have to do this, and felt like a bit of a failure when I did. But I’ve come to understand that I can only think and create so fast, and that my players actually appreciate the break too, because it lets what has just happened sink in.

    One last note – even though this is the first time I’ve left a comment, I’ve read and enjoyed all of your posts. Don’t lose heart if there isn’t a lot of feedback – it doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t enjoying your work and finding it useful.



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