First of all, to those who follow my articles I would like to apologize for how long its been since my last article. Over the past month or so my life experienced some radical changes. To start I have been trying my hand at producing audio books through ACX and experienced a change of employment. I got back into being a dungeon master for a stream we now run every Sunday at 9:30pm ET, and wrote a guest article for High Level Games AND even started my own novel.
I'm a very busy person.
This has led to me having to deal with issues of time management in my normal life that I am working my way towards fixing. It also leads into a topic that several GM's often have an issue with when planning sessions. I'm sure at any GM's point in their career they have had that one session where the party never left the tavern because they decided to go about their own business all while putting off the desperate call to the adventure.
For a lot of GM's this isn't too bad of a problem to have, even if they spent all those grueling hours planning for something that won't be touched until the following session. With the rise of Actual Play podcasts, roleplaying streams, and even live gaming events its becoming increasingly more important to control the flow of a game so it doesn't drag on or one can end the session on a cliff hanger.
Combat Eats Time
For a lot of games the most time consuming part that I have experienced has been the combat. With Dungeons and Dragons in particular there is the joke that a three hour walk takes three minutes while a three minute fight takes three hours. As I have mentioned in some of my previous writings, Dungeons and Dragons is a combat heavy roleplaying game. Turns take up a ton of time, especially when players have to rethink about what they were going to do.
A good rule of thumb can be taken from preparing one-shot adventures, one combat per session. If you have planned more than one combat per session, be prepared for combat to be the sole focus of the session. You might even have to pause a combat halfway. For some tables this is fine, for entertainers its not as great.
An option is to change your GMing style to streamline combat. One could rule flat damage done by weapons to rolling attacks and damage at the same time. One thing I have experienced is that removing the use of a grid for small combats speeds up the overall combat. The player doesn't have to measure, at most they ask if the target is within a certain distance. Giving a bit of creative freedom can open players up to cooler combat and making the decisions they want instead of having to trudge through rules attempting to find an option.
The World Stops for Noone
Combat isn't the only way games slow down. Often it is the players who find ways to take their time. A common example of this is the party stradegizing about their next move. I have had groups of players take up to half an hour just figuring out how to proceed. While these discussions generally do have good value, the world does not stop for them. Breaking up long winded discussions can get the party geared towards the next set of challenges.
Additionally the party may be doing events that lay outside of what you had planned. For example, the party has decided that instead of following up a lead they are going to go out for a night of drinking and partying. After all, they just got back from an adventure and have coin to spend. Meanwhile the GM was hoping that the party would follow up on the lead and fight the cultists performing a ritual. This kind of play shouldn't be punished, however it might throw off your plans. Make their decision still deal with the plans you had. In the case of the cultists, if the players ignore the lead for too long, the ritual will be completed causing the sky to rain blood or some horrible demon to start wreaking havoc on the streets. Your original plans will be changed but you are still keeping on schedule for what you had planned.
Not everything has to do with the game we are actually playing. Sometimes a fun story comes up or a tangent is had that completely pauses the game. This kind of discussion is great to have since you should be having fun at your table. No matter what table talk will happen, and it is up to the GM to be aware of how much time it is eating up. At our table we have a key phrase we use when we need to get back on track: "Okay, so D&D". The moment that is said everyone is aware that we are pulling back the reins and getting the game moving forward. While stories are fun, the demons aren't going to slay themselves.
It is possible to plan too much. Having every single detail of an encounter and how every possibility the players can approach it is not only insane but also incredibly limiting. One of the defining traits of an amazing GM is their ability to adapt to a situation. This comes with practice as a GM. Overall here are a few tips on being more adaptable:
In reality, you don't need stat blocks for every monster you throw at your party. Heck you don't even need a number of hit points. For creatures I cover a few things: Ability Scores, Proficiency Bonus, AC, and Resistances/Immunities. You don't need to say if a creature is proficient at Stealth, you can determine that when you use it. Giving a creature a fixed health limits you as a GM for that creature to last as long as you set it, which may not work. Don't go changing things about creature or enemy that the players have already established, if they suddenly discover that their sword isn't doing as much damage then they need a reason for it. You are the "man behind the curtain", if your players don't notice it then you have done fudging it correctly.
Cover What is Important
For every scene I set up I record only the most important aspects about it. First is a written description of the room in as few words as possible but covering all the key features of that room/area. Next I write down what NPC's are there and their general feelings towards the party. Finally I write down what the NPC's know and a very brief description of their personality. Some of this information I don't even bother writing down as personally I have a solid memory for what I am expecting. From there let the players interact with the space and stick to what you have written. If you have key events you want to take place, make sure to note them and what triggers them. If you write down every scenario that comes from a location you are wasting time.
Kill Your Babies
Do not actually kill your children, I don't condone that. What this means is you can't be afraid to take everything you have had planned and throw it out the window. The entire premise of a campaign could change because of a few decisions the players have made that are just beyond fixing or getting them in the direction you intended. Keep hold of those notes however in case they have a chance of influencing the group later on. Maybe you had planned for the party to stop a ritual sacrifice of a wealthy noble. Maybe the father is now stricken with grief and will no longer help the party because of his dead child.
Listen to Your Players
Players are too clever for their own good. There have been countless times that I have heard ideas and theories come from my players that were way better than I had planned. Do not be afraid to take those ideas and run with them. Even if they never intended to let out an idea, pay close attention to your players. Doing so will also tip you off for any possible actions they may be taking and it can give you the heads up you need to start planning for it in your head. Getting to know your players is a great way of understanding how they reaction and act, giving you a step up when having to improv.
Understand the Characters and Players
Talk with your players about their characters, especially outside of the game. After a session chat with your players about the previous session and how their character and they feel about what happened. Do they have any expectations? Was there something that caught their character's attention? Getting to know this information can give you a chance to prepare for it. And when you have it prepared you spend less time having to come up with it on the spot.
In addition know how your players think as people and what gets them excited and motivated can also allow you to prepare content that they will want to consume. If you've ever watched a show that you just had to watch all six seasons over the course of a few weeks you will understand how much they are willing to consume. By getting your players motivated about the content not only will it be more enjoyable for them, but it will also make it flow smoother giving you the opportunity to properly space events out.
As with any skill as a GM time management and pacing is a learned skill. I can give you advice until my fingers are scabbed over, however none of it helps if you do not practice. Experiment with what works for your group and learn what content moves faster or slower for them.
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