CHAPTER 24:MAINTAINING THE PACE
“Good pacing is probably the most important trait a GM can have.”
—Monte Cook, creator of Numenera
Understanding how to keep the pace of a game moving and keep its energy level high requires a tremendous amount of depth and understanding. Maintaining a good pace is hard work. But Lazy Dungeon Masters don’t like hard work, so let’s look at some other options for maintaining an entertaining pace in our games.
“WHAT DO YOU DO?”
“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
No matter how much storytelling goes into your games, it always has to lead you to one question: “What do you do?”
As with the strong start, you want to keep each scene of your game as lose to the action as you can. How often you say the words, “What do you do?” shows you how close you are to the actions of the characters. If you have a sense that you’ve been talking for a long while without having said, “What do you do?”, it means that you haven’t been putting the characters into the middle of the story. They’ve just been observers.
It’s easy to narrate the things that happen in the world to the players. But it’s far more important that you put situations in front of the characters and let them act. The actions of the characters make your games come to life. It’s up to you to build the environment and set the stage quickly so that the characters can do things.
Even when you’re conscious of keeping the game in the hands of the characters, it’s sometimes not clear to the players what, exactly, their characters should be doing. In an improvised style of play, the players define their own quests and goals based on what happens in the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help clarify those quests and goals.
When the pace of the game starts to flag, you can help pick it up again by clarifying the characters’ existing choices. You might reiterate long-term quests that have fallen to the wayside, remind the players of villains they’ve forgotten about, or restate the characters’ overall goal when they enter a dungeon. You can even write these things down on 3×5 cards for the players. You shouldn’t push any one quest over another, but you can help the players refine their options and keep the game moving.
MAINTAIN BEATS OF ACTION AND RELAXATION
Too much action all the time in a game can drain the players. Instead, an ideal campaign needs a cyclical pace of action and relaxation. A scene of discussions with NPCs might lead to a battle. That battle might lead to the exploration of an old ruin. Overall, the pace of the action flows in a pattern of low–high–low.
The way of the Lazy Dungeon Master makes it easy to break up the scenes you create for a session by rotating through exploration, NPC interaction, and combat. Then keep that structure in mind as the choices of the characters push the story in different directions.
If things have been combat heavy, you can give the characters a chance to learn some of the secrets and clues you’ve prepared by investigating ancient markings on the walls of the chamber where the fight took place. If they’ve had too much dungeon delving, maybe it’s time they received an invitation to a formal dinner from a rival. When they’ve had too much walking around town bargaining with vendors over the price of healing potions, it might be time for an insane efreeti to escape from its prison in a mundane marketplace object when the party’s rogue fondles the item the wrong way.
You won’t know these story beats until you’re running your game. As such, you need to be prepared to improvise new scenes so that the pace of the action is always changing. Even if your game happens to follow your loose outline of potential scenes perfectly, it’s always possible that the characters’ discussion with the innkeeper took too long, and a couple of players are reaching for their phones. Time to change the pace.
UNDERSTANDING UPWARD AND DOWNWARD BEATS
“Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses.”
—Robin Laws, Hamlet’s Hit Points
In Hamlet’s Hit Points, Robin Laws describes the story beats of three movies and talks about how to identify these types of story beats in your games. In particular, various beats aim either toward “hope,” “fear,” or are emotionally neutral. Hope beats occur when the characters learn something valuable to them, gain an ally, defeat a monster, complete a quest, or receive a new magic item. Fear beats might include facing terrible foes, discovering an unresolved question or mystery, triggering a trap, learning a grim fact, or facing an unknown path filled with potential peril.
Mixing these upward and downward beats keeps players interested in the game. But just as when talking about action and relaxation, it’s always about balance. Give the players too much to fear and the whole game feels hopeless. Too much hope and it feels stale and boring.
“Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.”
You likely won’t know while preparing your game whether you’re going to see too many hope beats or too many fear beats in a row. As such, you’ll have to improvise beats during the game to maintain the
modulation between hope and fear beats. To do this, it’s helpful to have a few general ideas about how you might drop in a hope or fear beat as you run your game.
Tweaking combat is one way to change a beat from fear to hope, or vice versa. You can do so by adding monsters to make the fight harder, or removing monsters to make it easier. If the characters have been having an easy time of it, they might walk into a room full of armored ogres training and sparring.If they’ve been having a hard go of it, maybe they stumble across a lone ogre, face down and asleep in her plate of raw meat.
Here are ten examples of upward beats that you can drop into the game when the situation warrants it:
• The characters stumble through a secret wall into a forgotten treasure chamber.
• An adversary mistakes the characters for allies, spilling her secrets before she realizes her mistake.
• An enemy of the characters’ enemies unexpectedly joins their attack.
• The environment has a negative impact on the monsters, but not the characters.
• The villain’s lackeys all flee.
• The monster’s weapon shatters.
• An evil cultist is accidentally immolated by a miscast spell.
• A raiding party rides out from the keep, giving the characters a chance to creep in.
• The characters find a font of healing energy that restores their vitality.
• A character finds a powerful forgotten weapon on the ancient corpse of a fallen explorer.
And here are ten examples of downward beats, ready to be dropped in when things are going a bit too well for the characters:
• The villain shows up—and is revealed as the advisor to the lord who hired the characters.
• A lone guard runs into the characters while unexpectedly returning to the barracks.
• The worst storm the city has ever seen hits on the very night of the characters’ planned heist.
• The sewers overflow.
• The inn catches fire.
• The paladin’s intelligent sword decides that now is the perfect time to force its will upon its wielder.
• The masked assassin pulls away her cowl to reveal that she is the sister of one of the characters.
• The warlord wakes up because he has to pee, just as the characters are quietly rifling his bedchamber.
• An important key falls down into a sewer grate.
• A burgled merchant happens to be the cousin to the master of the local thieves guild.
CHECKLIST FOR MAINTAINING THE PACE
• Stay close to the action by asking the players, “What do you do?”
• Clarify the choices and options that can inspire the characters’ and the players’ decisions.
• Rotate through exploration, interaction, and combat to keep the pace cycling between action and relaxation.
• Understand the upward and downward beats of hope and fear.
• Be ready to improvise hopeful or fearful beats during the game to send the action in one direction or the other.