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I'm running a campaign for about two years (around one session a month) and I'm unhappy with the pace of events. In those two years we covered not even two months of game time with single session advancing the clock by only few days. I see multiple problems with that

  • The sessions are uneven, sometimes we hit high point, but sometimes we slog without a payout
  • Players are not getting their moments in spotlight every session as slow flow of events means that it is hard to significantly vary them. So if the session is all-talking then it is hard to throw in some combat that is matching the plot, and the other way round.
  • I'm not able to introduce big changes in the game world I would like to - as those need a time to play out

I think the core of the problem is that we are playing out every awake moment of the characters - there are no visible scenes, only continuous flow of character actions and world reactions.

It may be also aggravated by the fact that I to not to limit character possible actions while having multiple active NPC working against (and sometimes with) them (and each other) - so the players may feel that they are constantly fighting on multiple fronts and try to cram as much actions as possible in available time.

I would like to cover more "game time" each session and be able to focus on selected scenes giving every player his moment in spotlight. At the same time I would not like to reduce player freedom to much by arbitrarily deciding what is skipped and what is played.

Our sessions take on average 6-8 hours so they are not short. I'm running Birthright so the game is much more plotting and scheming heavy than usual D&D.

As for my players - they are usually content with sessions, but sometimes they complain that we did not get much done in a session, or that that they were anxious to hit some milestone that we did not manage to reach before time ran out, or that there was not much for their character in the specific session.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What do your players say about the pace? Are they unhappy with it too? \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Aug 24 '17 at 20:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ how long are your sessions? \$\endgroup\$ – Will M. Aug 24 '17 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ They sometimes comment that we did not get much done in a session, or that that they were anxious to hit some milestone that we did not manage to reach before time ran out, or that there was not much for their character in the specific session. \$\endgroup\$ – AGrzes Aug 24 '17 at 20:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Usually 6-8 hours. \$\endgroup\$ – AGrzes Aug 24 '17 at 20:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AGrzes Those are long sessions for players to be complaining they didn't get much done - your concern sounds justified. I would edit both the length and the complaints into your question for context. \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 24 '17 at 22:41
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You said:

I think the core of the problem is that we are playing out every awake moment of the characters - there are no visible scenes, only continuous flow of character actions and world reactions.

I had a campaign very much like that a while back. It took them multiple sessions to just do one task walking around an island. They didn't mind at first because just the experience of camping in-character was entertaining, but we did eventually agree to settle into a breezier pace.

In my experience, the key is to think about movie pacing. Do they show every waking moment? No, they say "Let's go to a place" and then the next scene is "Ok, here we are at the place, let's do this!" You can absolutely do the same thing: "OK, about 4 hours [or even 4 days] later, you arrive. As you approach, you hear..." Basically, get to the good stuff.

Note that this approach requires trust from both parties. You have to trust that on the one hand, your players will interrupt you if they wanted to do something particular; and on the other, that their characters are reasonably competent and act like it. Your players have to trust that you won't pull the old "You didn't say you got dressed this morning so now you're all naked and freezing" - if the adventure doesn't specifically call for resource management as part of the tension, and players want to clarify things a little bit retroactively, let them.

PC: "OK, I offer the princess a drink."

GM: "A drink of what exactly?"

PC: "Of water from my waterskin, which, it goes without saying, I filled up at the well before we left town."

GM: *the briefest of pauses to consider if their character is like that* "...Right, naturally. She accepts gratefully."

If you and your players don't want to spend time listening to each other fill waterskins, you have to actually let that go without saying. That doesn't mean you can't show more mundane parts of life, but usually you'll do a bit of that towards the beginning as people get to know each other and establish routines, then count it as done and gloss over it the next time. For example, you can ask them how they do watches once if that's applicable, let them argue it out (preferably, for my taste, in-character), and then assume that they do them the same way in the future.

In my case, part of the problem was trying too hard to avoid metagaming - so I'd roll lots of random encounters including harmless animals, but the players would treat each one seriously and look around for danger, which took up quite a bit of time. It's okay to assume that's going on as you're traveling, and only actually ask your players to roll to see if they notice any danger when there's actual danger to notice. Along the same lines, you can ask in very broad terms if they're going through a dungeon carefully searching for traps/treasure vs. moving quickly (the DMG has specific guidelines for this), and then just roll for them, use passive Perception, or ask them to roll quickly when there's actually something to find. This saves your players from describing, in detail, how they search each room... which can be part of a good game that tests player skill (you don't find the gem in the dresser unless you actually tell me you're searching the dresser) if you're all into it, but definitely slows down the action.

In general, just remember that you don't have to roleplay everything out just because it happens. For skill rolls, the Angry GM (warning: he is indeed angry and a bit vulgar) advises to only roll if there's a chance of success, a chance of failure, and a consequence for failure. You could almost say the same thing about roleplaying - only make the characters go through a scene if there's some decision to be made, some opportunity for the characters to really show who they are, and/or some way they could really screw things up and then save the day. That's what good stories are made of, right?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm already fast forwarding travel. But apart of that it is hard for me to spot a places where to "cut" without worrying that the next think I hear will be "but I wanted to ...". \$\endgroup\$ – AGrzes Aug 24 '17 at 21:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AGrzes the easiest way to solve that is to check with players that they're happy to fast-forward. I do this all the time and it works well \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Aug 24 '17 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ When you say you're fast-fowarding travel, how far are you taking it? There's a big difference between skipping the time spent actually physically on the road, and saying "Anything unusual you need before leaving town? Cool, the inn will be happy to take your money for another night, and the next morning you set off. By early evening, you approach..." \$\endgroup\$ – SirTechSpec Aug 24 '17 at 22:21
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Identifying the problem is half the solution, so you're halfway there already! Your perceived problems are:

  • No scenes or scene structure;
  • An unwillingness to limit PC or NPC granularity;
  • All leading to an excessive focus on minutiae.

That's a pretty well-articulated self-diagnosis, and certainly are problems other people have had before, so let's just assume you're right and focus on how to fix things.

First, like the old joke goes, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this!" "Then don't do that!" This is something a GM bears the lion's share of the responsibility for, and straightening it out will take thought and sustained effort on your part.

Second, think in terms of abstraction. Meaning, you don't want to represent in exhausting detail every minute sub-action that is part of the PCs' (or the NPCs'!) area of expertise, without good reason. You want to handle things at a higher level of detail in order to avoid bogging down-- the canonical examples are often searching an area for "interesting things" or for trap prevention. Other examples are overland travel, shopping and resupply, treasure disposal, etc.

But this has to be done in ways that does not overly diminish the players' agency.

Third, there, is the crux of the matter: Your goal is to abstract to the interesting decision point, and no further. Which means you have to shift the decision points "upward" so to speak. Dice and skills help, here. Think of this analogously to (but not the same as) a movie or a novel. In a movie or a novel, every scene exists to show you, the reader/viewer, something specific. In an RPG, every scene should consist of a few meaningful decisions, which show you, the GM something about the players and let them affect the world.

As some hypothetical and not-detailed examples:

  • The decision point shouldn't be, "Do they remember to search the desk drawers for false backs," but perhaps (if they rolled well enough) "Do they risk meddling with the trip wire?" (Because if the decision point is searching the desk drawers, it's also sweeping for false floors, looking behind every picture on the wall, tapping for secret doors...)

  • The decision point shouldn't be, "How much do we sell this particular flawed ruby for," but, (if they roll well enough) "We're convinced this guy is lowballing us-- do we accept it or move on?" followed possibly by, "Hey, is that guy having us followed?

  • The decision point probably shouldn't be, "How do we crest that ridge?" but rather (depending on rolls) "What do we do once we've realized we've walked into an ambush/realize we're about to walk into an ambush?" (Because if every ridge is a decision point, you'll never get anywhere.)

This often takes some forethought and planning on your part, if you know what's likely to happen in a session. Or some ability to wing it if you don't. This also takes willingness to tell the players, in no uncertain terms, that you're not playing out every little detail. This also takes trust on the players' part-- they may need to know you're making rolls to help this abstraction process, if not always when. It helps immensely to the let them see decision points following their successful rolls as well as after their unsuccessful rolls.

Fourth there are some pitfalls and objections to this:

  • You can't abstract everything. If you could, you'd just say, "We play a game; everyone has fun." It's hard to abstract conversations out, especially pivotal ones. But not every conversation is pivotal. Combats are hard to abstract, indeed, the rules are such that they are the abstraction. And quite honestly, some players will love the nitty-gritty details of what you're trying to abstract; be prepared to either give a little, or to make sure at least a few instances of what the players really like is pivotal and therefore detailed.

  • It can really feel to the players as though you're limiting their agency. There is a strong psychological tendency (which I have observed in myself and others) to blame failures on the abstraction. "Well but you didn't ask me if I was tapping out the floor for pits! You never gave me a chance!" "No, but I made a generalized roll for trap-inspection and you failed that."

I've found that it helps very much to tell the players how you're handling this, and again to let them witness their successes as well as their failures. "I didn't ask if you were looking for tripwires last week, either, but you avoided that trap. Remember?"

  • It might really feel to you the GM as though you're somehow cheating yourself or making things too easy or not keeping the players on their toes. It's a bit of a trope that as soon as the GM narrows focus from montage-summary mode, the characters immediately go on high alert because otherwise why slow down for details? I struggled with this a lot and labored under the impression (possibly the delusion) that I should throw in lots of description everywhere so the players can't meta-game that trope. I am convinced this misses the point, but it is so counter to how I "learned" to GM that I belabor this: Just like a scene in a movie exists to show the viewer something, scenes in an RPG exist to allow the players to decide something meaningful.

Summary:

  1. Take responsibility
  2. Abstract, abstract, abstract!
  3. Abstract to the point of meaningful decisions
  4. This takes care and planning
  5. It is also an effort of will over (possibly) your own instincts and (possibly) your players' instincts.
  6. Let your players in on the general idea of how you're doing this
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Adventures

An adventure consists of 3 basic elements:

  1. Motivation - why are the players on this adventure? The evil princess is terrorizing the noble dragon: is not motivation. It is only motivation is the players care enough to try to make it stop.
  2. Resolution - the end state of the adventure: the point at which the motivation is resolved. The princess has killed the dragon or the characters or vice versa or an agreement has been reached where the princess will only terrorize the dragon on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays and will allow the dragon to live terror-free for the rest of the week. Some Resolutions are wins for the players, some are losses and some are draws
  3. Structure - how you get from 1 to 2. The how, what, where and why that leads from the motivation to one of the Resolutions (win, lose or draw) - its the way the Structure plays out that decides which Resolution we end up with.

It is important to recognize that Motivation is not static and that interim Resolutions occur that change the player's motivation and widen or narrow the field of possible adventure Resolutions. Motivations can also be in conflict - this is super-cool as the players have to make a choice to abandon something they want to achieve. And, of course, you may be playing more than one adventure simultaneously.

Encounters

The Structure is where the bulk of the play happens and its broken into chunks. If we were acting in a play or a movie those chunks would be called "scenes", because this is an RPG they are called "encounters".

For an encounter to be worth playing it needs to do something to progress the adventure from motivation towards resolution. Some of the things an encounter could be doing are:

  • Knowledge - where you give or re-give (because players are stupid - I mean- human and may have forgotten) information (or the opportunity of information) that will allow them to progress from motivation towards resolution.
  • Decision and Planning - where the players are deciding a course of action and/or making preparations in order to move from motivation towards resolution.
  • Interaction - where the players are exploring relationships between themselves or with NPC(s) that progresses from motivation towards resolution.
  • Overcoming obstacles - where the players are are dealing with something that stands between the motivation and the resolution. This can be scaling a cliff, solving a puzzle or putting an axe through the bugbear's brain.

If a scene has done its job of moving from motivation to resolution or is failing to do so end it and transition to the next scene. This is a major part of a DM's role:

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Transitions

Additionally, its perfectly OK to jump over the parts of the PCs life that do not move from motivation to resolution: polishing boots, cooking dinner, mopping the floor are things the player's can do in the real world - they probably do not want to play Housekeeping: The Role Playing Game.

Transitions can be spatial:

enter image description here

Or temporal:

enter image description here

Or even temporally backwards (although this is really hard to do well):

enter image description here

The linkage between encounters is not that one immediately follows the other in time and space, but they immediately follow one another in terms of progress from motivation to resolution - the next scene is the one that logically follows from the previous one in terms of the needs of the adventure.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 For multiple reasons, including how much fun you had creating this answer with all of the pictures. Bravo. \$\endgroup\$ – Night Owl Aug 25 '17 at 22:14
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Plan each session more like a movie and less like a video game.

I've had your exact same problem--the group I DM for only meets roughly once a month, and it takes forever to get the campaign moving. Because people don't have much time to play, our sessions are also a bit short.

Therefore, I try to make the session more like a movie and less like a video game. In a video game RPG, players might spend tons of time on inventory management and wandering around town and other "filler" type things. In a movie, the audience has no patience for such things, and so they are skipped in favor of showing the scenes that are actually important. In a video game, you might have a small fetch quest in order to get an important plot item, but a movie might only have a brief scene where a character buys it. In short, only play out the scenes that matter.

Thus, you should cut out tons of the cruft in the system. Finding a place to stay, travel time, encumbrance, making camp, and even random encounters are huge time wasters in my experience. If such things suddenly become important (camping in a dungeon, for example), then you can bring them up. If you need it, you can always ask "Would this scene be boring in a movie?"

You can even move some of the "gameplay" outside of the session, or reduce it to brief exchanges. If your players want to buy something, just spend a few seconds on it and move on, unless they want to haggle or something.

This approach requires that you give your players flexibility and the benefit of the doubt. If you use a lot of "gotcha" moments or require a ton of detail in their actions, they will obviously waste a lot of time making everything ironclad. It also requires you to aggressively cut and simply your plans, because complicated plans often take forever to resolve.

But isn't this railroading?

By focusing only on the things that are important, you might be afraid of railroading. There are a few ways to get around this.

The first is breakpoints. You can pause at certain places and ask, "does anyone do anything before we move on?" You'd be surprised at how frequently everyone says no.

The second is compartmentalizing choices. I usually put this at the end of sessions--at the end, I ask "so where do you go now?" and get the players to come to some consensus. In this way, the players still have control over where they go, but only broadly, and for the things that are actually important.

Ultimately, you will have to sacrifice a lot of the complexity of your worldbuilding and your NPCs. Just as a book or video game can have tons of sidequests, a movie does not. However, I feel that gaining that sense of movement and forward progress far outweighs losing some of the detail of the world.

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This is a bunch of ideas that I come up to address my problems myself.

Establish Goals

I plan to discuss the situation with players and together establish player and character

  • Goals - the end results that they want to archive
  • Plans - list of nearest steps they want to execute to reach the goals

That way - seeing clearly where they want to go and how they plan to reach it we can decide what can I gloss over and abstract and what we want to play out.

Introduce more downtime

I plan to give the character reasons to take time for various background activities rather that pressing out with action scene after scene. I want to end the sessions in place that is conductive to time skip (no more cliffhangers) and then resolve downtime activities (trading, crafting, research, traveling) offline.

Track passage of time explicitly

I noticed that during the combat - when we are using initiative - the pace is better. I think about introducing visible tracking passage of time outside combat and also limiting number of "actions" that party can undertake in given "time slot".

Improve communication about the game world

My sessions are intrigue heavy and I noticed the Players are sometimes lost in the complexity - and I assume that when they do not see clearly what levers are for them to pool they may slow down and proceed with caution. I plan to introduce more materials that will help players who-what-with-who-ans-why in the game world.

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