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I'm DMing a group that was supposed to run a small campaign, maybe 4 sessions long. But it's taken us over 10 sessions, and we aren't even halfway done. I run a party of 5 2nd level players.

There's another person in my group who wants to DM, but the rest of the party wants to finish this campaign first. It's a premade adventure that I found that's said to run 3 sessions, and it's just generally slow progressing through the story.

The party takes a long time to do the most basic of tasks, and when I try to drop in random encounters, they usually just run away. I level up using the milestone system.

Typically what would happen is they get a plot hook, they follow it, but then they take a very long time to decide on what they're doing, and they go and investigate the most nuanced and typically unimportant things. I try to make these things part of the story, but typically it doesn't work very well as the party decides they want to investigate something completely different.

How can I facilitate a faster pace of play?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, Lamentix, I don't think anyone has welcomed you to the stack, yet, so: Welcome! If you haven't already, please check out the tour and keep an eye on these comments-- this the area where we ask for more details and try to help you strengthen your question, so that we can get you the best possible answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Mar 22 at 1:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome Lamentix! So it sounds like encounter length isn't the issue, if they're mainly running away from encounters. Are you leveling the players up based on experience points, or are you using the milestone system? Also, what average level is the party? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 2:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ You say in the comments it is a 'premade adventure' but in the question you call it a 'campaign'. A single adventure does not a campaign make, so you may wish to clear that up in the question. Also, what do you mean by 'premade'. Published content from WotC? A published third party book? Something random off the net? That might influence answers, considering the potential accuracy/quality of the adventure. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just a gentle reminder to everyone that this question is absolutely stackable - IF we support our answers with experience. This is exactly the type of questions our experts can answer, but if the majority of answers are without support, this question may need to be closed. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 22 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may be interested in my question about getting quicker player consensus. Good answers there. \$\endgroup\$
    – detly
    Mar 23 at 11:08

7 Answers 7

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You need to be proactive in advancing the story

Players taking a long time to make up their minds about a thing is a perennial problem. I actually asked a question about a similar issue a few years ago, and the answers I got were extremely helpful. Unfortunately, it's up to you and not them to make sure they don't waste their time, because -- and this is crucial -- they don't know when they're wasting their time. As the person who knows where the plot in your adventure module leads, it's on you to help the players understand which avenues of inquiry are worthwhile, and which are dead ends.

Since I asked my question all those years ago, I've gone on to do a lot more DMing, including a lot of convention slots where it's important that the players make a lot of progress in just 2-4 hours, and I've picked up a few key tips for speeding up player decision making:

Don't describe a thing if you don't want your players to interact with it

We like to say that you are your players' only source of information about the game world. That's mostly true, but players can also get information from another important and underutilized source: their own assumptions about how a world should work. For example, if you tell your players "you walk into a bustling tavern at dinnertime," they're going to naturally assume there are lots of people there, sitting at tables, drinking booze, eating huge turkey legs, maybe listening to live music. They'll probably also imagine a bar, and a bartender, and probably a staircase leading up to rooms they can rent. They picture all of this stuff, instantly, because all of that stuff is part of the concept of "bustling tavern" that lives in their heads.

Now imagine if, in describing the tavern, you took the time to mention three specific people drinking at the various tables: a human, a half-elf, and a dwarf. Your players are already imagining tons of people in this tavern, so when you single out three of those people, they're going to think, "Hmm, I wonder why the DM mentioned those three people in particular? I better go find out." And now, you're running three conversation scenes in this bar. That's great if those three bar patrons were NPCs you actually wanted the players to talk to, but it's not great if you have no idea who they are and were just mentioning them for flavor reasons.

Have you ever played an old text adventure? Tell me you didn't try interacting with every single noun in every single room description you encountered. So make sure you only include descriptions of things you really want your players to focus on. Trust them to fill in the irrelevant set-dressing details for themselves.

For further reading on this topic I recommend this excellent article by The Angry GM

Make it clear when players are heading towards a dead-end

Pepjin's answer makes a very good point: you don't have to exhaustively respond to every action your players take. I'd like to add that it's actively harmful to players' experience if they get the same kind of response from you regardless of whether they're doing something useful or something totally irrelevant.

Personally, I like to respond to irrelevant questions with short, definitive answers, and in those answers I try to avoid giving any information that might inspire follow-up questions. For example, let's say a player becomes suspicious of a minor NPC bartender who I only included so the party had someone to pay for their rooms, and wants to know if he's lying. I would likely say something like,

Your time as a merchant has made you a good judge of character, and you can see that this guy has no reason to lie to you.

I would not say something like

You can't really tell what he's thinking. He's probably being honest, but everybody's got something to hide.

And I would definitely not say something like

Roll Insight.

As soon as you let a player roll for something, you make them think it's worth rolling for. The key with these interactions is to end them as quickly and cleanly as possible, maybe tying in a character's background to make it feel more rewarding. If player persist in pursuing a dead end despite your gentle encouragement, you can always be honest with them. In my experience, saying something like "It's pretty clear there's nothing more to learn from the bartender" is a good way to move things along.

Use different levels of narrative "zoom"

People often bemoan how much time combat takes up in DnD. The reason it takes up so much time is because it's simulating the world in six-second increments. Outside of combat, game sessions slow to a crawl when you use moment-to-moment narration in boring situations. Don't let players spend five minutes haggling with a shopkeeper, unless that's really what you want that scene, and that part of the game, to be about. Don't be afraid to use a single die roll to resolve hours or even days' worth of action: "you successfully sneak into the enemy encampment," or "you forage for enough food to keep you and your companions fed on your two-week journey" are good examples.

Save the moment-to-moment stuff for scenes where time really is of the essence, and let the less important stuff pass in one or two sentences of description.

Present players with clear options

For six years now, I've DM'd for a yearly D&nD event where players have to complete a series of non-linear encounters within four hours. The encounters are given to the players on a printed-out "Quest Menu," with a brief description of each quest to allow them to make up their minds. This helps the players make the most of their limited time, by removing all the transitional fluff between encounters and giving them a clear choice to make.

Sometimes, even the Quest Menu isn't enough, and players will spend precious minutes dithering over which quest to choose. For those groups, I'll restrict the options even further by having a helpful NPC recommend two or three of the quests that I believe would be appropriate to their playstyle (and the time we have remaining.)

In my home games, I'll often end a room description by saying something like, "So, do you go talk to the Dwarf, order a drink from the bartender, or do something entirely different?" By providing the players with a couple of example options, I prime them to think about the courses of action that are guaranteed to advance the plot, while still leaving room for them to make up their own course of action if they really want to. I find that this strikes a good balance between moving the plot along and preserving player agency.

Overall, remember that the players may be able to decide which scene comes next, but you always decide how much focus each scene gets. Use these tools to put the focus on the important scenes, and spend less time and energy on the unimportant ones.

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    \$\begingroup\$ “Don't describe a thing if you don't want your players to interact with it” I’ve made up way too many side quests about bar keepers’ relatives. I really need to stop making up interesting facts about their lives. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Don't describe a thing if you don't want your players to interact with it"- Watch a group of people play an "Escape Room" game and you'll see this up close. When every potential clue has equal weight, participants will burn tons of time chasing dead ends. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 13:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I hate this answer for promoting a very railroad-y GMing style, but I nevertheless have to admit that it's incredibly well thought out and useful. +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 22 at 21:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe: I'm guessing it depends on your players. If you're having this problem, this might be a way to fix it. Maybe with more experience and/or a good sense of storytelling themselves, players will develop instincts for what might be a plot hook and what's just a random NPC. And then maybe the DM can relax the guard rails. Or in a pure sandbox open-world campaign the DM can invent plot depending on what's catching the interest of players (e.g. Critical Role). But still not every random merchant NPC is a plot hook, OTOH they're in it for the RP no matter who they're talking to. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 22 at 21:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ It also depends on the type of game. For a one shot that's supposed to last 4 sessions, it will inevitably be more railroad-y anyway so there's no real downside to keep the part on or at least near the rails. My experience as a player is that while having any choice you make have a meaningful outcome is ideal, being given a clear road to a goal is still better than flailing around doing useless things. \$\endgroup\$
    – Turksarama
    Mar 22 at 23:52
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Communication is key

As is often the case with questions sharing some form of dissatisfaction, communicating with the rest of your table is usually the first and best step to solving your issues.

First and foremost, it's important to make sure if there is actually a problem that needs solving. You mentioned the adventure taking longer than was expected when you started, but if everyone (including you) is still having fun there is not much to worry about.

If there is indeed dissatisfaction with the pacing I can think of two ways it can be addressed:

Communicate during gameplay

You mention the players often lingering on things that don't move the plot forward, but it is important to realize you are part of the lingering as well. If the players are investigating something that has no substance the DM doesn't always have to make something up, it isn't bad to occasionally reply that there is not much to gleam from something perhaps even without any skill checks. But if you and your players really enjoy rolling, you could reward good rolls with "You don't notice anything here but while looking you did notice something over there", to nudge them in the direction of the plot.

Communicate out of game

This comes down to getting your players together and talking about the issues and setting better expectations for the adventure going forward. The problem might have resulted from the adventure being a fun hack and slash dungeon crawl but the players being more interested in exhilarating political intrigue. Managing expectations is important to make sure everyone is aware of the type of adventure that is being played, and although it's usually best to do this at the start there is nothing wrong with checking in with your players regularly as these things can change over the course of a game.

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Are the players enjoying themselves?

I'm going to challenge the assumption that the game is too slow for everyone.

If they are, but you aren't

Let them know and work something out. Maybe they're ok to speed up the game a bit for you, and you can implement the advice from the other answers. Maybe you could even swap out being the GM for a while, and enjoy being a player if that suits you and the group. I've had similar discussions about pace in my current group, as well as discussing the idea of rotating the role of GM with friends who also play RPGs.

If they aren't enjoying themselves either

Still speak to them but this time you're both on the same side of this problem. Explain to them the advice you found online, and see if they are on board.


Eitherway you need to make sure you and the players are on the same page, and go from there.

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Let me tell you a story...

I once ran a campaign in a different Tabletop RPG, back when Corona wasn't yet a thing and we could meet weekly. I planned to only do the first arc of it initially but then ended to run the whole dang thing. The game, originally claimed by many other GMs to be finishable in about "three months" took me 13 months with only minor breaks of this game to get the head back in the game. Incidentally, the end result was about 13 months passing in the game world, most of which the characters spent in a besieged city. At times, it was a slog and we managed to get just a few days in a session, other times we had weeks go by in a couple of minutes because the characters spent the time doing longer projects. But if anything, the campaign taught me a couple of things as a GM.

No plan survives contact with the player

You might know this in a military sense, but it is true in RPGs too: You have to improvise when players come up with stuff and pull ideas from thin air. If your players want to build a trebuchet to fortify their town or seal the breach in the wall using a Wall of Thorns spell, then your whole plan for the evening needs to be adjusted. In other words: sometimes you need to improvise.

In the case of the trebuchet, I ended up shifting the siege camps some after they had bombarded the camp a few times, and as they sealed the one breach, the sieging army had succeeded in undermining the wall in a different spot several hours later in the night and thus the breach was not in the tower the module saw it, but a different spot.

Learn to embrace your players' playstyle

The party takes a long time to do the most basic of tasks...

This is a question of playstyle. Some players love to explain what they do and roleplay it out. For example, in the current campaign in , GM and Players alike deliberately explain to quite some details what we wear. In this case, it's quite deliberate, because it's part of the theatrical drama playstyle we all want.

...but notice when you can scenewrap

In a very long-running round, we have almost a running gag, that the worst challenge you can give us, is to ask us who sits where in the two cars after we spent a whole evening bantering about that some 8-ish(?) years ago. Nowadays, we just declare "You get into the cars, and end up getting where you're going. You're there now."

This is a technique that often helped groups I have been in the past: Wrapping up a scene somewhat forcefully to get the plot going again and focus the players on the new situation.

Don't Tax indecisiveness, tax progress, and reward ingenuity

, and when I try to drop in random encounters, they usually just run away.

Running away is a valid method to evade spending resources in Dungeons and Dragons. Do you know Tucker's Kobolds? Of course, you do. Tucker's Kobolds are, by design, a resource tax on whoever wants to advance in a dungeon. You can't win against them, but you can do your best to reduce the tax and run, or you can try to evade them in total and flee that dungeon. Getting through them to the shaft down is paying the "progress tax" on the resources. Running away is a valid reaction, and still costs some resources.

In general, random encounters have their place, but I personally prefer to use them only in overland travel and design all places in what might be a "dungeon" of any sort. If your characters are traveling the long road from the sieged city to the army, it's ok to strew in a couple of encounters on the way to flesh out the journey. However, there's a crucial point:

I level up using the milestone system.

This means that facing the encounter does not reward the characters in the same way as if they'd result also in XP: the balance for what the encounter costs them in resources and what they gain from the encounter get shifted some. It's no longer "I need to slay 25 goblins to level up", but "I need to survive till the next town to level up". Suddenly, the incentive to defeat encounters is shifted to just surviving them, and this is easier by evading and fleeing. It might also be a problem of the encounter level - them being possibly too dangerous for the players, but there is information lacking on this.

Fighting Indecisiveness

Indecisiveness happens in two situations in my experience: either the players are not aware of the options or they are overwhelmed by them. In either case, it can help to assist the players in several ways. Let's take the town example: The players have just overthrown the town and sit on the governor's chair for the first day. What shall they do?! Of course, hold the town, but how?

I used two methods: I told the players OOCly what new avenues they could pursue using the game's systems. Like they could train the militia or prepare barricades in case they had to fight in town.

And I used IC means to give the characters incentives to do stuff and identify with the campaign. Like, some NPC suggested a feast to celebrate the liberation of the town, and the players found the idea nice. Then one player had his rogue hit on the baker's daughter and ended up waking up in her bed the next morning, fled the scene, and asked the cleric's player to send a message to her using his character that he enjoyed the night. The other player promptly bolstered that into an outright marriage proposal and so the player's character ended up hitched and married. Sure, that little "let's have a feast" and "there're young women on the party ogling you liberators" spiraled a little further than planned, but it gave me hooks later in the campaign, making the rogue (and his player!) the most stalwart defender of the town when other players wanted to abandon parts.

How the Surroundings shape the story

Typically what would happen is they get a plot hook, they follow it, but then they take a very long time to decide on what they're doing, and they go and investigate the most nuanced and typically unimportant things. I try to make these things part of the story, but typically it doesn't work very well as the party decides they want to investigate something completely different.

Here time- and plot-hook-management comes in. Look back up to me telling you a story. A story about a besieged town. To give players a feeling of time progression, they knew about the stakes of their mission: If they could coup and hold the town, they'd allow their empire to have the time to muster new troops to throw back the enemy. But that also gave me other methods to show progress and time as well as force events:

  • The state of the town became an indicator of the war going on. Where the players started in a merely occupied town that was under the whip of the occupiers, the instant they overthrew the invaders the town was all happy and had high morale. But as time went on, the actions of the heroes reflected on the town: peasants became veterans, but their numbers and morale dwindled, leaving grumpy, scarred survives in place of ecstatic happy townsfolks that were waiting for the army to arrive "next month".
  • The Enemy became a timer. As soon as the siege camps were erected, the town was starting to run on borrowed time. Time, that the players did their best to extend by gathering and managing the resources of the town. The progress of the enemy became the clock the protagonists had to solve some puzzles against so they could hold the town using an old artifact.
  • The town was an isolated system due to the siege camps preventing fleeing town. This gave me easier play when it came to pushing for events. When the wall was breached, they had three options: Fight, immediate drawback to the keep, or surrender. However, the latter two were simply worse options: Surrender was certain death (the enemy commander had demanded their heads several times), and abandoning all the town and not fighting meant they would lose their troops and all resources down in town. In the end, they fought skirmishes and pulled back to the keep in a more organized fashion.

So, what can you learn from my campaign? Four things I guess...

  1. Make the stakes clear. "If you don't find the true murderer of the Duke, your friend Peter will for it hang" would be a classic example. Or "If you don't succeed, the kingdom will fall" on the high level.
  2. Put an IC time limit on actions. Simply saying that something will happen doesn't say when. Give them a time limit in-game to facilitate that they can't investigate every single thing they think about. If they spend time to analyze the letter, then that time is progressed and the event will come closer.
  3. If players are indecisive, suggest actions or just help them gather what information they already have. This can help them to feel more informed about taking action, or to identify with the world and develop incentives on their own to act.
  4. If you need an encounter, force it in a way that it can't be evaded. If it is crucial, that the players witness something or face an enemy, shape the world that flight is not an option. If you don't then the encounter really is optional and can be evaded. For this it can help to be stuck in a location or path - and the encounter not to be random.
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Confidence

I do not know the skill level of your players. However slow game play happens when your players are not confident of what they are doing. For new players, they can be uncertain about anything and everything. For experienced players you would have to look at your own DM style.

TLDR: be consistent in how you run the game

For newer players building confidence comes from reliability. You see them working through things at a slow pace so anticipate what they are going for. Help them get the solution they are fishing for and coach them through how to get there. You will have to do this a number of times but keep it consistent that you are helping your players do what they want in a way that works with the rules. As a side note, putting problems clearly out of the realm of possibility for them to solve is a bad idea and while you can give them information for later on, you need to spell it out early on, don't let players waste their time on this that cannot be solved for now.

For experienced players you will have to improve your own abilities. When experienced players are going slow they are trying to figure out how you work. Being consistent here is key as once an experienced player knows how you run things they can anticipate how something will go. Experienced players also expect you to follow the same general rules that they follow as player characters, that you won't randomly teleport them to another world just to "shake things up".

Confirmation

When your players make a decision that seems to run counter to what they want to do, explain what you think will happen instead and let them confirm their solution, by reconfirming some of the information they have encountered before. Your goal is to help your players win, help them do that the way they want.

Clutter

TTRPGS have a large scope, as it was previously mentioned, removing distractions will help your players. When a person walks into a super market looking for something specific you can encounter many different types of a thing, an indecisive person will spend time weighing this seemingly easy choice in brand of thing. The same happens in TTRPGS due to the freedom we give players. If this is a clear issue at all points, slowly remove choices from your initial description. The magic number is 3, after 3 choices there starts to be decision anxiety in any normal person. While more choices can be present, hide them from your players unless they are looking for something more specific.

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    \$\begingroup\$ please provide comments for downvotes \$\endgroup\$
    – Reed
    Mar 22 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for your advocacy of coaching new players, but I think you'll benefit from more up votes if you provide an example of how you got the 3-thing to work. (Or what the theoretical basis for that is; I know that in the design of training systems and procedural trainers, we applied an old ISD methodology of clumping and chunking due to the "3-5" basic limit of what must humans can remember; is that the kind of thing you are referencing?) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 23 at 14:51
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Frame Challenge This is fine. Dungeons & Dragons isn't designed with short campaigns in mind. Even a single adventure tends to run to a half dozen sessions unless it's a) specifically designed as a one shot, and b) everyone is pushing for alacrity in play. There are many games out there that do aim for a shorter campaign/season length (many PbtA games have a sweet spot of 3-6 sessions per "season"). There are plenty of great answers on how to speed up play, but maybe consider that unless you have a real time constraint (say you need to finish before someone moves away) there's really no need to rush unless folks are getting bored. And even if people are moving away, playing online is still a viable option as the pandemic has taught us.

Obviously since you're already half way through using a different system wouldn't be optimal (though converting to Dungeon World is actually pretty easy) but in the future if you're looking for a short campaign maybe consider a different system that is more aimed at shorter campaigns.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Oh, absolutely. OP didn't mention that anyone wasn't having fun though. Having fun is important regardless of speed or system, but trying to force speed out of a system not designed for it is more likely to create an unfun experience. Ideally you'll find a system that supports the type of play everyone enjoys ... though if different players prefer different styles of play this can be difficult to accomplish. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Mar 22 at 15:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Pretty sure OP isn't, that why they want a faster pace. Do the shorter campaigns mean faster paced play? That isn't necessarily so in my experience, can you talk about yours? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 22 at 15:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I mean, for faster play you either have to cut RP or combat or exploration or all of them. If you want a campaign to finish in less sessions your options are play faster or play longer sessions. That said, I'm hesitant to ascribe dissatisfaction that the OP hasn't expressed. In the comments it was suggested that the main motivation was desire for another DM to run something, but also that everyone involved wanted to finish the current campaign. That doesn't sound to me like they aren't having fun, otherwise why would they care to finish?! \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Mar 22 at 16:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are many more levers besides that to speed up play. I think you're oversimplifying and your statements aren't' really viable in reality (like D&D isn't designed with short campaigns in mind.) Can you support that? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 22 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch If there really all these other levers, maybe YOU should post an answer. There are plenty of good answers here on how to speed up various aspects, but ultimately to have a faster session you must speed something up. If you read an abridged version of the book you can't really complain when stuff gets left out. D&D is long form storytelling. If everyone is onboard you CAN push through stuff quick but it requires players mindfully following 'the plot' and much more meta-gaming (choosing RP actions that are good for the flow/story rather than what your character would do). \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Mar 22 at 16:28
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Use timers

This is a common problem, I've seen this so many times before and heard of so many other people having this problem too.

The key is time pressure, players will take as much time as they can, and why wouldn't you? If you have unlimited time to search a castle, why wouldn't you search exhaustively? Players only act quickly and decisively when it is necessary.

Consider these two ways you could present a situation where a volcano is erupting;

  • DM: "The volcano behind you erupts, a flow of lava starts racing down the mountain, what do you do?"
  • DM: "The volcano behind you erupts, a flow of lava starts racing down the mountain, it will be here in under a minute" places phone on table and starts 1 minute timer "what do you do?"

If you want your game to pick up the pace, that's all you have to do - add time pressure. Use a timer and make sure to tell them what it represents - in 1 minute the lava will be HERE, you need to act NOW. It's vital to have a shared understanding of the consequences and flow of time.

You can use this same technique in wider contexts too; every hour that passes is 4 hours in game, so when the party enters a dungeon they know they have limited time, and if they spend that time running from monsters or coming up with the perfect plan instead of pressing forward their resources are going to get stretched thinner and thinner.

Yes, this can result in players making suboptimal decisions, but that's life. That's totally fine. Don't worry about it.

Build time pressure into your campaign

The best time pressure is high level, an army of undead is sweeping the land and will arrive at Pleasantville in 7 days. If you dawdle, the town will be destroyed. A dragon has moved in to the mountain behind Happytown, and has given then a 3 day deadline to deliver a cart filled with gold. If you spend that time running from monsters, the town will be turned to ash.

You have a certain amount of campaign left. Put a deadline on it, and find out together whether the party can make it in time, or not.

You may find that the campaign has been built without any time pressure at all. This is fairly unusual in my experience, as otherwise adventurers invariably give up the risky adventuring life and go be farmers or whatever. If that's the case, try look bigger, think about how the world would progress if the players weren't in the picture. If the players don't intervene the world keeps spinning.

If you can't think of an explicit time limit, just keep track of hours as above, and the days. Keep updating the world in reaction to the players actions or lack there of. I find it's best to keep this timer visible to everyone, so they don't have to keep asking "what time is it" or "how much time do we have left".

KISS

The less relevant information and the less complexity, the easier it is to make choices - keep it simple, stupid. Your players may be overwhelmed by their own character sheet, let alone the choices they make in game. Try to constrain the scope, stop adding extra details that tie into the story. The party investigates something nuanced and unimportant? They find nothing, time to move on.

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