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Because I have a group that acts unpredictably, I stay away from laying out the whole adventure - let alone the campaign - beforehand. Instead I write each new session as a response to their actions in the previous one.

This is a problem when I can't predict the speed they will progress through events. Sometimes a session I expected to take five hours only takes two because I was out of material (I'm surprisingly bad at coming up with things on the fly), while other times it takes three sessions to get through what I thought was one session worth of material. Combat and freeform decision-making scenes are especially unpredictable.

How can I estimate how fast a group of players will go through a section of adventure, to facilitate a more appropriate amount of preparation? I've run into this problem in systems as diverse as World of Darkness, D&D, and Shadowrun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you please specify a game? There is nothing system-agnostic about how much material needs to be prepared. Some games breeze through an enormous amount of material in no time at all (and, usually, involve making it all up). Some games actively suggest preparing a very limited (but specific) amount of stuff, because they benefit from most things being left unprepared. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jun 6 '16 at 10:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I do consider this a system-agnostic question, as the problem of having "too much" or "too little" is still a problem in the types of games you mention. This is no question on "How much to prepare", but rather "How to estimate how much to prepare". \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Jun 6 '16 at 11:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Estimating how quickly players will go through an "adventure" is by definition not system-agnostic, since the very concept of an adventure is tied to specific systems. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jun 6 '16 at 11:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've had the problem in all those systems independently. (The suggestion that one would combine all of those makes my head hurt). \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Jun 6 '16 at 12:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your diligence is appreciated; the Stack is a strange little edge case on the Internet and it takes a while to learn the ropes. If you haven't seen the help center and tour yet, take a look! The Role-playing Games Meta and Meta Stack Exchange are also useful as archives for the history of policies and decisions, and as places to make active inquiries yourself. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Jun 6 '16 at 12:43
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Wing It

This may not be the most technical answer, but I have exactly the same problem as you do. My group can be so erratic when it comes to doing what I think they're going to do as well as the time it takes.

I elected to do what you've already mentioned, and write in between sessions, basing what you think off of their last decisions. It helps to keep notes of everything they did, everything they picked up on (NPC's, totally irrelevant things, etc), so you have a better idea of what they're going to pick up on first. I also tend to find that once my PC's have a goal in mind, they rarely deviate until that quest has been completed as such.

In terms of combat, you can always come up with a few encounters to sort of plug-and-play when the time comes. Maybe make a couple of easy, medium and hard encounters for the sort of area the PC's are in and then you've already got something to fall back on if they decide to go in a different direction than what you had planned. (thanks to Sardathrion)

So really, I think your best bet is to wing it. Plan as much as you can without completely railroading them, keep consulting your notes, and perhaps just try and get a feel for what takes them longer - combat or exploration or RP and then try and pace the session based on that. At the end of the day, players will be players - they'll have you flying by the seat of your pants for some sessions and then others will go exactly how you planned, that's just the nature of the game. Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ What I was going to write, you beat me to it. One addition, is to have "slotted encounters" that you can plug-and-play in case you run out of steam mid-session. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Jun 6 '16 at 9:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion ah sorry, thanks though, I'll add that in! \$\endgroup\$ – Jamie Brace Jun 6 '16 at 9:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm actually surprisingly bad at coming up with things on the fly, especially in a world that isn't 100% fleshed out. I am making a habit of simply asking the party at the end of every session "So what will you be doing next?", so that at least my writing is not in vain \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Jun 6 '16 at 9:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ No need to apology! It's all good. \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Jun 6 '16 at 9:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ The plug and play encounters, for a general solution, actually is a good enough idea for me to accept this. I'll probably be posting a follow-up with a more specific approach. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Jun 6 '16 at 12:19
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In general, I've found the solution to this problem is to prepare too much, rather than too little. It's easier to say "We'll pick this up next week" rather than "Well, that's all I've got for tonight; who want to play Xbox?"

Since you indicate that your strengths lie more in planning than in improvisation (mine too), some specific techniques to help the pacing:

1) Structure your adventure with logical break points. Either have a series of mini-bosses, or break the adventure up into subgoals. An example would be, Discover the whereabouts of the BBEG's evil castle Fight your way through the Castle Fight the BBEG's lieutenant Discover that the BBEG has a plan they weren't aware of Fight the BBEG If they lose, plan for what happens if they are captured If they win, the Castle begins to crumble and they must fight their way back out. Any one of those points could be the ending for an evening's session.

2) Look carefully at each character beforehand. Find their roleplaying hooks. Does one character protect children? Put a child in their for them to rescue. Does one character like to gamble? Make a gambling trap they must defeat. These can be used to lengthen or shorten a session. If they are breezing through too quickly, throw in one of these complications that their characters are compelled to deal with. If it's taking them forever, just don't included that element. You can always use it later.

3) Similarly, don't be afraid to adjust encounters on the fly, adding difficulty or opponents to make it longer, or eliminating them altogether if necessary and logical.

4) Have a very rough outline of the following session in mind. If all else fails and they zip through the adventure, at least you can guide them through or to the set up for the following adventure.

tl;dr: Plan more material than you expect to use. Make your encounters more modular and optional.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There is one pitfall to beware, though, which is that if you always plan more than you can use, you must take care not to always overrun. Where "overrun" is defined as running longer than the players want: if they don't have much on the next day they might want you to run longer than some nominal finishing time you announced, but they still probably want to sleep. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Jun 6 '16 at 16:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely. Now that our players all have families, jobs and other responsibilities (my group are all in their 50s), we set a specific start and end time. This modular system really helps in hitting the marks, too. Often the GM will say, "You guys are about to start an encounter that will likely run an hour. We have half an hour left. Do you want to go a little late or save it?" \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Jun 6 '16 at 16:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm an "improv but with prep" GM and this is how I approach games, too. \$\endgroup\$ – The Nate Jun 6 '16 at 19:59
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Try to have some notes on rough ideas, have random encounters ready,

One group a friend of mine ran. The party reached the huge Dungeon doors leading to the main quest, They were Metal possibly Made of Mithril.

They took them off their hinges and sold them in the nearest town. Then set up a river trading setup running their purchased barges up and down from the city to the village.

The DM was most put out as they outright refused to be adventurers, because they were making so much money from trading.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmmm, either this is a common occurence or this isn't really your story. Or you're the origin of it, I really don't know. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Jun 6 '16 at 11:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ It was my friends from the Basingstoke based Scifi Club who had the issue - Paul was the main instigator of the trade plan and annoyed Tony the GM a lot... on another game Ross rolled so bad for noticing magic 3 times in a Cuthulu game the DM made him unable to see magic at all, meaning it was helpful when they had to decode a lock that had magic and real parts as Ross could point out all he could see, \$\endgroup\$ – Theresa Forster Jun 6 '16 at 14:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WeckarE. I fear it is more common than you think. Too many GMs afraid to break it to their party that the whole town doesn't have enough money to buy that or a dragon spots the extremely lustrous sheen of mithril from miles away, swoops in and grabs each door with a talon. "GM: do you hang on to the door, or let go?" \$\endgroup\$ – David Wilkins Jun 6 '16 at 14:44
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You can change the type of prep you do, and think more in terms of preparing the region around the party, and the world, and being ready to handle most things the players might do, rather than preparing adventures and sessions per se.

If you can prepare regions of your world so that they are fun and interesting to explore by themselves, then you don't need much or any adventure/session prep. As a sandbox GM, I prepare the world and places in it by figuring out maps for the terrain, roads, towns, & other interesting locations, including what lives where, what items can be found where at what prices, special transportation options, major groups and characters, random encounters, what magic is used and/or available where, what plots and events are going on, etc.

Also, the less I frame content as adventures, both in my own mind and the way I present it, the more players are free to come up with their own ideas, interpretations, and things they themselves want to investigate, acquire, scheme, achieve, build, overthrow, etc.

It also means I don't need to force players to be interested in my adventures. Instead I tend to notice what they are interested in, and get curious about, and develop more content that is relevant to the details of those things.

There is also nothing wrong with needing to call an end when what the players want to do next really requires you to prepare stuff.

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Similar to the 'Wing it' answer, but not quite the same. Introducing, prepared winging it.

Don't prepare "what is going to happen", because this can change when the players do something you don't expect.

Spend this time instead preparing "Who is nearby, what motivates them?". This is constant and the players can't mess it up.

So to take an example. Where currently you might be preparing a set fight, detailing an ambush by a group of hobgoblins, planning out a battle map, and where each enemy will stand.

But then, your players might bush-bash instead of taking the road. Your set piece now doesn't make any sense. Or they might send out a 'summon monster 1' with a white flag, asking to negotiate safe passage in exchange for gold. How do the Hobgoblins respond?

Instead, you should focus on answering questions like "what is the leader like", "why are they wanting to fight the players?" (being given gold by the real villain, protecting their village from outsiders etc). What is morale like amongst the hobgoblins?, how much do they care about actually killing the players? If you have prepared this information, you will be able to know whether the hobgoblins would have bothered to set scouts in the wilderness to look for people avoiding the main road, and you'll know whether they would be willing to negotiate and what they would want in exchange.

And, as other people have stated, in many games, random encounters can be used to get through to the end of a session if you need more time to prepare.

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