This is another post inspired by Turn Based Living. In that post you’ll find the following observation:

When a game is well paced, I’m doing what I want when I want to as often as possible, the game keeps me coming back, and ultimately I get the most I can out of the game (side note: sometimes the designer is a better judge of what I ‘want’ to do, so I’m fine with being compelled to do something, as long as I enjoy it when I do it). Done poorly, a game forces me to spend a lot of time doing things I don’t enjoy in order to ‘enable’ the game, I incidentally waste a lot of time not getting at the heart of the game because I don’t know what I/the game wants, or I lose interest in the game or parts of the game because other elements are distractingly uninteresting or needlessly repetitive.

This observation is a nice way of describing several of my design goals for Lost Worlds.  When we’re at the table, we only have a few hours.  I want to cull out the wasted time as much as possible, and let everyone spend their time doing the things they want to do.  So – that’s a bit tricky.  Obviously, I can prep a couple of routes I think the party might go, and if I put a couple signposts out there that say “Adventure is this way!” my players are probably going to follow one of them.  If I do that, and then I don’t deliver adventure, well – I’m failing the players.

Pacing the game in a tabletop RPG is harder than it might seem, since all the players are playing together at the same time, and all of the players may not share the same interests.  It takes some social compromise to give everyone what they want, and a very skilled GM to recognize what it is each person wants in the first place!  It’s not like a classic computer RPG where you’re the only player and you can pretty much drive wherever you want.  The players are relying on the GM to understand their interests and provide an outlet for them.

It’s not all the GM’s responsibility though, or it shouldn’t be.  Tabletop RPGs are a social game, and there needs to be a fair amount of communication going on about what it is the players want to be doing at the table.  Players should have the power to drive the game, and the confidence to do so.  Furthermore, the GM should have the confidence to allow it – to accept improvisation.  And, if the players move the game in unexpected directions, they need to understand that the GM will have to improvise in response.  This in turn requires a level of trust between everyone, not only that the GM will attempt to be fair in their improvisation, but that the players are signaling for the GM to provide content that the players want to interact with.  When the players want different things, that social contract has to extend to the players to engage with the game unselfishly so that everyone can enjoy themselves.

So, I need to focus Lost Worlds in a way that attempts to maximize the types of things that I would guess the players want to be doing, BUT also provide a way out of a scene that everyone finds uninteresting.  I have on the tip of my brain an idea of a scene structure where players have two votes in front of them.  One vote is a “more detail vote” and the other is a “move along” vote.  The game can progress as normal, but at any time players can vote on whether to drill into the scene in more detail, or to wrap up the scene and move on.  Practically, players already do this with a facial expression, checking their phone during a scene, leaving the table, or standing up to make a dramatic die roll.  I’m not completely sure I need to formalize it, but I’ve never seen a mechanic like this used and I’m curious what others think about it.

4 thoughts on “Pacing

  1. Andy

    Interesting idea. Although wouldn’t it suck as the DM to have half the scenes you put a bunch of time in “skipped” by the players? What if the players try and skip a scene that is vital to the plot? Are you going to let them and try and readjust on the fly how they get that information? Just trying to think through the mechanics.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Maybe a little. If I thought the scene was important, I’d probably suggest continuing for a bit longer to see if players changed their mind – but I don’t think it’s worth wasting everyone’s time if players are bored. I should improvise if needed, but I should probably improve my design with the idea that content that isn’t interesting can be skipped by players anytime they want, and try to let players feel like this is perfectly acceptable. I might have to do some more improvisation if I’m not completely prepared, but that’ll happen anyway. Players will have to trust that I’ll do a decent job of it, if nothing else, it’ll probably end up being content that players would rather interact with.

      If there were repeated “skip” votes, we’d probably have to stop and say, “Ok, what is it that you all want to do,” and if there’s no direction, we should question why we’re playing in the first place!

  2. connorbros

    Ou, another shout out. I’m happy to have been inspiring!

    My most recent relevant experiences with this have mostly come down to learning how not to accidentally emotionally blackmail the players into doing something. It’s obviously not mechanical, but even if I give the players a choice to walk away, they often grumble and push on simply because they don’t want to be the mook who leaves some important sounding thing un-done.

    Sometimes it’s about morals, sometimes it’s that they’ve simply not seen enough alternate options that somehow they think when I throw them a hook, that they have to take it because I might not have anything else prepared. I’ve overcome this recently, but only by firing a handful of understated rumours at them while letting the NPCs actually take care of themselves quite a bit (so there’s no one who’s wailing for something to be done without trying to do it themselves).

    In any case, whether or not you mechanise this, I think being aware of the concept is key to a really successful session. I’ve even taken to timing scenes to make sure that if anybody isn’t engaged, it’s not going to drag on. 15 minutes for ‘in-between’ scenes where there are no mechanics involve, it’s strictly chatting, scene setting and information sharing (and if I still have info for them when the buzzer goes off, which is rare, I drop pretenses and lay it on them so we can speed on to whatever’s next). 45 minutes for ‘encounter’ style things, whether it is dangerous exploration or combat or some kind of roleplay challenge.

    Just some thoughts that come to mind reading this. Interested to hear what you think as always, and if you’re leaning towards mechanising the ‘choice’. It would certainly make it clear to the players that you as DM are prepared for them to simply walk away (my players often do things worrying that they’re ignoring something that I really wanted them to walk into, when honestly I’m happy to ad lib or pull out something else I’ve prepared as long as they’re happy).


    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      You have a lot to go through on your blog, and if my work schedule was a little more forgiving, I’m sure I could make discussing topics you’ve covered a regular feature here! I’m curious to see how this might play out, so I may try it in one of my upcoming sessions. I think the biggest hurdles are: how will this impact the social contract between players, as players may not agree on when to zoom in and zoom out, and people would need to be understanding and unselfish here. The next issue is what happens when players start voting to skip content that I think is important, or about to be important – and I think in the end I’d have to just suggest everyone wait a bit longer before voting.

      However, if players persisted in voting to skip, there’s nothing that’s so critical that players should be playing a game they aren’t enjoying now. I can rework something if need be.


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