Updated: Feb 23, 2022
(This was initially posted to my Patreon in 2020)
Something that can be tricky to figure out as a DM is pacing; this is partially due to the uncontrollable element that is the party, and also partially due to the natural flow of the story. For example, I have run sessions that have been quite literally nothing but combat for four hours. Somewhere during the second hour, I almost always begin worrying that this fight isn’t exciting enough to hold my players’ attention. Similarly, I have gone weeks without combat, where every development is a social encounter, and I worry that the players are itching to fight something. How do you balance this?
It’s hard to know exactly how any session is going to go, because nine times out of ten, the party will do something unexpected and you’ll find yourself improvising to some degree. This is why I honestly think that pacing is something you need to feel out with the group. As a DM, it’s important to ask for feedback after a session, to see how the players felt about a particular session. And while this is geared towards running an ongoing campaign, feedback is important because your players can tell you what they did and didn’t enjoy about a session. This helps you plan ahead for pacing in future sessions.
That being said, I have a couple things that I keep in mind when I prepare a one shot or when I’m writing an adventure:
1. I try to aim for one major encounter per hour. This could be a combat encounter, this could be a social encounter, or this could even be a series of smaller encounters. What do I mean by that? If it’s one major combat, then it will most certainly take at least an hour to complete once you add a little time to build suspense beforehand and a little time to decompress after. It’s important to allow the characters to interact before and after combat and have a moment to breathe.
In the instance of social encounters, this is a little harder to predict how long something will go, but can lead to VERY rewarding sessions if it works out. For example, if there is a mystery that needs to be unraveled, plan for about an hour for the party to track down clues (which could be considered a series of smaller encounters). This is a great opportunity for players to get into character, and may take longer than an hour, but if you have a plot point that revolves around social encounters like this, be sure to leave plenty of time for roleplay. If the players aren’t into roleplay, you can fill this time with NPCs, build a little intrigue with a mysterious figure, or give the players a puzzle! For this, I like having an obstacle that blocks the party’s progress, such as a locked door where the door handle has fallen off. The party then has to find a way to circumvent the door or break it down. At higher levels, the puzzle will need to be scaled up, such as having a room where no magic works, or a room filled with magical darkness/silence.
In scenarios like this, I’ll set the players up with a scenario and then improvise along with whatever potential solutions they want to try. You want to look for a hidden door? Great! Roll Investigation. You want to try opening the door by removing the pins from the hinges? They’re awfully rusty and probably stuck. Give me a strength check to try and free them.
2. A great way to fill time if things are progressing too quickly is to throw in a minor combat encounter. It doesn’t have to be too difficult, but maybe the local rats have become more aggressive after being exposed to the evil wizard’s magic. Give each rat resistance to a random damage type, add 1d4 of that damage type to their bite attacks and send a few of them at the party. You’ve probably bought 20 minutes from that combat encounter, and each little combat like this serves to drain valuable resources from the party which will make the final combat encounter more challenging. After all, if the cleric is running low on healing spells, the party will need to be safer!
3. If you feel like you’re taking too long, find a way to bypass one encounter to move things along. The party needs to collect 3 items on their way to the altar to stop the cultist’s ritual? What if the cultists took one of the items to try and fool the party, but an NPC saw them and warns the party? Suddenly, you can skip that encounter where they need to recover that item! Or perhaps you had a puzzle that the party needed to solve? Maybe it’s already been solved and the door has been left ajar. Who beat them to it? This will raise important questions, and is a great way to incorporate whomever the big bad of a session is, in order to reiterate that they’re bad. Perhaps the necromancer beat the party to the temple and left behind a single animated skeleton with a note that reads, “You’re too late. Don’t try to stop me.” This is interesting and tells you something about the villain. They have an ego and are onto the party. Suddenly, the stakes are a little higher, and the final encounter feels a bit more personal.
4. Downtime is important. If every second of every session were jam packed with excitement, eventually the game would become boring because everything is high stakes. Allow for lulls in the story of the game, where the party has a moment to themselves and a chance to rest. This allows for an easing of tension and a momentary sigh of relief before you can crank up the heat again. This feels good as a player, and makes each tense moment more impactful since it can nicely contrast the slow moments in the session.
When preparing a game, I like to think of it like an episode of a sitcom. In most episodes, some challenge or conflict will arise and need to be resolved. The main character(s) come up with some solution for this, but oftentimes, it doesn’t succeed. There is some complication that they didn’t anticipate. This raises the stakes, and provides an opportunity for the character(s) to learn something or forces them to adapt. Eventually, they have the opportunity to face their conflict, and while it may not go exactly how they expect it to, they are able to complete whatever their task is. However, the credits don’t start rolling the instant the task is complete. It’s important to allow a few minutes for resolution. The party needs to get their reward for completing a task, or have a moment to bask in their glorious victory. Let them talk for a moment and decompress. Give them space for an epilogue, especially if you’re running a one shot, since they may never get to play that character again. What are the immediate next goals for the character? How has this adventure changed or shaped them?
By no means is this the one and only comprehensive solution to running the perfect adventure, but hopefully it has given you food for thought and some basic principles to help guide you. I particularly like this model of challenge, complication, climax, because it provides some creative room as a DM to try and pull the rug out from under my party for a moment and surprise them. There are certainly other models out there, and I’m sure that they work very well! The great thing about our hobby is that no two games and no two players are the same, which means that what works at one table may fall flat at another. So feel free to give this a shot, but don’t feel tied to it. And if you do try it and like it, I would love to hear how it went!