Pick up the Pace: Keeping Our Players Enthralled

Here’s another question for the Thursday Bonus Blog from our favorite Dungeon Master:

How do you increase the pace of a story when it seems to be dragging?

-B. Lynn

This is unfortunately something that happens more frequently than most Dungeon Masters would like.  Sometimes it’s because we focus too much on the details and the story and skimp on the action and suspense.  Sometimes it’s because we think we’ve written something that the players will love and we just miss the mark.  And sometimes it’s entirely the players fault and they just can’t figure out how to properly have a good time.

There are a few different techniques I’ll employ when these sort of situations arise.  Usually, it’s obvious that things are dragging because people are chatting more, getting up to look for food or use the bathroom more than should be humanly possible, staring off into space and clearly not paying attention, or they’re just not giving the game the same focus they usually do.  Often I’ll notice people begin making stupid decisions when this starts to happen, probably in some conscious or unconscious effort to make something interesting happen.  To prevent things from grinding to a halt, here’s what I like to do:

  1. Use a Random Encounter
  2. Insert a Puzzle or Skill Challenge
  3. Get to the Point
  4. Plan ahead

Random Encounters: This is the most obvious choice, and can often be enough to spice things up and get players interested again, however, it’s definitely not a cure all.  You need to know your players well, and know what they’re looking for.  Generally, overdoing combat is just as bad as not having enough action.  If people are looking bored, and you’ve already had two major battles in the past hour, most likely another fight isn’t what they’re looking for.

Puzzles and Challenges: If combat isn’t what the players need try throwing Roleplaying/Skill Challenges and Puzzles at them (assuming it makes sense in the situation).  This can be a lot tougher than using a Random Encounter, because planning good Puzzles and Challenges takes time. What I like to do is make sure I have a supply of different generic scenarios and puzzles that I can use on the fly.  I keep a file of ones I used in older campaigns as well as ones I’ve just written down as I think of them so that I have a nice sized folder on my computer to make use of when the need arises.  Sometimes you need to resist the urge to use all of the awesome ideas you come up with and just save a few for emergencies.

Getting to the Point: Another thing I’ll do when things slow down is skipping ahead.  It can be hard sometimes to abandon certain parts of our stories, or skip over details that we spent hours working on, but we need to remember that not everything we write is integral to the story.  Sometimes sacrficing our vanity and attachments is important to keeping the pace up.  If the main point of your session is to get the players to an encounter in some hidden cavern and you were planning to spend the next hour introducing the citizens of some town that they may or may not ever return to, just skip it!  You might love the town and its people, but if the story doesn’t depend on it, don’t worry about it.  Just get to the point.

Planning Ahead: One of the most important things to keep in mind is the overall pace of your campaigns and adventures.  If you notice things start dragging a lot, it’s probably not because you’re a bad DM or a crappy storyteller, it’s probably just because you haven’t figured out how to pace your stories well yet. Unless you’re running a combat-based campaign, every story needs unanswered questions.  How you answer these questions is key to a good campaign.  You need to be sure to give a little every session, but not so much that you have sessions that feel empty or pointless. 

Every session should ideally provide closure on one thing (i.e. killing an enemy, discovering a new clue, learning a new piece of information), as well as leaving one or more things unaswered in order to keep players interested and guessing.  Once they know everything, nothing much matters anymore, and if you don’t reward them with things each time, they’re going to start getting restless.

We can also have a tendency to use too much filler to spread out our campaigns and add more depth and interest using side-quests and sub-plots, but too much of this can actually bore players.  They are first and foremost, invested in the main plot-line, and while diversity in the story is definitely good, too much of it can cause players to lose track of the more important story aspects.  When this starts to happen, they start forgetting why they’re doing things, what’s important and what isn’t, and things can start feeling pointless.  When that happens, boredom ensues.

If you’re worried about ending your campaign too soon, don’t.  Maybe your campaign isn’t actually a campaign.  Maybe it’s a mini-campagin, or a 2 or 3 session adventure.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Not everything we do needs to be on an epic scale.  Sometimes the best sessions are the smallest ones.  Focus on good gaming more than grandiose writing and your players will be happy.

As Dungeon Masters, no matter how much we might get annoyed with players sometimes, or get upset with their lack of appreciation for our amazing descriptions and complex characters, in the end, what we really want is for our players to have a good time.  Then we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Sincerely,
Your Friendly Neighborhood Dungeon Master

We always need more questions! Please submit one if you love us, and submit 2 if you don’t.

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AsktheDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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2 Responses to Pick up the Pace: Keeping Our Players Enthralled

  1. Kris Allen says:

    Or… you could tailor the story to the player’s interests instead of your own. Ask them what kind of story they want to tell and/or explore. Weave their backstory and goals into the story and they will feel compelled.

    • Ask the DM says:

      Right, this is absolutely true. I think any good DM should automatically be doing this. One thing I’ve repeated in many of my posts is “the player’s come first”. The main point here was that even when you’re playing the game the players want, things miss the mark from time to time, and the game can slow down, so these are some techniques that have worked for me. Thanks for reading!

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