Over the decades, I’ve had a chance to play with a few gamemasters here and there, and to observe a few more. One thing I noticed was that very few GMs understand pacing — how to keep a game running smoothly and quickly. Their games bogged down in full, but unproductive side chatter, characters meandering into side plots that didn’t involve their other characters or had little to do with the main story, or simply lacked a certain energy.  There are a few reasons for this. I’ve broken these down in to three rough issues: preparation, engagement, and timing.

In this post, we’ll deal with the first — preparation.

First and foremost: have a working knowledge of the rules you are using, know where the tables and rules you will need are in the rulebook, and be ready to ignore the rules if you will slow play looking for how, say, that grenades damage fall over over what distance. Just make a ruling and go.

There’s been a host of gaming blogs that have been playing down the importance of preparation in favor of improvisation. I’m just going to get to the point: many of them are wrong. Preparation is essential to success in all thing, but the trick is the right amount of preparation. That doesn’t mean improvisation isn’t important or doesn’t have it’s place. As a military turism goes, “A plan never survives contact with the enemy…” and a game plot never survives (fully) the involvement of your players.

That’s kinda the point. You are all working together to tell a story, but as with a military unit, a software development team, or a bunch of guys working at a fast food restaurant, you need an objective and at least some kind of leadership — even a collaborative one.

A quick bit of history to place my comments properly: Most RPG systems have a game master and players. The GM prepares some kind of basic plot or objective which the players attempt to achieve. In early RPGs, the GM was an actively antagonistic force, working against the players. Later, this evolved into a more collaborative role, working with the players to run through a story as more of a facilitator or “storyteller”, to use the White Wolf term. Most recently, GM-less or collaborative storytelling games remove the hierarchical nature of GM/player and everyone gets to work together, perhaps with some sort of facilitator (or GM) to keep things moving. I’ve played in all and found that the best balance seems to fall in the middle — a GM with some level of fiat and control over the universe, but not an active antagonistic force. You may feel differently.

The trick is the right amont of preparation. Too little preparation — what I link to “sandboxing”, or letting the players wander about a gaming environment looking for something to do — has intrinsic problems of pacing. It is player controlled, and that means multiple people with differing points of interest. This leads to parties being split in ways that are not always conducive to achieving the supposed point of the mission. It also tends to favor the more powerful personalities in the party, as they can suck all the air out of the room and focus all the attention on their characters.

Too little preparation also means that when players do the unexpected (and they will), you have to improvise. If you’re good at this, no issues; if you are not, something as simple as “what’s the barkeep’s name” can create a blip in the flow of play. (One of my ways around this is to say something like “he’s credited as ‘barkeep’ in the credits.”) If you are involved in a combat sequence, you might want to have a good metal image of the field of play so you can map on the fly, if you don’t do it ahead of time. Nothing slows play like “I can’t visualize this — can you explain the situation again?” Or worse — you have no real plot, villain, or story and are just leaving it to the players to come up with something. There’s only so much manly carousing at a pub that players will want to do.

Another problem is too much preparation. The kitchen sink style of prep leads to GMs wanting to use every little bit of the campaign world they’ve created. It can mean asides and distractions from the action that are unnecessary to the plot line and bog down play.

Here’s a few examples: You join a D&D campaign that’s been in play for a few years, or which is just firing up but the GM has been crafting his world for the three years he had no players…it’s a beautifully realized world with an 80-page campaign bible you should read when you get a chance… 1) No one cares what happened 90 years ago in the Kingdom of Bratwurst unless it has direct import on the mission, so 2) if you don’t need it, don’t show it. An example: does it matter what King Louis XVI was doing before he got the chop when you are fighting Wellington at Waterloo? No — other than he and the royals are nasty sots and you hate ’em. Hell, how many people know what happened 10 years ago, much less 100…if you’re in a fantasy campaign, chances are your characters aren’t too well educated.

Worse, all that preparation — the big action scene in the abandoned iron works, the fight on the volcano planet, etc. — that all might be for naught if the heroes either ignore the plot entirely, or find a way to sort things before you get to your big denouement. Maybe they’ve found a way to get the bad guy on the way to his secret base in some Ronin-style hit on the city streets. Roll with it. Improvise the scene and let the players help.

One fo the best things about gaming is the collaborative process. You know, as GM, what has to happen for the game to play out. Say it’s the players need to get the McGuffin from the bad guys. You wanted to happen at point D, but the players have jumped the gun and with good planning and an annoying number of very good rolls are going to hit the villain an hour earlier in the night at point B. Let ’em do it, and let them tell you want they’re going to do. Now you know their plans. If they’re going to be too efficient, trip them up somehow. Maybe the car is armored. Maybe the guy isn’t there or offloaded the McGuffin. Maybe there’s a chase car with mooks.

Listen to their expectations of what should go down and give them just enough of what they want to make them entertained, but don’t make it so easy they don’t feel challenged.

You can sum it up this way: Keep it Simple Stupid.

Which I did not for this piece.

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