It’s true for comedy, for sports, for investing…timing, as they say is everything. It’s also true for running a game. It’s not something everyone does naturally, but it can be learned (and vice-versa…just look at any Quentin Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction.) If you’re like most gamers, you have a limited time to play, and perhaps scheduling problems lend to irregular or long periods between games. This makes ever play session precious, time-wise. If you have five hours once a month to game, you have to know how to help move things along without being too heavy handed.

First, know what kind of game you’re running. Is it heavy on character interaction and social machinations like most of the Vampire LARPs I’ve seen? Is it action-packed pulp? Is is sweeping space opera? Some of these will necessarily require more aggressive pacing than others to serve the genre. Supernatural love triangles, political intriguing, LeCarre-style espionage stories are slow-paced and heavy on character interaction and biographical exposition. The people and their motivations are the plot. Pulp fiction — from westerns, to “air adventures” like Airboy, to hard boiled detective stories (and you can include Batman and The Shadow, and even James Bond in these), as well as their space opera descendants require that the plot be served first. The characters are often archetypes that might have weaknesses and quirks that make them unique or interesting (an archeologist that, for instance, is only really afraid of snakes, or a womanizing, hard-drinking, but mostly soulless killer on Her Majesty’s dole), but first and formost, it’s about getting to the bottom of the mystery, besting the evil superhero/empire/world-domination villain — preferably with a series of exciting action sequences in novel locales with a touch of romance thrown in for good measure. This tells you what kind of stories to tell with your time, and how best to structure them.

Second, know your schedule. Do you play every week? A more episodic style of play might be in order, where you can have intricate interwoven stories like you see over the last decade or so in television. You can be a bit more formless with the ultimately goal and slap it together at the end of the campaign (ala Lost), or you can have a definite end game, like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica. If you play less often, you might want to consider each session a discrete storyline — a movie, rather than a TV series or a short story as opposed to a novel, where you can be much more in depth.

For example, if I’m running an espionage game that meets once a month for five or six hours, I would look at each game as a movie in a series, like the James Bond franchise. You have action and exposition in equal parts, and you have a definitive end game (say, stop the villain from crashing the stock market and destroying the economy or stopping a hit on an VIP.) If you’re running every week, you might want to structure it more as a television “series”, each “season” (a particular number of sessions/missions) having a specific goal, but tied into an overall story arc that might not be resolved until you end the campaign. This could be something similar to The Shield, where the story arc is the eventual fall of the characters, but season two is finding and robbing the Armenian money train. Each episode is a discrete story (say, find out who killed X), but with the money train job preparation always in the background, and the forces of justice closing in on you being that element that gets more and more immediate as you go to close out the game.

It it were supernatural intrigue/romance like the World of Darkness games, the obvious examples for the occasional game might be the WoD-inspired Underworld series (at least the first two…Kate Beckinsale…PVC…what was a I saying?) Maybe your clan is maneuvering to take over New Orleans or San Francisco from another group of vampires. Each session should have a particular goal to achieve. For the weekly, long-term game, you could go more True Blood or Vampire Diaries (which I haven’t seen, so I could be typing out my @$$, right now.) Space opera? It’s Star Wars vs. Babylon 5 here, at least stylistically.

That brings us to the session itself. How do you keep things running smoothly? (First, read the other two posts on the subject.) The main items are the same in any good storytelling, no matter the media: 1) Know what you want to accomplish, 2) Know what you want to happen on the way, 3) Know your [the players’] characters, 4) Know when to edit, 5) Know the strengths and limitations of the media [in this case the game mechanics] to get you there.

So, to begin: What do you want to accomplish? Simply put, what’s the point of the session/story? Say I’m running an pulp-style espionage game. The goal is for the characters to get from Point A to Point B, and there secure the objective. Maybe it’s rescue a person. Maybe, it’s find and bring back a priceless artifact, maybe it’s destroy a secret Nazi science base — it doesn’t matter — the objective is the point of the journey. They have to get from A to B and do the job in five to six hours of play. (I’m going to go with each session being a particular adventure for simplicity sake; for multiple session games, you still want to have the desire to finish the story in a certain number of sessions. [I prefer each story to take two to three nights.])

Now how do you get there? Introduce the necessary information and get them on their way in as timely a manner as possible. Many gamers have used the “you meet in a tavern” device, but for something like this, you could start in media res with an action sequence to get the flavor you want right away, then as you play, introduce why they’re here. Or give them a very basic “you were sent to [produce objective] but who knew that you would have run into opposition so quickly!?! A good rule of thumb for pacing during a night — every two hours of game play, due to interruptions, asides, dice rolling, etc. should equal about 30 minutes of movie/television screen time, based off of my experience. You have five to six hours, you should be able to do about the same amount of stuff as a full length feature film.

With that in mind, now you plan for what you want to happen during play. Keep in mind that the players may have other ideas for how to go about things and this may require you to abandon, or modify a scene “on the fly” to fit with their actions. Now, I’ve found a good balance is a major action or social test sequence every hour or so. So you have three to five big scenes for your movie, plus wrap up. These can be an action sequence (these tend to run the longest because o the amount of die rolling in most systems.) Maybe an exposition sequence where they question people for information through interrogation, schmoozing at the local casino, or a beating the pavement montage. Maybe it’s a bit of athleticism — mountain climbing to the objective, swimming through crocodile-infested waters, or slipping past the opposition. you can combine these elements, as well.

I’ve already posted on my technique of having three major locales or “sets” for a story, and that each has a particular action or social sequence tied to it. For our example, this might be a travel encounter — weather or other environmental issues, unrelated troubles with locals, or some kind of obstruction they must get past. Maybe they have to get to Point B by plane (set 1), but there’s trouble with the weather and the aircraft and they either having to find a way to push through or land safely(ish) in a location that leads to the next encounter. Now they are in (set 2) which requires them to slog through a jungle or desert or something requiring them to fight flora/fauna/natives or use their wits to survive. One at Set 3, they encounter the opposition for a requisite gunfight or chase that gets them more information than they knew. Maybe the objective has been already snagged by the opposition, or there’s another faction involved, or the McGuffin itself has a problem. Move to the next set piece for the final showdown with the bad guys and get/do the objective. Then get out safely after the opposition has been overcome.

Knowing your players and their characters tells you the kind of things that will interest them. If you have a pilot character, a gunslinger, a pugilist, and an archeologist, you know what to plan for — some kind of flying test, a gun fight, a fist fight, and some kind of exposition scene involving the McGuffin. Plan to give them each a scene doing their thing (at the very least.) If you know how they tend to react, you can set up the opposition to play to the weaknesses; overcoming obstacles and weaknesses is part of the fun. (Snakes…why’d it have to snakes?)

Now the tough part. Editing. Even successful storytellers screw this up from time to time. Look at Peter Jackson — yes, The Lord of the Rings was going to run long, but King Kong was interminable. Every scene ran that bit too long. “Wow, this spider pit scene is intense! I hope they get rescued soon! They should be getting rescued any second now…oh, for god’s sake, just friggin’ die!”

Just like you should hit one of your big scenes every hour or so, unless the point of the night is your battle to do X (like, say, destroy the resurrection ship in Battlestar Galactica, or hold Helm’s Deep or the equivalent in your fantasy game), your action sequences shouldn’t run more than half to two thirds of that time. Enough time to have fun and be challenged, not enough to bog down the story and drag out play. After all, like a movie director, you have a specific length of time to fill (unless your Peter Jackson or Quentin Tarantino — then you can ramble on for a period longer than Wagner’s Ring Cycle…)

Is the opposition too tough? Have them pull out for some reason and add why they did to a later scene or come up with some way to truncate the fight. Is the player getting too wrapped up in playing baccarat and not looking for his contact? Have the house pull the plug on his at the table for some reason. Is the character too busy seducing the girl/guy to get information? Get them laid and press on.

But what about the opposite problem — Crap! They killed that Nazi horde like they were an asteroid hitting the city! Now what? Maybe they have friends waiting outside. Maybe one of them booby-trapped the building — get out now!, Maybe they have an important clue that the characters can find and puzzle over. This is the tough one — how do you fill time, if the players are moving too quickly. You can make the next encounter harder, or stretch your time a bit on it; it’s never bad to end a bit early — you always have post success/failure character interaction and questions of experience or other mechanics to address.  Here’s a real tough one: They killed off the major villain in the first encounter instead of letting him escape so you can follow to the cool underground base fight at the end? There’s no clean answer — you have to improvise. You could always pull a Casino Royale and kill the “villain” only to find out he was just a pawn of  a bigger villain.

That brings us to the game mechanics and how they come into play with timing. Older systems broke combat out as a separate set of rules, as a consequence of their having stated as miniatures/wargaming rules. As a result, these systems — Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, James Bond, Hollow Earth Expedition, or early Cortex and many other rules sets focused more energy and time on fighting than other aspects of storytelling. Newer mechanics, like FATE or other more freeform games don’t view combat as different from other tasks. This makes your action sequences fly along fast, and require a bit more input from the players to describe what’s happening. For combat specific mechanics, the more crunchy, the slower the action. A good GM with a firm knowledge of the mechanics of something like GURPS ca make the action flow well, but for the inexperienced GM, this can lead to a lot of lag time while rules are consulted.

Keeping these questions in mind is key to good timing when running a game. Know what you want to do and where you want to end up at the end of the session, and know how long the mechanics might drag out a fight, chase sequence, or social scene when deciding how many of those kind of scene to include in a night.