Keep Your Tabletop Session Lively and On Pace With These GM Tips

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GM Tips, hosted by the talented veteran Game Master Satine Phoenix, is our show to help Dungeon Masters and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we did a deep dive into encounters, and this week we are tackling tempo and game pacing.

When watching other people’s roleplaying streams or podcasts, it can often feel like their games are far superior to your home group. Perhaps uncannily so. Players stay in character, the GM nails each NPC, and combat largely moves along quickly with few quips or hang-ups. Meanwhile, your home game is plagued with questions like, “what did I miss?”, or “what’s that spell do?”, followed by fifteen-minute smoke breaks and research. The secret to pacing for the RPG podcasts is editing. They are able to cut out most of the footage that creep up in our home games, but there are other culprits as well.

This week on GM Tips with Satine Phoenix, Stephan Chenault of Troll Lord Games joins Satine to discuss some of these other culprits. Get caught up below!

Preparation is key! It’s good to hit back the basics, and one comment that bears highlighting is “It’s hard to keep pace in a dungeon. Far easier on a mountain or in the woods.” To expand upon that, here are some other pacing topics that didn’t make the cut above.

Nervous Players

One of the biggest problems with story pacing is players who struggle under pressure. Not everyone likes having to think quickly on their feet, or they have a hard time engaging in verbal wordplay. And that’s okay! There are ways to help this as the storyteller and this section puts the ball squarely in the game masters court. In LARP, this is less of an issue since there is enough going on around, that the impact of a few people with jitters is never really felt as much. In tabletop, a session can come to a screeching halt because of anxiety or spotlight jitters. I’ve witnessed a few game masters get angry, or just start ignoring that particular player—and this is the worst thing ever to do. Don’t ignore nervous players, but also avoid holding their hands, as that is equally demeaning.

What’s worked for my tabletop sessions (particularly at conventions where everyone is a stranger) is planning a quick break about a quarter of the way through a session. By the quarter point, you’ve got a feel for the pace that people are talking. Take five minutes and grab each player and ask them what their goals are what they want to achieve. After you have player goals, assume the best in-game course of action and translate it by communicating with nods, loaded questions, or even do a bit more narration. Pause again near the end, and get a feel for what choices each character wants to see as you get near climax.

The two pauses at the rising, and falling, stages of a story may seem like a disruption of pacing, but if you are going to have a pause at any spot—those are the best two markers.

Story Pacing

I know it’s hard for storytellers to admit, but sometimes it’s just your story that sucks. When (from your point of view) the players start wandering aimlessly instead of doing the totally awesome adventure you had planned—it’s a clear sign the story itself is the culprit. Story flaws could be a problem with the hook, or, if it’s happening mid-adventure maybe it’s just a boring tale.

Sometimes it’s best to abandon ship. Offering sidequests that the players are hooked on is a great way to get your pacing back on track. Immediate action or storyline roleplaying can provide a jumpstart in the middle of an adventure that had gotten off track. When lost, take a look at classic novel beats; set the scene, build the tension, exciting climax, tidy up loose ends, and resolution.

Deviations that go too far from this formula, particularly for western audiences, feel very off to us.

Player Narration

Annnnddd… no matter what we do with pacing as GMs, sometimes it’s just people on their phone or chatting to others nearby. Distractions happen. Eventually, every GM picks up a few tricks to get them back at the table.

One of mine is player narration when it’s the players turn to roll dice and do stuff, rather than describe it for them—I give them full reigns. Turning that player into a temporary storyteller, not only does this get on player back into focus, it also refocuses the entire table since information comes from multiple sources. Making my players into impromptu storytellers for their own actions is one that I lean back on time-and-time again no matter who I’m running for.

Besides a giant hammer and a robotic clock, what other methods of story (or game) pacing do you find useful in your adventures? Tell us in the comments below!

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Featured Image by: Saga’s of Sundry -Dread. by Hugo Cardenas. Art and animations at: and Youtube

Image Credits: Critical Roll

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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