Pacing play

So the GM’s job is to describe the environment and make judgment calls about what’s a test vs. a good idea. Assume I’ve got that nailed. How do you do that and keep the game well paced?

I’m thinking about how much detail to prepare, both length and depth, as well as how much description and how many choices to offer in play. My last adventure had a detailed environment, with plenty to explore, obstacles and information to discover in play and after tests. But the pace was slow (too slow for some players) and finishing the adventure took a dozen sessions or so.

Part of this is of course familiarity with the systems and players decisions to be decisive or careful. But I want to do what I can to ensure a healthier pace of play when I run Torchbearer again. I’d like to play more Torchbearer but pacing play right is my biggest concern.

Particularly in the beginning of a new campaign, I‘d like players to quickly experience the full cycle of Torchbearer (adventure-camp-town). Ideally completing the adventure in a session or two.

So, how do I keep description forward play, revealing new info and new choices to keep things changing, while not letting play feel bogged down or slow. I’m not sure how to describe the feeling of playing a single adventure over a dozen sessions, but yeah avoiding that experience as best as possible.

Here’s some of my ideas:

  • Prep adventures with fewer areas. Less to explore, easier to complete. I’m wondering about adventures with only two areas, like an ambush or scofflaw camp.
  • Prep areas to feel larger and more diverse. I wonder if that will help players feel they’re covering more ground and not slogging so slowly. I think the Vagrants Expedition conflict does this trick really well. I’m thinking maybe adventures travelling between civilised settlements.
  • Apply more pressure on characters. So players never feel safe, there are less opportunities to rest or fully explore, which pushes them to deal things with or become overrun. I’m not entirely sure how I’d do that, but I suppose it’s about monsters and dangerous environments. I just worry how to speed them on their way without killing them.
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Making it feel big ist a technique that I also try to use more often. Give the dungeon as many traps and monsters as if it was only three rooms, but desccribe it as a twenty room dungeon with long corridors and huge halls. It’s just that there’s not that many traps and monsters everywhere.

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Yeah neat. It’s not something I’ve tried, but I wondered about it. There’s definitely something in this direction I can learn.

As the Torchbearer book puts it:

I think I have trouble pulling back and eliding over details while keeping description forward.

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Those are all good ideas. I know you said you’ve got the ratio of tests to good ideas nailed, but for me it really is the big one: call for fewer, more impactful tests. Only call for a test when it suggests a really good twist, or you want to grind them down with a condition.

A corollary to that is finding the right mix of twists and conditions when I do call for tests. Too many twists and the players feel like they’re spinning their wheels. Too many conditions and it feels like you’re going through a meat grinder. Use conditions in places where failure would otherwise mean the players are completely stymied and the game would grind to a halt.

Try to use twists to reveal new information the players didn’t have before. Sometimes you just want monsters to attack to add a little action. That’s good too. But maybe, for instance, the monsters open up by demanding the characters hand over a key or some item of significance in the adventure that the players didn’t know about before. Always seek to add new information to the mix.

On that note, strive to be generous with information. If you deem a character would know something due to their culture or wises, just give it to them. When playing Torchbearer players either tend to be so incredibly cautious that they won’t do anything or so incredibly reckless that it seems like they’re trying to get their characters killed. Sometimes they switch between these two extremes within moments. In a lot of those cases (not all, but a lot), both of those behaviors come down to a lack of information. Always look for ways to inject new information into the game where it makes sense. And don’t be afraid to help them recontextualize if they’re not drawing a connection between two things that seems obvious to you.

“An empty sarcaphogus, sand in the funerary urns and a deadly trap? Is this a trap meant to lure the unwary? Do you think her real resting place is somewhere else in the crypt?”

Finally, focus most of your effort on presenting the players with difficult choices, especially ones related to their beliefs or goals. For instance: The thing that’s been haunting the town says it will stop if the characters return all the treasure that they and others have looted from its tomb. The characters have beliefs or goals about getting rich, stopping the haunting, destroying the evil, etc.

Getting to those decision points is the true heart of a Torchbearer session. Everything else is a supporting element to get you there. IME, when you get to these moments players don’t feel a session is slow, even if there’s not a lot of action or combat, because they get super engaged and invested in the outcome.

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Thanks Thor.

Your point about the ratio of tests to good ideas is well made. I know I tend to approach the judgement call to test or not by focusing on the individual action or plan and its fitness to the current situation; relying mainly on the feel for its effectiveness in the fictional situation.

Your “call for fewer, more impactful test” pushes against that somewhat. I can see the book already says “Use the good idea rule to set up big moments. Bypass the minutiae; focus on what’s important. Highlight exciting actions.” Almost like the Good Idea is the GM’s tool to edit the action, to trim it down to the essential moments.

I know I can improve on that count, but looking at my notes, most sessions had no more than 4 or 5 tests. I may still be asking for too many tests of low impact, but I actually reckon its the pace between tests where I’m having the most trouble.

There’s advice for the GM to ask questions like “Tell me where you put your feet or how far you go or where you look.” These sorts of questions and detailing of the environment takes time. This is compounded by how player anticipation grows the more time grows between tests. I’ve definitely felt the tension rise by not calling tests. So I think I struggle with—on one hand—evoking a living world, laying out the situation, and letting the players decide, versus—on the other—maintaining a good pace of tests and fictional progress to resolve the situation.

Maybe my density of threats and dangers has been too low, the density of safety and resources too high, and the areas too well segregated, exasperating the lack of threat and availability of safety. I recognise that my players had a camp-every-three-turns strategy and they were careful and thorough. But I want to know how to best keep a good pace with that kind of play, because they’ll no doubt take that approach again.

I think that’s where your advice to be generous with information is likely most helpful. But I think there’s more for me to grok about actually designing and fine tuning an adventure site for better pace. More to ponder.

I think 4-5 tests per session is on the low end, so that’s probably not where you should focus your pacing efforts. It seems like you’ve already got it pretty stripped down. In a typical 3.5 to 4 hour session, I think my groups generally do 6-10 turns (including a conflict) and a camp phase or town phase. My last session was only about 3 hours. We kicked things off with a conflict, got in about four additional adventure phase turns, then ran a town phase.

I applaud them for staying disciplined enough to try camping every three turns. As players are first learning the game I try not to interfere with that too much so they can get their feet under them. But you, as the GM, can and should apply pressure to make it harder as they find their balance. If they want to camp every three turns, fine, but they’ll have to work for it. Don’t be afraid to pull out a twist that leads to a conflict that they must address when they fail a turn 3 test.

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