I think we have all been there – as a player in someone’s D&D game or other RPG that was meant to be a four-hour game session but the group blows through the encounter in 45 minutes. Or the opposite happens…the DM establishes the scenario and the players know what they need to do, yet it takes half the session for everyone’s characters to finish shopping and get their asses in motion.
Some of the blame falls on individual players and their inability to organize effectively. But the DM is the storyteller, and the story ultimately moves at the pace the DM sets. So this time around, we’ll talk about time management in your game.
Time management is about knowing your goals; what do you intend for the group to accomplish in tonight’s game session, in a month’s worth of game sessions, in six months or a year’s worth of game sessions ?
Consider your story. If you’re running an episodic campaign and/or one with a short duration, your focus will be in goals for each game session. If yours is a plot-based and/or long-duration storyline, you’ll need to plan the arcs of your subplots and main plot and set weekly or monthly goals.
A clear understanding of your story will make it easier to set goals for when and how aspects of the plot will be revealed. It may not be possible to set goals in stone and you may have to adjust or reset your plans. Be flexible and be able to adapt to changing situations.
If you haven’t established goals for what is to happen, you run the risk of an adventure whose pacing and progression languishes from session to session, week to week, with no forward motion and no driving inertia keeping the players engaged.
When setting goals, build up from the smallest units – the game session itself. Thinking about what you have planned in your story, what do your players need to accomplish in tonight’s adventure ? What happens to them in that session ?
Suppose you plan a subplot : A four-session story arc in which the characters receive word of a town under siege by undead. They travel there, face opposition, suffer setbacks. Undaunted, the characters regroup and fight back. A climactic fight determines the outcome of this subplot.
How do those plot points fit into the four gaming sessions ? Where will each session end and the next begin ? Plan this in advance; if you don’t, this intended four-session arc could drag on into ten, fifteen plodding adventure nights.
Your first session may cover the introduction through to arrival at the town, with a random encounter along the way. The second session starts in the town and ends as they characters face an overwhelming undead opposition that forces the group to pull back and re-think its strategy. Third session, the characters gather resources and position for a strategic assault on the undead’s master. Fourth session, the characters engage in the big “boss fight” and the subplot finds a resolution.
When planning the start-middle-endpoint of a game session, be aware that the players might accomplish your intended “to be continued” point much sooner than the end of the game session’s allotted time. If this happens before a comfortable “let’s end here for the night” point, have a way to extend the night’s adventure without infringing on the next session’s start point.
Or, the players may progress very slowly in the game. As DM, be aware of the pace as your adventure unfolds. If you see the group is dragging their feet, step in and usher the characters along. Don’t pick them up and drop them in further down the road (or plot), but have ways to encourage the players to get their acts together and show some hustle. Pressure from NPC’s, or a rival band of NPC adventurers looking to complete this quest, are a couple ways to instill a sense of urgency.
Let your storytelling reflect the intended pace. If pressed for time, skip trivial details of setting or drop random encounters. If you need to stretch events to fill time, have NPC’s or wandering monsters that could show up and cause a welcome delay.
Again, be flexible and realize that the players may do something unexpected. They may all get killed (or nearly killed) in the middle of the story arc. They may choose to retreat or otherwise abandon the attempt. They may employ entirely unexpected tactics and overwhelm their opposition. Plan when you intend to happen in an adventure, but be open to and ready for the unexpected. Improvise as necessary. Have backup plans.
Ultimately you want a game night that comfortably fills the time you have to work with. Not hurried, not dragged out, and accomplishing your goals of story progression for the plot or subplot. Setting goals is key to effective time management for a game session.