Pacing is important to every story and the collaborative tale of your tabletop RPG is no different. The ebb and flow of your narrative keeps players engaged and on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. While pacing is bound to change over one-shots and long campaigns alike, the last thing you want at the table is your game’s story coming to a screeching halt.
Yet our games come to sudden stops every session. Did you just build up a big boss fight with an amazing villain monologue and terrifying description only to have a ten-minute pause right before the battle so you could read stat blocks and/or draw terrain on a battle mat? Have your players ever thrown you a curve ball that destroyed your plans so thoroughly you needed a few minutes to figure out where your now rail-less story train is headed? Have you shown up to a game without doing any prep for your players and simply struggled as you tried to figure out what happens next? Fear not! There’s a simple way to keep the narrative going while you prepare for the next steps of your campaign – asking questions.
Whenever I find myself needing a few minutes to prepare the next phase of my story, I ask my players specific questions that keep the game going. The answer to these questions require a player tell stories or have a discussion with each other. This keeps players immersed in the game, gives the world context, helps the PCs learn more about one another, and reveals new plot threads. The best part about these questions is that all you need to do is ask one and the players are off and running with a new scene while you take your time to set things up.
Sometimes the PCs spend days, weeks, and even months traveling together without so much as a few random encounters crossing their path. They hang out together in taverns, at feasts, and at parties. They spend the night in dungeons. In the real world the PCs would tell each other many stories and have many discussions, but because it’s not monster fighting, NPC interacting, or cave diving, we often gloss over or skip these conversations. Asking them to have these conversations during real-world downtime might mean the conversations aren’t always happening in chronological order with other events, but it does mean the players stay immersed in the story of your game while you prep. Besides flashbacks are a storytelling convention. Once you establish that the conversations inspired by these questions are just that, the pace of your game won’t suffer.
Don’t forget to award great stories, role-playing moments, and quick thinking with Inspiration. That extra reward always encourages players to give it their all.
How Do You Know…?
One of my favorite questions to ask a PC before a battle, “How do you know the villain you’re about to battle?” While I draw out lines on a battle mat or drag jpegs into Roll20, one player tells the others how his or her character once interacted with the villain. Maybe the dwarf fighter once crossed blades with the orc lord in the caves of his far away mountain home. Maybe the halfling rogue stole a diamond from the hoard of the dragon circling above. If the villain already has a place in the PC’s backstory, that’s perfect, but if not, it’s ok to put players on the spot and ask them to make something up. They do it to you all the time. The player will entertain the others and answer their questions while you do your thing and prepare the battle. The best part is that this new story will make the encounter you’re about to play out even more significant to the narrative.
What’s Your Backstory?
Almost every PC has a backstory and in Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition every character comes with a built-in background. If you need some time to prep, why not pick a detail out of a character’s backstory and ask them to tell the others about it? Be sure to keep these questions on the vague side so players can give as much or as little detail in their answers. Rather than, “Tell us about Rathebone’s secret affair with the king’s wife,” you might say, “Tell us about Rathebone’s lover.” The latter allows Rathebone to talk about his ladyfriend without revealing her identity. If the player chooses to drop a bomb, all the better. That’s going to make your game way more interesting. The player’s answer might buy you some prep time and give you some great new ideas to help move the plot forward.
What Were You Doing When…?
Sometimes us DMs speed through travel or downtime with a quick montage because we have a lot of story and action to cover in a session. If you find yourself needing time to prep something and want to keep your players engaged, simply ask them, “What was your character doing on the way here?” or, “Hey back in town you had ten days of downtime. What did you do during that time?” You can have the players go around the table and describe their PCs’ recent actions. Even the most mundane of descriptions (“I hung out at the local tavern and hit on all the half-orc dudes”) can inspire and interesting conversation amongst players or a new story thread (“Now an over-protective orc mama is after you.”) When you ask players to flashback and describe actions during travel or downtime, keep it their most recent experiences. Asking them what they did during a montage 10 sessions ago is going to defeat the purpose as they try to remember where there story was.
What About When THIS Happened…?
Of course not every question you ask needs to lead to story. One question in particular can lead characters into great discussions amongst themselves, thus buying you time to prepare. Some groups, like my own, can have something they want to discuss, but they forget to follow up on the issue because the rest of the game gets in the way. For instance, an NPC from a particular character’s background says something cryptic to that PC about their shared past. The other PCs might want to follow-up with some questions, but then a new interaction or encounter begins that distracts them from asking. Those questions would probably come up later at the tavern or on the road of adventure during the scenes we speed through or skip entirely. This isn’t just true for cryptic NPCs. PCs could have a moral debate about an issue like killing goblin children or looting an active temple. One character may need some kind of intervention from the other PCs (“Thog, you really need to bathe!”) The party can use this time to debrief and review a particularly important quest or battle that went awry. Odds are there’s a conversation that would be pressing to the characters in the game world the players aren’t having because they’re distracted by the need to keep pushing forward. When your game comes to a stop, go ahead and prompt them to have those conversations and buy you some time.
If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!