How great is The Adventure Zone? If you haven’t heard this hilarious fifth edition actual play podcast, stop whatever you’re doing and give it a shot right now. While the normal cast on the show is the crem dela crem of actual play awesomeness, during the holidays they went on hiatus and allowed the crew from The Flop House podcast (another great one) to take over the story for an episode. This special game was DMed by the great Stuart Wellington who has inspired me to write about an important topic: keeping the game moving.
Wellington’s players, The Hogsbottom Three, attended a dinner party undercover to complete a sensitive mission. I won’t go into more detail as to not spoil the story. What I will say is that this mission, like many heists in RPGs, had a lot of discussion among players as to what they should do next. It’s the kind of conversation that keeps players talking in circles about whether they should hide in apple barrels or sacks of potatoes. While this conversation can be fun to an extent, it also considerably slows down the game while tens of minutes are wasted talking about whether the kitchen or the drawing room should be searched for clues. A lengthy discussion about which duchess seems a more worthy target of a detect thoughts spell can cut into the chunk of time you need for an awesome boss fight (or other set piece) at the end of the adventure. Wellington knows this, and that’s why he kept the game the moving.
Whenever the adventurers started to overthink or argue in circles about what to do next, a new NPC would walk over an engage them in conversation or the butler would ring the bell and ask everyone to proceed into the dining room for dinner. Startling announcements were made. Surprising events happened! Wellington pulled out all the stops to push the adventure forward and so can you. It’s easier than it seems. You don’t need to plan for every conversation the characters are going to have to make this happen. Just follow my Wellington-inspired tips below.
List Out Events Chronologically
Wellington kept his game going by simply moving the action of a dinner party forward as it might normally occur without the adventurers there. You can do the same for any sort of structured event (such as a ball, thieves’ guild meeting, or night spent in a spooky cabin) by simply jotting down a quick list of events in the order you think they’d happen. This will take less than five minutes. Here’s an example.
The characters are attending a fancy dinner party honoring a newly named baroness because they have gotten wind she might be assassinated by a rival faction. Her assassination could spark a war, so it’s up to the heroes to stop them. Here’s what your list might look like.
- Cocktail hour on the castle balcony.
- Many important NPCs arrive.
- The PCs are recognized by Lady Duafaine, who slips them a note saying not to trust the baroness’ husband.
- The baroness arrives with husband on her arm and gives a welcome toast.
- Dinner is served in the great hall.
- PCs are seated at a table with Lord Marquet, who likes to gossip and knows all about the noble holdings in the area.
- The baroness’ husband gets up to give a toast in honor of his wife.
- After the meal, the band begins playing and the PCs are asked by guests to dance including the baroness and her husband,
- During the dance the baroness reveals in some way she is unhappy in her marriage.
- Lady Duafaine asks the band to stop playing and reveals she is the lich Necronstalla in disguise and some of the wait staff are her zombie henchmen! They attack immediately.
The example above shows how the party might flow if the characters chose to do nothing. Odds are most groups will take action, and you may not have every scene in your timeline play out. That’s totally fine. In fact that’s the hope. The list exists so the next time you find the characters talking in circles about what to do next, you can say, “And that’s when Lady Duafaine wanders over…” A new conversation or a change of scene reminds them of the ticking clock and provides them with some new information that allows them to take action. Whenever you feel the characters are dragging their feet, simply move to the next item on your list.
If the characters figure out Lady Duafaine is Necronstalla and attack before dinner is served, that’s ok. This list is to here help you move things along not be a full outline for the adventure. They might also take her advice and arrest the barroness’ husband (which is exactly the distraction the lich wants) which would also shake up the timeline.
A chronological list like this also helps you out when the players go somewhere you didn’t expect. Maybe one of them wants to investigate the kitchen because they’re worried the baroness might be poisoned. Depending on when they sneak into the kitchen, you might describe the wait staff moving mechanically as they lift trays and prepare to bring them to the hall. They don’t speak with one another and go about their tasks like focused robots. Your list told you that because dinner hasn’t been served yet, this is what the zombies would be setting up. Similarly, if a character goes into the kitchen during dinner to see what desserts are offered, they might be surprised to find none are being made… a tip that something indeed is wrong!
Make A List Of Random Events
Of course not all adventures are so structured. The most classic of heists, the bank variety, could follow the bank’s schedule if the characters are using stealth and deception to obtain their goals, or it could take on a less structured vibe if the characters are doing more of an old-fashioned stick up. In cases like these, where there isn’t a set schedule, you’ll just need a list of random events ready to go. You might event put them into a table like the one below. Whenever the characters are talking in circles, roll on the table or pick and event to shake things up.
|1||The PCs are alerted their getaway vehicle is compromised.|
|2||The PCs get word their heist is trending on social media or in the news.|
|3||The bank enters lockdown mode. All the doors shut and lock making it nigh impossible to leave.|
|4||A security guard who is late for duty arrives on the scene.|
|5||An alarm the PCs didn’t know or plan for about begins to sound.|
|6||A hostage offers considerable wealth or information for their release.|
|7||A hostage recognizes a PC.|
|8||3d4 heroic hostages take it on themselves to assault the PCs.|
|9||A pregnant hostage goes into labor.|
|10||A voice calls from outside, “This is the police! We have you surrounded.”|
Events like these should really keep the pressure on your PCs to keep moving. The longer they dillydally, the more the problems will start to pile up. This method isn’t just for ban heists. Zombie outbreaks, battlefield operations, and all kinds of other missions benefit from having a table like this.
Have A List Of NPCs Handy
No matter what you do, it helps to keep a list of NPCs that might engage the characters to move the story along handy. Don’t spend too much time on this. A sentence or two should be enough for you to improv a quick scene with the characters to keep their butts moving. Use this list in conjunction with your event list to really make your story work. In the bank example above a list like this might give you an idea of which hostage leads the charge against the PCs. Or the list could even make you think of some new events on the spot. Why wouldn’t intrepid reporter Maria Carrana try to engage the PCs for an interview as they rob her bank?
Here are some sample entries for an NPC list:
- Maria Carrana – Bold reporter for The Daily Drift who will stop at nothing for a good story.
- Gruff McGriffles – An old dwarf who loves talking about his days as a captain in the orc war.
- Admiral Gutpunch – A spacemarine android who takes everything literally.
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