Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mr. GM, Please Get On With It

Yesterday while talking about "Framing the Scene" I mentioned how less can be more when it comes to description. The thing is, there is at least one other area where the general principle behind that thought can be useful in your game. That area? Well, namely it's getting things done in your session. Today I want to talk about "getting on with it", or - in other words - keeping your game on track.

The Situation
So if you're a player, or a GM, how many times has this happened to you? You have the group at the table, the plan is to go through a certain chunk of the adventure and hopefully end up at the beginning of a battle or other important story piece that is going to be the main crux of the next session. Only, as the game goes on it keeps going off on tangents and side things that don't really mean much to the main plot. Then, before you know it, the time for the game session is all gone and you're still an hour or more away from where you want to be.

Depending on your GM - or yourself if you are the GM, - the GMing style, and the players you have this will happen a lot more or less. However, it all comes from the same route cause. Namely, side-questitis.

Side Quest-itis
You ever notice how when they list the expected playtime for a computer/console RPG that they usually have two numbers? For example, I believe the first Mass Effect had a 12 hour campaign, but they expected the game to last a player over 30 hours if they tried to do everything. Other games will have a 20 hour campaign but over 100 hours of content on the disk. Heck, the Elder Scrolls and Fall Out series base their game on the idea that there is a lot more to do than just the quest you are currently on. But take a second and look at those numbers. In general, all of the side quests and little things that you can do make the game over 2 times larger than it normally would be.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. It is awesome that if I want to that I can just run out into the wilderness and stumble across some other adventures. It's awesome that the GM - back in a table top game - is willing to help me cover a bunch of little details before we move on to the next story arc. However, there is a time and a place for all of this, and when you are trying to get something done in your game - especially story wise - it isn't the best time to go through another round of "lets complete all the side quests." Especially since at least one of your players, likely more, probably wants to get on with the big plot and solve this hurdle so that the game can move on.

It Isn't The Players Fault
I know a GM who is prone to having this happen to his games. Everytime it happens he mentions that the players ran off on a dozen little side ventures that slowed the game to a crawl. Eventually I told him this, and I'm telling it to you now: those little side ventures are not the players' fault. A RPG session is about the players having their characters do stuff. As such, it isn't their fault when you give them the opportunity to do stuff and they then go off and do just that. This is where the more story structured campaigns have to strike a delicate balance between the freedom to do whatever that the game naturally wants to give the players, and the more limited choices you need to give them for your story. Give too little, and you railroad them. Give too many, and they will rightfully go off and jump around.

So, how do you handle it?

Choose Your Words Carefully
Much like in descriptions, you want to choose your words carefully when prompting for action. "Does anyone want to do anything?" is a lot more open than "Does anyone have anything they need to handle before the big fight happens?" Granted, this particular choice in phrasing only happens when there is a known big event coming up, but it does get the point across quickly. One is a general call for action ("I want to go shopping for magic items!") and the other is asking if there's anything that needs to be resolved before the plot steps forward ("I want to make sure the scouts have oiled the field properly!")

The other thing this does is it makes sure that everyone knows that you are ready to move on to the big event that has been built up to. The plot is ready to move forward, and could be dangerously close to doing so without the players involvement. They still have the freedom to act, but just by pointing out what is coming up next - or at least very soon - the player will know that they don't have the full range of freedom they would normally have.

Limit Given Choices
Different from how you choose your words, sometimes it is ok to just narrate past a certain event. Ever been in a game where the GM asks you every in character day what you are up to? Even though you've established a routine, or a routine would be present for your character? Yeah. Eliminating those kinds of things, keeping the action going and on point when the game needs it to be, can also streamline the game and moving forward. Does it really matter what Jim the Mechanic is doing during his free time the day before he heads off to the Mechanic Award Show where the plot for him starts? No, not really. Especially not when a simple "is there anything you want to do before hand?" can suffice without making the player think he has to go into details.

Everything Doesn't Have To Be A Scene
The other big trick is to gloss over some things. Everything doesn't have to be a scene. Everything doesn't have to be a challenge. There's no real reason why you have to roll on the random encounters table every night at the difficulty that gives the players the optimal challenge for their level. At the same time, you don't need to have something happen everywhere a player goes. If what the player wants to do isn't super important to the game, and especially if it is something that could be lengthy and only involves one player, then just handle it quickly without a scene. If the player wants to go into it in more detail, you can either choose to do it then - if it is really important - or ask them if they wouldn't mind doing it after the game.

Keep Things Moving
Obviously this advice depends heavily on the GM having a good grasp on their game. There are times where you are going to want, or have, to give your players full freedom to go off and do things. Those times will tell you a lot about what the player wants to do in the game, so pay attention. However, if you are on an agenda, or need to have something happen, then keep on the ball. Keep the game moving, and don't go off on every side path that you can find.

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