Pacing a session

Last week, we spoke about pacing combat in a game to achieve different effects. This week we look at pace across an entire session — a planned “encounter pace” week, which falls somewhere between the two, is hereby scrapped.

When it comes to setting a pace for a gaming session, there are two things to consider. One is the general feel of the session — will it be laid-back, rushed, or somewhere in between? The second is in terms of goals: where do you want to be at the end of the session?

To me, the answer to both of these is in Island Design Theory, to borrow the name from the good people at Gnome Stew. When I read the Gnome Stew article on Island Design Theory back in January, I thought to myself I didn’t know it had a name. Put briefly, Island Design Theory is about creating mutually exclusive pieces of your campaign, that can safely occur out of order. It is about designing the game so that the PC’s have the freedom to explore your plot in any way they see fit.

Gnome Stew got it completely right — and it also allows you to control the pace of your sessions, as we see below:

Imagine that you have an end-of-session goal, but you want your game to be frantic that day. You set it at a fast pace — but it’s too fast. The players are rapidly approaching the goal you have in mind. What do you do?

Many GMs would either stretch out what was remaining, destroying the fun, frantic pace that has been set. Others would follow through, and either end the session early or overshoot their goal. Neither is a good solution. However, a GM with extra islands can slot them in, and maintain the pace they have set.

On the flip side, if you’re setting a slower pace for the session, you might have too many things planned. An ability to pull them out without destroying the game plan is paramount.

Island design theory allows you to throw in an extra island before your session-end — or pull one out — if needed. Rather than stretching scenes, or rushing through them to get to an end-point, having flexible scenes that can be added or removed from the game allow the GM to maintain the feel of the game while still reaching the goal.