Imagine a football game* where every play ends in a touchdown. For the first few plays, it’s pretty exciting. Returning a kick for a touchdown is the thing of sports highlight reels, as are fifty-yard passes and expert runs. But by the time the second quarter rolls around, the plays begin to lose their magic. The athleticism is the same, but the spectacle of it is gone. After seeing it ten or twenty times in a row, it stops being special no matter how impressive it is.
Now imagine another football game where neither team ever makes a first down. The offenses are weak that neither team is able to make any yardage, so every possession ends in a punt. But at the same time, both defenses are too weak to make any impressive plays like interceptions or safeties. By the end of the game, no points are on the scoreboard and neither team has been on the other side of the fifty-yard line.
In both cases, the problem with the game is the pacing. You as a viewer or fan as used to a rise-and-fall pattern of games. Excitement rises as teams cross the field, culminating in a touchdown and lowering again as the ball changes owners. When something breaks this pattern, it changes the mood of the game; when a team is forced to punt, it unexpectedly lowers the excitement of that team’s fans, but one unexpected great play can bring them back to their feet. When the game stops rising and falling, when it falls into a predictable pattern, then the interest in the game disappears.
Pacing, the speed at which a game progresses, is one of the most interested parts of running D&D because it’s probably one of the most important parts of the game that’s also one of the least understood. There aren’t many books or guides that explicitly deal with pacing because it’s a story contract, not something with any rules implications. It’s not an exact science, so there’s not a lot of advice that can be given on it. But it’s phenomenally important that DMs understand pacing. Good pacing keeps players interested in the plot and the game and keeps them at the table, while bad pacing burns them out (ruining your big moments) or bored them (ruining pretty much everything).
The first, most important thing to get is that pacing is hard. Pretty much everything has pacing, from television shows to movies to jokes to ordinary conversations. A lot of these get pacing wrong, and it’s very easy to do unless you’re keeping an eye on it specifically. I could rattle off a list of things with bad pacing, but if they’re things you haven’t seen then it won’t mean anything. (Did anybody but me watch The Cape? I doubt it.) Just keep an eye on the next TV show you watch or movie you see. Pay attention to the highs and lows and what the show or movie is doing to keep your interest without taxing it. I bet there’s a good chance that it gets the big points right (and we’ll discuss those big points later), but there’s something in the middle fails.
The second thing to understand is the mechanics of pacing. Again, there aren’t game mechanics, but there are definable traits of pacing. There’s an irregular up-and-down rhythm to good pacing that pulls players in at key moments. These are “crests”, the high points that maximize their interest an excitement. But to give crests impact, there has to be something in between to keep players from getting burned out. These are “troughs”, the low points that let them relax, gather their thoughts, and look at things without the pressure of a crest.
It seems that crests and troughs can be subjective, but they usually aren’t. For example, think of a 3rd Edition campaign with a typical cleric/fighter/wizard/rogue party. Now add to that party a bard who focused on exploration, diplomacy, and knowledge, but isn’t built for combat in any way. When the party is ambushed by goblins in the middle of traveling, four players have ways they can contribute to the fight, while the bard is largely irrelevant. But that bard’s player will still acknowledge that ambush as a crest; even if that player wasn’t excited and interested in the progression of the fight, they can still see that was the intention. It does mean that the crest didn’t do its job, and probably that it wasn’t a very good crest, but it was still a crest.
This leads into the third important point about pacing, that it’s something that often needs to be adjusted on the fly. If you see that the players are getting bored, you can give them a crest, and if you see them running themselves ragged, you can give then a trough. The content of that crest or trough is equally mutable. When I say “crest”, meaning “something interesting or exciting”, a lot of players and DMs think “combat”, and that’s a good and valid answer in a lot of cases. But sometimes a fight is also a trough. I have a friend who refers to “the intellectual safety of combat” in this capacity. Sometimes players are so lost or bogged down in some aspect of the story that it’s relaxing to be in the set roles of combat, to enter a situation where choices aren’t nearly as expansive, and to they can make a cognitive switch that allows them to go back to the primary plot refreshed.
At this point, I think it’s pretty clear what pacing is and why it’s good, but I haven’t really been clear on how I apply it to campaigns (and, to be honest, how I think most DMs should apply it). That’s because there are lots of different kinds of pacing. A session has pacing, sure. But so does an adventure that lasts many sessions. So does a full campaign. Even a single fight has a pace to it, something that Wizards felt so strongly about that they designed 4th Edition around changing the pace of fights. So I’m going to go over each of these in different entries, both to pad my post count and to give each level of pacing the attention it deserves.
* – I’m a football fan, so I used a football analogy (though what I’d really like to use is a pro wrestling example, I think this post is better served by something that isn’t scripted). If you’re a basketball fan, instead imagine a game where each team makes full-court three pointers versus a game where no team makes a basket. If you’re a golf fan, imagine a match where every golfers makes all holes-in-one versus a match where all golfers are six over par. If you’re a baseball fan, imagine a game where every at-bat is a home run (baseball has no boring example, because a pitchers’ duel is apparently very exciting to baseball fans). If you’re a hockey fan…a game with all fighting versus a game with no fighting? I don’t know hockey.