I’ve spent three blog posts going over the theory of pacing. Though I provided some examples, I didn’t really go over that many specifics of how pacing can work in a campaign. So here are some ideas I’ve used that have (more or less) worked:
- Impending Crisis (The Eights Arms and the Deed of Taiyun Gao, Wrath of the Cosmic Accountant) – There’s something or someone coming and the players have to stop it. This generally falls into two categories: a soft time limit (“If we don’t get the magic sword, the evil advisor will take over the kingdom!”) and a hard time limit (“The moon is going to destroy the earth in three days!”). In both cases, the players should feel like they have to hurry to stop the oncoming enemy or threat. Handled well, this pushes the pacing upward as the deadline approaches and forces the characters to move forward even if their resources are low or if it’s smarter to wait.
- Solve the Mystery (The Eight Arms and the Conqueror Worm) – Something mysterious is happening and the players need to find out what’s causing it. In mystery fiction this is often murder or kidnapping, but it could be that monsters are appearing or the world is slowly getting colder. This is like a crisis, but without a clear cause or obvious end point. Things ramp up as the players resolve parts of the mystery, getting closer and closer to the solution and potentially acting on it while things get in their way. It’s probably the easiest idea to throw together, but it’s the hardest to sustain over a long period of time because you have to give the players intermediate successes that don’t blow the mystery wide open.
- Collect the Macguffins (The Nine Emblems, The Armor of Tiamat) – There’s some unique set of items in the world which, when collected, will cause some great event. This could be something as obvious as necklaces or as unusual as descendants of great leaders. This point is that as the players collect more and get closer to their goal, the going either gets more difficult or forces conspire to make the going more difficult. Perhaps the players need to go to ever-more exotic locations or make deals with ever-more dangerous creatures they’d rather leave alone. This is easy enough to implement that my first five (!) campaigns at least started out this way, and the main difficulty is having things escalate in a way that makes sense within the world.
- Kill the Bad Guys (Osaevu the Chosen) – There’s some unique set of creatures in the world that need to be killed. Maybe they’re magically corrupted in some way, maybe they’re guarding some powerful allies, or maybe they’re going to cause the aforementioned crisis or collect the aforementioned MacGuffins in the absence of the party. In either case, the players need to find them and eliminate them in some way. This lets you design a campaign around increasingly difficult threats, where the crests are the fights and the troughs are the rests afterward and the results of killing each creature, but it makes it hard to design interesting bad guys when the players know they just want to kill them on sight.
Since these are fairly meta examples, with enough thought you can probably think of a dozen movies, books, video games, or television shows that use each. There are also a dozen more ideas you can use as a pacing framework, but these are the ones that, when executed properly, I’ve found work well in the context of a D&D campaign.
And bonus points for anybody who noticed all the Zelda references (I think I made eight).