Pacing a Convention Game Session

I GMed a oneshot at a convention over the weekend. I'll write more about the adventure itself another time, but right now I want to talk about how I run games at this particular convention. Maybe I should start by contrasting it to other games I run.

When I run old school adventures I prep a dungeon. A map, some monsters and loot, a couple of different factions, wandering monster tables, and quite often something like tables for specific events: what happens when you touch the blessed altar, eat the magic mushroom, inhale the green smoke, push that button, etc. As a referee I count turns of exploration, roll for encounters, and similar. The session ends when the session ends, no matter if the PCs have explored every nook and cranny or just five rooms. The PCs die when they die, and the dice decide a lot of things.

At the con I attended over the weekend I do things differently. I run more story-now type of adventures, where the prep is really just characters and a starting position and we see where it goes from there.

The ending is usually not preordained, but characters rarely die and most of the time they succeed although success is often... Let's say "relative". The first adventure I ran at this con a bunch of years ago was Lady Blackbird, where the central theme is that the lady in question wants to cross the world to reunite with her secret love the pirate king Uriah Flint. In every session the characters arrived there, but how and what happened in those final moments differed radically. Some attempted to kill Uriah, some fought within the group, some joined him and defeated common foes, etc.

This time around the ending was quite preordained. The theme of the game was to be the first of six teams, working for different inventors in a steampunk Paris, to travel to the moon. Choices on the way were different, and the inventors had different plans for getting there. In essence the way to the moon was winding, but I decided to always let them win. That doesn't mean it can't be exciting, of course!

Let's (Finally) Talk About Pacing

The start and the end were clear, but I had nothing planned for the in-between. I let the players drive most of this; figure out what they need and where and how to get it. And then look for the complications.

A session is four hours. I want to give the players four hours of quality game time, which means it's sort of a failure if we wrap up after two. This is not a hard rule! Over the years there's been exceptions where both I and the group feel that we've gone through the adventure and are quite happy ending it earlier, but those times can easily be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

But what does it mean to fill out a session? And how is that done in an interesting way?

For me it's turned out to be a matter of following a formula. First of all: in a four hour session, plan a short break half way and be open with that in advance. It saves everyone from needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of something.

When it comes to the game itself you can afford to start slow. Give the players time to figure out their surroundings and plan some moves. If you've placed them in media res then run them hard until they get a chance to catch a breather, then let them do that. Within the first hour they've usually leveled out and gained their bearings. They're starting to clarify their steps and see solutions.

In the next hour they'll pursue those solutions. Some things will succeed and others not. Sometimes that depends on the dice, but sometimes it's more about the story. Let them savor the successes and plan their next move and how to solve the issues that have arisen. Before the hour is over, however, they should be at a place where it's obvious that the road forward is anything but straight.

Coming back from the break you'll probably need a few minutes to get back into it, but this is when they usually sit down to critically examine their options and douse any and all optimism. They can no longer afford to take success for granted, and now that they begin to see what kinds of trouble can brew they will start assuming that all of it will. And it will. Oh, it will.

Every victory from now on is nigh a pyrrhic one. If they make progress too quickly at this stage I make sure to set them back a bit. It doesn't just make the game last longer, it also escalates the stress and insecurity. Around the three hour mark is often a good time to let them see a glimmer of light. If the players are scrambling and panicking around three hours and twenty minutes into the session you're doing it right.

The last scene, the climactic ending, often takes thirty to forty minutes. It's basically everyone desperately thinking outside the box, dealing with one problem while running from the next and fearing that the third and fourth will be upon them any second. They'll do exactly anything reach their goal at this point, and it's glorious. If the ending they've been steering towards is a big fight, then make it big. Maybe they all die; hopefully it's worth their lives. If the end is a literal finish line then the tension as they close in will be palpable: are they going to win? Are they even going to make it all the way? Maybe the ending is a cataclysmic event for the group; the final straw that make them part ways under dramatic circumstances.

You've followed them towards the end they've dictated, but you haven't made it easy for them. Not the slightest.

For my next post I'll publish the adventure I ran this time and give some real examples of how I handled things.

-- CC0 Björn Wärmedal