• Justin Handlin

How to be the BEST Dungeon Master! Game Pacing in Dungeons & Dragons

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Do you find that sometimes your Dungeons & Dragons game feels a bit slow? Not just in combat, but in the narrative itself? If so, your game probably needs better pacing! Follow these guidelines and your gaming sessions will keep everyone at the table fully engaged and eager for the next session. With these tips, we can help you learn how to be the Best Dungeon Master!


What is Pacing in Dungeons & Dragons?

Pacing is the rhythm of action and story progression that unfolds in encounters over the course of the session. You can keep tension and focus by having great pacing in your encounters. Generally speaking, there are three different pacing models. Balanced, Spike, Escalation.


Players have many choices, this often means they can take on your quests in a different sequence than you intended, so be ready for that. Be flexible, and be ready to modify your encounters on the fly, to fit the pacing model you intend. For example, moving monsters from one planned encounter to another.


Let's break down these models to help plan encounters for your gaming sessions.


BALANCED PACING

Most well-rounded gaming sessions follow a good, balanced pacing. These often include but aren't limited to the following.

  • The aim is for a nice balance of combat, role play, and storytelling.

  • Often alternates fast and furious moments, with slower calmer periods.

  • Going from an easy combat encounter to a difficult encounter and vice versa.

  • High dramatic story moments, followed by spending time shopping and chatting with the locals.

  • A party that likes to burn all their resources early on, can often disrupt your pacing. Adding slower periods can ease tension and encourage them to continue forward, instead of taking rests.

  • Make sure to give your players a variety of encounters to hold their attention.

Straight forward dungeon adventures often follow this model, slow, calm periods of exploration, broken by intense combat. This model works best effectively when you start and end sessions/adventuring days on a high note. Balanced pacing is a versatile model and allows a variety of different encounter types, including combat/ exploration, investigation, puzzles and NPC interactions.


Example: Difficult encounter or dramatic turning points to grab your players’ attention at the outset and end with a cliffhanger, leaving them wanting more.


SPIKE PACING


This pacing is often a single encounter that is so difficult that the PCs need to use every resource available, as well as solid tactics to overcome the challenge. Often, PCs will only face one such encounter in a session/adventuring day of this model. While the encounter is often combat, it can be other types of encounters as well. Some good examples are chases, survival or some other style of encounter. Keep in mind, if you plan on this being the only encounter, ensure to use minor build-up and aftermath encounters to serve as rising and falling action points.

  • Spike pacing builds a rush and excitement of a battle with everything on the line. Where players can use every resource at their disposal.

  • Increases the players’ fear, uncertainty, and tension with clues about the opponents they face.

  • There is a dedicated build-up to the event. If you can manage to foreshadow events to come in a dramatic way, the build-up can lead to an amazing….release. The build-up becomes important.

The spike model works well as a centerpiece of a short adventure, maybe an interruption to a long journey, and being stalked by a beast or assassin. Afterward, let them spend the conclusion mulling over the consequences of the outcome, in NPC interactions or in exploration mode. Ensure that the players reach the spike refreshed and have full access to resources, as well as some additional consumables, maybe even a boon.


ESCALATION PACING


In this model, you put the players on a steady upward ramp of increasingly difficult challenges until they reach the top - a dramatic climax featuring a major villain, world-shattering revelations, or both. The goal of this model is to gradually deplete the characters’ resources so that when they reach the climax, they’re exhausted and face serious trouble, as they are burnt out.

  • The escalation model relies on depleting PC resources such as spell slots, hit dice, hit points, magic item usage, etc.

  • Tight deadline, a race across the countryside, or suffering from some sort of curse that prevents rest.

  • The characters are motivated from one encounter to the next without a rest(long or short) building tension.

  • This model works particularly well in games that have strong horror or drama elements.

Ideally, the PCs don’t realize the seriousness of the trouble they face until it’s too late. Then they have to do battle with little or no spell slots, low hit dice for recovery or levels of exhaustion that makes a normal encounter, deadly. The escalation pacing's goal is to build to a terrible climax in which the players themselves fear for their character's lives. It's NOT to wipe the party or force them to flee in defeat. The climactic encounter should be big and scary, but it shouldn’t be more than they can handle.


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