We’ve been running demos around Cascadia to promote Catalyst. People of all skill and interest levels regarding RPGs have been approaching our tables and trying out the game. We not only have to sell them on our game, but on the hobby as a whole. Part of the pitch includes the standard pros of role playing: socialness, creativity, problem solving, and all the other avenues of human existence untouched by a night of drinking in a bar. Words only go so far though. In these brief interactions, we must show the joy to be had in role playing. The crux of this relies on the GM’s ability to pique and maintain interest. The action in the story and in the room must keep up a brisk pace.
The nature of these demos is, admittedly, different from a typical campaign. Players are choosing from premade characters, instead of having the option to create their own. There’s also no grand arc the players explore over a few sessions. Rather, they start in a hub-like point offering choices for quickly resolved action sequences. This way, we can highlight the localized setting (whatever city we happen to be in) and show off the card-based combat mechanics. Players are still free to come up with free-form solutions to the scenarios, like crashing a bus through a wall instead of entering one of the given doors. Ultimately though, they fight the fights we’ve planned.
Because the demos forced me to switch away from the longer, more epic quests, my GMing style has been forced to adapt. I’ve learned lessons to apply back to the typical fare. The ultimate takeaway is to always keep moving forward. It seems obvious, but slowing down over minutiae is a trap I fall into as a GM frequently. Avoid asking “do you…?” if you already know the answer. If players need to drive across town, just say they’ve driven across town; don’t confirm that’s what they want to do. If players want to deviate, let them, but put the onus to do so upon them. They’ll tell you if they’d rather stay in the car than exit with their comrades. Of course, if there’s actual choice to be made, let the players tell you their actions. Don’t warp past tense decisions or planning: our demo fights always let the players try to snoop around the enemy positions before actively engaging.
Combat needs to be quick as well. Have your enemies already designed, even if you think you’re fully capable of guessing necessary stats on the spot. Focus the fight on interesting choices. Keep players under pressure. Favor actions that harm players over preserving enemies. If a fight is clearly going to be won by the players, have their foes surrender or just wrap up the fight for them with a bit of narration. No one wants to drag out a battle after the key opponents are dead to kill random thug #9. If you don’t know a rule when it comes up, make something up and look for the manual’s actual line later. Players will have more fun progressing than if you correctly determine whether a spell goes against intelligence or willpower.
It’s a rather system-dependent thing to advise a GM on how to speed up play. The above tips should apply everywhere, but your game and group will necessitate other tricks to keep the excitement going. However, GMs should take the idea of fast pacing at both a minute-to-minute level and a campaign-wide scope. There need to be natural shifts in tension and resolution, but nothing should ever feel like filler. Have purpose with your narration and your player interactions. No great hero ever sat around thinking if they should leave the car door open or not.