OrcaCon is this weekend and we here at Cherry Picked Games are hyped to once again be presenting Catalyst to the masses. We are running both quick demos and full-length sessions. While we love conventions, they come with a time-limit caveat. Role-playing at home means your games can end naturally. Scheduled games mean we have to pack up and get to the next group of players. We have to maximize everyone’s enjoyment for that small block of time. Of course, those lessons are useful to any session, so we will share our tips on keeping players happy and moving. We are expanding off of our “Pacing” article, which was written under similar circumstances, so check that out first if you have not already.
Never be afraid to gloss over rules in the name of progress. As the game master, you should be familiar enough with the system to handle normal play. Standard GM-protocol is to make a judgement call when a weird scenario arises. When play needs to be fast, expand this mentality to the numbers and effects within the mechanics. If a player looks at their character sheet and says they cast Illuminate rank 2, looking up how big the light radius is wastes time. Players can look this type of information up while others are talking. If you ruled incorrectly (like if you said the spell is 3 meters instead of 2), correct it next time. This way, you maintain the scene’s tension and you even provide things for inactive players to do. Above all, avoid retconning your decisions (do not change a scene’s history based on a rule lookup). Redoing a scene destroys momentum and wastes everyone’s time for no real benefit. “Fairness” will not be remembered after the game ends, only the action that took place.
Keep the same progress-first mentality to player interactions. Player discussion of the game is excellent. Games are about choices and evaluating those choices is paramount to the role-playing experience. While you can place pressure on players to decide quickly, thus increasing the tension, that is not the type of player-communication you should feel inclined to speed up. Players discussing things outside of the game is the problem. Anecdotes, Simpsons quotes, events from past games, anything outside the world of your game can be highly detrimental to play. They also make players laugh and enjoy the experience. Use a light touch here to ensure you are not cutting off people’s fun to play a game. If someone is excluded from a meta-conversation, switch your GM-focus to them. That switch not only brings new voices into the game, but realigns the focus back into the universe. If everyone is disengaged from the game, evaluate the situation. If the in-game action is low, you need to advance the plot. Jump ahead in the story to where players get to make interesting choices. If the players are easily distracted regardless of the game, remind them of time restrictions. Everyone is playing a game for a reason: they should want to progress as much as anyone and might be oblivious to how much time is passing.
Progression needs to be interesting. Advancing the story should yield deep moral conflicts, intense fights, and problems mandating ludicrous solutions. In the “Pacing” article, we discussed keeping combat scenes tight and relevant. The same applies to any scene. Rolling a skill check implies chances of failure and success; ignore the meaningless checks. Talented acrobats should be able to easily vault over a fence, so why waste time with a roll? Also avoid repeating checks. Rolling a stealth check at each hallway intersection may make sense mechanically, but greatly slows down the game. It also negates the meaning and accomplishment from earlier checks. Let players’ actions have consistent weight. If they sneak into the compound, great. Let that stand instead of forcing a player to keep sneaking. If players could potentially fail at different points in the scene, have the single roll determine where that failure happens. Low stealth checks mean the player was discovered early; near-misses imply being spotted at the last minute. One check paired with compelling narration lets the story move on and the players feel content with a single result.
All this momentum-driven gameplay is great for groups needing to finish fast. Of course, you and your players may have a more relaxed schedule. The ebbs and flows in excitement make an enjoyable evening of laughing, joking, thinking, fighting, and getting the most out of a game and your friends. When you need to relax and not be fully-invested in a game, do so. When you are on the cusp of an amazing scene and need everyone’s full focus, use these tips to heighten the action. As always, enjoy the game how you want.