Don’t Skip the Slow Parts

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 31, 2009

Does this sound familiar?

We’re going to skip the next three rooms of the dungeon. There are no traps, no monsters and no treasure. I want to speed things along so we can get to the good part.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve uttered these lines a few times when I was the DM and it was repeated just this week at my gaming table by our current DM. It got me thinking: if we’re going to blow past a few rooms or a minor encounter because it’s not deemed important or exciting, then why is it in the module in the first place?

More often than not, the reason the DM skips the slow part is because one encounter took way longer than expected and now the group is pressed for time. But is skipping the slow stuff the right way to get your game back on track? The more I think about it, I realize that you need those slow parts and skipping them actually hurts the bigger story arc and cheats the players.

Telegraphing the Play

By skipping the slow parts over and over again, the DM is announcing to the players which encounters are going to be big and important. If this happens then the players will gain certain benefits they might not have otherwise enjoyed. The likelihood of surprising the PCs is all but eliminated.

I know it can be boring and sometimes tedious to have the Rogue check every single door for traps, but it’s a necessary precaution (as discussed in Avoiding Death: Part 1). If the DM is always skipping the non-threatening parts, then the PCs learn to be extra cautious when they finally get to the next door and the DM asks for Perception and Thievery checks.

Balance

By skipping encounters deemed non-essential, the PC’s resources are not expended at the expected rate. The DM is announcing to the PCs that they shouldn’t worry about expending powers or limited use items. Sure it makes the use of such things by the PCs more relevant when they finally do use them, but 4e D&D was designed with this in mind. PCs are expected you to use action points, utility powers and daily powers on items during the course of normal adventuring – including the slow parts. The DM is inadvertently making the players more powerful by not allowing (or forcing) them to use these items and powers before they get to the good part.

I think it’s a fair observation that most players define the good stuff as combat encounters. Skipping everything else reduces opportunities for role-playing. The most memorable PCs I’ve ever played were the ones who had chances to develop through role-playing. PCs that do nothing but fight never evolve beyond mere numbers on the page and a collection of magical items and rare treasures.

Pacing

My recommendation is for DMs to be mindful of pacing. Many great examples of pacing are sitting on your DVD shelf. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favourites and illustrates my point nicely.

It begins with one of the most thrilling and memorable action scenarios in film. Indiana Jones thwarts deadly traps to recover a golden idol, narrowly avoids being crushed by a giant boulder and then gets chased by about 100 natives brandishing spears, bows and blow darts. When the scene is over the pace immediately slows down to allow the audience to catch its breath and to provide important details about the bigger story arc. If the movie simply went to the next “good part” and Indiana Jones just showed up in the tavern in Nepal, we’d be lost and the story would suffer for it. For every exhilarating battle there should be some calmer moments to keep things balanced.

The next time you want to skip the slow parts, remember the points we’ve raised here. It may seem like a good idea to just get to the next fight by skipping the plea from the townsfolk, but in the long-run your game will suffer for it. There has to be appropriate balance between the talking and the fighting. Changing it up keeps the PCs on their toes and forces them to treat every encounter seriously and with caution.

If you’re a DM, do you find yourself skipping the slow parts? How has it affected your game? If you’re a player, how do you feel about your DM skipping the slow parts? Has it made your game better or worse?

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 OGG March 31, 2009 at 6:39 am

Much to think about and to consider. TY.

2 skallawag March 31, 2009 at 3:48 pm

According to a LRF module that I’m looking to run my group through, each “empty” room is still considered an encounter. The empty rooms add some flair to the adventure, and what one person does in a room can affect the PC in a future module.

Why are there 3 rooms if there is no significance to the rooms? If there’s no significance, then why not just remove it from the adventure… you’re the DM after all.

Pacing and balance are key, and something the DM really needs to pick up on.

3 Mike March 31, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Actually, Skill Challenges, when run right, can help navigate a dungeon like that quickly and with a little bit of a game built in too.

One time I ran a one-shot adventure of Castle Ravenloft for some friends. It had only five encounters, three of which were combat and two skill challenges. They basically navigated all of the castle with a single large skill challenge that included handling clouds of bats, the female spectres of Strahd’s dead concubines, dealing with huge mechanical traps, and all sorts of other things. Some of the players liked it – some didn’t, but it got the idea across that they traveled through the whole castle, a bunch of stuff happened, and now they’re at Strahd. For a one-shot it worked well.

That’s probably how I’d handle the dead rooms in between the others. I also hand-wave them with a “you travel through a network of coordiors and rooms, avoiding or cutting down nasty beasts until you reach…this place!”

Think of it as a montage in a movie or show. They skip a whole pile of stuff, just showing little slivers of what’s happening, and then get back to the juicy parts.

4 Suddry March 31, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Good post. Lots of food for thought here.

I really struggle with this issue as a DM sometimes. I love roleplay. I really do. However as DM my main role is to keep the game moving and the players interested. Creeping through empty “rooms” doesn’t add a lot of fun to the game for me and by the look on my players eye-glazed faces, most of them don’t either. Who wants to spend 15 real minutes searching a room or talking to every NPC in the bar just because? (Of course if that is what the group finds fun then the DM should oblige!)

My goal as DM is to try and get through 3 encounters a session. It can be hard enough getting through “real” encounters in a 4 hour time slot without adding too much extra stuff in. Not only that, it doesn’t take long before the PCs are getting frustrated because they think they are missing something. (Of course that could very well be the result of consistantly making each stop have a reward or some meaning. “We are rolling dice. Hmm… must be something here.”)

I agree with Mike’s comment above. The in-between can be handled with skill challenges if you want. That said, I suck at them which is probably an issue that holds me back as a 4E DM.

Here is my view on role-play: I like high-level character building to occur in session and details to occur on our blog site or via email between sessions. I feel roleplay really shines when your character plays actually makes decisions like the character would during the “real” encounters. Meta-gaming and snail-pace trap-checking be damned. Roleplay your character in game and the game stays fun.

(edit: Not changing my comment at all but I want to clarify that I really enjoyed this blogpost. There are some good thoughts here that can easily be used to better any DM’s skillset. Keep it up!)

5 Ameron April 2, 2009 at 7:24 am

@ OGG
Thanks for visiting Dungeon’s Master. I’m glad you found this article interesting.

@Skallawag
I couldn’t agree more. If empty rooms are just there for flavour then either remove them from the adventure or try to create good role-playing opportunities. Don’t waste time searching through empty room after empty room. Keep the game moving.

@Mike
I think your idea is great. A skill challenge could certainly cover a lot of ground while keeping the players engaged. I really like your reference to a montage, that’s exactly how I’d envision a skill challenge of this sort. Good call.

@Suddry
Using a blog or email to give players out-of-game opportunities to develop their characters is a great idea. As you mentioned, a weekly game run for 4 hours doesn’t leave a lot of room for non-essential extras. But I think the players get out of it what they put in. If they want to check every room for loot, then that’s their call. The DM needs to encourage them to put their time and effort to the best use during the game. Good suggestions, Suddry.

6 ducttapebandit September 3, 2009 at 2:26 pm

I heard of one DM that got tired of the rouge checking doors for traps. He eventually just told the guy “There are no traps on any of the doors. Don’t bother rolling.” As someone that likes to play rouges and other characters with trap finding, I think that’s the worst possible solution.

7 Baffal September 3, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Not to take the sitting-at-the-table-with-character-sheet-and-pencil aspect away, but long term character development can happen when you’re not sitting around the table too. See if your players are open to role playing via email. This can never replace role playing around the table, but it’s a great way to get players to develop those key background ideas and flesh out backstories… copy everyone in the party and expect this to feel like role playing in slo mo but documenting is one of the best ways to remind yourself and your players about important factors in their life stories.

8 ducttapebandit September 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm

That’s a good point Baffal. I’ve DM’ed a few one-shot adventures, but not a campaign where we had that chance. I do know that when I get that chance at a campaign, I plan on asking my players to send me a brief e-mail after each session with what their characters are currently thinking/may do. It will push them to develop their character’s personality plus it will let me know what to prep for. Of course, they’ll be doing it for the bonus XP.

Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: