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.
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.
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?