Recently, while playing, I had the unfortunate feeling that the situation I’d dropped the PCs into was going to take a lot longer than I had suspected to resolve. I was right, what was originally supposed to be a single, four hour session of rollicking adventure quickly became a three session slugfest between the players and their adversaries.
It was terrible. Or, at least, it was from my side of the table. The adventure was taking too long! We were way off schedule! It had been three weeks and we were only supposed to take one! Disaster of disasters, I could only see that we were taking far too long with the whole thing, getting caught up on minutiae, and that the players were using an approach to the situation that was really time consuming. I spent the entirety of the second session improvising details, and the entirety of the third session trying to compute the world’s reaction to the PCs’ shenanigans, and the insanity it caused.
In retrospect, everybody but me was having fun through the second session, but by the third session it had become the slog I’d imagined it to be. So, what does one do when the adventure, story arc, or what have you runs overtime? I’m gonna talk about this, but first get a couple things out of your head:
1) Nothing is going according to plan: This is fine. The game is not about your precious plan and what correct buttons the players push to get little pieces of it from you. It’s about the story the players choose to make out of situations you present them.
2) We are wasting time: No you’re not. Not at first, at least. It just looks like this story takes more time to tell than you thought.
I’m going to break this problem down into two pieces, as well, the Session Two problem and the Session Three problem. I’m naming them after the situation I was in, but really they could happen at any time. You could have the Session Three problem after just
The Session Two problem is this: This story arc is taking too long, it was supposed to be done last session! I don’t have any material, or I don’t know what to do in reaction to what the players did. It’s a problem for the GM. We could also call this problem the “Oops! Out of Material!” or the “Too much material” problem.
The Session Two problem just seems like a problem because you’re panicking. Remember the two things to get out of your head? Get them out of your head. Okay, now that that’s done, just start up the Improv Machine. Make up new details, but don’t complicate the situation in the Fiction. Steer it towards resolutions. Make the tact the PCs are taking a more effective one. That’s not to say change what the players’ actions are, but it does mean make the actions they’re taking be the correct ones. Unless they’re way off the mark, in which case help them stumble into the correct solutions through their other means. Note that if you’re a GM without strong Improv Skills, this is a great time to practice. Your players are people. When you explain afterwards that you didn’t know or hadn’t detailed that part of the world they stumbled into, they’ll understand. Be gracious, and they’ll almost definitely be understanding. See also the advice for Session Three problem, below, about using simple mechanics and making sure all choices move towards conclusions.
The Session Three problem is this: We were supposed to be done with this two sessions ago, but for some reason we aren’t. The situation in the fiction has gotten absurdly complicated. Everyone is getting groany around the table and nodding off, or staring at the wall, or exclaiming that “They don’t know what to do!” when you ask them what their character is doing. It’s a problem for everybody. We could call this the “Awful, Boring Game” problem or the “We All Have Burnout From This Scenario” problem.
Yeah, this sucks. The situation has stagnated for some reason or another and the players have gotten passive because of it. This is the part where you have no choice but to force their hand. It might seem like the ball is in their court to you, but in reality: You’re the GM. You can just make another ball. This is where you just gotta get proactive. Y’all gotta get your crap together. Take a look at the situation and throw something into the Players’ face. Blow something up. Have guys burst through the door with guns ala Raymond Chandler. Anything will do, as long as it fits the fictional situation, with one caveat. The caveat is this: It must move the plot to conclusion. You want this to be over now. The players want this to be over now. So, solve it. Make it over faster. For example, the players are trying to find an underground cult. They were supposed to do it two sessions ago. But, instead, they’ve just driven the cult further underground through their actions. Yeah, a lot of investigation has happened and they’ve found out all kinds of information, and they’ve had some minor skirmishes, but now they’re stumped. But the cult is hiding, right? The ball is in the players’ court.
Nuh uh GM. No such luck for you. Form up half the cult into a strike team and come hunting for the players. Have them pull off their caper in a public place and let the players get wind of it and catch them in the act. Up the stakes, yes, but also move towards conclusion. Support this choice mechanically, too. Choose the simplest methods of resolution your system has to offer. Let them find the cult lair with a single skill test, action, what have you. Remember your Session Two problems – make whatever they do in reaction to your offensive the right reaction. Help them along.
Don’t say anything unless it moves towards conclusion at this point, because we’re on Session Three and nobody was having fun, remember? Yeah, and cut game content from your outline at this point too. Forget the world, just let them succeed so we can all move on. That doesn’t mean we can’t deal with fallout next session, but we’re trying to end this story arc. So, let them be right.
Unless they turtle up and hide or clam up and refuse to interact with the fiction. Y’all, that’s a bigger problem. We’ll talk about that another time.