A Guide to Pacing in Fights
Play to find out what exactly?
One problem I find myself faced with a lot is pacing. Especially in One-Shots or First Sessions it is important to get the most fiction out of your time. In a One-Shot you want to get stuff done. In a first session you want to do the Pilot Episode method and see the characters in as many different scenes as possible to learn about them and about the world.
Especially bigger fight/action scenes can lead to this problem if we zoom in on every action and face the group with competent and numerous enemies. Bringing 6 elven warriors and their spellcaster leader against two characters does make sense (they are group and solo) but it takes up way too much time, especially if rolls are medium to bad. This problem was also discussed here.
For this guide I don’t want to delve too deeply into general session pacing but focus on the fight aspects. If you want some inspiration on how to structure your One-Shot, you might want to look here.
For fights and action scenes there are three things we will look at.
Why do those scenes get too long?
How to make them faster!
What should one do if the scene starts to get too long?
Why are we still doing this?
Let’s face it. Action scenes are cool. Most classes interact directly with combat and epic struggles against horrendous monsters or hordes of critters are an important part of the fantasy genre. We want to have these!
We also want to play to find out when our heroes engage the Guardians of the Lotus vale or take on the Orcs of Ashai.
In the eagerness to see all of that happen at least I have a tendency to zoom in way too much. Everything is dynamic and cool but if you have to deal with groups of enemies it can take quite some time.
A big part of this are monster groups that are too big. If you have to fight your way through a bunch whatevers it will simply take time. 6 trained opponents that use tactics and maybe some kind of spells or dangerous special traits/abilities aren’t handled in a quick way in my games – unless the Wizard casts Fireball. While I don’t want to “balance” encounters to be a certain amount of challenge, balancing them for pacing sounds like a great idea. There is no reason you should send 7 elven elite troops against two characters. OF COURSE this will take forever.
In these cases playing to find out what happens (in this fight) takes precedent over thinking dangerous and potentially be a fan of the player characters. Characters, monsters, etc. that want to fight the player characters are there to be beaten. Don’t think how you can keep them alive longer, they will do that by themselves. Think about how you can put them in danger. “Whenever your eye falls on something you’ve created, think how it can be put in danger, fall apart or crumble.”
Another part of this is players zooming in too much with their moves, especially in melee. If your Hack&Slash is one swing of the axe then it will take a while. If your Hack&Slash is “I push my way into the group, swinging my axe at some and punching them with my shield. If one gets to close I kick them away from me to make room for the next axe-attack!” then you can
Attack more enemies at the same time, therefore deal more damage and end everything faster.
Give a more cinematic feel to everything you describe and cover more time and action with one roll.
I feel like it should not only be allowed but encouraged for players to take longer-sweeping actions in order to accomplish more with one roll. It also gives you more fictional ammunition to work with than a single attack.
Especially a fighter should be pulling these kinds of stunts more often than not. Remind players that they shouldn’t focus in too much on singular actions, especially when dealing with multiple enemies.
The last reason this may happen is because you haven’t given every monster life. If the monsters (or player characters) aren’t fleeing, or at least changing tactics, when things are dire then fights will seem monotonous and therefore feel and probably BE longer. When it is your time to make a move, look at the scene through the eyes of your NPCs and adapt their behaviour to it.
“My name is Barry Allen, I am the fastest fight alive”
Seeing reasons for slow fights above it is now clear what we must do.
First and foremost the zoom factor needs to adapt to the level and amount of the threat. As a rule of thumb the Organization tags provide a good indicator for how much you should zoom in. A fight against a clockwork golem with all kinds of gadgets will be zoomed in more than a struggle against a pack of 5 gnolls.
You can of course play with this and reverse this idea for an encounter to shake up everyones perception of the game.
This applies to GM moves too. The hard move of the golem can be a massive smack of it’s claw-arm that buries the Cleric under it but the response of the Gnoll shouldn’t just be one of them biting you. Move the battle along further with your moves and also hit the characters hard. Soft hard moves can also drag out things because they don’t have enough of an impact.
If you are dealing with few players, especially in a One-Shot, then don’t throw whole armies at them. Scaling down (or up) the numbers in a scene is something you should do because you are a fan of the characters. You want to see them do things, not just fight against these guys. You want to see them explore and dodge traps and decipher magic and jump through magic portals and fight not only elves but also elementals and hydras and goblins and the king’s musketeers!
I might be wrong on this but scaling down the numbers with a bigger group might also be the right thing to do. The numbers should be enough so that everyone has something to do. Throwing in 2 extra orcs because you have 1 extra player doesn’t seem right to me and might just take extra time.
Can’t we just skip to the end please?
Actually you can! If no one at the table has the energy for this fight anymore and you seen everything interesting that can happen in it, you can skip to the end.
“But wait! Aren’t you forgetting to play to find out when you do that?“
That’s a good question and the answer is no. If no one is interested in what is happening right now then why do you want to find out more? I bet everyone is more interested to see what happens when they get to the next room.
So how do you do the skip actually at the table. There are multiple ways to do that and they all revolve around moves.
The easiest thing to do is to offer an opportunity with or without cost.
“Okay, after a few more moments of fighting you have beaten the orcs and
what do you do? or
The fighter and barbarian take another [monster damage] and the ranger spends 1 ammo, what do you do?
during the struggle, one of the orcs was trying to escape. Hey ranger. You can let them escape or spend 1 ammo to have shot them in the leg and then captured them. What do you do?
each of you tell me how you took one down
after a bit of exploring you are now standing in a hall made out of red stone with a fountain of blood in the middle. Everything smells of blood too and you all can feel the anger rising inside you. What do you do?
or whatever else you think of. Skipping ahead like that is perfectly fine, especially in a one shot. I am partial to option 5. This is actually the Dungeon Move change the environment and I think it does a lot of good here. It distracts everyone from the fact that the fight you had is suddenly over. It adds new elements to the dungeon and keeps it from feeling to similar and it keeps the tension high instead of the usual down that tends to happen after an encounter.
If a player misses a roll you can also make a hard move to just end the scene. A good example would be the Lord of the Rings.
When the fellowship fights against the Troll and Orks in Moria there is a scene of Frodo getting stabbed by a huge spear and suddenly everything is slowmotion. Everyone goes “aaahhhh noooooo!” and Aragorn picks up Frodo and everyone just flees.
The Hobbits getting captured after Boromir fails his roll near the end of the movie is another good example. This is the GM seperating them. As a player you have no say in that moment because the GM is still making their move.
Another typical example is from Apocalypse World that follows a missed roll up with: “A day or two later in the slave pits”.
It is perfectly in your rights to make a long sweeping move like that and end the scene with it. This is also what I meant by making longer-form GM moves in zoomed out scenes.
In this case finding out how everyone escapes or how the group finds it way back to each other is more interesting then finding out how the fight against the Troll and Orks goes until it is over.
In a game with Joe Banner he was grasping for a way to do this whole thing in a more mechanical way. I am not a particular fan of that method but it should also work. So here is a potential move you could employ:
When everyone says “yeah, let’s just skip this”, end the action scene right now. Tell us how you meaningful helped to end the conflict and roll plus a stat matching that description.
On a 10+ you did that thing and you are fine.
On a 7-9 choose 1
Take damage as established
Expend one of your resources (spells, adventuring gear, ammo, armor, magic item, or other) matching what you did
On a 6- the GM will tell you in what situation you find yourself in.
This move is vague by design because all scenes are different. It requires you to interrogate the fiction established until everyone knows what makes sense. Damage as established for the Paladin in the middle of the Wererats would be different then the damage as established for the hidden thief for example. I do however think that just setting up a new situation with a GM move is the better tool. The End Battle Move should only be used if the players or the GM is really uncomfortable with just making a big move like that without much player input.
But I love long fights!
Cool. No problem. If your pacing is right or your group loves the fights then all is cool. You don’t need this Guide.
For everyone else – when are long fights good?
This isn’t easy to say. There is no factor to this but what feels right.
The 16hp Dragon definitely was right. If you have enough interesting situations and moves than all is well. Having a full session that is a constant action scene is fully fine but I would only do this in an ongoing campaign. Like mentioned in the beginning, a first session or One-Shot will most likely have different needs than that. Otherwise go and experiment with the form. See what everyone in your group likes and adapt to that.
Good gaming everyone.