GMing RPGs Under a Time Limit

“There is a very fine line between “hobby” and “mental illness”.”

–Dave Barry

by Steven ‘Stan!’ Brown

How many times have you gotten involved in a role-playing event at
a convention only to have the experience ruined by time restraints? Just
when things start to get interesting the table is needed for the next event
or, to avoid this fate, the GM is forced to cram two hours of plot into 30
minutes of high intensity dice rolling.. Players (or even the GM) show up
late. The plot is too damned long or the time slot is too damned short.
Whatever the reason, you’ve put in four hours of effort and come out with a
much-less-than-satisfactory gaming memory.
And how many times have you had your gaming crew over to your place
under the condition that everything absolutely must be finished by the time
your wife.girlfriend gets home? Invariably she walks into a room full of
dice, spilled munchies, and people screaming things like “12 points to the
kobold!” “Does resist evil help me here?” ” and “Search the body! Search
the body!” You know you’re sleeping on the couch tonight and your buddies
want to come back again next week “cause you’ve got the best table.”
It goes without saying that RPGs are at their best in an
unrestricted environment. Arbitrary parameters like time limits can (and
usually do) ruin the rhythm, impact, and fun of otherwise enjoyable
scenarios. There are many instances, however, when getting from start to
finish must be done within a limited period of time.
So what is a GM faced with one of these “count-down” situations
supposed to do? Give a disclaimer before play begins (“Due to time
restrictions this adventure may suck”)?
No! There is no reason that a time-slotted RPG event cannot be fun
and satisfying if the GM understands the fundamental differences between
running unrestricted scenarios and those with a built-in deadline. Playing
within a time limit is just a matter of the GM planning the adventure the
same way he’d plan a road trip.

Just as it’s impossible to drive from New York to Los Angeles in a
day, some adventures are impossible to squeeze into some time slots. Make
sure that your scenario (whether it’s pre-packaged or home-made) is
playable in the time allotted. Check the plot against the following table
to gauge how much time it should take.

Plot Development Time Required
Minor PC/NPC interaction 15 minutes
Major PC/NPC interaction 30 minutes
Search new location 20 minutes
Figure out minor plot twist 20 minutes
Figure out major plot twist 45 minutes
Make important decision 20 minutes
Minor combat 30+ minutes
Major combat 60+minutes

Most pre-packaged and almost all home-made adventures consist of a
starting point, a finishing point, and situations that characters may or
may not wander into along the way. I refer to this as a “random
encounters” scenario and it is incompatible with time constrained play. If
the GM doesn’t know, with relative certainty, what path the characters will
take through the plot, it is impossible to accurately determine how long
play will take.
If you’re writing your own scenario, make sure that you plot only
those details necessary for finishing the adventure. If you’re using a
pre-packaged plot, eliminate all the extraneous information and leave the
basic plot intact.
I don’t mean that the GM should lead the players by the hand. They
should always feel like they are controlling their own destiny.
Experienced GMs know how to set a scene so that players will want to do
what must be done. This skill is vital to staying within a time limit.
There should be nothing random in a scenario on a deadline.

Since most convention time-slots are four hours long, plan an event
for a series of four 1 hour segments. Make a loose plan for each hour of
play and note what absolutely must be accomplished each hour. This way
you’ll easily know if you’re behind schedule at any given point. If you’re
behind it’s easier to speed things up in the middle than to rush through
the climactic scenes. If you’re ahead of schedule see the Know Local
Points of Interest section.

In the first two turns it is important that you follow the
plot/time guidelines you’ve established. Don’t let amusing players or NPCs
slow down play. If a plot point is of some minor significance, don’t let
it take over the action. Combat is where you are most likely to fall
behind schedule. When the result of a battle is more important than the
process…fudge it! With a deadline over your shoulder the result is more
important. However, don’t fudge during the climactic events.

In the vent that you find the vent running ahead of schedule
(unlikely but possible) you should have one or two of the previously
discredited “random” encounters ready to be used. Interesting NPCs or
locations are good ways to fill up the spare 15 or 20 minutes created when
players get the Major Plot Twist on their first guess. Just be sure that
whatever you use segues smoothly back into your plot.

Have everything prepared ahead of time. This seems obvious, but
I’ve seen too many GMs go into events without the necessary information
written down or clearly marked. Keep a sheet with the stats of the NPCs
and monsters. Mark important pages in the rule book with Post-It notes.
Do not waste time flipping through your books or notes to find information
you could easily have organized ahead of time..

Once play begins stay focused on the plot and the clock. If you
can’t concentrate on the situation at hand the players never will. The
players are responsible for their own attentiveness of course, but if
things get off track a nudge from the GM (“We’ve only got two more hours”)
can be helpful.
GMing a session under time pressure is not impossible, it simply
requires more preparation. The steps above are one way to prepare for the
task, but if you merely plan ahead and keep your wits about you, you’ll do


Mike’s note:
As an addendum to Steve’s excellent article, I’d like to add one more tip
that would probably go under the Pack the Night Before section.

Use Pre-Generated Characters
Creating characters is one of the best parts of role-playing, but
for time constrained games, making characters at the table on the day of
the event will eat up at least an hour or more of your valuable playing
time, especially with games with complicated character generation systems.
Players unfamiliar with the game system will take the longest to make up a
By pre-generating characters for your adventure, not only will you
have the exact mix of characters you need, you can also present the players
with more of a role-playing challenge (giving them character types they’re
not used to). The all you have to do is pass out the character sheets,
give the players a few minutes to get familiar with their characters, and
you’re on your way!


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