Campaign Pacing Technique: Blastoff From Mos Eisley

When I would watch Star Wars as a six year old, I just kinda played LEGOs til the Millennium Falcon blasted off.  I mean, the droids and aliens on Tatooine were cool, and the binary sunset captivated my imagination, but the movie really got good once the shooting began.

The takeoff scene may be the single most important Game Mastering lesson Star Wars has to teach us (and Star Wars has a bunch).  It’s the transition point between two distinct phases of the movie: “developing the setting,” and “solving the problem.”

These two phases emerge naturally in every RPG campaign I’ve ever run, whether I’m planning for them or not.  So planning for them intentionally means working with the medium to make the campaign stronger.

Phase 1 Encounters: Shakin’ It Up
The first phase takes place in the PCs’ home territory, whatever that may be.  That could be on the safe and boring side (like running a moisture farm), or it could be fairly exciting (smugglers just trying to make a living) – as long as the encounters you choose fit into whatever is “normal” for these characters.  The purpose of this phase is to develop the setting as it normally exists.  This is important – in Star Wars, the first half of the movie exposes us to Luke’s home life so that his world feels real and worth fighting for in the second half.  Bringing in really big encounters in too soon can undercut their excitement by giving the impression that they’re par for this world and for the characters’ context. 

But the game still needs to be exciting!  In other words, it’s fun to play a smuggler crew, but not as fun to do session after session of ordinary smuggling.  Note that even during the “mundane” part of Star Wars, what we’re actually seeing is the two days where Luke’s life gets shaken up forever.  So in addition to any “normal” encounters, be sure to sprinkle in encounters that could normally happen in the PCs’ home context but that usually wouldn’t. 

Phase 2 Encounters: Beyond Your Ken

If phase 1 is where the danger and the out-of-the-ordinary elements come to players – phase 2 is where the players go to the adventure.  They are now in locations where dangerous things can and do happen, routinely.

In this phase, you must take the game to new and exciting locations – locations that are foreign to both the players and the characters.  Even if the PCs are professional adventurers, like the smugglers in the above example, it’s important to bring in threats they haven’t dealt with before.  Don’t get wrapped up in what’s already familiar – these players may never play these characters again, so it’s important to make this campaign the most interesting chapter of these characters’ lives.
Handling the Transition
Make your transition clear and decisive.  This should be a watershed moment where the PCs now cannot escape the adventure.  Those smugglers take the job that changes everything.  A wizard walks into the unassuming Halfling’s front garden.   The Millennium Falcon blasts off.

Place your transition sooner rather than later, but be careful.  If you transition too soon, sweeping your PCs along on the adventurous stuff before they get a feel for this world, you’re likely to suffer from Poorly Defined Setting syndrome.   On the other hand, if you let them over-explore the “normal” setting, before bringing the story in to change their lives, you’re probably going to suffer from Too Many Player Ideas syndrome.

Envision this transition as the end of act I and the beginning of act II.  We want to get to act II as soon as possible, because it’s more exciting, but we can’t just start there.

Video Article: How to Give a Good Description

Do you have giving descriptions?  If so, here’s a noteless technique to give descriptions you (and your players) can love.  This is a follow up to another video article: What Makes a Good Description.  And remember, if you’re not in love with this location, your players won’t be either.

Video Article: What Makes a Good Description?

Whew!  Back from having a baby, and ready to begin posting again!  So, here's a video about descriptions: your ultimate storytelling tool as a GM on account of  they get players to REACT.  Barely Scripted Gaming Vlog, Episode #9.