The play loop at the heart of a roleplaying game session focuses on decision making. The game master describes a situation. When the players face a decision they make a choice, and then the rules help determine an outcome and the game master describes that result. The situation changes, leading to a new decision. Repeat until everyone breaks for pizza.
In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to a non-player character, or or rush to escape the caverns beneath an erupting volcano. During scenes, players take moment-by-moment control of their characters. In combat, decisions come with each turn and the rules spell out the results. In roleplaying scenes, players speak for their characters and the game plays like a conversation. Scenes simplify the game’s core play loop so much that the game master can focus on running the players’ friends and foes.
Outside of scenes, game masters have a harder time knowing when to stop narrating and when to ask, “What do you want to do?” Every game master knows to pause to give the players chances to make decisions, but the challenge comes from finding the right moments to ask. If you ask players who lack a goal, they may just shrug. If you ask players with a goal who face no obstacles, then they only face a choice between carry on and quit. If you narrate past the moment characters want to act, then players become spectators. If you pause too often, then players feel mired in minutiae. But if you pick the perfect moments, the pacing in your game improves and players feel like they guide the action.
In a How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure, I used the term summary for the game time out of scenes, dividing play into scenes and summary. That article helped game masters start successful scenes by looking for moments when the characters’ goal reaches an obstacle. A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time, speeding past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.
However, a lot of gameplay happens outside of scenes, and my categories of scene and summary fail to include most exploration. Scenes aside, the situation-decision loop most resembles choose-your-adventure books. Such books distill a roleplaying game’s core loop to a printed page. A passage describes a situation that readers imagine themselves in. At the end of the description, the text offers a menu of choices. The reader picks one and pages to the numbered passage that describes the outcome and sets the new scene. Solo adventures like the ones for Tunnels & Trolls follow the same format. Roleplaying games beat choose-you-adventure books by featuring a game master ready to allow surprising decisions and to run the supporting cast in scenes, but the pattern matches.
Choose-your-adventure books set a good example because they typically avoid the missteps that GMs make running the situation-decision loop in live games.
Choose-your-adventure books start characters with a goal. Characters need a goal or they have no reason to act. When D&D started, the game’s goal was to gather loot, but as the story and character started driving the game, players opted for higher goals. Nowadays, most players create characters with individual goals, often in collaboration with the group. See A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.
To start an adventure, before you ever ask players for a decision, you typically hook them with a short-term goal for the whole party. The best hooks appeal to characters’ individual goals and often add an enigma to arouse players’ curiosity. When you don’t know the characters, create hooks that appeal to both paladins and rogues, to both do-gooders and treasure hunters. For more on hooks, see Whether You Call Them Rumors, Secrets, Clues, Hooks, or Leads, These Nuggets of Information Power Adventures and Campaigns.
Choose-your-adventure books offer choices that seem to lead toward the characters’ goal. Imagine trying to start an adventure by revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location, and then asking the players what they want to do. The mere rumor would leave players with no clear choice of action, so the game stalls. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.
Even after you set the hook, future decision points should come when the players see options that might lead to success. Otherwise, players feel stuck. For more about options that lead to a goal, see How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded.
Choose-your-adventure books offer multiple options. The author of a choose-your-adventure book would never dare end a passage with one option, because the fun comes from choosing. But game masters never feel obligated to list the players’ options, so a lack of choices is less obvious. Nonetheless, if an adventure only ever gives one choice, players will notice the pattern. While dutifully following the one clear choice, they may feel railroaded.
As a game master, my favorite moments during a session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. Players only occasionally face decisions so compelling, but a choice of one option becomes no choice at all. Asking for a decision just hides a shameful lack of options.
A D&D game can offer choices between two similar doors, and players will appreciate the option, but the best decisions come with enough information to make each selection different and promising.
Characters in a roleplaying game have freedom to attempt any action. Sometimes that latitude leaves players struggling to sift through options in search of a few promising choices. Too often, players may feel confused by their predicament in the game world. Either way, summarizing the situation and listing the most obvious choices cuts through the fog and brings focus.
If a decision leaves players struggling to choose an action, list the three most promising options, and then remind the group that they can also choose an option of their own. After all, unlike a book, you’re ready for anything.
For more on choices and information, see Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?. Also see How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices and The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices.
Choose-your-adventure books describe time passing until the character’s situation changes. Until the players face a decision, you can summarize any amount of game-world time in narration, from seconds to years. Don’t feel like you have to keep pausing to revisit decisions the players already made. Only pause when the situation changes.
If the players have already made the relevant choices, describe passing time until the situation changes, typically until players face obstacles. Pacing falters when DMs ask for a decision even when players just have a choice to keep going toward their goal or to give up. None of this means that players have to dutifully sit through narration that covers a month’s journey. Invite players to interrupt at any time. A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions.
For example, dungeons tend to start with key choices over marching order, light, and strategy. Does the party plan to explore carefully or rush ahead to stop the midnight ritual? Will they listen at doors or check for traps? Does someone scout? Once these choices set a pattern and the dungeon starts to seem familiar, DMs can summarize the exploration until the situation changes. You can switch your pace between methodical exploration and summary many times during a session. In the areas with nothing new to discover and no threats to face, and no new decisions to make, take the shortcut of summarizing. Then when the players encounter something new, slow to a pace that lets them account for every action.
Choose-your-adventure books end descriptions when readers feel eager to act. As a GM, you stop talking when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less obvious advice.
When you set a scene, the end of your narration should highlight something that dares the heroes to act. The best narration can skip the what-do-you-want-to-do question because they leave players eager to take action. Sometimes, that invitation to action comes from the monsters in the room. More often, some curious feature simply begs a closer look.
Resist the temptation to start scenes late. The authors of choose-your-adventure books can succumb to the same weaknesses as game masters, I suspect we share a fault: As we narrate the start of a scene, things happen that make readers or players want to act. We talk about a changing situation, and then we keep talking. While choose-your-adventure readers can only grumble, players can stop the game.
If you run D&D for long enough, you’ll come to a situation where you must rewind game time because your enthusiasm for the villain’s big moment leads you to keep talking well after the players decide to act. Who can blame game masters? We planned for the bad guy’s monologue or culminating ritual and we want to follow it through before the players ruin it. Meanwhile, the players start throwing dice.
Sometimes even adventure boxed text suffers from the same authorial hubris. The author of a long, boxed passage becomes so eager to describe a scene develop that it becomes the tabletop equivalent to a cut scene. For a while, published adventures routinely offered boxed text that spanned columns. Sometimes the boxed text even narrated actions for the players. “As you step into the room…” In practice, no DM ever finished such readings before a player blurted, “I attack!” (In the authors’ defense, at times TSR published adventures written for an audience of readers rather than dungeon masters because no one could possibly play the avalanche of game content the company printed.)
The tempo of decisions sets the pace of the game. Gamers joke that in D&D, seconds of combat take hours to play out, while weeks of travel pass in seconds. Much of a difference in pace stems from how frequently players make decisions. Combat encounters and roleplaying scenes fill time with nonstop choices, but can still feel fast paced. During the game’s slower periods, the game master merely summarizes the passage of time with few choices. Either way, the amount of narration between choices affects pacing. By adding more descriptions, the game’s pace slows. This might give players a break from the intensity of a major battle.
Roleplaying game sessions typically alternate between fast-paced scenes where players face rapid decisions, and slower spans of time where players travel or explore while making fewer choices. This ebb and flow creates a pleasing contrast between intense action scenes, suspenseful periods of exploration and discovery, and easy breaks where characters recover and players plan.