Sometimes you just run out of time in a game session.
I know, I know…lotsa players really have no concept of this phenomenon. You start a game session, and you play it through to completion. Three hours…eight hours…fourteen hours…whatever it takes, you play until you are done. College students might be able to do this. Unemployed gamers might be able to do this. High school players might be able to get away with this on weekends, or if they have very permissive parents.
That’s not how it works for many of us. High schools players usually have curfews. Players with jobs need to get enough sleep to get up for work in the morning. Married players need to make sure they are giving enough time to their spouses and families. This is just respect for other people in our lives, and for the responsibilities of life.
So what do you do when you run out of time in a session? How do you make sure you don’t run out of time?
First, time management should be the primary responsibility of the game master. The players need to be sure they let the GM know if they have a hard deadline by which they need to quit playing, but the GM controls the pace of the game, and the GM knows what she has in store for the players. The players do not know these things. Therefore, the good GM will keep an eye on the clock and respect his player’s time constraints.
When the GM knows how much time she has, the good GM will be able to control the pace of the game. Keep the game on track. Limit distracting table talk. I know that players want to tell war stories about past glories, and things they do in my game might remind them of “that time when…”, but try to keep your current game moving forward.
Keep an eye on the clock as the game progresses. Know where you are, and what you still need to accomplish in this session. Sometimes I might modify on the fly what I have the players doing. I might not throw that second wave of hobgoblins on the table. I might decide that a minor side quest would be more distracting right now then useful, so postpone it for later.
A good DM is also going to spot good stopping points along the way. Sometimes right before a big combat that I know is going to take longer than the time we have, I will call the game early. At first, some players groaned about this, but they have seen that his usually works out for the best.
Sometimes you are in the middle of fast and furious action, and the time deadline is there. The temptation will be to blow through that time deadline and just press on. I would advise you to weigh that decision carefully. Deciding to push on through might have very significant unintended consequences later.
For instance, in my regular group, I have one high school student with a 9:00 curfew. This player has pretty strict parents who would not be understanding of blown curfews. I understand parents setting curfews. When I was heaviest into gaming, in high school in the early ‘80s, my parents always set a curfew. They were also firm believers in corporal punishment. When they said to be home at 9:00, they did not mean 9:01. And they meant 9:00 by their clock, which was always roughly five minutes fast. It was always safest to make sure I was home fifteen minutes early. I won’t get into what happened to me if I was late. I’ll just say that there were consequences.
I don’t think my player would face such serious consequences as I did, but he would have some consequences nonetheless. They might not want him to come back to the game at all. That would suck. A short sighted decision to blow a curfew could result in his not gaming at all—at least, not playing in my Wednesday night game. Everybody with responsibilities face similar consequences. A significant other might be looking forward to one of your gamers getting home for some together time at the end of the evening. What’s going to happen when that player comes home hours late? What if one of your players plays later than planned, and then sleeps through his alarm the next morning and is late to work? When I supervised a CCC crew, the biggest problem I had with gamers on the crew was when they would have an all-night session before a work day and then be pretty useless at work because they were so tired. As a boss, and especially as a gamer, I did not take pity on game-induced fatigue and made sure there were consequences. They learned how to game and be responsible to their jobs.
So as a DM, you need to be able to spot good stopping places, even in the middle of fast and furious action. Be aware that some spots are better than others. Be creative in picking those spots.
For instance, in high school one of our favorite RPGs was a World War 2 themed game called Behind Enemy Lines. I was running a game based upon the old Rat Patrol TV show. The players were a recon squad in North Africa. They had two jeeps with pedestal mounted machine guns. In one game, they got caught open in the desert by a flight of German Stuka dive bombers…and we were running up against my curfew. I went ahead and started the battle. The planes made a couple of strafing runs first. The jeep drivers started evasive maneuvers, flooring it and spinning madly through the sand, throwing up big old sand rooster tails. The gunners held on and returned fire on the Stukas. I had one eye on my watch the whole time. Finally, the Stukas made their bomb runs. The first drop was a clean miss. The second drop was a near miss on the lead jeep—and I was out of time. The bomb exploded just yards away from the jeep, the jeep tipped over, the two guys started spilling out—and ‘To Be Continued’ flashed across the screen.
This is called a cliffhanger ending, and I love them. They are especially effective for keeping motivation high to get back to the game. Nobody is going to want to miss that session!
I had to do this in the last session of my Wednesday night game. The party has been looking for the cousin of one of the party members. The cousin had been captured by goblins. The party finally found the old abandoned castle in which the cousin is being held. They managed to find a back door entrance, and they made it to the room in which the cousin is held. In the room were a drow and a bugbear. The party surprised the drow and bugbear, and battle was on. The drow was the focal point for the party’s attentions, and she got hit pretty hard in the surprise round. She drew a dagger and dropped to the cousin lying unconscious in a corner. It looks like she’s going to try to off the helpless cousin. The bugbear is battling the other half of the party. Another surprise is about to spring on the party.
And then we were at my player’s hard curfew.
“To Be Continued…” Heh, heh, heh.