The way I've set up my D&D style, it kind of makes me zoom in automatically whenever there is uncertainty. Who will win, what's the risk here etc etc. Dialog with people who already are giving the PCs what they want tend to be handwaved while if there's a petition we zoom way in. We had a fight against a dozen zombies that the players set it up so that they couldn't lose, basically. So I wrapped the fight up early because there was nothing to resolve.
. . .
[in contrast:] "Wait, how exactly are your tents set up?" (Because I need to know in order for the game to proceed, because something's coming in the night.)
When I GM, I can be
aware of pacing concerns. I sometimes
remember to fast-forward through periods of no uncertainty.
But sometimes I get caught up in the fictional moment and just forget. I'm thankful when the players use the pacing dial
(or just their words) to remind me.
I'd say the most difficult case for me is the one of uncertain uncertainty. The unknown unknowns. Here's an example:
The PCs arrive at a new city. There's a main road in, and a wooden wall, and guards, and a small tax to pay to enter.
A friend of mine ran a session where the process of meeting the guards took up a big portion of the evening. I asked him why he didn't just ask the players to cross the tax cash off their sheets, and then describe their entry into the city. He said that, although that was the most likely
outcome, he couldn't predict what the PCs might do that might be relevant. Although he didn't have specific obstacles or opportunities in mind, player choices can always create those!
I can't say he was incorrect about that. I've seen players do all of the following in similar situations:
- Roleplay a little conversation, take a liking to the guards, and then take some steps towards establishing them as allies or resources going forward (e.g. with promises or bribes).
- Roleplay a little conversation, form a distaste for the guards, and then provoke them into some sort of confrontation which results in denial of entry, threats, bad blood, or even a fight.
- Ask a lot questions, and in the ensuing player-GM back-and-forth, everyone inspires each other, and before you know it there are all sorts of new fun options to explore that didn't exist a moment ago. (Often current problems, opportunities and mysteries in the city.)
If I recall correctly, none of that actually happened in my friend's session, but most of it seemed like it might. There was some friendliness and some friction and a few questions that might have had really interesting answers but ultimately didn't.
I think the players did come away with a better understanding of the structure of the city guard organization. If this group was like my group, one or two players probably felt like they'd acquired a valuable resource (just kinda seems like useful knowledge) while everyone else probably felt like they'd wasted their time (what exactly are we gonna do
with this knowledge?).
Anyway, my conclusion is that it's a shame to spend lots of play time on an irrelevant encounter, but it's also a shame to never let a seemingly irrelevant encounter develop into something more. So I think some sort of in between would be ideal. Any thoughts on that?