Stall 'em

Written by Fafhrd Last Updated on Friday, 30 December 2011 00:49

StallRegardless of how well you think you know your group, stalling is often a necessary evil in RPGs. No GM can keep up with everything all the time and your players are going to pull something out of their hats and it’s going to shock you and throw you off track. Having some ideas and tricks in your GM bag that you can pull out when you need them at times like this can be very handy.

One of the ideas to simply take 10. You stop the game to get a short break and let folks talk about other stuff and wonder away from the table if they want, giving you time to mull over options. This is also a good time to order that pizza everyone’s been asking about. A real, physical break from the game is sometimes the best option but when you do it you need to decide if you’re ready to interrupt your game or not. Let’s face it, when you stop the game and let folks break off into whatever non-game activities they want to it can be a royal pain trying to drag them back into the game.

What do you do then when you want to slow things down in game? You know, take a “break” but don’t let the group dissolve into a pizza toppings argument? It’s not always easy to pull off but I’ve found a few tricks over the years that have helped me stall without a stopping the game. Some of these vary from game to game but I they should get you looking and planning in the right direction.

One of the things I do is to take a look at the game system I’m running. What powers, spells, natural events, etc exist that could let me change things up in a grand, show stopping sort of way? Does it allow for something crazy like tactic of killing off the PCs, or would that totally upset the entire game? In a game like Vampire you can force PCs into torpor (a deep, sometimes years long slumber) if you need to. A curse or other such magic can create a similar effect on non-immortal PCs. This would allow you to take some, or all, PCs out of the mix for a bit while you figure out what you need to do.

Another option, and less dramatic, is to look at rules like those for healing and raising the dead in your game. Does the party have raise dead spells readily/easily available? If they do you can kill off a couple of party members in a random or planned encounter and while the PCs are gathering the bodies and taking them to the temple to raise them you have them stalled. Do PCs heal up quickly or slowly with the rules you are using? If they heal slowly you can wound them until they retreat. If they can heal quickly you can pound them good and shock them into a retreat as they look for a place to rest and heal up. Anything that will take their actions away from their current plan and onto something else is helpful, and can be done in game without actually stopping play.

After you examine the game system rules and ways to exploit them for your stall tactics, you should look at the type of game you are running. Are your PCs banded together as a team, do they spend loads of time doing “mundane” skill checks or perhaps they like to break into different groups and have multiple plot threads going at once?

If the group is a solid unit that doesn’t like to wander too far from each other split them up for a bit. When a group like this is split up they will spend most of their energy trying to find each other. If your close knit D&D group always searches for traps on every door in the dungeon you can easily give them a trap. Even a simple trap will cause them to spring into “defeat the trap” mode. Taking their minds off other things and forcing them to focus on the problem at hand. Even in a non-dungeon environment you can produce simple “traps” that will stall them. If a NPCs approaches them and talks in riddles, if something strange and clue-like is overheard in the nightclub they are in will make them want to verify if it is or is not connected to the plot. Stalling in game like this allows you to pull out all your red herring ideas that you’ve had simmering in your GM brain. Remember: Anytime you throw a wrench into a group’s M.O. you stall them

Now, if your group is regularly split up and usually doing their own things I find it’s actually easier to stall them. When you are working with one of the smaller, sub-groups and they get to a point where you need to stall tell them that you’re going to put them on hold for a second as you have to get back with the other sub-group(s). Not only does this give you a chance to clear your mind and work out a solution, but it helps you keep a good GM relationship with each group. Large groups usually complain most if they don’t feel they are getting enough attention. If you regularly stall with each group you get to bounce from group to group and make sure everyone has enough to do. Doing this also keeps your GM mind sharp as you regularly change from sub-plot to sub-plot.

While that's good info for the GMs, what about the players side of things? Sometimes it’s a good idea to stall the GM. The GM is the NPCs, monsters and everything else in the world other than your PCs. Sometimes the plot’s pace is too fast, you need more time to recover from some event or you’re not exactly sure what your next steps should be. That’s when it’s time to tell the GM something like “We rest here for the day. We need to heal and rethink our plan.” Or you can head for another safe zone by saying “I think we should go back and talk to that old book seller again. We have some things we need to think through.”

While it may seem like you are messing with the GM’s plot or trying to be a thorn in his side you’re not. Your stall tactic isn’t designed to cause problems; you’re stalling because you need to. Sure, a GM could strong arm or railroad you and the other PCs out of your thinking time, but most GMs will let you relax for a bit as it gives them a chance to think and plot as well. Players need to recharge their creative batteries from time to time just like GMs do so it’s good for both sides of the screen get stall when they need it.