For people who are new here: this isn't by me, it's by an anonymous contestant assigned to write about the topic: Time Management for the contest.Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...
If you think this one is good enough to go to Round 2, send an email with the Subject "UPCHUNKS" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +, if not, send an email saying "DOWNCHUNKS". Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.
DREAD CHUNKS AND SOME TRICKS
Dread occurs in slowed time fat with annihilation. This sick anticipation is felt when a moment feels dilated, possibilities morphing the homogenous pulse of event-event-event into a taut skin tearing in cracks. It is this skin that the DM stretches and plays like a drum.
I’ll argue that D&D time is felt and remembered in chunks. “Let's figure out how to kill this thing" is a chunk. "Let's talk to this queen to see what info or stuff she can offer" is a chunk. "So we raided the castle" is a chunk, too. Even combat is felt and remembered in chunks, not rounds; ask players to recap their last game and they'll say something like "We found this spinning ruined chamber, then we fought this curse-spewing orc, and the orc wrestled with Phil for awhile, then Charlene cut off its head with her Mug of Endless Misery." Finding the new dungeon is the biggest chunk of time, then fighting the curse-spewing orc is a chunk within it, and the smaller yet still distinct chunk of "Oh shit we almost died but then killed it" resides within.
So D&D time is felt and remembered in fractals. In memory, chunks of D&D time become bounded with their inciting event, complication, or resolution. While D&D sessions don’t tend to follow a classical three-act structure, remarkable chunks of time within them do. Without any of those three narrative-enriching steps, a chunk has no mnemonic; without a mnemonic, a chunk will be boring to inhabit. This bland chunk will also feel arbitrarily isolated—common evidence for this is a player looking dazed and saying, "Wait. Why are we doing this?" This reveals a potent DMing test: The day after a session, verbally summarize the session to someone else; if you have trouble recalling mnemonic-laced chunks, ask yourself what went wrong. The related heuristic: If a D&D session doesn't contain at least a couple good mini-stories, it was boring.
A DM sensitive to pace makes sure that players are aware of the chunk of time they're separating from the flow of the game. Player indecision is like a block of ice in a narrow river, growing larger with quibbling and stasis. If this indecision nears paralysis, or crystalizes from a post-snack crash, then it's the DM’s job to play Kafka and axe the fuck out of the ice (or blowtorch it). If a chunk of time feels solid and immovable, then the DM should make a decision, toss out another adventure hook, or deploy an event to make the players act (maybe by grabbing onto a new hint or from an NPC) or react (maybe by trying not to die). These chunks of time need to be both distinct and porous to new possibilities, info, and danger. But how is all of this different from simply saying that players remember memorable events? There is a shape to many memorable events in D&D (the chunk), and all recap-worthy events in D&D unite their players in both time and emotion (and so strand them together on a chunk).
So what’s an ideal flow of time in a D&D game? I like dread and horrible spectacle and my players like dread and horrible spectacle, so I make sure that at least one time-dilating roll occurs per session. "Let's see if it rips off a limb…", or "Roll to grab onto the ledge…", or "Make a very important Wisdom save…”, or “You hear a thick wet gnashing…” are verbal shortcuts into Dreadland. But for moments of dread to feel surprising and coherent, they must A) stand within, or start to isolate, a distinct narrative chunk and B) accrete from fate (i.e. from player action, tables, and the voice of the dice). A session of steady and minor thrills that seem natural to the circumstances of the game prevails over DM-manufactured Big Decisions (read: railroading) and exercises in demiurgical cruelty, at least for my players. Flow is subordinated to circumstances which rise from percolating consequences, but if my DMing is good, doggedly managing the flow of time of a session helps shape these circumstances.
So if my players are bored, an inciting opportunity will draft risky rolls—time gets juiced with adrenaline, and its river flows with risk and loot. If my players seem harried, their options frayed and characters maimed, an opportunity for in-game then meta-game rest turns time medicinal—time now doused with alkali, its river flowing with jokes and reorientation. When a game is good, the players feel in unison the composition and shade of benevolence/malevolence of time; when a game is bad, two players are trying to swim upstream while three are hunkered down on a dammed up chunk. This points to a mandate for DMs with split parties: Enthrall the inactive party into the flow of time of the active party.
D&D is a game of risks. If your character is devoured by an acidic sludge, there's no reshuffling the cards and dealing another hand. Your next 3d6 rolls create the grammar through which you engage the world that just killed you. The exploration and raconteur's presentation of these risks makes up D&D. If we assume that a skillful DM is already aware of what players want from their sessions, then the subtle manipulation of time becomes the most important of DM skills because you don’t get memorable events without sharp consequences, surprises, and memorable boundaries. Time is the stuff in which all risks swim, so push your players in, foam it up white and deadly, and know when they need to grab onto an already-sweating glacier.