If you overdo tabletop scenery (as I often do,) it can take awhile to set up at the beginning and manipulate mid-game when the characters do a scene shift. I often don’t even set the first scene up until the players are settled, partly because my cats will Godzilla their furry arses through my town if I give them time, and partly because I often don’t want the players to think too carefully about a scene that hasn’t yet been introduced. Between encounters, massive changes to gaming scenery occur, too, that can seem to grind your game to a halt. Yet those scene changes can be a useful pacing tool for your game, providing that you use the time effectively. Here are a few ideas about what your players can do while you shuffle little cardboard buildings and NPC minis around on the table:

After the module/adventure intro but before the first major scene:

  • Players can write their Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts if you’re playing Burning Wheel or using BW variants for other systems.
  • Players might “shop” by looking at sourcebooks before leaving the town where the adventure begins. (Or, in Warhammer, they might spend time complaining that there’s no shop in the town where the adventure begins!)
  • Players can discuss or agree on overall strategy for the upcoming scenario. This is great for the GM, as you can think about how you’ll respond to their plans as you pretend to focus intently on the tiny buildings.

Between scenes:

  • Bathroom break!
  • Food break! (Moving scenery gives players the chance to do food/bathroom without feeling that they’re “wasting time.”)
  • Players can discuss new information that’s come up during the adventure without feeling rushed.
  • Players may adjust or redistribute gear or items or purchase food or supplies.
  • Players could do any “last minute” minor things they’d like to do before leaving the last locale. (“I want to go back and give a gold piece to the peasant who helped us.”)
  • Players can review crucial game handouts or details.
  • Players can ask questions and get clarifications about things they’ve seen or experienced, or they can ask questions about rules.
  • Players can make fun of your cat. (This may only apply in my house. Not sure.)
  • As above, GMs get a little break to think about how they’ll respond to new items players have purchased, strategies they’ve created, or opinions they have formed.

Remember that it might make sense for you to suggest some of these things to your players if they overlook them; point them to a rulebook or suggest they shop if they aren’t sure what to do.

As valuable as the down time might be, you don’t want to take an hour setting up scenery. Here are some hints for speeding up scenery changes:

  • For complicated scenes that require several buildings and/or NPC minis, set them up ahead of time. Take a picture with a digital camera (I use the one on my phone) as a quick reference for during the game.
  • If you’re setting up scenes on wipe-off surfaces like Dungeons and Dragons Game Mats or GameMastery Flip Mats, use a wipe-off marker to mark locations of buildings/items ahead of time. You can label each one, since the building will end up sitting on top of your label. I’m fastidious, so I often just trace the outline of the base of the building, then write its name in the resulting box; that way, I know exactly how I meant to orient it.
  • If you’re using paper “floors” that you’ve printed out yourself or non-wipe off surfaces like Paizo GameMastery Map Packs, consider picking up a piece of plexiglass at your local Home Depot. You can put it over your paper bases and mark on it with wipe-off markers. (To be fair, it’s a bit of trouble to get wipe off marker off of plexiglass, but it can be done with some Windex and time.)
  • Sort all scenery and sets of NPC minis by encounter, if possible. I throw everything into the Purple Box of Doom, but stuff from the same scene gets stacked in the same corner of the box.
  • If your players will move through several locales during the same session, choose only the most important one or two to represent with scenery. Note, though, that it’s easy to fall into the trap of only setting up scenery for battle encounters. Avoid this; the players will know when to gear up for a fight.
  • Only go “all out” for one scene per session. It’s cool to have eight million realistic little details, but if scenery changes end up taking away from your game, they’re not worth it.
  • Be willing to scrap scenery if the players seem restless. I’ve made whole encounters of scenery that never came out of the box because my players were so invested in the flow of the game that I didn’t want to break their stride. No big deal–I had fun making it, and they had fun playing the scenario. Nobody really lost anything, and most pieces of scenery that you make will eventually be reusable in another adventure.