One of the hardest things to manage when GMing a game is portion control.
Traditionally we game in the evenings starting at around 7 pm and finishing up around 10 pm or 11 pm. It’s long enough to get something done and relax and make it a social affair. When I gamed in school it was gaming during the 40 minute lunchtimes and for 80 minutes on a Friday evening after school. On the weekend when we were young we might meet up around noon, start a game at 2, finish much later and at times, stay over so we could game more the next day. We had few responsibilties so it worked out well. These days, a 3 hour session is lucky to have because we have these responsibilities to family, spouse, work, other hobbies and being social. We have to therefore tailor our games to these times. Finding the right amount of material for a 3 hour session is not as simple as it sounds. Preparing too much material (or if your players are being a little dense or distracted) is not a major issue as you can pick up next time. Preparing too little is a pain because when the session ends and there’s still a good hour to go, you can feel somewhat disappointed. The time we have for gaming is precious and we want to use it in the right fashion as much as possible.
Enough of a challenge or are they swamped?
When playing an investigative game, it’s important to force feed a lot of players with clues and leads. Why? Because just because the players have characters who are investigative reporters, private detectives, research scientists and other smart professions, it doesn’t follow that the player is any good at looking at the evidence and deducing what happens before the Great Old Ones rise and the world ends. At the same time, don’t make it a railroad where the clues may lead somewhere but it doesn’t matter what they do because they’ll be drawn into the final struggle anyway.
The same extends to ‘combat-oriented’ games. Deduce the appropriate level of challenge and don’t have the half dozen player characters swamped with hundreds of enemies who can’t pose any real threat (due to armour or magic on the part of the PCs) but they do just carry you away from the goal. Once it’s novel, twice it’s amusing, three times and you’re an ass.
Be especially careful of the challenge level you present if there’s real possibility of player character death. Players don’t generally like it when their characters die. Sometimes it’s thematically appropriate and yet, at other times you have the annoyance and boredom of going through the numbers and generating another character.
Ma’ Johnston’s Dinner Recipe
My mum has always cooked extra. It comes from me and my siblings having big appetites and there usually being an extra head at the table to feed because one or more of us brought a friend. As we’ve gotten older, the portions got larger and now I know she actually cooks two dinners when she knows we’re calling over for dinner. This is why you can end up with a plate of spagetti, bolognaise sauce, a pork chop and some broccoli bake on the same plate. It’s because she loves feeding people and making sure everyone gets enough.
Apply the same thought to gaming. Overprepare on the materials but don’t get frustrated if the PCs seem to be getting through it slowly. I’d also recommend having a side order of something left of field just in case they get distracted or they do manage to resolve the issues very quickly.
Also…it is okay to just close the book and say “That’s all for tonight” and not game for the last hour or so. Most players these days have also worked as GMs and there’s a spread of ability. Some people work from published adventures, some from their copious notes and other still from their fevered imagination. Good players will understand.