Tabletop Roleplaying Games are largely social games. While focus on other core gameplay aesthetics (Narrative, Fantasy, Challenge, Discovery) vary from table to table, Fellowship is almost always a big part of why we gather round the table each week to game. I’ve put some thought into pacing of late, and it seems to me that the same principles ought to be considered in the social aspect of the game. So what does the engagement curve of the social aspect look like?
The first step of pacing is the initial spike that hooks the players in for the whole session. You know those inevitable minutes of catching up and musing about the latest Marvel movie at the beginning of each session? They might be the hook to touch off the social engagement curve. So, advice for those first minutes? Let them run their course, but ratchet it down before it goes on too long. The Fellowship engagement curve needs to bottom out for a bit before the next spike. This is a good time to launch the in-character events of the session that will start the Narrative, Fantasy, Challenge, and/or Discovery curves that undergird your gameplay.
There should be intermittent spikes in the social engagement throughout the rest of the session. These might be moments when a player break out a pun and the laughing and joking goes on a bit, or when someone makes a Monty Python reference and the rest play out the Tim the Enchanter scene word for word, or when a scene in-game needs a little reminiscing and celebration out-of-character. These should be brief, but the GM should allow them to be intense, encouraging further intensity as the session progresses.
Finally, when the in-character action comes to an end for the night, the session should close with the social climax as the players rehearse their favorite events of the session, their excitement to pick up again next time, and any other socialization they remembered during the session. And then the whole thing winds down as everyone leaves, one-by-one saying their goodbyes.
There you have it. The social engagement curve. It is a vital component of the RPG experience, and it can be managed. With a awareness, practice, and skill, the DM can forge a social experience that keep the players coming back week after week.