Where I Go Wrong - short, one-off games

Here's my first post beginning a series of posts about mistakes I find myself making while GMing, and thoughts about how to fix those mistakes.

Last night, I ran a game for a couple of mates in which an incident while the heroes were out hunting was supposed to lead the story into another, more significant event that was happening nearby.
The hunting was coincidental to the real adventure, but it bogged down and dominated the game session, so much so that what I had planned to be a single three hour session of gaming has now ended with a cliff-hanger, with action to be concluded next session.

Here's how it went down:
A Duchess wants to butter up a Count so that he is amenable to negotiations, and claims that the best way to do this is to arrange for him to have a successful kill of a great beast - a sabre-toothed tiger - while hunting. The heroes are to steer the count to the beast, and aid in the kill - but not steal the kill, so that the Count feels awesome.
This hunting expedition is actually a set up so that the player characters are on hand to witness some other event that happens nearby. I'll not go into what that event is, because the players may be looking - and it doesn't really matter for this post, except as the true aim of the game session.

Beardy, a player of Sefu the warrior hero, was late arriving - he thought we were going to play at the local games club for some reason. (Mrs Alastair, player of Silwen the caster hero, was on hand, due to being Mrs Alastair.) The lateness isn't too significant, but I suspect it should have alerted me to the need to keep things short...

After a little preamble in which the patron Duchess explains her needs, Mrs Alastair gets stuck in with questions. These are all good, valid questions, but we further delay getting to the action as her concerns are addressed.
I go through some descriptions of the landscape and scenery, and arriving at the Chateau where the hunt is going to start - then make the time-consuming mistake of having the guard on the gate halt them. From my description of him - trying to inject a little humour by making him a sloppy Gallic reprobate, smoking a cheroot while supposedly on duty - Sefu the warrior hero wants to sort out the guard's uniform and tell him off (Sefu was a guard on an airship before graduating to heroism). Now we take a few more minutes to discuss whether it's possible for Sefu to straighten the guard's helmet without starting a fight. I say "No - he's got a pike: if you try to close with him while he's challenging you, he'll kick off." We agree that yes, the guard would be minced up pretty sharpish, but that wouldn't be a good way to start employment as beaters for the coming hunt.
Then I compound my mistake by role-playing discussions on the logistics of beating, gameskeeping and so on. Fun, but not what I'm trying to do with this session.

Of course, throughout this actual game play, we get distracted with the usual nattering off topic as well - so that by the time the hunting party has set off with our two heroes inserted as beaters, it's well past 9pm.
We engaged in somewhat curtailed role-playing within the hunting party, as I'm now increasing aware of the lagging time. I spring the tiger action on them after just a few minutes of banter.
The fight with the dire tiger was rather exciting, to be honest - mainly because of the extra requirement of having to make the Count believe he was the one who killed the beast, I think. Making the players think differently about the fight, seemed to add something.
The fight started with one of the NPC beaters being ambushed - and outright killed - by the tiger. The tiger then made off, dragging its prey over the heath. I played the tiger as instinctively as possible - she wasn't interested in the hunting party except as obstacles to avoid as she made off with her dinner... until they started to seriously injure her - then she fought back.
The players were pulling their blows a little to let the count make the significant hits - until Sefu was mauled by the tiger, and dropped. Then Mrs Vexed unleashed the big spells, and the Count really had to fight it unaided. A few more injuries, and the tiger fled for her life.

By this time - about 10:45 - the tiger was well cut and stabbed and burned - and the Count's arrow was the last hit before it bled out into unconsciousness.
With a little wrapping up of the session (healing Sefu, performing the coup de grace on the tiger, role-playing of the woe of losing a beater, calming down after the excitement), I produced a cliff-hanger for the next session: rising smoke in the distance, and the flash of swords in the sunlight.

What did I learn from this?
  • Move on quickly - we get sidetracked with funny scenes or colourful encounters, but the action needs to move on. 
    • Rather than debating whether the guard would attack Sefu, I could have just had him bluster comically, and then direct the heroes where they were meant to go.
    • Rather than dwelling on the set up of the hunt, I could have jump-cut to the heroes' hunting party travelling overland toward their goal.
  • Maybe start in media res - a logical extension of the jump-cut: we could have begun with the hunting party, and recapped the introduction. These players are quite happy with narrative leaps (I've used plenty of "Cut to the Death Star" type scenes to build tension, before), I could easily have used them.
  • Don't use challenging monsters as a warm up. The dire tiger was too tough, and took too long - especially as it was just a preliminary to the real point of the scenario.