Actual gameplay consists of a series of repeating phases. These phases are played out in sequence, and are designed to help the players know what is happening in the game, give them the opportunity to have their characters do something about it, and learn the consequences of their choices. This section goes over the different phases of game play.
When everyone is ready to begin a gaming session, the GM must first provide the setting for its activities. If the GM is launching a new adventure or campaign, they should begin by "setting the stage". The GM should let the players know where their characters are and what they are doing as part of the adventure's introduction. There are several good ways to do this. One is through the use of a "personal log", which the GM may hand to any player to have them read to the group. Such logs will preferably include pertinent information such as the date, where the group is located when the adventure starts, and so forth. Another way to set the stage is by having the characters begin at the ending point of their last adventure, where something happens (such as receiving new orders) that send them on to their next assignment. For non-military groups, the characters may be at their home base/bar/home when some major event happens, which subsequently launches the adventure. The GM may even be able to get away with dumping the characters right in the middle of the action, giving the players a taste of combat before they even know what they are doing!
Should a gaming session be a continuation of a previous one, the GM should start the new session by recapping what happened earlier; this as a rule is significantly easier than setting the stage from scratch. All the GM has to do is remind the players what took place in the last session. Only the critical events are necessary to recap; the results of general encounters, die rolls, character promotion and so forth are not crucial. If the session is part of an ongoing campaign, it may be necessary for the GM to recap information from other prior sessions as well. Alternatively, a player may be appointed to be the group’s scribe in order to keep track of any important information the group learns and to remind the other players of what's taken place so far. Should the group appoint a scribe, it is likely that player will also act as the group’s cartographer (particularly if the adventure is site-based; see Chapter 11.2.1). The GM should be willing to help out the cartographer (map maker) by repeating scene descriptions and assisting them with filling in as many details as necessary. The only exception to this guideline is when the GM wants the characters to be lost; in that case, it should be apparent that this is because of the way the adventure's events are scripted (such as when the character group is attempting to navigate through a maze).
As the game gets going, it is important to pace events appropriately. The pace of the session's events is determined by how much real time the GM spends on any given activity. Different players enjoy different paces and it is important to try and keep the majority of the group happy. Adventures with a great deal of tension - particularly as they reach their climax - should be paced quickly. Slow, mundane tasks may be skipped entirely unless the players want to use that time for character interaction. Above all, GMs must keep the game moving. Another thing to consider is how long the current gaming session will last. Knowing how much time is available will help the GM to pace things out so that they can reach a good stopping point in the adventure around the time the session is scheduled to end. Two to three hours is usually enough time for a gaming session; less time will require a faster pace, while more time will allow the GM to slow things down. A GM can help their pacing by taking a minimal amount of time to reference rules, asking questions of the players to see if they feel the pace is right (and whether or not they need to skip ahead a little bit), and taking a few short breaks to freshen up or prepare for an encounter while the session is in progress.
Once the stage has been set for the current gaming session, the game can proceed into its main phases. There are four main phases: Initiative, Declaration, Action, and Reaction. The Initiative phase is when the GM describes the current situation. In the Declaration phase, the players inform the GM of what their characters will do. The Action phase is when the characters perform their declared actions, and the Reaction phase is then the consequences of those actions are determined. The main phases of the game repeat in this cycle until the gaming session concludes, and they often blur into one another.
The first main phase is Initiative. This should not be confused with the Initiative stat or Initiative Checks, both of which are used for determining combat order (see Chapter 9.1). Rather, this is the phase in which the GM describes the current situation to the players. As with the process of setting the stage, GMs should be as descriptive as possible in this phase, as it is through their description that the players know what is happening and can give some thought as to what their characters need to do next. A GM should always be willing to repeat a description or to add more detail if necessary; if the description of a scene is inadequate, the players may become lost or fail to catch some important point in the adventure. At no point is being descriptive more important than in combat. A GM should try to avoid statements such as “You’ve been hit and take 22 points of damage”, unless the adventure's pace is so fast that this minimal amount of information best describes the situation quickly. A statement such as “the mass driver shot burns a hole through your armor, causing your fighter to take 22 points of armor damage”, or “the laser blast reflects off your fighter, leaving only a small char mark”, is much more descriptive (which helps with immersion) and much, much better for the action overall.
Declaration is the second main phase, in which the players inform the GM of what actions their characters will perform. The GM should listen carefully to what the players say and make sure they understand their intentions. An important thing to establish at this point (particularly during the exploration of a site) is the group's marching order, which basically says who is leading, who is in the middle, and who is in the rear); knowing this can be important for determining which character sees things first and who might be the first victim of an ambush. Neither the GM nor the players should be afraid to ask questions of each other; it’s better that a little bit of time is wasted communicating for the sake of clarity than for a player to get angry because the GM misinterpreted what they wanted their character to do. It is important for the GM to remember that the player is in charge of running their character. They cannot force emotions upon a character or cause them to perform any action their player doesn’t dictate; the only time the GM can do this is if the game dictates it (such as when a character is under compulsion), and even then, the GM’s effects must be limited.
Action and Reaction are the two final main phases, in which the characters perform their actions and determine their consequences. These phases may be concurrent depending upon the situation and how the GM is timing the adventure (for more on this, see Chapter 9.1). This may involve a Check or just conversation with the GM. If a Check is involved, the GM should determine its DC and have the player involved roll the dice. While any player keeping track of their character's abilities will instantly know whether or not they succeeded, the effects of the Check don't necessarily have to occur immediately (for example, a failed Distress Check to prevent a group of Kilrathi opponents from calling for backup won't instantly summon another half-squadron of Jalthi down on the players' respective heads, but they'll know that somebody will eventually be coming...). If the Check requires an opposed roll, the GM should roll their dice behind a screen so that secrecy of the outcome is maintained. Characters who succeed in their actions will fulfill their immediate goals and may also gain things such as money, prestige or Skill ranks as a consequence of their actions. They may even fulfill professional or personal goals, depending on the situation. Disbursement of any rewards is handled at the discretion of the GM.
Eventually, the time will draw near for the session to come a close. At that point, the GM should find a good stopping point for their adventure if it hasn't come to a final conclusion. Should the adventure be close to its end, the GM can talk to the players about extending the session for a few minutes so they can wrap things up. A GM should remember to leave enough time for the denouement (the final conclusion) of their story and for the presentation of any final rewards the characters may have earned as a result. One thing to avoid at the end of an adventure is anti-climax, which is what happens when the characters get to the all-important, defining moment of the story and it turns out to be less important or less exciting than everything that has preceded it. This should be avoided for several reasons: first, it’s bad storytelling. Second, it will disappoint players. Third, it will become much harder to build any excitement about any future adventures. GMs should know when they are heading for such an ending and take great pains to avoid them whenever possible. This means they have to know the right time to end their story; it should be just after the climax, with as short of a wrap-up as they can manage.
If the adventure is nowhere close to its final end, a natural stopping point may be selected (such as the characters finally hopping a ride off world or checking into a hotel for the night). In some cases where the end is near a particularly dramatic point in the story, the GM might consider using a cliffhanger. Something incredibly important is about to happen (such as when the big bad guy finally makes their dramatic entrance), when the GM says "that’s it until next week". Cliffhangers can be very effective at ending the session and leave the players anticipating the next one. However, they can also frustrate players and lose their effectiveness if the GM over-uses them; GMs should be cliffhangers sparingly and with caution.
Regardless of whether or not the adventure has ended, a little bookkeeping is almost always required right at the end of the session. The GM should first note any information pertinent to the ongoing game (game-date, game-time, the location of the characters, etc.). This will help them recap things in the next gaming session or help them set the game for the next adventure. Notes such as what encounters have took place may also be recorded for the GM’s records for the sake of continuity. The GM should be willing to share with the players what their characters have earned through the session’s activities even if they aren’t yet ready to actually reward them. This will give the players something to look forward to when the adventure is over and lets them start thinking about how they'll apply any of their character’s newfound abilities.