Pacing is an extremely important piece of the puzzle when it comes to session time management.
Pacing was not as important when we were all a bunch of single guys in our teens and early twenties. We could have 6-12 hours sessions and even had a weekend where we round robin did an Earthdawn game for three days straight only stopping for sleep.
Now though in our late twenties to thirties session time has decreased to two to six hours. It's not just about a limited amount of our time. For example in our Sunday sessions (Deadlands: The Last Sons/Necessary Evil) we need to get the kids' lunch and then we need to get them dinner afterward. Asking a kid to not eat for six hours is an impossible task, even four hours is pushing it. So we are trying to fit the game session in between eating, at a four-to six hour time frame, with snacks for the kids (and adults!) to hold them over. In Necessary Evil I usually have six-seven players, so the time constraint is generally combat takes a while just from sheer number of players.
In our Friday 50 Fathoms game, we have dinner then play the game till 10-11 pm and call it. This gives us two to four hours, less time than a standard convention game usually. In 50 Fathoms, I have three to five players, but the loss of a few hours versus Necessary Evil and players new to gaming means the pace needs to be lightning fast. Also the players are more likely to tire with an evening game than an afternoon game.
With the time constraints above, as a game master this means pacing becomes a big deal. The biggest problems are:
1) Not enough material.
If you don't have enough prepared material, then you may not have enough to make a full session. This one is generally not a problem of our current game sessions, but it can be a real problem at a convention game. Better to have too much then too little.
2) Too much material.
Sometimes you try to push too much prepared material into a single session. I think the session script I did for Necessary Evil 16 shows this well. You've got a lot of ideas in there and the end result was not one session, but three sessions worth of material. In the preparation script I had far too much going on for a single session.
3) Too slow game speed.
We are here to game! It's important to try to be on time although it's often close to impossible especially with kids to corral before you can get to game. However, once we are there we need to focus and get the game going. Once you have the minimum number of starting players at the table (this is usually three in our group), it's time to start going! Try to minimize conversations with each other before the game session that delay the start of the game, especially with the game master since he or she really needs to focus on getting us started.
Once the game begins, limit interruptions to the game master if possible. Know your game and know your character so you can make scenes flow easily as game master and your turns go quickly as a player, especially in combat. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 should be the rule of the day on player turns if they are indecisive. If a person is out on the porch smoking, in the kitchen getting a beer or a snack or both, in the bathroom, etc. they are on hold till they get back. Keep the action going and don't delay for action cards for people not at the table right now. Otherwise you will get bogged down waiting and not be playing the game. If the game master is on break, it's a good time to take a break for the players as well.
A slow pace may drag the game out beyond our time constraints which is problematic because hungry humans tend to be whiny humans (goes for kids and adults!).
4) Too fast game speed
Sometimes the pace is too fast and you run into the same problem as 1) Not enough material. This is where having extra material at the ready can help extend a session if it is going to be short.
5) Press Start to Continue or End?
Sometimes us game masters fail to read a table. If you think the next scene might make the game session last a little longer than your time constraints normally, ask the players if they want to continue. Most of the time they'll say yes rather than have a shorter session, but sometimes the players are tired and ending the session early is the better alternative. Sometimes longer sessions aren't necessarily better sessions. As players you can also help the game master out by saying at the end of a scene, you are done for the night due to being too tired.
So what can we do as game masters to improve our pace?
1) Game preparation during the week:
Put together any maps or flats you will need for this week's session. I like writing a session script of scenes ahead of time in order to organize my thoughts and it usually helps me think about what map I want for the scene/location and minis needed. Sometimes you have to make more of a mini you already have (quantity, for example you don't have enough thugs or drones for a Savage Tale and need to print out another page of figure flats to increase your supply to the opposition amount in the book) and sometimes you need a mini you don't already have (quality/type, for example the 50 Fathoms Figure Flats surprisingly don't have some types of miniatures in the setting like giant octopi, rocs, orcas, etc.).
2) Before session preparation day of play:
Start by rereading important sections of both the core and setting book that are relevant to today's session. For example, if your main villain of the session is a super sorcery in Necessary Evil, look over the Super Sorcery power rules to familiarize yourself with them. In 50 Fathoms, reread the Chase and Vehicle rules to improve your ability to run ship chases and ship combat. Add sticky notes or index cards to mark these sections for quick reference during play. Look over the Plot Point, Savage Tale, One Sheet, or your session notes to familiarize yourself with today's scenes.
Get the table ready by putting out Bennies, Adventure cards, Character Sheets (if you have them), miniatures for the characters and opposition, maps, enemy NPC cards (or put index cards or sticky notes in the book where the opposition of the day is located), and shuffle the Action Deck. In a perfect world all these steps are taken before the players even arrive so that the table is set and ready for play as soon as enough players are there to start the game.
3) During play:
This is all about focus. As a game master you need to be quick and alert. Try not to do things like drink alcohol the night before a session or during a session as this will slow your brain down which automatically slows your pace. Do use focus enhancers like coffee, pop, or tea if they will help you improve your mental keenness but not to excess that you become too hyper. Switch to water to stay hydrated as the game goes on.
[If Drinking and GMing work for you go ahead and do it. But for me, I lose mental acuity and I just can't GM very well in that state. ]
Things should be happening at a breakneck pace so you can get as much done in a session as possible within the time constraints. I like my campaigns to be a little shorter now. My Shaintar campaign lasted 40 sessions, and I think Necessary Evil will last 30-35 sessions with 50 Fathoms maybe in the 50 range (with two-three hour sessions, you just get less done on average). Our original 50 Fathoms run was in this range with Deadlands: The Flood at 56 sessions being the longest run in Savage Worlds. I know this might seem to be long but I ran a ten year long Earthdawn Barsaivian campaign, so it's short to me.
So what can we do as players to improve our pace?
1) Downtime during the week
Advance characters before play. Do minor shopping out of game if possible. Like if you know the cost modifier of a town is x 5, buy mundane stuff like food and water in downtime if you happen to be in that town at the end of a session. No reason to waste session time on buying mundane items if you know the cost modifier already or can ask the game master during the week. This way you are ready to play on game day. If you want some rare items, be prepared to use Streetwise in play to go acquire them however.
2) Day of Play
Try to arrive on time if possible. If you cannot arrive on time, alert the game master of your e.t.a. Be focused and ready to play. If you want to take a break during combat, the best time is generally right after you turn in your action card during a combat round. So act and then take a break. If you do go on break before your action card, expect to be on hold when you return to the table.
May your game speed be Fast, Furious, and Fun with a quick pace!