My life is crazy right now. Last week was jury duty, which was a lot of waiting punctuated with furious activity. This week, my family is out visiting, so the normal rhythm of my week will be thrown off. These two events, plus last week’s gaming sessions got me thinking about pacing. In my mind there are two important types of pacing at a table: Story Pacing and Session Pacing
Story pacing is an important skill in the GM’s arsenal. I define this as: how quickly the scenes unfold in your game. Basically as the GM how much force are you applying to the players to get them to the next scene? This skill helps set the tone of the story. Quick pacing gives an action movie feel to the game, with scene after scene being thrown at the players in rapid succession. Slower pacing gives the game a more dramatic feel, with the players feeling out and soaking in each scene. Too much speed and the story zips by the players without allowing them time to absorb any information, while too little speed can leave the players bored and floundering.
I struggle with this kind of pacing as a GM. I default to quick pacing in my games. I feel like part of this is due to the fact that I never want my players to feel bored. My games tend to have a very action/adventure feel to them. I have to consciously slow my pacing down when I am running games like Mage, as it is an investigation game. The players need time to stew in the story and to explore each scene fully to gather the information they need and to have character development. Pacing also was a problem in our Game of Thrones game, where I realized that I needed to slow down due to the nature of a political game. At first I slowed down far too much, and the players felt trapped in scenes.
So, as the GM, how do you control pacing? Speeding things up is easy. I put interrupt cues in scenes. You intrude on the current scene with the next one, once the goal of the first scene is complete. Basically, when the players discover/encounter ‘x’, ‘y’ happens a ‘#” of rounds or minutes later. This can be anything from a cell phone call from an ally, cyborg ninja zombies kicking in the door, or a giant death trap sending a rolling ball of doom at the players forcing them to run.
Slowly a story down, as I said above, is something I am not really great at. I am toying around with an idea, and I will share how it works in Mage as I try to apply it. The basic idea is to add a player door to the scene. The scene has a definite ending point, but it is activated by the players. So the players have control more of when a scene is over. Allies are waiting to aid the players when they are done, the next door of the dungeon is on the other side of the room, or perhaps the villain will be at a certain spot all night. This gives the players, in theory, more control of their scene emersion, giving them the time they need to complete their goals to their satisfaction.
Session pacing is less an important skill, and more an important responsibility of a GM at the table. This is defined as making sure that your players are engaged throughout the evening. We had a session of a game recently, where out of the two hours of play, half of players had less than 15 minutes of screen time total. There were a variety of reasons for this including a long combat with the other half of the group. But it ended up that those players who were not actively engaged left the table to stand and talk off to the side for a lion share of the time. I left the table, I was one of the players who got little play time, feeling like that while my scene was interesting, it could have been covered in an email or recap and I could have stayed home.
In my mind, this is never a situation that you want to find yourself in as a player or a GM. I feel although my players may feel differently, that I do a great job with this kind of pacing. It is all about keeping your players engaged at the table, and feeling like their turn is just around the corner.
There are many ways to do this. If the group is together, it is easy. Make sure you don’t let one player dominate, and give each player something to do in the scene both help with this kind of pacing. When the group splits, it gets much more difficult. I am a huge fan of cut scenes in this instance. In a recent Legends of the Five Rings game, the group was at a tournament, and each player was in a different competition or they were investigating the castle. I ran one round for each player and then jumped to the next scene. So the archer fired at his first target, the duelists squared off, then the first round of insults happened in the Sadane contest, etc.
I tried to run it like a combat, with each player getting a turn, even though they were all in different places doing radically different scenes. Keeping everyone engaged is one of the items in my GM checklist of a good session.
That wraps up the pacing discussion. Let me know if you have anything to add or any thoughts on the matter. This week, as I said, will be crazy. But I will have another review for you this week. I am also working on the Outlands Gazetteer, and hope to have a post on what the Burning Wheel group decided about the final organization, the Church.