Last Monday, I started a four-week series on how I run my games as an improvisational GM. I started off this series with a discussion of how pre-planning your game world can make improvisation much easier. This week I am looking at the number one tool in my improvisational arsenal: the pause.
Mastering the Fine Art of the Pause
Even if you know your world inside and out, can step seamlessly into any NPC, and can skitter along the skein of you story, there are still moments when the PCs can and will blindside you. Their plans or actions are so outrageous that your brain skips from its track, and you cannot instantly recover. In that moment, whether you are improvising or not, you might experience a moment of sheer panic.
If your games are like mine, they have a natural ebb and flow of attention and game play throughout the course of an evening. There are moments where the group is enraptured and times when side-conversations derail the rhythm. Food runs, drink refills, and bio breaks all disrupt the flow of gameplay. Even though these are a normal occurrences, it can be frustrating for a GM. (How to handle this is a topic for another time.) I say embrace these pauses! In a game where you are improvising, these lulls can be your greatest ally. I find that I use them in two ways: defensively and offensively.
The defensive pause revolves around spending the lull assimilating the players’ choices and coming up with the next step. Even a brief pause can give you the time you need to get back on your mental feet. I have even purposefully created these breaks when I am completely caught off guard. A well-timed bio or drink break gives me five minutes to compare players’ choices with pre-planning information and come up with the next step in the session.
But the lull is also a great time to surprise your players and grab their attention by the throat. A roll for initiative, a trap, or some other narrative intrusion (this technique is codified in the Cypher System) can revitalize a group that has slowed down for the night. In my Numenera game, which had nine players, when someone started side–tracking, they received a GM Intrusion, which rapidly brought their attention back to the game. It did wonders for combating the natural tendencies for attention deficient in a group that large. This offensive use of the pause can jolt life back into your game, since your players are just as caught off guard as their characters.
Using the pause to your advantage is a useful skill for any GM, but it is necessary for an improvisational GM. It requires a level of self and game awareness that we often have to be trained to notice. Your moments to search for inspiration are there, happening at your game table every night. All you need to do is start looking for them, and your ability to react on the fly will stun your players.
In writing this post, I realized that my offensive use of the lull was codified quite nicely by Monte Cook in his game Numenera in the form of the GM Intrusion. While I was reflecting on that, it occurred to me that Adventurer, Conqueror, King is a great game that goes in-depth on pre-planning. Take a look at its rules for setting up your campaign realm. If you walk through their Secrets chapter, you can walk to the table with a fantastic grasp on your game world as well as having a lot of the hard work creating verisimilitude out of the way. I recently used these rules to flesh out the Desolates area of Ta’nar, and it lead me down some great creative paths. The region developed in ways I could not have imagined, and I have a grasp on it that I don’t normally start with. If you are interested in pre-planning, check ACKS out.