Last updated on March 2, 2020
“It is a fast [plot]? // It’s fast enough for you, old man.”
“Pacing” is one of those nebulous issues in story-telling. Generally, it refers to how fast a story progresses through the arc of events of the plot. In an era of non-stop-action movies, it’s easy as a GM to feel that things need be a rolling boil at all times in our Table-Top Role-Playing Games (TTRPGs). I personally think that’s a mistake.
“Just Write” on YouTube does an interesting talk-about “Rise of Skywalker” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BD5mLw0A8vI) . One of the remarks he makes is that the director’s trademark style is to push the plot ahead at a frenetic pace by virtue of exposition sequences that drive action sequences. There are no scenes as a common device in this style of story-telling.
“… two characters in a room, working through a character-based conflict, that reaches some kind of resolution and that leads into the next scene …”— Just Write
To me, a scene involves two or more characters, each with a preferred outcome, communicating. In the resulting exchange, one or more of the characters do get what they want and do not get what they want. One or more characters do or do not learn something about themselves or the other characters.
Additionally, and most importantly, the audience gains insight into who the characters are, and what they want. It is this aspect of stories in “gas pedal pacing” that suffers most.
In the case of TTRPGs, the “audience” is the players and anyone else invited to watch. I’ll put forward that, no matter who else may be watching, the players are the most important part of the audience. The folks at the table have to be getting some sort of emotional payoff, from my perspective, or there is a lot of work being done for little value.
What about fun? Fun is an emotional payoff. The question is what everyone at the table calls fun. If you're playing a TTRPG, almost by definition, you should find role-playing fun. It's literally written on the box in terms of what the experience is about.
The price of sacrifices for speed
“Gas-pedal pacing” sacrifices scenes for additional action sequences. While you can role-play in a “sceneless story”, I think that as a Games Master / Storyteller (GM / ST), you’re just making your job harder for relatively little positive value.
This doesn’t mean I’m completely against action sequences in stories. Action is physical conflict, and that allows other aspects of the characters and story to come to light, including other kinds of conflict. I’m saying that nothing but action sequences is a less effective style of stories.
In a prior blog-post I mentioned that part of the job of the GM is to vocalize the questions of the setting / world. What are the themes of the game? What are we exploring, emotionally? When a sword or blaster gets drawn, what are the emotions of the characters that drive the actions of those characters?
When the shooting stops, when the swords are sheathed, is there a reckoning within the group? If there is, then a scene is an excellent tool to letting the characters express what’s inside and getting it out for the audience.
“… in a well written plot, you understand the cause and effect of each action. The characters make decisions and those decisions have consequences, which lead into the next scene … “–Just Write
One excellent tool I’ve found to help scenes emerge from action sequences is to change the “your turn” prompt. When it’s the turn of a given player’s character to act, the usual prompt is “What does <character> do?“. I try, at least 30% of the time, to use a different prompt. “Before <character> takes action, what is going on in their head? What are the feeling right now?“
It’s remarkable what that prompt will do. Some of my past players have had serious blink-blink moments, as they suddenly had to reframe the entire battle from the emotional stand-point of their character, verses their own tactial-boardgame point-of-view. I’ve had other players suddenly gush about how horrified their characters were at what was happening. I’ve seen one player suddenly completely change what they were going to do, because of what they realized their character would be feeling.
I do enforce “reasonable time”. In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (DnD5e), an initiative action is six seconds long. You can’t channel Anna Karina, or quote extensively from War and Peace in six seconds.
Oddly enough, that tends to make those moments of emotion in the heat of action much more jagged and punchy.
“Are we safe here? // It’s a Chinese tea shop. How could it be dangerous?”
Another excellent tool for giving time for a scene is what I refer to as “having tea”. As a GM / ST, I will periodically declare a “tea house” or “coffee house” scene. The rules of a “tea house” or “coffee house” scene are simple; until the end of the scene, the villain and his / her minions are unable to find the characters. None of the NPCs are able to, or interested in, listening to the characters, unless someone starts shouting.
Explicitly, the characters are free to take a deep breath, say what’s on their mind, discuss the plot, other NPCs, whatever. I not only take the foot off the gas, but I apply temporary brakes, and slow everything down. As the GM / ST, I’ll prompt the conversation; what is the current Big Question confronting the group? What are they all feeling about their answers to that question?
Once the conversation starts, I try and keep out of it. This is where the characters are going to talk, and as the GM / ST, it’s my job to let them.
If I had to one-line summary the problem with “gas-pedal pacing” in stories, it is that it allows you to over-run the view of the characters’ emotional head-lights. If you, as a GM / ST, aren’t allowing the characters to feel anything at anytime, then the action can rapidly become meaningless. So-called “hack-and-slash” campaigns are a good example.
Different games, different settings and different groups of characters and players all demand a different “fuel mixture” — the balance between scenes and action-sequences — to keep the game running smoothly. As a GM, you’ll have to experiment and find out what works best. If you aren’t sure, ask the players what they think would make the most sense in the next session.
The bottom line is that no matter how fast and furious the pacing of your game, always give the characters a chance to pull over for coffee and gas.
Thanks very much for reading this post, and visiting my blog. I hope something I’ve said makes sense or is even helpful. You can catch up with me to talk TTRPGs and GM-ing via Twitter at https://twitter.com/MichelV69 , or most Sunday mornings on https://www.twitch.tv/902pe_gaming/videos.
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All the best, have fun with whatever you are playing, and I hope to chat with you soon.