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A game lives and dies by its pacing
I ran an abysmal roleplaying campaign last year for baywolf, darthmaus, and rainbowk. The suckage was entirely my fault: my NPCs were weak, I was using an unfamiliar rules system, I was leaning on the crutch of a pre-made world which didn't translate into the new system well at all. Among those things I also found that my pacing was terrible, and this is what really stuck out from that game. To those three, I've owed you an apology for inflicting a sucky game on you.

On the other hand, I got something out of it. I'd been used to running games in a moment-to-moment style, with each dungeon room mapped and every mile of road accounted for. This only kinda works, and only works at all when you're playing a very dungeon-delving style of game (which the d20 and predecessor systems lend themselves to). So when I switched to a game system called The Window I discovered that my biggest weakness was not creative story arc or characterising NPCs as I'd thought, but rather my pacing. In a narrative game, there are no breaks for dice rolling or stats-focused combat. Rather, things resolve very quickly so that they get out of the damned way and allow you to get on with the actual roleplaying.

By stripping away everything that interfered with the flow of the narrative in switching to a narrative rules system, my undeveloped pacing skills were stripped bare and laid naked for embarrassing inspection. As demoralising as that can be as a GM, it gave me a good and uncompromising look at something that I'd been doing wrong for years and gave me some very clear indicators of why and when my skills were inadequate.

That brings us to present day. Two Mondays back my fairly regular game of D&D in which I play was stalled at the last minute by two absent players. (Very last minute: everyone else was already there.) I screwed up the courage to try GMing again and offered to run a game. The results can be seen in Moonshine's post and Rukun's post after the session. It went spectacularly well. Evidently, between the last game and this impromptu session, I'd absorbed the lesson that embarrassment offered: don't let the game's pace stall!

So, I'll sum for anyone else out there who's just learning the ropes, or even for those nodding their heads sagely at my larval climb up the scale toward Good GMhood just in case I've missed something that they can point out:
  • The action may have lulls, but never let the narrative have lulls.
  • When there's a lull in the action, move the story forward. If this means skipping days, months, or even years, do it and without hesitation. Your players will thank you.
Next lesson is how to come up with material fast enough to feed a game being run under that rather demanding pacing philosophy. I'm pretty good at coming up with things on the fly, but it's stressful running on a buffer that threatens to hit 0%-full every few minutes for hours on end. I'm no good at planning and prep, so maybe that's the next epiphany.

Post scriptum: A related lesson was in transitions, but it's a skill I've been rather good at this whole time because of the very nature of a game run in the steady moment-to-moment pacing style. Still, it bears saying: When you make the game move forward, whether it is from room to room, scene to scene, or when making large temporal jumps like described above, make sure you pick up the characters and move them with a piece of transition narrative. What I've learned is that the anatomy of a transition is three-fold: close the current moment/scene/whatever, describe the passage of time or motion of the characters, and then set the scene where you expect the players to pick the action back up. Nothing confuses players more than when the GM has moved ahead without telling them.

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Reading your friend's descriptions of your game makes me really really miss all this roleplaying stuff! I'd love to try out that kind of system!

I wonder if there are a lot of roleplaying groups in Alberta...?

Congratulations on the good game, and for finding something you can work on!

If you're going to be anywhere near a university, it shouldn't be hard to find people who roleplay. In fact, the challenge might rather be learning how to pick the roleplayers with whom you're compatible out from the crowd of ones with whom you're not. :-)

You know, all this time I've been kicking myself for not being more clear regarding a move my character made in that game... you see, I said, that my character climbed back out of the window and you thought they had climbed back to street level and left, but all I meant was that they were once again outside the window instead of inside. Bizarrely, this confusion has become linked in my brain with the fact that we never played again. All my fault for not being more clear! ;)

Of course not, but it amuses me to think so anyway...

I dunno, it was fun. I would have liked to play more, but admittedly I'm busier than most these days.

I did really like your character, despite the built-in difficulty of getting them together with the other players' characters.

Busyness and a lukewarm game is a death blow every time. I got busier too and my enthusiasm for a game I was flubbing was pretty low. In any case, I did get some great lessons out of it, so in the end I guess it works out. And, the few times a scene played out smoothly, it was a lot of fun. I needed to be reminded of that through all this introspective focusing on what went wrong. :-)

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