Tuesday, January 11, 2011


The first post-holiday game of the Cold War game I've been running was last night. Coming back from a break is always rough, and there's often a fear the game will have lost it's inertia during the hiatus. Thankfully, things went off very well, and we had a great adventure chasing shadows and lightning in time-stopped Washington DC.

It was a great session, but I was not originally going to write about it. We'd had fun, but I'd had no particular mechanical insights as a result of it, and I'm not comfortable saying how awesome a session was without some sort of excuse. I have a skill challenge idea queued up that's chomping at the bit to see daylight and I was ready to let the session go by with a nod until Fred noticed something: we had finished early.

This is strange enough that we went back through the usual range of possible explanations: had we started early? No, we actually started about 15 minutes late. Had the session felt skimpy on content? Nope, it had been pretty much stuffed from end to end.

We had no explanation, except that the pacing of this particular adventure had really just rocketed along. I was a bit surprised myself, since I hadn't exactly planned for it to be a fast session, but in retrospect I saw many of the decisions that lead to it. Some of them were just good habits, but some of it seems to have been an upshot of running Leverage (and its variants) over the break. Leverage does a lot to support very tight pacing without calling it out explicitly, and I need to keep a few of those things in mind. Some of them are classics (like starting out with a bang) but a few more are up for consideration of a permanent place in the toolbox. Notably:

Niche Protection is Not Just For GMs - It helps things a lot when players have an understanding and respect for the strengths of other characters, measured by the simple rubric that if they encounter a problem of a certain kind, are they more likely to just try to tackle it or are they likely to call in the expert? This has a subtle impact on how effectively you can play with a divided group: if the group has that level of respect, then getting divided isn't a big deal because they'll naturally draw each other back into play. If they're all rugged individualists or roughly equally capable, then things can remain unfocused. Mechanics play a role in this (as you often want the guy with the bigger bonus) but it really hinges on the players buying into the idea to work.

Small Details Carry Weight - In Leverage, these tend to take the form of post-its littering the table in front of me, which demands a certain brevity, but I came at it from a different angle last night. To underscore the oddness of the time stop, I made the decision to switch to the language of a horror game in my descriptions. That meant small, colorful details but not a lot of dwelling on minutiae. Draw attention to things that change. The net result may not have been hugely scary, but it was surprisingly focused. Horror, after all, depends a lot on pacing to maintain tension, so it's no shock that what works for it can work well for other pacing.

This kind of terseness also goes a long way towards helping your players create strong visuals in play (since it gives them more freedom to play while providing simple building blocks to anchor from). Since those are the things they're going to take home with them at the end, don't underestimate how big a deal that is.

Maintain a Clear Course of Action - This is one that's going to be easy to say, but maybe hard to explain, and I expect to chew on how to express it more effectively for a while, but the short of it is this: the clearer the course of action is (clear in terms of evident, not necessarily clear in terms of a lack of obstacles - obstacles are half the fun), the faster things will move, especially if there is some external pressure to keep things moving. On its face, this is dangerously close to a case for railroading, but that's not the heart of it at all. For one thing, there will often be more than one useful course of action, and for another this is about action on the scene level, not the whole arc of the adventure.

This hinges on information management - it's all about making sure the players have enough information to make decisions (at least most of the time) and that means that they need to feel confident in their knowledge of 1) What they would need to do, 2) Whether or not they're capable of it and 3) the immediate consequences of doing so. Adversarial dungeoning encourages GMs to be be very cagey about these data points, especially #2 and #3, but that's a bad instinct. Not only does it slow play, but keeping everything obscure utterly devalues the things you shroud for good reasons.

The Good Parts Version - This is an old one from the bottom of the bag that merits dusting off. The speed of a particular scene or action should not depend on its importance, but rather it should be inverse to the level of player engagement. The only long scenes are ones where all the players are engaging each other - everything else deserves to be brisk and keep the ball moving. If it's something a player enjoys, it should take longer than something that's clearly a plot necessity.

This technique is super-useful to GMs looking to weed their own garden. It makes you aware of things you're stretching out because they're cool to you but not your players, so you can decide what to do about that.

Anyway, it's not a science yet, but I feel like I may have started getting my hands around really making pacing work. Which is one more reason I need to get working on that Skill Challenge thing.


  1. One of the things I tweeted last night was that the session reminded me how potent presenting a clear course of action (but not a clear set of answers) can be. That's the real juggling act that was pulled off, here, and possibly warrants a more expanded blog entry at some point -- it harkens back to Kings for me a bit, where the vibe I reached for was often "keep up the time pressure, but don't assume where that pressure will push them".

  2. @fred Good point, and to cement it, I am planting a metaphor in my head of valves. Pressure without valves just risks explosion - you need pressure but you need to make sure there are valves installed. Definitely something to come back to.

  3. The other thing that was very clear last night were the hard decisions. They crystallized nicely - in part because what mattered (what was at stake) crystallized nicely. By that I don't mean that the outcomes (go left or go right) were obvious so much as that there had to /be/ a decision made (we need to choose which way to go). The trick in that was the presentation of data:

    You're in a time-frozen briefing room in which (frozen) are many people, including the president of the US, and a very large bomb. The bomb, upon inspection, has a lot of C4 and vials of green liquid.

    There are options there, and lots of them, but more importantly, the scope of the problem is both obvious and compelling. That's a neat trick. It leads naturally to: "What are you doing?" with a reply that won't be "Wait, why do I care?"

  4. "Pressure without valves just risks explosion - you need pressure but you need to make sure there are valves installed."
    Very, very nice metaphor! ;)
    I like it!

  5. Great post, Rob - a lot of good advice in there.

    I'm about to start a campaign in which the characters have very little information about the setting. Although it's necessary for the premise, this lack of info perhaps puts your "Maintain a Clear Course of Action" at risk - and as you say, that's not ideal. Now that you've pointed it out, I'll see if I can find a way to compromise the two.

  6. To this post, I say: Hells yeah.

  7. I'm about to start a campaign in which the characters have very little information about the setting.

    This doesn't seem like a problem to me. Whether they know a ton about the setting or barely anything at all, the only thing that matters in terms of pacing is that they know barely enough about the matter at hand to pursue a course of action. If five seconds after they wake up with amnesia a dozen armed guys burst through the door, that's still plenty to go on, IMO, even if where they are and who those guys are is an utter mystery. All they need to know is that those guys don't seem to like them, and that they're going to have to do something risky if they want to see tomorrow. As long as there are periodic chances to give them opportunities for exposition through action, they'll move from one piece of information to the next. The only way it could really go wrong is if they don't ask obvious questions like "Who were those guys?" and "Why are they after us?" -- but if they're not asking questions like those, they probably didn't want to play an RPG to begin with.

  8. Mike nails an important distinction: You can be very opaque about the setting so long as you're very clear about the _situation_.

    A good model for this would be a well-written X-files episode. Even if the larger questions aren't answered, the specific investigation of the episode keeps moving forward because it depends on immediate needs (Talking to witnesses, investigating stuff) rather than the big picture.

  9. It's funny that the Leverage game I ran on Monday could have benefited from this post- there was a lack of a clear course of action to stop the Mark, and as a result, plans piled up, analysis paralysis resulted, and the game's pacing went weird near the end. It was still a fun game, but remembering to have put in a smoking gun (then tossing things in the way) would have solved it.


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