Let’s talk about language. Here’s the problem with language. You don’t have to be licensed to use it. You’re just allowed to talk and write. And nowadays, every dumba$& gets a big, loud voice thanks to the magic of the internet. Sure, that’s great because it means I get a voice. But I’m not a big, loud dumba$&. And I have to expend a considerable effort with my big, loud voice to convince you to stop listening to big, loud dumba$&es.
Imagine, for example, that we let people drive cars on the honor system. Imagine all you had to do was go down to some office and they would ask you “do you know how to drive a car?” and you said “yes,” and they said “really?” and you said “really, yes” and then they gave you a license. And a car. We’d have a lot of dead people. Even if people were honest and really did think they knew how to drive cars.
The problem is, bad information spreads like a cancer virus. Just think about many people think really, really stupid things about health and nutrition. Paleo diets. The magic of agave over sugar. The evils of gluten. The idea being hugely fat isn’t inherently unhealthy and dangerous. The belief that vaccines cause autism. All of that crap happens not because people are dishonest. But because they think they know something and they share it and other people think it’s true and then they share it. The idea of eating unprocessed food like a cave person MUST be good, right? Cave people were much healthier than we were. The average American can’t go out and kill a mammoth.
Everyone having a voice is a terrible, terrible thing. Now, admittedly, I’m only talking about running good games here. Not preventing diabetes or malnutrition or the reemergence of smallpox. But that’s because I’m not actually a licensed health professional and it would be irresponsible and dangerous of me to maintain about a blog about vaccinations and thin privilege. So, here’s the problem with all the big loud voices in RPGs. Words get ruined.
For example, what does the compound word “role-playing” actually mean. Go ahead. What’s YOUR definition? Because it can mean LOTS OF THINGS, right? Well, that’s precisely the problem. That you think that words don’t mean things or that they can mean lots of things and its perfectly okay to have your own definition. And that’s why idiots now use “role-playing” to mean “talking in character” instead of “imagining a hypothetical situation and projecting yourself into the mind of an imaginary character in an attempt to make the choices that character would make in that situation if both were real.”
Today, we’re going to talk about a word that a lot of big, loud dumb&$ voices have ruined. We’re going to talk about pacing.
Pacing: One Word, Two Meanings, Completely F$&%ing Useless
Before we go on, take a moment and try to define pacing. What is pacing? Go ahead. I’ll wait. Or rather, you have to wait. Wait until you have a good definition and then read the next paragraph.
I mean, sure, there’s a chance some of you have it right. But it’s not a BIG chance. So I’m willing to bet that most of you have it wrong. And that’s because pacing is one of those words that has been misused enough to get two definitions. And the original definition, the useful one, is the one that’s getting lost.
Okay, so you probably think of pacing of how fast things happen in your game, right? How long does a combat last? How quickly do actions get resolved? How often does the game get stopped because someone has to look up a rule or a spell? How much can you improve pacing by forcing people to roll attacks and damage at the same time? And how much is your pace ruined by the morons who can’t put their f$&%ing Twitters and Facebooks down for two f$&%ing hours and just play a goddamned game with actual human beings in the same f$&%ing room?! Seriously. How hard is it?
Well, guess what? That’s not pacing.
The problem is, as important as all of that s$&% is, it doesn’t have a word. And there’s a reason for that. That’s because, in most works of fiction, that sort of s$&% isn’t an issue.
Pacing is the rhythm of a story. Or movie. Or book. Or adventure. And that sounds A LOT like the stuff I already said, doesn’t it? After all, the rhythm of a game, the speed at which the story happens, that sounds like the sort of s$&% that I was discussing. Only it isn’t. And the distinction is super important. Because PACING is a concept that’s important when WRITING an adventure. And that OTHER THING is important when RUNNING a game.
The Pace of the Scene
Pacing is a property of a scene. And the best way to understand it is to look at a movie we all know. So, once again, let’s look at Star Wars: Episode I: The New Hope. The one with the Death Star. The first time there was a Death Star. With Luke Starwalker. You know, THE FIRST ONE! The GOOD ONE!
So, in the opening scene, we see a space ship chasing another, bigger spaceship. And the big spaceship swallows the little spaceship. And then, there’s a battle in the hallway of the spaceship. And a couple of robots are trying to get away from the battle. And then the princess does a thing to the robot. And then she’s captured. And they escape from the spaceship in the spaceship.
And then we have a new scene. And in that scene, Dark Vader and General Tarkis are talking to Princess Amidala. And they are dancing around each other, trading quips, and then the Princess is taken away to jail.
And then the robots crash in the desert. And they have a funny little argument about how they hate each other. And then they walk and roll across the desert. And they wander. And they wander. Until finally the robots are rescued or captured.
And then we get a scene where Luke Starwalker is talking to his mom and dad about how much it sucks to be farmers on a desert planet and how he wants to go off hang out with his friends. And then he stares at two suns in an effort to go blind so he won’t have to be a farmer anymore.
Now, each of those scenes has a speed at which things happen. In the first scene, things happen pretty fast. Not SUPER fast. But lots of things happen in a short period of time. The ship is shot. It’s swallowed. There’s a laser battle. The robots escape. And the princess is shot. It happens pretty quickly. But in the next scene, things slow down a little. The Princess and Tarkis and Dark Vader are all having this tense standoff and they are saying things. And we learn a little bit about the universe. But mostly, they just glare at each other and hate each other. Not a whole lot happens. And then, after the little robot argument in the desert between Claptrap and C3-D2, they just walk across the desert. And basically NOTHING happens for a little while except that they wander. They just wander. And wander. Until finally the Ewoks capture them. And then the conversation between Luke and Natalie Portman and Anakin Starkiller about farming in the desert. It’s a pretty slow scene. But some important stuff happens. We learn that Luke hates farms. And stuff about how Luke’s other father was an a$&hole. And how Luke hates his life and feels trapped. Later on, there’s a scene where Indiana Jones and Wicket help Luke Starkiller escape from the TIE Fighter base and there’s a cool space battle. And there’s a lot of shooting and space maneuvers and yelling. And everything happens really, really fast and spaceships blow up and then Indy and Wicket and Luke escape.
The point is, every scene has a speed at which things happen. If you want proof – and you shouldn’t need it – just listen to the music. Notice how the background music in movies varies in speed? Tempo? Well, that speed and tempo (generally) matches the speed of the things happening in the movie.
And THAT is pacing. Pacing is the speed at which things happen in the scenes. The speed at which things happen in the story.
Pacing, Energy, and Emphasis
Pacing is a super important concept. But it’s one of those annoying concepts that is totally invisible unless it gets f$&%ed up. We don’t notice, for example, the speed of individual scenes while we’re watching them. It’s just a part of the scene. But it IS affecting you.
For example, a fast scene is exciting. It draws you in. It makes you lean forward. It makes your heart beat faster. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a fight scene between the Aluminum Falcon and the TIE Fighters or the mine-cart chase in the Mines of Molaram Kali or whatever. Or even the argument between Iron Man and Captain American and Bruce Hulk where they are all yelling at each other in the stupid Helicopter Ship. Or the shouting match between Leonardo and Raphael in basically every goddamned Ninja Turtle movie ever. When there is a lot happening in a very short period of time, we get excited and anxious and our heart races.
When a slow scene happens, we get engaged in a different way. We tend to become more attentive. Even though we might sit back and our heart might slow down and we’re less excited, our brains engage more with the scene. We pay attention to individual words and small details. We absorb information better. It draws us in to the characters and the emotional content of the scene.
That’s why, for example, Star Wars didn’t try to explain the dissolution of the senate and the importance of the Death Star in keeping the various planetary governors under control during a running gun fight. Could you imagine that? Imagine if Princess Padme and Dark Vader and Tarkis and a bunch of Stormtroopers were having a running gun-battle chase while they were shouting exposition at each other. “The Senate… [blam] [phreeow]… won’t stand for this! [kapow]” [dashes down a hallway and dives for cover as a steam pipe explodes] “I dissolved the Senate! [heavy breathing] [zap zap zap]!” “[blam] How will you maintain control! [zap] [Wilhelm scream]” “[KABLAM]… governors in line. [zap]” “… what about the governors?”
Now, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that all fast scenes are action scenes. A passionate sex scene is a fast scene. A training montage is a fast scene. The key to a fast scene is that a lot of stuff happens quickly, but the individual tiny details aren’t super important. And, more importantly, the emotional content of the scene stays pretty consistent. That is to say, there’s one emotion in the scene. That scene where all the Revengers are arguing in the Helicopter Ship is a perfect example. They are all just shouting over each other and saying hurtful things. It doesn’t matter what individual things are happening. The individual tiny, moment to moment actions don’t matter as much.
A fast scene is about excitement, tension, and usually just one single strong emotion. The individual details matter less than the overall scene.
A slow scene, on the other scene, can do a lot of things. Slow scenes are great for imparting information. That information can be factual exposition, like the thing about the Galactic Senate. Or it can be emotional and character information. Like how Luke hates farming and his parents. Because people are paying attention with their thinking bits, slow scenes are where you can get important, complicated stuff into their brains.
Slow scenes can vary in emotional content. You can have a slow scene in which there are a few different emotions at play. The scene where Indiana Jones is frozen in carbon dioxide by Jango Flett and Princess Fisher is upset is a great example of a scene with varying emotional tone. It’s sad. It’s a little hopeless. It’s a major loss. Wicket is Angry. The villains are triumphant. But it’s also a scene in which two characters affirm their love. And there’s a resolution that somehow, someway, they will be reunited.
That doesn’t mean a slow scene has to be loaded with information and/or emotion. A slow scene can have just one thing going on in it. And in those cases, the slow scene works for emphasis. When Claptrap and R2-PO are wandering lost in the desert, there’s isn’t a lot going on. Basically, it’s just about how slow and hopeless their situation is. They are lost. Separated. And isolated. The scene just serves to emphasize that.
Slow scenes can also build anticipation. The horror genre is full of slow scenes in which very little happens for a while. And that’s because we’re expecting something to happen. So the movie is toying us by emphasizing how nothing is happening. Think of how long it takes the first Alien to get moving. There’s a lot of slow, slow scenes in the beginning. We KNOW something terrible is going to happen. And the longer it takes not to happen, the more anxious we become.
Slow Scenes are Boring, Fast Scenes are Tiring
If you look closely at almost every good story, you’ll notice that the pace varies from scene to scene. Star Wars starts fast, then it slows down, it varies between slow and fast for a bit, and then it ends fast. Alien starts slow, stays slow for a while, then it varies from fast to slow for a bit and it ends fast. And there’s a reason for that. Slow is boring. Eventually, people tune out slow. Remember that slow works for emphasis. If you emphasize EVERYTHING, you emphasize NOTHING.
Meanwhile, fast scenes are hard to keep up with. They are like a workout for our brains and body. Lots of stuff happens quickly. And people get tired fast. That’s why even action movies have a lot of slow between the action. And why romantic movies still have a few scenes of slapstick or silliness or comedy or a dramatic chase or something.
The pace of a story has to vary. Otherwise, it’s either dull or tiring.
But what’s TRULY interesting is that slow scenes are almost infinitely more useful than fast scenes. Slow scenes can be about emphasizing or about imparting information or about complex and varied emotions. Slow scenes are where the story TRULY happens. Because they are the parts where our thinking brains get engaged. But fast scenes make things exciting and tense. Fast scenes make us care. They grab our guts. Most stories have far more slow scenes than fast scenes. Most action movies have only three good, strong action sequences. The rest is about the informational and emotional content of the story.
Flow: How Pacing Gets F$&%ed Up
Here’s how all that other stuff – rulebooks and resolutions and taking too long to roll dice or fill out a character sheet – comes into the pacing discussion without actually BEING about pacing.
Every scene has a pace. And that pace – the speed at which the scene SHOULD happen – is determined by the purpose and content of the scene. If there’s high excitement and low information or low emotional variation, the scene needs to be fast. If there’s information, emphasis, or emotional variation, the scene needs to slow down so people can pay attention to it.
But between the action and the players in an RPG, there’s a layer of rules and mechanics. And they HAVE TO be dealt with. See, the rules of the game represent an interface between the players and the world. Between the players and the story. Yes, there’s a battle going on. And yes, its tense and exciting. But in order to interface with that combat, we have a layer of mechanics that add excitement, uncertainty, and tension and empower the players to make decisions and feel like they have some control over the outcome.
So basically, in every scene, there’s a drag chute. Basically, there’s a limit on the speed of the scene. No matter how fast a scene is SUPPOSED TO BE based on its information or emotional content, there’s a limit on actual speed imposed by the mechanics of the game.
And what’s more, there’s an inverse relationship between the speed of a scene and the mechanical content. Exciting, tense, uncertain, FAST scenes (combats, chases, action scenes) rely on the rules to add the tension and uncertainty and to allow the players to feel engaged in the outcome. And thus, the rules are riding the brakes the most on the fastest scenes of the game.
The scenes that are mainly about emotional or informational content, but lack high degrees of tension and uncertainty, those scenes rely much less on the mechanics of the game. The game ALLOWS THEM to move as fast as the story demands. Which is precisely what they don’t need.
And THAT is where we get to the idea of FLOW. Flow is the word I use to distinguish between the narrative pace (the pace a scene SHOULD move at) and the speed at which the game allows the scene to play out.
Flow is entirely about keeping the game moving, no matter what. Broken flow is an obstacle in EVERY scene. No matter how slow or fast the scene should be, anything that breaks flow gets in the way of proper pacing. And that’s because pacing isn’t entirely binary. The game isn’t just about slow scenes and fast scenes. The relative pace of each scene is important. Some fast scenes are faster than others. Some are slower than others. Slowing down a slow scene is just as bad as slowing down a fast scene.
And broken flow ONLY slows down scenes. That’s all it can do. And flow is ALWAYS broken in an RPG. The moment you have to stop the action to roll a die, you’ve broken the flow. What it comes down to is this: no matter what kind of game you’re running, no matter what scene you’re running, your job as a GM is to minimize flow breaking. And that’s why I don’t care whether I’m running a combat or a conversation. If you break out your phone and start Tweeting, you’re f$&%ing with my game and I’ll replace you with someone who doesn’t. Or I’ll find another group.
Flow is all about running games. It’s about keeping people engaged and keeping the action moving, about minimizing distractions and speeding resolutions, it’s about never cracking a rulebook if you don’t have to. It’s about freeing yourself to maintain the pace of your game.
Setting the Pace
When it comes to designing an adventure, pacing is actually one of those things that is pretty easy to handle once you know it exists. A good pace is simply about remembering two rules: vary the pace and end fast.
First of all, when you plan out your scenes as part of your adventure, you want to try to sandwich all of your fast scenes between slow scenes. You rarely want to have one fast scene lead directly to another. Otherwise, you fatigue your players. THAT’S WHY dungeons have empty rooms where the players have to make simple decisions between left and right, for example. That sort of decision scene is a slow scene that helps break up the fast scenes. THAT’S WHY God of War had all those block pushing puzzles. Action games are bad when there’s nothing to break up the fast scenes.
At the same time, if you build your entire game out of slow scenes, you’re going to bore your players. Now, some players have more of a tolerance for it than others. But those morons who brag about having an entire game session without rolling a die? Well, I chose the word “moron” for a reason. That doesn’t mean their game is “SO ABOUT STORY,” it means they are f$&%wits who don’t understand pacing. An essential component of story. And you can’t keep that up every week. No matter how story focused your players, you can’t have slow scenes week after week after week with no fast scenes to break them up. Sorry.
But if you’re cognizant of pacing, it’s almost impossible to screw it up. As long as you’re varying it, it’ll be fine. Oh sure, advanced pacing is about figuring out the right balance for your game. If you want to build a horror adventure, you want to start mostly slow and build to a few sharp shocking fast scenes. If you want to build an action adventure, you want to start fast and wobble back and forth between slow and fast before ending with a fast scene. The balance between slow and fast and where they fall in the overall story is a major part of setting tone and fitting into a particular genre.
The All Combat Game and the Long, Long Short Rest
I want to digress for just a moment and point out a very specific symptom of a specific type of bad pace. Because it carries an important lesson about the difference between scenes and transitions.
If you pay careful attention to a game that has a LOT of fast scenes, particularly the sort of dungeon crawl that is LOADED with combat and very little else, you’ll notice that the group tends to get sidetracked when each combat ends. It’s a weird little problem that grows over time. First, you might notice that after each combat, the players spend some time discussing whether to take a short rest or carry on. That’s fine. That discussion itself isn’t a problem. But you MIGHT notice that those conversations tend to get longer with each combat. After each fight, the players spend more and more time discussing resources and healing and whether a short rest is a good idea. And as those debates grow, they also tend to get more sidetracked. The players get distracted by checking their resources, looking up spells, or discussing the time constraints and whether they can be ignored. They take longer and longer to make the decision and they also bring more and more ideas into the discussion.
THAT is actually a symptom of bad pacing. Those extended conversations are actually coming from the players getting fatigued because there’s not enough slow scenes to engage their brains. That’s why they slow the game down themselves and tend to engage their brains on the same details over and over and over. There just aren’t enough slow scenes in your game and you’re tiring your players out.
And THAT happens because GMs mistake transitions for scenes and assume a drawn-out transition is the same as a slow scene. A scene is, by its nature, interactive. The players aren’t engaged in a transition the way they are engaged with a scene. You might think you’re building anticipation and tension for your horror game by spending a lot of time between encounters on descriptive, spooky transitions and long bits of flavor text. But until the players are talking, you actually don’t have any scenes. You’ll fatigue your players just as badly as the all-combat dungeon.
That’s also why sometimes the players will take it on themselves to invent scenes. When the players want to sit around in camp talking, that’s because their brains are tired from the pace and they need to slow it down. When the players are itching for a fight, that’s because their guts are bored from too slow a pace.
The point is, first of all, that you need SLOW SCENES. You need scenes of exploration, decision, exposition, planning, all that crap. They must be real scenes. No matter what type of game you are running, it’s important to have SLOW SCENES. Not just good transitions between fast scenes. And second of all, the players are aware of the pace of the game on a subconscious level and they WILL take control of it if you aren’t doing it well. And it’s best to pay attention to the pace they seem to want to move at.
Narration and Pacing
And finally, one little note about narration and pacing. Technically, this is about running a game more than planning an adventure, but it’s important. The main speed control you have over any scene in the game is your narration. If you are slow and wordy, you’re running a slow scene. And you’re signaling to your players to engage their brains and pay attention to the details. If you’re quick and curt, you’re running a fast scene. You’re driving the players to disengage their brains and get their guts involved. To get excited about the overall outcome and not to sweat individual details.
If you understand that, you can keep the proper pace in every scene. If you don’t understand it, you end up doing dumba$& things like being wordy and descriptive in combat and encouraging your players to do the same. Words and descriptions don’t make action scenes better. They work against the emotional weight of the scene. STOP IT!