#RPGaDay Day Nine: The Delicate Balancing Act of Pacing

Day Nine (yes, I know I’m still running very late, that will be a theme for this whole month) asks: what is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

10 sessions sounds like an awful lot, and it is certainly a good amount of time – 2 and a half months of weekly games, or 5 months of bi-weekling games, assuming no interruptions. However, you’d be surprised how quickly you can work through a plot. A season of Monsterhearts usually only lasts for around 7-8 games maximum, and that’s if people are levelling quite slowly. It can last as few as 6. My Masks game lasted a similar amount of time, since I was using the arc as a guide to when to end the season (there isn’t really a mechanic for ending seasons in the game). So, actually, 10 sessions is slightly longer than what I would consider to be ‘a story’, judging by my experiences.

On the other hand, 10 sessions is unlikely to get you through 10 levels (i.e. a tier) of D&D, either 4E or 5E. Realistically, each level requires 2-3 play sessions to get the relevant amount of xp or finish a story arc, as our GM for 4E has been levelling us up at the end of significant adventures. This can also be true of other games where the pace is slow. I’m in a Princess: The Hopeful game in which we have had some sessions in which we only do 1-2 things to move the story on. And then we’ll suddenly leap forward a few days to the next big important thing. With this particular game, the pacing is more important than most, as we have two parallel groups who were previously in two different worlds but could communicate through our Shikigami and meet up for big crossover events, so the ST has had to urge us onwards a few times to synch up the timelines. As we’ve become more aware of this, we’ve learned to balance things better and talk OoC about what we want from each session, but it’s definitely been a learning process.

The Delicate Balancing Act of Pacing

Anyone who’s run an RPG knows pacing is tough. In many ways, I’ve found pacing a live game an awful lot easier: you have your discreet session, you know what must happen in that session, if the players aren’t on board, the game moves on. Without a largely events-driven game with units of time like D&D 4E or a railroading GM, there are all kinds of possibilities for meandering, going off track and losing focus. Personally, my big thing is that I like a balance between investigating mysteries and developing my character’s relationships and personality. I’m poised somewhere between Fixer and Actor in the Fixer/Actor/Cultivator/Socialite test (which I think is useful, if not comprehensive), slightly more in Fixer.

However, I’ve found that if a game is entirely based around exploring relationships and character with no events motivating it, I get bored after 2 sessions. One of the early games I was in, a Mage: The Awakening First Edition game, was generally a fantastic game, but when my character’s Wisdom took a swandive, the cabal ended up taking two sessions to talk her into changing her ways, which was dull for me and everyone else. From an OoC perspective, I can see that I was falling into the common actor trap of doing what was best for my character at the expense of the game (and also making it all about my character without meaning to), but other players were also focusing in on something I didn’t actually have that much interest in exploring (i.e. my character working her way back up the Wisdom track).

Pacing is about a balance of action and introspection as much as it is about the narrative time the characters spend, as with any other medium. Powered by the Apocalypse games handle pacing by giving the GM the tools to throw in curveballs through Reaction Moves/Hard Moves, and in fact somewhat force your hand in demanding a Reaction Move whenever a failure occurs. I think this is a pretty powerful pacing tool, even if it seems to disempower the GM’s ability to control the pacing themselves. It’s incredibly easy to get stuck on a specific character’s scene, but I’m very aware that every time I’m focusing on one player, here are 2-3 other players sitting around doing nothing and feeling like they aren’t a major part of the narrative. I’ve started using lighter versions of the Reaction Moves in other game systems too, but if your game doesn’t give you these kinds of tools to keep the story going, you have to be very aware of where the game drags and where it flies, where you’re focusing too much on one character’s story and where you’re not giving players enough time to slow down and make a mess of their relationships. In a novel or a film, the classic ‘saggy middle’ can be tightened up in the editing process, but GMs don’t have that luxury. So it’s about being aware all the way through and reacting as you go.

What if the players just aren’t moving the story forward? Give them permission to move things on themselves (if they’re explaining exposition to a character, let them know that it’s OK to go back and say ‘Oh, we would have told them about this too’, later; if they’re spending hours planning a heist, throw in a mechanic like Leverage’s ret-conning or give them some Fate-like one-shot Advantages they can say they already thought of; if you find that failed rolls on investigation are holding things back, try a GUMSHOE approach to clues). Alternatively, if the problem is a player feeling they can’t budge (as I did in Mage), get them to have some fun roleplay to set the tone of the conversation and satisfy the Actors, and then chat OoC about what it is they can do to get the character on board with their ideas.

I once made the mistake of (in frustration at a scene that wasn’t moving a player character towards getting over her issues) turning to the GM and asking if I could use some mechanics to help persuade the character. What I meant was, “Clearly the solution is beyond my ability to roleplay, but can I mechanically incentivise the player to move on?” What the player heard was “OK, you’re not complying with the way I think this should go, I’m going to force your hand and take control of your character away.” We talked it out afterwards and I apologised to leaping for the dice (I’d got used to playing Monsterhearts, where social mechanics are both fun and clever to use against other PCs) but what I should have done was said to the player, “We’ve been roleplaying this out to the best of our ability for a while now – is there anything that I can say to try and help your character out of this situation?” I mean…I think there’s a decent chance the player would still have insisted on pure roleplay to get through the situation, but then I could reasonably have objected on the basis that I didn’t want to spend a whole session roleplaying one situation when I was struggling to find a solution.

The balancing act of pacing is that GMs and players have both the desire and the responsibility to keep the story moving in a way that is fun for everyone involved, but there are also so many different things to take into account (including individual differences in roleplaying style), and the immersiveness of games doesn’t give us the perspective on the whole session to see how we might be personally affecting it. Combined with a lack of OoC communication and the risk of acting out of frustration, it’s so easy for a game to get snagged into a standstill, but one of the great things about roleplaying is that every session is a new chance to get things moving again. There are tools (ret-cons, cut-aways, timeskips, Aspects) that can help, but the best things are perspective, communication and an understanding of how you’re feeling and why.

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