Pacing is typically a product of intuitive “feel” more than conscious decision. Pacing is nonetheless a worthwhile consideration because it penetrates all aspects of play. When and how a story speeds up and slows down affects the table’s sense of intellectual involvement, emotional connection, and raw excitement. Knowing when to insist on speed—and how to do so without excessively imposing your will on the group—can lend an exhilarating sense of urgency to a scene. Having the confidence to slow the pace to a near stand-still without relying on boring tropes can offer a poignant interlude to an otherwise brisk string of events. Most of us recognize the value of pacing. What are less explored are the variety of techniques, grounded in both specific game mechanics and more general play-styles, that will help you to increase your awareness of pacing and how to control it for maximum effect.
To make this discussion less abstract, I would like to talk about pacing via my short-form game, Clot (free download). Clot is a 20 minute two-player game that I designed back in January with the idea of pacing in mind. There are certain mechanics that address pacing explicitly, but it is my hope that the game serves as an exercise that encourages players to make themselves aware of, and therefore engage with, the best possible way to pace their collaborative story. While I am not entirely satisfied with Clot as a standalone game, I do think it can help to illustrate much of what I’m talking about below. By examining pacing in Clot, I hope you will be able to apply many of the same ideas to any roleplaying game.
Types of Pacing
Pacing operates on at least three levels. First, at the level of explicit rules, a game may require certain narrative frameworks that in turn define pacing choices. In other words, the action may speed up or slow down as a result of mechanical constraints. Therefore, I will label this type of pacing “mechanical.” Second, and especially in a multi-player game, pacing may change as the focus moves from one player or character to the next, usually in separate scenes. The pacing of one character’s story differs from that of the others. I will call this type of pacing “character-specific.” Third, and finally, pacing may change as a result of the overall flow of the game or story. This is the type of pacing control most of us use naturally, and usually matches whatever in-game events are unfolding. Therefore, I will label it “event-specific.” By making yourself aware of the different types of pacing and how they can positively or negatively alter the tone of the game, you can improve the quality of your roleplaying experience. Like anything in roleplaying, it takes communication and teamwork. However, only by explicitly acknowledging the role of pacing in our games can we learn to integrate techniques for controlling the pace in a reliable way.
Within this trio of pacing controls (mechanical, character-specific, and event-specific) it is important to know why and how you are shifting the pace from fast to slow. Why would you want some scenes to be fast and others slow? How can you give the illusion of fast action when you are bound to the constraints of telling a story orally? How can you lend a sense of languid ease to in-game events when everyone is hyped up on coffee and soda? Why would you want to?
To answer these questions, let’s look at Clot. In Clot, two players are narrating an emotionally painful, physically awkward encounter between a grown child and his or her father. The entire game takes place in a restaurant. There are other patrons, the waiters and busboys, but little else to interact with. The focus of the game is instead on the conversation, and the emotional damage behind that conversation. Compared to other games like Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, for example, there is hardly anything to do. So why does pacing matter so much? It matters because, in a game like Clot, the effect of pacing is emphasized. When an argument gets heated, or a wine glass goes flying through the air, you can lend these events a heightened sense of chaos through speedy pacing. Alternatively, movies have shown us that a wine glass flying through the air in slow motion can seem agonizingly tense. Similarly, when one character delivers a particularly hurtful barb, one that cuts deep against the other character, the pain of that insult can be emphasized by slowing the pacing way down—by letting the insult linger so that its implications have an opportunity to fully develop in the minds of the players. Fast or slow, the events of Clot need to be paced appropriately to achieve maximum impact.
This is not unlike many roleplaying games, even those that are more traditionally focused on adventure, combat, and action. It is important to recognize, though, that fast pacing need not always correspond with action. Likewise, heavy emotional scenes need not always be slow. In other words, there is no necessary correlation between action and the speed of pacing. In fact, by examining the relationship between action scenes (like a bar fight) and pacing, we can uncover a curious inconsistency in many roleplaying games and the pacing that they enforce.
Take a game like Shadowrun, for example. The focus of any given Shadowrun game is inevitably a gun fight—and you could say the same for any number of roleplaying games. But let me ask you, when you think of a gun fight, do you picture it as a quick-paced, knock-out action scene? Or do you picture a meticulous chess game taking place in excruciatingly slow motion? For me, it’s the former. Fights are supposed to be fast. Even in a movie like The Matrix with its “bullet time,” the brief glimpse of slow motion only serves to highlight how fast the rest of the action is flowing. For the most part, when the guns come out, the pacing speeds up: faster is better because faster means adrenaline and excitement and the fear of the unknown happening with the flash of a gun barrel. So please tell me why games like Shadowrun force a painfully slow pace on all combat scenes? With detailed rules for initiative, rounds, actions, positioning, and a host of other factors, it is clear that combat in many roleplaying games is not built for speed. The combat rules are a remainder from roleplaying’s war-gaming roots, and they serve only to satisfy the tactician in us—but not the adrenaline junkie.
What we see with pacing, therefore, is that there is a correlation between the number of events you can describe in real time and the perceived speed of pacing. In Shadowrun, the pace of an average combat is slow because there are so many detailed events taking place in real time. The game mechanics force a slow pacing by requiring players to consider all details and lay them out one by one, initiative round by initiative round.
If you want to reverse slow pacing, and make it fast, then you need to do two things. First, you need to cut details from your narration. We perceive action as fast because there is a lot happening in a short span of time. Our brains cannot process every detail, and so we must edit. What is most important, most dramatic? Keep those details. Cut everything else. Second, you need to speed up your descriptions. And I mean in real time, not game time. The action in a Shadowrun gun battle happens in a matter of seconds, but that doesn’t matter to the players’ sense of pacing. From the players’ perspective, the pacing is slow because the description in real time is slow. If you want speed, you need to make the players experience that sense of speed through rapid narration.
To sum up: Fewer details spoken in rapid-fire delivery equals faster pacing. More details spoken slowly and with greater precision equals slower pacing. From here we can explore the ways in which you can control your pacing choices, and put them to use in your game.
Remember there are three primary ways in which you can control your pacing choices. The first of these is mechanical pacing. Any sort of structured scene type is also a mechanical pacing control. For example, traditional combat structures are ironically slow. I have already mentioned the way in which a game like Shadowrun enforces slow pacing via its methodical combat rules. On the flip side, though, is a less structured, more free-form scene structure. With so much open-ended possibility, a free-from scene structure offers players almost no pacing guidance whatsoever. Players are free to speed up or slow down the pacing of the game as they see fit. While this may seem like the perfect opportunity for powerful pacing choices, it can also serve as a hindrance. Like any creative endeavor, constraint is important—perhaps more so in a roleplaying game where a collaborative impasse can stymie gameplay. The pacing guidance offered by the game can sometimes help players to make decisions not only about the “feel” of pacing, but also about theme and plot. Therefore, while open-ended mechanics have their place, learning how to make better use of restrictive mechanics can often lead to more satisfying pace-related choices.
Another type of scene structure to consider is scope. In a scene with large scope, many things can happen. Kingdoms can fall, years can pass, and time can move with great alacrity. So what does such broad-scope scene structure imply about pacing? In one sense, pacing in a broad-scope scene is fast, very fast when game-time is hurtling by. However, as we have already seen, fast game-time does not necessarily translate to fast pacing. It is more important to consider what you are skipping over in a broad-scope scene. By moving quickly through game-time, you are necessarily leaving out details deemed unimportant to the story. You may describe the actions of a character in general terms as a plan comes to fruition, similar to a montage. Less detail equals faster pacing. Therefore in general, broad-scope scenes speed up pacing and provide an opportunity, similar to jump-cuts, to focus only on what is important to the game. If you want to slow down a broad-scope scene, you must linger in a few choice moments to give an impression of time passing more leisurely. This is where you might insert, for example, a description of the leaves turning yellow and orange in the Fall, the land accumulating a layer of snow in Winter, and the flowers blooming in Spring. By lingering on the details of the seasons changing, you insert more detail, which in turn slows down the pacing of the game.
By comparison, you may think that a small-scope scene is necessarily slow-paced. But this may or may not be true. Because small-scope scenes, where only a few key events are described in a relatively short span of game-time, are the bread and butter of any roleplaying game, most players have learned to control pacing, both fast and slow, within these scenes. While a broad-scope scene is atypical, and therefore more prone to follow general patterns of fast pacing, a small-scope scene does not necessarily impose a particular pace. The players may describe many details quickly to create a fast-paced scene, or they may do the opposite. Players are generally well-versed in small-scope scenes, and therefore exert more active control over pacing choices. At the small-scope, we have to look at other mechanical features for guidance. To do so, let’s refocus the discussion on Clot’s pacing mechanics.
In Clot, there are two pacing-related mechanics that can be used by the players for a variety of thematic effects. First, and most obvious, are the “Quiet Pauses” that come up randomly as part of the Clot Deck. Quiet Pauses are described in the game as moments without dialog. The players are supposed to take a moment outside of the normal conversation to “narrate some detail of the restaurant” that could, for example, “reflect symbolically on the struggle between child and father.” The idea behind Quiet Pauses is to force the players to slow the pace down, and allow the emotional content that has developed in the game to sink in. The setting is developed, but in a way that reinforces the strained relationship. These pauses need not be long, but should at least linger in the players’ minds. Describe a passing waiter, or the smiles on other patrons. Perhaps explore some small event happening in the distance outside of the restaurant windows. It is a technique used by filmmakers, and one that I believe can be imported into roleplaying games to great effect. It may seem artificial at first, but a slowly-paced moment outside of the main action of a game can create a surprisingly emphatic tone that can also refocus the players on whatever themes they have been exploring. By doing this mechanically, instead of relying on the players to occasionally pause, Clot works to catch the players off-guard and introduce creative constraints that hopefully lead to more rewarding play.
The second pacing mechanic in Clot is the Clot Deck itself, which is punctuated by the Clot Card that signals endgame. The deck of cards serves as a countdown timer in the game, regulating the pace at which the action takes place. However, there is no set rate at which the players must draw cards from the deck. If they want to draw out the game, they can simply draw cards less often. If they want to race through events, they can draw cards more frequently. So the deck is not enforcing a particular pace. Instead it is merely a tool that the players can use themselves. The deck is a physical reminder that the game must move forward. It also introduces narrative wrinkles into the game. For example, the rank and suit of the card drawn determine the possible topic of conversation between the two main characters, or might even serve to introduce new characters into the story. The players are incentivised to draw cards because they want to see what new narrative elements will come up; however, the game itself does not force these interactions with the system. The idea behind the deck is to make pacing a central concern of the game, to make the players more aware of the effect their narrative choices will have on the pace of the game, without arbitrarily dictating the pace of a particular scene.
Similarly, the Clot Card brings about the climatic event that ends any game of Clot: the father’s heart attack. Again, this event is paced mechanically, but only with direct input from the players. The Clot Card begins the game off to the side, and is only cut into the deck “after the second card in the deck is drawn, and no later than after the fifth.” If the players want a faster game, they can introduce the card early; if not, they can introduce it later. The game ends when the Clot Card is drawn. While the players don’t know the exact location of the card (preserving a sense of tension), they have a general idea, and will work to pace the remaining interactions between father and child appropriately. Like the Clot Deck itself, the Clot Card serves as an indicator of pace just as much as it forcefully brings about endgame. Rather than sit by passively and allow the game mechanics to dictate pacing, the Clot Deck ideally provides feedback to the players so that they can react to the deck and make appropriate pacing choices themselves. It is a symbiotic relationship between mechanics and narration instead of a one-way, mechanics-to-player structure.
To broaden these techniques, players should examine the explicit pacing mechanics in other games and look for ways in which they can control or react to the dictates of mechanical pacing. This will allow them to harness the power of mechanical pacing to create more rewarding play.
After mechanical pacing, we can look at character-specific pacing, which focuses on the pacing needs of a particular character or player. Generally, this is more common in multi-player games where play transitions from one character to another. Let’s look at Ron Edward’s Trollbabe as an example. In Trollbabe, each player controls a different and unique trollbabe that travels independently. Typically, players take turns narrating a scene, or a chunk of a scene, before the action swings around to another character. This round-robin style of play is not uncommon in the wider world of roleplaying games, and often leads to different pacing peculiarities around the table. One character may be caught up in a fast-paced fight to the death, while another may be enjoying a leisurely banquet with a cadre of friends. Obviously, these two scenes (fight vs. banquet) have a different tone, but they probably also have very different paces. Depending on the needs of the game, and the make-up of the players, transitioning between these scenes could be jarring. How a group handles these choices can have a profound effect on the feel of a game, and the satisfaction of the players.
Individual players as well as the GM need to pay attention to when a particular transition makes sense, and when it does not. If the game allows for it, skipping around from character to character may make for a more satisfying story when compared to a simple clockwise turn structure. Because roleplaying games often allow this type of freedom, it is important to take advantage of it. Ask yourself whether it makes more sense to go from one action scene to the next, or to insert a quieter scene at any given moment. Smooth your transitions by becoming more aware of what seems most appropriate rather than arbitrarily giving the next player a turn in the same order, one round after the next.
Another problem may arise if one character is advancing more quickly in her story arc than the others. She may find her story complete while the others still need to press on. Generally speaking, this is a different type of pacing than what I have described above. This is because pacing covers both the perceived speed at which the action occurs in a given instance of play and the “progress” in a larger story arc made by the various individual characters. In a two-player setting, the progress of a character is of minimal concern. If the main character moves quickly towards the endgame, that’s okay. Play stops early, but the story is still satisfying for both players. In a multi-player situation, however, individual character progress is important. If one character reaches the conclusion of her story before the others, that character’s player may be left with nothing to do for another hour while the rest of the group finishes. Unless the game has an open-ended structure where characters are free to immediately start a new arc, it is usually a good idea to pace each character as evenly as possible. In this way, all characters move towards the climax of their individual stories at the same rate. Likewise, with even pacing you can avoid the awkward negotiation of finding something for the finished player to do while the rest of the group catches up.
When it comes to managing character arcs, ask yourself whether one character is too far ahead of the pack. Perhaps the game gives a mechanical indicator of pacing (e.g., the Passion point track in Hero’s Banner), or perhaps you can intuit a character’s progress based on your knowledge of books, movies, and other narrative forms. When you detect a possible problem, you will need to either speed up the pace of the other characters or slow down the pace of the leading character. Worst case scenario, you will need to skip over the character who is too far ahead until the other characters catch up. One or two missed scenes is usually more palatable then an hour of nothing to do at the end of a session.
Traditionally, the obligation of handling pacing inconsistencies—whether they are the type seen in a jarring mismatch between one character’s scene and the next, or in the premature conclusion of one character’s story arc compared to the rest—fell on the GM’s shoulders. It was up to the GM to manage all of the characters and act as a de-facto director shepherding one scene into the next. Depending on the game, this concentration of pacing power may fit, but I see little reason why players cannot speak up and make suggestions in all games. If the players have a good idea about how the transition from one scene to the next, or one character to the next should be handled, then it behooves a skillful GM to listen to that advice. No matter where the burden lies, it is important to recognize the dangers of allowing pacing problems into your game.
As you and your roleplaying group become more aware of pacing issues, much of this will become second-nature; however, while you are learning, there may be some awkward breaks and transitions. That’s okay. Better to manage pacing as part of a long-term process of learning than to continue to play unsatisfying games with a myriad of pacing-related problems.
Finally, we come to event-specific pacing, which you might also call “intuitive pacing.” Here I mean the type of pacing choices that roleplayers make by the seat of their pants in response to game events. Making yourself aware of this type of pacing, and practicing at it, is actually an exercise in deciding what events to emphasize and de-emphasize. You must learn to trust your instincts and to gain a feel for the pacing choices that make the most sense to you. However, it also means learning to work with your fellow roleplayers to ensure that the pacing choices you feel are correct mesh with the preferences of the group. It may be easy to think that this sort of pacing technique will take care of itself. For many experienced groups, it does. But that does not necessarily mean that awareness and practice are unwarranted.
Let’s return again to Clot for some practical examples of what I’m talking about. Because you’re reading this article, I’ll assume you aren’t simultaneously engaged in a game of Clot, but let’s pretend anyway.
In our hypothetical game, I’m playing the father and you’re playing the the child. Let’s call the child in this particular game Kyle. As the game unfolds, it becomes clear to both of us that Dad and Kyle have some deep-felt regrets when it comes to Kyle’s mother, now out of the picture. Furthermore, as you narrate some dialog for Kyle, we both surmise that the reason that Kyle’s mother left Dad is because he was abusing her. This is a dark turn for the game, and one that both of us are prepared for. However, I make the decision on the fly that we shouldn’t get into the details of the abuse. For our game, those details are best left hauntingly unstated. As I’m the one narrating the current scene, the responsibility rest with me to make certain choices about pacing. I could, for example:
Cut away from the conversation for a Quiet Pause, allowing the revelation of abuse linger in the background.
Speedily narrate a series of verbal barbs between Dad and Kyle, relying on you to pick up on my cue and fill in Kyle’s dialog.
Draw a card from the Clot Deck while looking for inspiration and a way to change the subject of the in-game conversation.
I am sure you can imagine a few other options. The point is that my choice will determine not only the course of the story, but also the way in which that story is experienced. A big part of that experience is the pacing of the scene. If I linger in a Quiet Pause, then the pacing will be slow, and I will be emphasizing the memory of Dad’s abuse. If I start up a heated argument full of accusations (unrelated to the abuse), then I will be rushing past the issue at hand with a quick pace. If I draw a card, and use it to change the subject of the conversation between Dad and Kyle, then the pacing is left more open ended. I would be, in a way, asking the system and you for help in deciding the pace.
No particular choice is “wrong” in my example, but all have different implications. Part of making the “right” choice is trusting my instincts based on the feel of the game and my prior experience playing with you. But the other part of making the right choice is knowing myself. Knowing what I want from the game, and how to get there through accurate pacing can greatly improve the experience. What’s more, if my pacing choices become part of the conversation with the other person I am playing, then the experience for both of us will feel more collaborative and natural. This is the key to event-specific pacing, and the larger key to more rewarding play through awareness of pacing in general.
Bringing It All Together
The three types of pacing make up a framework. It is a tool for thinking about issues of pacing, and why a game may feel unsatisfying. Each type of pacing overlaps with the others, and there are probably additional ways in which to categorize and implement pacing decisions. Nonetheless, the larger point is that pacing is something that is not only important to rewarding roleplaying, but also something that can be practiced and improved. Players and GMs alike need to make a conscious decision to monitor the pacing of their games. While pacing can function on the intuitive level, it can also become part of the explicit conversation at the table. Just as we learned to think about the types of scenes we wanted to narrate, we can also learn to think about the type of pacing we want to set for individual scenes as well as for the overall story in our games.
Part of improving the pacing in your game is learning to identify problems and opportunities. This sort of self-awareness operates at the individual and group level. We can have conversations about why our games work and don’t work. Pacing shouldn’t be the only consideration, but it can be part of the discussion. It is one area of many in which the considerations, contributions, and feedback of everyone at the table can help in the collaborative process of roleplaying.
When I say “scope,” I am talking about the passage of time, not necessarily the number of characters involved or the scale of events taking place. A single character carrying out a plan that affects only a few people may have a broad scope (i.e., large amount of time) even if it nonetheless operates at the small scale. Although there is some correspondence between scope and scale, here I mean only the passage of time. ↩
For an example of a game that encourages truly broad-, actually epic-scope scenes, take a look at Microscope by Ben Robbins. Microscope can be both epic in scope and scale, where scope refers to time passing and scale refers to the grandeur of events taking place. ↩
I cannot hope to cover all examples of mechanical pacing in all roleplaying games. That sort of encyclopedic coverage is assuredly outside of the scope of this article. The great thing about roleplaying games is that each one approaches questions of pacing with unique mechanics and attitudes. What I do want to encourage you to do, however, is to look at a game’s mechanics with an eye towards pacing. How does a mechanic enforce or encourage a particular type of pacing? How can you use the mechanic to regulate pacing? By making yourself aware of the ways in which game mechanics affect pacing, you will better be able to control pacing as a generalized roleplaying skill. ↩
Especially in the second edition of Trollbabe, the round-robin, independent style of play is described as the default. Ron goes to great pains to explain how this type of scene structure works, and is generally a good text to consult on scene construction and pacing. ↩