The Alexandrian

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Now that we’ve established the basic tools for pacing in roleplaying games, let’s briefly visit some advanced techniques. This will be by no means an encyclopedic treatment of the subject. In fact, we’ll barely even scratch the surface. But hopefully even a quick exploration of the topic will point us in some interesting directions.

SPLITTING THE PARTY

Let’s start with simultaneous scenes: Half the party leaves to explore the abandoned water tower while the other half of the party goes to question Jim Baxter, the farmer with an inexplicable supply of Nazi gold.

Order of the Stick: Don't Split the Party - Rich BurlewOn two entirely separate occasions I’ve had a group I’ve been GMing for spontaneously announce that they weren’t going to split up because they didn’t want to make things tough for me. In both cases, I rapidly dissuaded them from their “good intentions”: The truth is, I love it when the PCs split up.

While it does take a little extra juggling to handle multiple sets of continuity, that slight cost is more than worth the fact that a split party gives you so many more options for effective pacing: The trick is that you no longer have to wait for the end of a scene. Instead, you can cut back and forth between the simultaneous scenes.

  • Cut on an escalating bang. (The bang becomes a cliffhanger: “The door is suddenly blown open with plastic explosives! Colonel Kurtz steps through the mangled wreckage… Meanwhile, on the other side of town—“)
  • Cut on the choice. (Remember that everything in a roleplaying game is a conversation of meaningful choices. When a doozy of a choice comes along, cut to the other group.)
  • Cut on the roll of dice. (Leaving the outcome in suspense. But the other thing you’re eliminating is the mechanical pause in which the dice are rolled and modifiers are added. All of that is happening while something exciting is happening to the other groups. And when they get to an action check—BAM! You cut back to the first group, collect the result, and move the action forward.)
  • Or, from a purely practical standpoint, cut at any point where a player needs to look up a rule or perform a complex calculation or read through a handout. There may not have been a cliffhanger or a moment of suspense to emphasize, but you’re still eliminating dead air at the gaming table.

The end result is that effective cuts between simultaneous scenes allow you to easily tighten your pacing, heighten moments of suspense, and emphasize key choices.

CROSSOVER

Once you’ve mastered the basic juggling act of simultaneous scenes, you can enrich the experience by tying those scenes together through crossovers.

The simplest type of crossover is a direct crossover. This is where an element or outcome from one scene appears immediately in a different scene. For example, if one group blows up the arms depot then the other group might hear the explosion from across town. Or Colonel Kurtz flees from one group of PCs and ends up running back to his office… which the other PCs are currently searching.

Indirect crossovers are both subtler and more varied. These are common or related elements in each scene which are not identical. For example, you might have Franklin discover a cult manual bearing the sign of a white cobra while, simultaneously, John sees a white cobra painted on the face of his murdered wife.

An indirect crossover might not have any specific connection in the game world whatsoever: For example, Suzy might ask Rick out for a date at the Italian Stallion on Friday night. Simultaneously, in a different scene, Bobby gets ordered by his police lieutenant to arrange surveillance for a mob boss meeting at the same restaurant at the same time. Suzy and Rick have no connection to the mob or the police, but that’s still a crossover.

This also demonstrates how crossovers can be used to weave disconnected narratives together: Suzy, Rick, and Bobby are all going to end up at that restaurant at the same time. Franklin and John are both going to be launching separate investigations into the white cobra. It’s still not clear exactly how their paths are going to cross, but they’ve definitely been set on a collision course.

This technique can be particularly effective at the beginning of a scenario or campaign: Instead of having the PCs all meet in a bar, you can instead launch them all into separate scenes and then seed crossovers into those scenes to slowly and organically draw them all together.

Another way of using these techniques is to strengthen the role of player-as-audience-member. You know that moment in a horror movie where the audience doesn’t want a character to open a door because they know something the character doesn’t? Hard to do in an RPG… unless the table knows it (because it was established in a different scene), but the PC doesn’t. (This assumes, of course, that your players are mature enough to handle a separation of PC and player knowledge.)

NON-SEQUENTIAL SCENES

It should be noted that techniques similar to crossovers can obviously be used in sequential, non-simultaneous scenes, too. (John sees a white cobra painted on his dead wife’s face and then, later, the PCs discover the white cobra cult manual.) But the specific idea of the crossover is that you’re specifically juxtaposing the two elements both for immediate effect and to tie the simultaneous action together.

For some people, this can easily feel artificial. What are the odds, really, that both the dinner date and the surveillance order are both being made at the same time? One way to work around this is through the use of non-sequential scenes: The scene in which the dinner date is made might take place on Tuesday and the police lieutenant might order Bobby to set up the surveillance on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean we can’t run those two scenes simultaneously at the gaming table.

This non-sequential handling of time is also a good way of avoiding another common speed bump GMs often encounter when splitting the party. It starts when a PC says something like this: “Okay, you guys head across town to search the warehouse! We’ll stay here until David can finish cracking the encryption on this database.”

And then the GM thinks: “Well, it’ll take at least 15 minutes for them to get to the warehouse. So I’ll have to play through at least 15 minutes of activity here at the server farm before I can pick up the action over at the warehouse.” But that’s not necessarily true. There’s no reason you can’t run the warehouse search and the server farm stuff simultaneously.

I refer to these as time-shifted scenes. For me, personally, the time dilation on these scenes usually isn’t significant in and of itself. The point is merely to take advantage of more effective pacing techniques. A common example is when everyone splits up to take care of personal errands: We know everything is happening at some point on Wednesday afternoon, but I’m not particularly interested in strictly figuring out what happens at 2pm as opposed to 2:15pm. Instead I’m going to cut on the bangs, cut away from the dice rolls, and do all that other nifty stuff.

FLASHBACKS

Memento - Christopher Nolan

Flashbacks are another common form of non-sequential scene. Or rather, they’re very common in other forms of media. In my experience, they’re exceptionally rare in roleplaying games.

Unlike a scene that’s been slightly time-shifted, the nonlinearity of the flashback is often a significant feature of its presentation: What it depicts from the past is meant to be either thematically relevant or expositionally revelatory to the current events of the narrative. (Some non-RPG examples would include Godfather II, which is an extensive but relatively straightforward handling of the technique; Memento, which is an almost absurdly complex use of the technique; and Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons in which both sets of scenes originate at the same point in time, with one set of scenes moving backwards through time and the other moving forwards through time.)

Flashbacks and non-sequential scenes in general do require a careful handling of continuity. This is usually a mixture of setting things up to avoid continuity errors ahead of time and also a willingness by everyone at the table not to deliberately violate known continuity. (“I call him on my cellphone!” “Okay, but we already know he went to the warehouse regardless of what you said on the phone call. So play it accordingly.”) The occasional retcon may be called for if things fall seriously out of joint, but that’s obviously not a desirable outcome.

The advantage of a flashback is that it allows you a lot more flexibility in how you explore both character and situation. In addition to, for example, playing out scenes that took place before play begins, flashbacks can also be used to mitigate or enhance hard scene framing: If you end up skipping over something that turns out to be important, you can simply flash back to it.

Go to Part 6: More Advanced Techniques

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8 Responses to “The Art of Pacing – Part 5: Advanced Techniques”

  1. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    As far as splitting the party, it sounds like you have both groups at the same table. I’ve wondered about the situation where one PC falls down a pit trap and is washed by a stream, elsewhere. Maybe he’s alive, unconscious, or dead, and the rest of the players don’t know.

    So far, I’d always heard that you should play it where the one who fell into the pit trap, off the cliff, etc, is taken to another room and told what he knows. The rest of the party’s actions shouldn’t be contaminated by that info, since they may not pursue finding him if they know he’s dead, etc. In the situation where you have one party member split from the others, either lost and incapacitated, in a coma, or dead… have you ever opted to let them play an NPC or monsters for the remainder of the adventure? Does it work out ok? If you haven’t opted for this, have you heard any accounts of GMs who have done so?

    If the GM gives that singular player the option to manage any of the monsters, do you find/have you heard, if they play them with greater tactical ruthlessness/effectiveness and intelligence than the GM normally uses vs. the party? For example, have any singular players begun using flaming oil against the party to prevent escapes, since those are familiar tactics, but the dungeon denizens don’t seem to use them, much?

  2. Brooser Bear says:

    When my partly splits, the characters not present are waiting outside. In between adventures, the layers go their separate ways and one on one gaming sessions, developing their player characters.

    Neal, one of my thieves was captured, and he played an NPC second thief in the group. That way he was kept in the dark.

    Justin, you seem quite adept at dramatic pacing and writing for the stage. Have you ever done a review of the indie RPG Dust Devils? If not, can you do one? It is truly innovative, and its play revolves around the kind of dramatic scene-setting that you are good at.

  3. Hautamaki says:

    In my current game my party has been split for the last 20-30 sessions. The key is that every player has a pool of 3-5 characters so every player has at least 1 character in every scene. The characters form a mercenary company with an HQ in the major city, and split up to tackle different missions; once they complete a mission or that adventure is resolved in whatever way, the characters can meet back up at headquarters. Any characters not in use are guarding the headquarters–occasionally the headquarters will come under attack at which point the scene dramatically cuts to those characters. This works well on so many levels compared to traditional RPG play

    1) All players are still participating in all scenes so they don’t have any boring downtime while others are playing and they’re just waiting.

    2) You get all the benefits listed above with regards to pacing and other dramatic effects

    3) The players get to have a lot of interesting choice in choosing which of their characters to send on which mission. They not only get to design a party tailor made for what they think will be necessary to complete the adventure, but they also get to have fun bouncing their different character’s personalities off each other and off the various NPCs that different missions will involve.

    4) It creates a much more epic scale to the overall campaign and world; instead of being just 3-6 plucky heroes who happen to be in the right place at the right time for high-stakes adventure, the players are actually a large organization of 20+ hardcore PC-calibre badasses. If 4 adventurers can save a world, just think what 24 can do.

    5) You get a much more varied set of missions/adventures you can design. No matter what kind of adventure you want to run, from a hacknslash dungeon crawl to a mystery-suspense courtroom drama to a gladiatorial competition to an infiltration/assassination campaign, your players have the resources to customize the perfect party for that mission. On the other hand if you really want to put the party in a fish-out-of-water scenario just mix up your foreshadowing so they send the wrong party on the mission.

  4. Neal says:

    @ Hautamaki,

    Interesting ideas! On one site for Runequest, they mention a campaign base idea much like that. “The Grey Company.” It’s a mercenary company, that the PCs are introduced into, and have their various adventures relating to, within a city, going off to ruins, rescues, etc.

    If you’re running a stable of characters like that, and having multiple adventures in the air like that, I’d guess it takes a while to progress levels for any given specific character?

    Does “Hautamaki” have a meaning? Sounds Japanese, but once in a while polysyllabic Japanese-sounding words like that are Navajo, African, etc.

  5. Hautamaki says:

    Neal

    Level progression per character is slower yes, the characters are all on level 6 after over 2 years of play, but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. High level campaigns are usually a nightmare to run, stacking bonuses get out of control, even the arithmetic becomes a pain, and death itself becomes meaningless.

    The key with progression is in the name: to give the players a feeling of progress. Players are still making progress at regular intervals; they are gaining levels and new treasure all the time, it’s just that it’s spread out among many characters. Not only that but because the players have formed and are shareholders of a mercenary company, the company as a whole also gets to make progress in terms of their shared wealth, influence, and combined strength of arms, which is another layer of progression that players like.

    Furthermore you avoid the pitfalls often associated with a high level campaign. One obvious one I already mentioned is the out of control stacking bonuses and math. Another one is that death itself becomes meaningless. Can a level 16 or 26 character truly die? There is always some kind of resurrection or something available, and at that point, when you’ve invested so much in a character, the character’s death is almost always a collaboration between the player and the DM; both people agree that it’s time for that PC to die basically. If the player doesn’t want his character dead, the DM removing every single resource to bring that character back to life can seem arbitrary and cruel.

    On the other hand, I kill characters that my players have been playing for years regularly, and they stay dead, and while the players have a sad moment it doesn’t really feel arbitrary or unfair when a level 6 character dies. Level 6 characters aren’t supposed to be nigh immortal demigods. And though the player has invested loads of backstory and playtime into that character, the player still has 3 or 4 other characters that he’s also invested in, so it’s not the end of the world or the end of the campaign or anything. Even a TPK, while a dramatic setback, has no chance of derailing the campaign or even requiring any kind of special compensation or retconning or anything.

    Another huge benefit to this system is that it drastically lowers the barrier for entry or exit for the group. I live abroad and the expat community is small and transient. Our game has had 18 players over the years, and the only constant has been me, the DM. Last spring we were down to 2 players (plus me) for a while, this summer we picked up 2 more players and they are able to jump right in. There’s a built-in reason for why the company would have new recruits, and making a level 6 character is a lot simpler than a level 16 or 26 character. The new players start with a single character, and they get their single character for a complete adventure/mission, which gives them time to learn the game, the campaign world, the group dynamics, etc. And when that mission is completed they’ll be able to make another character to join the next mission and so on, gradually adding new characters to the game until they are on par with the veterans.

    btw Hautamaki is Finnish, it means ‘grave hill’. A hint about my DMing style….

  6. Neal says:

    @ Hautamaki,

    Sounds like you’ve got a good system going to keep your ex-pat group and new members, together. Say hello to James Raggi, for me.

  7. Links for the Week Ending 8/27/2013 | intwischa.com says:

    […] his very useful series on game pacing, this week the Alexandrian posted parts five and six. Now, we start to get into advanced ideas like flashbacks, in media res, and splitting the […]

  8. Jcon says:

    It’s funny to try to figure out what a word would mean in Japanese if it was a real word.

    All of the parts of “hautamaki” are fine in Japanese. I think it would not be pronounced the same way in Finnish, but I don’t know Finnish.

    Especially the end. You probably know things ending in “maki” from sushi. A “tamaki” is a ring, similar shape to a California Roll, right?

    And “hau” is a crawl. Sort of more creeping than the English, but close.

    So a “hautamaki” could be a creepy-crawl ring?

    It’s even more funny with Chinese where you can mix pronounciation and kanji characters, but Euro languages work too.

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