This entry is part 10 in the series Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced)

Frame: / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke

(I’m sure some have been wondering when it would resume – Part 9 was published in September 2016, after all…) I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the first part of three articles in the second-last block of the series.

There’s a tool between the ears of every GM for diagnosing problems and improving their games that few GMs – even those who could claim to be experts – are even aware of, let alone to have mastered. It’s the innate sense of rhythm that we all possess to at least some degree.

This is even cutting-edge stuff so far as my own gaming is concerned. And yet, it seems to me that the less experienced you are, the more easily you can adapt to the needs and the bigger the benefits that you can yield through the use of this tool.

That’s because habits set in and become entrenched over the years, and changing habits of any kind is a lot harder than never forming those habits in the first place. This is one of very few advantages that a beginner can have over an expert, and one that enables the beginner to compete for time, attention, and players even against the most expert of GMs.

It’s also something that’s not all that easy to explain clearly. As I said, I’m only dimly grasping it, and its potentials and implications, myself, so there may be a certain amount of fumbling around in the course of this article. Bear with me!

Circadian Rhythms Of The Game

Every RPG has its own natural rhythm, a complex compounding of players, GMing style, game mechanics, setting, and a whole host of other factors. Often submerged beneath the surface, much of the time you won’t even be aware of it. Only when the rare occasion comes along when blind chance puts you in sync with that rhythm and you notice how much easier, more dynamic, more engaging, and more exciting the game becomes as a result, do you notice it.

Both beginners and Experienced GMs who do so will often (even usually) fall into the trap of trying to replicate the experience by doing the same things a second time on another occasion, but there are so many contributory variables that such attempts inevitably fail.

The circadian rhythm of a game is the call-and-response of combat. That’s when the fundamental rhythm comes to the surface and becomes most noticeable. When everything is synced into the fundamental rhythm, there is a discernible timing pattern to the call-and-response exchanges between players and GM: Action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects, next character, action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects, next character, action statement, roll, hit, damage, effects… it doesn’t matter if the ‘next character’ is a PC or an NPC, there’s a pattern, a definite rhythm, in which each of these steps takes the same amount of time or close to it.

The exact length and timing of those steps varies. Hitting the mark comes most easily when everyone knows what they have to roll or has it clearly shown on their character sheet, where they are able to respond to changing circumstances without having to think about it, but it can still happen when it takes the same length of time for such obstructions for each. The shorter the interval, the more easily you can fall into pattern, so you also tend to notice this more with simpler game mechanics.

That’s all right, more sophisticated systems like D&D, Pathfinder, and the Hero System have their own compensatory advantages; making the rhythm of the game a little harder to access is one of the prices that you pay for that sophistication and depth.

This description makes the process sound very mechanical. In fact, it’s not; because the mechanics of the system are part of the pattern, they actually become less noticeable, mere implementations of and shapers of, the narrative flow of the action.

The existence of this rhythm becomes most obvious when something happens to disrupt it – if a player has to stop to look something up (be it on their character sheet or in a rulebook) and isn’t ready to take their turn when it falls to them to do so, for example.

Awareness of time

Because awareness of time is not a constant, especially without some metronomic influence, there is a certain amount of ‘give’ in the pattern. In particular, a pause that fits into the dynamics of the rhythm permits it to be restarted as thought it had never stopped – you hear this in music when a song stops, falling silent for a moment. This is usually a full bar or two or even four, but there have been some cases when 1/4 or 1/2 a bar have been used to “punctuate” the music.

Quite often, such pauses – especially shorter ones – will be “filled” with a drum-roll or some other piece of musical “color”.

This isn’t a blog about musical composition, so I won’t go into examples or details – listen analytically to pop music from the last 50 years and simply by paying attention to what you are hearing, you will find and identify many for yourself.

But the same thing happens at the gaming table. My rule of thumb is that if a player isn’t ready – hasn’t decided what they want their character to do, or needs to look something up – their action may start when the initiative/action rules say it does, but isn’t completed until after those who also act on that initiative/action number. If they still aren’t ready, their action doesn’t complete until the end of the next character’s turn – and repeat this last as necessary.

This keeps the rhythm going and turns the “offending” player’s turn into a couple of “drum fills” within the rhythm.

The alternatives? Well, the worst thing you can possibly do is to wait and then pick up with the next character immediately. There may be a certain amount of tolerance within the perception of rhythm – which will also vary under all sorts of circumstances – but the greater likelihood is that the “beats” will now fall in the wrong places and the rhythm will collapse into anarchic arrhythmia in terms of the perceptions (conscious or otherwise) of those taking part.

No, the better alternative is to momentarily interrupt combat to engage the players on some other level. Give them something else to think about/take into account (“the tires on the burning truck explode”, “with a rumble, the staircase that was damaged earlier collapses”, whatever), or have an NPC say something (even if it’s just a sneering threat, an encouragement to his side to “Keep fighting, we can still win this,” or sounding a voice of doubt “They are so much stronger than we thought they would be!”). This little “splash” of something different resets perceptions of the rhythm so that even if the combat then resumes, the rhythm can re-establish itself from zero.

The human response to music

It’s long been known by musicians that when people experience a compelling rhythm, heartbeats and other bodily functions tend to “lock into” that rhythm. Some are exciting, some naturally get the feet tapping and heads nodding in time, others are gentler and almost force people to relax. These are some of the many considerations beyond musicality that the soundtrack faces; to some extent, the composer can change the soundtrack to better fit the on-screen action, but to some extent it’s necessary to actually reedit the visuals to match the dynamic rhythm of the sounds. In films, the music tends to yield, even to the point of being recomposed to suit – watch the soundtrack-related extras for the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for more insight. With music videos, the music is (usually) inviolate, and it is the vision that has to be edited to fit. Studying both – or simply paying close attention to both – and listening to interviews about the “making of” both was part of the process by which I became aware of the phenomenon, especially when I began looking for gaming relevance to the observations I was making.

In particular, “Close To Me” by the Cure, Video by Tim Pope, shed light on the relationship between images and sounds; the band actually remixed the song for the video, and it was this remixed version that was ultimately released to become the hit single. The creaking door at the start is the most obvious change that was made but other more subtle variations also resulted.

I’ve written about this sort of phenomenon before, being aware of it as part of the tools available for the emotional pacing of an RPG adventure or campaign. But that application has as much to do with the content as they rhythm; the subject today strips away much of that layer of relevance to look at something more fundamental, and more hidden.

“Swing” in music

It’s possible to change the “feel” of a piece of music quite markedly by relative adjustments of when a note falls, relative to the beat of the music. You can use the same basic four-by-four drum pattern and bass notes, and – depending on how you adjust it – get anything from reggae from disco. Drummers can also vary the “feel” of a piece by similarly adjusting when their drumbeats fall, even by a tiny amount; many do this by pure instinct, trying to get a particular sound or style.

Applied Principles

The same fundamentals can be applied to an RPG. Rolling for damage after you’ve rolled to hit, or rolling for damage at the same time and ignoring the roll on a miss, for example, changes the dynamic properties of the rhythm of the combat.

Again, most GMs tend to formulate such practices by instinct – they find something that works reasonably well for them and build their gaming practices around it from that point on, without really knowing what they are doing.

Once you do become aware of the phenomenon, however, you can begin to experiment and deliberately manipulate the process, looking for a pattern to give the combat the “feel” that you want. Subconsciously, you will begin to build up a “library” of rhythmic variations, something that happens naturally to some extent over time anyway. Better yet, if you pay a little conscious attention to the effects of these variations, you can start using them to manipulate other aspects of the game “feel” during combat.

For example, if you end each turn of combat with something that suggests the opposition are recovering, getting a second wind, or getting stronger, you can make the same battle seem far more difficult and threatening.

Experiments on the side

It’s even possible to do a bit of experimentation on the side. To do so, you need to find an example of play, especially an example of combat, one that gives the blow-by-blow of all the mechanics. Copy this text – even if you have to type it up yourself – into a word processor. Rewrite it into a series of dialogue statements by the players and GM if it isn’t already in that format. Then take a copy of it, and start making your experimental variations on that copy. Insert an additional line of color narrative after every action, or at the end of each turn. If “someone” pauses combat to ask a question, drop in one of the solutions to the “delay” described earlier. With each change, read the original to establish the rhythm, then read the modified version to assess the consequences. Read at different paces – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – to see what impact that has. And so on.

An hour or two of such experimentation can usually be squeezed in somewhere or other, since it’s all a one-off use of time. And if you get interrupted, so much the better – it means that your rhythmic base-line will be reset to zero each time. This exercise can actually be more effective as five minutes here and ten there than as a continuous block of time.

I’ve also found it enlightening to have different pieces of music playing – at a low volume – in the background, so that I can try to match my ‘reading” to the tempo and rhythm of the music.

The Rhythms Of Dialogue

Combat, because of the frequency of back-and-forth – the musical term would be “call and response” – may be the most noticeable manifestation of the game rhythm, but it’s far from being the only one.

Anyone who has written fiction knows that there is a rhythm to good, natural, dialogue. The cadence of the words forms the “metronome”; the number of such “beats” that comprises what one character says should be an even, simple, multiple of the number of beats to either side, and the greater the multiple, the less like dialogue and the more like a lecture the result. Commas and other pauses complicate things; sometimes these are a whole beat, and sometimes a half-beat. If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat”, like the ones in this sentence.

If I take that last sentence and remove the second comma, changing “ones” to “one”, it still makes a reasonable level of sense:

‘If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat” like the one in this sentence.’

It makes even more sense, and gets its point across more clearly, if that word is changed to one with an extra half-beat in it:

‘If a half-beat, you need another to make a matching pair and count a full “beat” like the rhythm in this sentence.’

But the simplest solution is to do what I did with the original, and drop in a matching half-beat comma (and, for those interested, the first comma in this sentence is an example of a “full beat” comma; the natural inclination is to take in a silent breath at the end of “with the original”, lengthening the pause.

Well, that’s all fine for the novelist, who controls both sides of the conversation. It gets a little trickier when there are two separate parties involved, and you only control half the conversation.

But, if you pay close attention to real-world conversations, you will find that they tend to follow this same pattern. One person will say something, and the other person will say something that’s about as long in reply (counted in beats of the natural cadence), or twice as long, or three times as long. And, furthermore, there will be an instinctive reaction on the part of the person listening to that response to “punctuate” the full measure with a nod, or an “okay”, or something – they have naturally fallen into rhythm.

If the reply is short of matching the full multiple of the initial question, the overwhelming temptation will be to adjust the length of the reply to the reply either to the amount that it is short, to tell the other speaker to “continue” or “go on”, or to make the response a multiple of the statement or vice-versa, establishing a new rhythm to the conversation. But that doesn’t happen very often; there is a natural tendency to fill such gaps with information-zero “filler” content, humanizing the conversation. Very few conversations are 100% to the point from start to finish, and those that are seem terse and militaristic, not conversational at all.

That’s also why monosyllabic replies always seem abrupt, and can often end a conversation, even if the topic isn’t yet exhausted.

If you don’t yield to this temptation, the second speaker will be compelled, almost subconsciously, to pod their reply to get back into the same rhythm, or to adjust their next reply to the new rhythm; the more strongly the pattern has been established, the more they will tend toward the first choice.

There’s a lot more to this than I’ve related here; I haven’t touched on the impact of emphasis of certain words, for example – but this is a good starting point, and lets me get to the point of relevance: Canned dialogue and improvised exchanges between characters. If you want to understand more, study a textbook on speech-writing and oratory.

Application 1: Improvised Dialogue

Improvised dialogue will naturally tend to fall into the rhythmic pattern of the conversation. Knowing what it happening, with practice, you can manipulate your side of those conversations to influence the other side, creating gaps into which characterization and roleplay get inserted without the player even realizing what’s happening at the time. The more deeply into-character they are, the more those “fillers” will derive from the character and the less they will be verbal attributes of the player.

Application 2: Canned Dialogue

The following is an extract of canned dialogue from the next Zenith-3 adventure:

“St Barbara, this is the Bright Cutter.” (reply)
    “There is a matter that I would like to discuss with you. Is this a convenient time? I can call back if you’re busy.” (reply)
    “Defender approached me for a chat earlier this morning. I understand that he has been systematically doing so for all the team members, so I was flattered to be included.” (reply)
    “We discussed a wide range of subjects, covering everything from sociology to automata independence, from orbital combat tactics to human/non-human relations.” (reply)
    “In the course of the latter subject of discussion, he suggested…”

First, notice that the second sentence from the Bright Cutter (10 beats) is roughly the same length as the first (8 beats), but a third and fourth sentence then follow which total roughly the same length again (10 beats). Even if the first reply is only a word or two long, without much social chitchat, the rhythm of the conversation becomes established by this repetition of length. The second reply will almost certainly be 8-10 beats long – “No, this is fine, what’s on your mind? (9 beats including two half-beat commas), for example.

The third line of dialogue from the Bright Cutter has two halves, totaling about four times the original 8 beats. But the first sentence is 9 beats long in my usual speaking voice, continuing to reinforce the pattern. There’s not much that can be said in reply aside from a prompt for more information, a social nicety – “go on” (two beats, or 1/4 of the original length), or “what did you talk about?” (4 beats) are both likely responses that perpetuate the rhythm.

The fourth line of dialogue is almost exactly the same length as the third, but leaves unanswered the question of why this conversation is relevant to the PC at the other end of the conversation, which is the subject of the likely response from the player.

The fifth line, of course, starts to answer that question, but I have very deliberately redacted the rest of the planned conversation; suffice it to say that there is only another line or two planned and that the rest of the conversation will need to be improved as the two react to each other’s statements, and since I don’t know for certain how St Barbara’s player will react to the ‘meaty bit’ of the conversation, I couldn’t pre-script it.

No doubt, as you read the extract, the replies would be filled in almost automatically. This is how I used canned dialogue: to impart specific information (which I have redacted from this extract), to establish the character of the speaker through his speech patterns – in this case, intellectual, submissive, meek, even a little attention-starved, and asserting himself in a way that is most unusual for him – which usually signals trouble for the PCs, because it only happens when there is good reason for it.

Here’s another extract, presented without context:

“Mah gudness! Uv co-ahse ah wull hulp in aneh whay ah can. Yuh have come tuh the raght place, Hon-ahy!
    “In 2023, thuh city was menaced by Hurricane Inguh, but thuh levee banks held, though it wuz a close thing fo-ah a while. It wuz then that thuh Society realized thut today is the history of tumorrah, und that we needed tah conserve whut wuz all around us, raht now. We partnered with Ghugle to examine and catalog everah building, everah fixtuh. Und we made shoah to preserve ut least won uv everahthang. Let muh just consult ow-uh datuhbase…”
* Pretend to type on a keyboard for “datuhbase” x2

This is an example of a larger block of text, presented in “lecture” mode, i,e, the PC isn’t expected to make any substantiative contribution to this part of the conversation – it’s an NPC talking to the PC, not an exchange between them. It does eventually migrate into such an exchange, and has already been one for the exchange of social niceties and the PC telling the NPC what he or she wants from them.

Notable is that I have deliberately used phonetics to help me establish a distinctive accent (which I rarely do), in this case something vaguely akin to a southern drawl. There’s also loads of characterization built in – the speaker is clearly bubbly, enthusiastic, educated, and passionate about their cause. Again, eventually, this will need to become an improvised exchange as it becomes more of a conversation, but the most important content – game background, history that the PC doesn’t know (Hurricane Inga and its social consequences within this person’s narrow context) – gets imparted in the pre-planned dialogue, which is its primary purpose within the adventure.

(And apologies to anyone who feels I haven’t really captured the southern accent!)

These blocks of text are clearly long enough that unless the PC responds at length, any pattern is broken. And yet, there IS such a pattern – the first line is three sentences of three beats, ten beats, and nine beats, respectively. The second line up to “Inga” (phonetically, “Inhuh”) is ten beats long, the next part (up to “held”) is five beats long, and the third part is ten beats again. The first half of the next line is 14 or 15 beats long if I drawl out the end of “tumorrah”, and the rest of the line is another 15 beats (thanks to the inclusion of “, raht now” at the end. So, after the initial 3-beat exclamation, everything is following a multiple-of-five-beats rhythm. I continue that rhythm through the next passage, and then deliberately break it with the final sentence, 7 beats in length, enabling me to pause for three beats to indicate action being taken by pretending to type on a keyboard.

Also note that one of the primary characteristics of the faux-accent imparted phonetically is to draw out some words, and break others that would normally be one beat long into two. If I could “put on” an appropriate accent off the top of my head, the phonetics would not be necessary, but I would have to read the text aloud to get the rhythm right. I can’t, so I make the phonetics do double duty. And yes, it does give my spell-correction routine fits!

Dialogue/Narrative Rhythms

Anyone can count out rhythms within pre-planned lines of dialogue. Anyone can tell whether or not a line of improv’d dialogue falls into the rhythm of the conversation, or is too long or short – and will usually instinctively try to pad their dialogue to correct the problem. But most people aren’t aware of the presence of these patterns, let alone thought about what happens when they are violated – never mind intentionally doing so for effect. Yet, these techniques are as accessible to beginners as to experienced GMs, if not more-so.

Your primary focus for any line of dialogue or canned narrative should always be to achieve its’ primary purpose, usually the imparting of information. Your secondary focus should always be adding as much depth of flavor (narrative) or characterization (dialogue) as you can squeeze in. Being aware of the rhythms recognizes the existence of a third layer of impact, one that can enhance or interfere with those primary functions of the text, and one that can be manipulated for effect.

The Wider Picture

Having found rhythms in combat, and looked at how to manipulate them for impact and nuance and flow, and then finding them in dialogue, and – by implication – in narrative, and looking at how to manipulate those and what the effects are of doing so, there doesn’t appear to be much of the game that does not have underlying patterns and rhythms.

Even beyond the topics discussed, the basic give-and-take between player and GM qualifies – and is subject to the same manipulations.

The Emotional Pacing series of articles (Part 1, Part 2, The Yu-Gi-Oh Lesson, and the Further Thoughts On Pacing series of four articles) talk about whole-of-adventure and even whole-of-campaign patterns and rhythms that can be found implicit in the content of what takes place – the plot and the context in which it occurs. In a way, this is a deeper layer of the same subject.

You can spend a lifetime mastering this one aspect of the GMs’ craft. But even partial mastery is available to anyone, no matter what their experience level as a GM, and progress is easier for Beginners than it is for experienced GMs from at least one point of view (it can also be argued that the very experienced, who have enough of the craft down pat that they can focus attention on other things also have an advantage), and the benefits of doing so are immediately accessible. The sooner you start paying attention to this stuff, the faster your game and GMing skills will improve.

In two weeks time (give or take), this series will continue with Part 11: Campaigns!

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