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…it gets a bit dull and repetitive after a while, doesn’t it? Every adventure, every combat, heck, every campaign needs to have its highs and its lows, its frantic periods and its lulls of inactivity. It needs to have Pacing.

The more you think about the different emotional content of any aspect of an RPG, the more you realize how universal and important this principle is. In this article, I’m going to take a look at the typical RPG and that emotional content, and how to apply pacing to it – from the very broad scale (whole campaigns) to the very small (individual encounters).

That’s a very broad group of topics, but I’m going to be ably assisted by two facts that will make it possible: One, there’s almost complete overlap and universality of the principles involved; and Two, that both the problems and solutions scale pretty much perfectly.

Defining The Scales

While there are lots of ways to divide and subdivide an RPG campaign, the building blocks I’ve chosen as most representative for the purposes of this article are:

  • Campaigns – overall trends and structures within the campaign
  • Adventures – the primary building blocks of a campaign
  • Acts – the primary building blocks of an adventure
  • Scenes – the primary building blocks of an act.

Scenes are subdivided into five specific types:

  • Roleplayed Encounters – where dialogue is the dominant activity
  • Combat Scenes – where battle is the dominant activity. Comes in two sub-varieties: full and cinematic. Full combat uses all the relevant game rules, cinematic uses an abbreviated set of rules to convey a sense of the action more than an outcome, especially in battles where the outcome is pretty much inevitable.
  • Activity Scenes – where the characters are actively doing something.
  • Transition/Narrative Scenes – used by the GM to move from one scene to another, the glue that holds an act together. This includes any scene where the GM compresses time.
  • Intermissions – every game has times when it will be interrupted, whether it’s by a brief pause, a meal break, or end of play for the day. Awareness of the impact of intermissions can elevate a game beyond its source material or deflate one massively.

Each of these will their own pacing, their own peaks and valleys. Each of the sub-units must also connect with the sub-units one either side.

Defining Pacing

Pacing is all about contrasting emotional intensities. It’s very hard to sustain a uniformly high intensity, one thing tends to blur into another – just take another glance at that opening sentence and you’ll see what I mean. In a high-intensity situation, you need low-intensity moments to serve as punctuation; and in low-intensity situations, you need moments of high intensity or it becomes boring and players attention can begin to wander. However, you also need to be able to transition between the two, and its generally difficult-to-impossible to go straight from a low-impact state to a high; there is a build-up or ramping-up phase in between. Going from high to low can be accomplished far more quickly, simply by bringing the high-intensity point to a crescendo and the associated in-game events to a resolution. End the fight, or the confrontation, with a victory for one side or the other, and the intensity goes with it. Bringing the encounter to an end without a resolution replaces the high-intensity emotion of the confrontation with an equal level of frustration – something that is worth remembering, because it gives the GM a tool to control that level of frustration to at least some extent.

But there’s even more involved in it than all that. In the immediate aftermath of a moment of high intensity, player attention levels drop markedly following an initial high; if you attempt to convey essential information while players are still coming down, there is a higher than normal risk that the information will not be absorbed, and a much higher risk that it will not be retained.

While GMs can sometimes take advantage of this phenomenon, there are two issues to contemplate. First, really clever players will have learned to pay closer attention at such times, and can catch the GM out if he’s counting on slipping something past them; and second, there is an ethical question involved: is this playing fair?

At best, it’s a gray area, and as most GMs strive to earn and deserve a hard-but-fair reputation, the rule of thumb should be that you steer well clear of gray areas in general. But that requires that the GM is cognizant of the situation and makes allowances accordingly.

Setting that issue to one side, it should be clear that pacing is far more complicated and far more important than a lot of GMs give credit for.

Trends in Emotional Direction

If you can’t go from low to high intensity like flipping a light switch, but need a contrast in that emotional intensity, there needs to be a transition from low to high intensity, and we are talking about a contrast between different points in time within the campaign scale in question, not an immediate transition from one level to another. It’s simplest to choose the beginning and the ending of any such game phase, even though it may be an oversimplification. There are three ways that intensity can increase over time when the question is simplified in this way, three models of Escalation.

Three Models of Escalation

emotional transitions 1

Emotional intensity can ramp up from the very beginning of the game period being considered – which may be any of the scales defined earlier, as illustrated in the first box above. This is typically the case when the entire purpose of the scale unit is to increase the emotional intensity. It might be a dramatic development or an encounter with someone bearing dramatic news. Regardless, the common word is “dramatic”, also implying “sudden”. Game period begins, emotional intensity ramps up as rapidly as possible, and is sustained as the details of the dramatic turn of events are relayed and appreciated. I think of this pattern as the “Headline transition” because the phenomenon resembles the effect of a headline, whose purpose is to entice you to read the news story, and which employs drama and hyperbole to increase the emotional impact of that story.

The second mode of increase is a steady increase throughout the course of the game stage. No one dramatic event is responsible, the effect is more of an ill wind blowing in one piece of bad news after another. Another metaphor that could be employed, and which is the general way I think of this pattern, is “shoes dropping one after another”. In reality, the progression is not actually smooth; it’s a series of small steps, like a staircase, but it can still be represented as a slope, because that is the overall shape.

The third and final mode of increase is the sharp rise at the end of the game phase. I tend to think of this model by different names under different circumstances – the “Eureka” model, the “Revelation”, the “Pot Of Gold”, the “A-ha!” or even the “Knockout Punch”. They all essentially describe the same thing – a slow rise (if any at all) until one singular event which places everything within the game phase that has preceded it into a new context. The whole point of this type of escalation is to deliver the game play to that singular point. The key to the success of this type of transition is usually not the singular event itself, but the sense of anticipation that leads up to the event. Simply announcing the revelation has all the impact of a wet noodle; creating anticipation by describing the circumstances that lead to the event, whether it be skulking through the enemy’s lair so that his plans can be overheard, or dialogue with an escort about the character who is to deliver the revelation, or even the conducting of the key scientific research or web search or whatever.

In fact, if you consider anticipation to be “virtual intensity”, this transforms the pattern in increase in “potential intensity” created as the anticipation builds into something resembling the middle pattern, the steady increase. The moment of revelation then transforms that “potential” intensity into the real thing in a great rush.

…And their mirrors

If you are going to have highs and lows, you also need patterns to describe a reduction in intensity. Most of these can be described as the mirror image of the three escalation patterns (left to right, of course). The fourth and final type is more difficult to illustrate; it follows an escalation which leads to a resolution of the cause of that escalation within the same game stage – a cliff-edge, if you will, that ends that game phase, but which enables the next game phase to commence at a much lower intensity. These also make the best times for breaks in play, because a break at this point facilitates the simulation of a rapid release of emotional intensity.

Corrupting The Curves

In real life, things are often not as simple as the straightforward escalation patterns shown above suggest. Even within a simple curve, there need to be highs and lows, peaks and troughs. The larger the span of time covered by one of those simplified curves, the more true this is. Reality is more like the graph below:

A more realistic depiction of emotional intensity; variations at the next smaller scale track with the large-scale effect, more or less

A more realistic depiction of emotional intensity; variations at the next smaller scale track with the large-scale effect, more or less

This illustrates four fundamental realities that are taken for granted within the simplified models (exaggerated somewhat to make them stand out):

  • First, escalating intensity can be a more complex combination of multiple patterns;
  • Secondly, that on closer examination what appears to be a smooth curve is actually a a bit of a mess, with interruptions and multiple rises and falls, or (alternatively) stepwise progressions;
  • Third, that each intensity curve is actually the summation of multiple smaller curves; and finally,
  • Fourth, if you were to join lines connecting all the lows, they would roughly parallel the results of joining all the averages, which in turn roughly parallels the results of joining all the highs.
Linking The Highs, Lows, or Averages

The “corruption” of the nice smooth curve contains another secret: the pattern of highs and lows is that dictated by the trend at the next scale up.

If an Act consists of three scenes, the emotional intensity of the Act will describe the overall development of intensity within the act, which can be derived by joining the highs within the constituent scenes of that Act, or the averages, or the lows.

The actual curve in blue, if the curve in red described the intensity within an Act, would describe the combination of five successive scenes:

  • Three Shoes dropping, followed by a cliff release;
  • …followed by a scene with a late revelation or Eureka moment, the implications of which create a further short steady increase in intensity as they sink in;
  • …followed by a momentary slight easing of tensions followed by another Eureka Moment in the third scene;
  • …followed by another very slight easing of intensity leading to a new revelation high point in the fourth scene;
  • …followed by a deeper easing of tensions, as though the PCs think they have made progress and then another sharp rise at the end of the Act as that progress comes to naught, or even makes matters worse.

The valleys serve to punctuate the troughs, making the experience of the next peak all the more intense by virtue of the contrast. This example act would be an initial introduction to the situation and then a series of scenes in which things repeatedly go from bad to worse each time the PCs think they are making progress. Overall, the curves are definitely following the red curve, but in detail, there are highs and lows.

Most acts aren’t going to be this complicated, I must add; this is an “and the kitchen sink” example.

Pacing Structures

I think it was E.E.”Doc” Smith who said in one of his Skylark novels that you can’t fully understand one level of reality without understanding the level below it. He was talking about the Macro level, and how it relates to the molecular level, and how molecules relate to the atomic level, and how atoms relate to their subatomic constituents, and so on. (Below the subatomic lied the Ether, and then the Sub-Ether, but those pulp sci-fi concepts don’t matter in this respect). Before you can fully understand one level of reality, you have to understand its constituents.

The Game Scales that I identified earlier are a little like that. You can’t understand the properties of a campaign until you have identified the attributes of the adventures that make up the campaign. You can’t understand the attributes of an adventure without understanding the acts that structure it internally, and their parameters. You can’t understand an Act without understanding scenes, and you can’t understand scenes without understanding the properties of the constituents of a scene.

Pacing Structures are a shorthand method of gaining that understanding, of abstracting this situation into something we can worth with in a practical sense. Each Game Scale can be subdivided into four components: A beginning, a middle with highs and lows, and an ending.

An individual scale item might have a high beginning, a middle low, a middle high, and then a low ending, showing an overall decline in the emotional intensity of that item. Or it might have a low beginning, a middle high, a middle low, and then end on a high – and escalating situation. Or there might be no middle low at all, and it might run low-high-higher.

Beginnings

Beginnings are always defined in intensity relative to the preceding unit of the same scale. If the previous adventure ended on a high, you can either perpetuate that high at the start of the next adventure, or you can contrast with it with a low.

Endings

Endings are always defined in intensity relative to the beginning. They can be the same as, higher than, or lower than, that initial state.

Middle-Highs and -Lows

What’s in between exists to achieve two sometimes contradictory functions: they have to connect the beginning to the ending, and they have to ensure that there is sufficient contrast along the way. So no middle-high will as high as the high-point at one end of the scale unit, and no middle-low will be as low-key as the lower of the start or ending. They are always somewhere in-between.

Application Of Theory: Emotional Examples

I’ve now defined most of the tools and concepts that are needed to start applying the theory to real-world examples. The one term that really needs to have a little salt applied to its tail is the term “emotional intensity” itself – something that has pretty much been taken for granted.

Just what emotions are we talking about?

The answer is, any that you want. But there are a number of emotions that will come up more frequently than any others. In no particular order, let’s look at them:

Tension & Frustration

Tension and Frustration go hand-in-hand. Tension is the accumulation of obstacles between a character and what that character wants to achieve, matched by an increase in the importance of that achievement to the character. Frustration results from an inability to successfully overcome those obstacles, or from solving one obstacle only for another to take its place.

As a general rule, you want tension to increase over time, both in the course of an adventure, and in the campaign overall as the stakes get raised. However, you also need to occasionally release the tension and let the players make progress toward their goals. The best way of doing that is to have the frustration levels rise and fall more quickly than the underlying tension. Every time the players have a success, raise the stakes and make the outcome more significant to them – remember that their antagonist also has his ambitions and can be making progress in achieving those ambitions while the players are overcoming their obstacles.

Doubt, Uncertainty, Ignorance, and Confusion

A quadruple threat! Closely connected, even to the point where they might be considered the same thing. These can exist and operate entirely independently of the forces of tension and frustration, or can be the cause of rising tension and frustration. Typically, these start high and diminish over time, in the course of an adventure, in the course of an act, or in the course of the campaign as a whole. It could even be argued that the entire point of a campaign is to take the PCs through the process of discovering what the problems are that they have to solve to achieve their goals, discovering solutions to those problems, discovering the new problems that arise as a result and discovering solutions to those, until they attain their final goal, whatever that might be, reducing their doubt, uncertainty, ignorance, and confusion at every step along the way, replacing them in equal measure with their opposites: confidence, certainty, knowledge, and clarity.

But even given this overall progression, there are rises and falls in these emotional qualities. Every action based on a false assumption temporarily increases ignorance and confusion when it doesn’t have the expected result, for example. Every step forward decreases uncertainty until a new complication makes its appearance, increasing uncertainty again.

Fear

Fear enters RPGs in a number of ways. There’s the fear of failure. There’s fear created by the GM with deliberately scary circumstances. There’s the fear that players feel for their characters when they enter battle with a foe that may be too tough for them. And there’s the fear of the unknown. That means that fear will rise and fall in quick changes within adventures and campaign regularly while trends would follow a slower, more consistent trend.

A campaign tends to be in trouble if Fear decreases too soon or too quickly, because it means that the emotional forces listed in the preceding section have also diminished excessively. As a result, the players are certain of an eventual victory and that means that all the tension vanishes from the campaign; it becomes too certain, too predictable, and too easy.

This diagram illustrates a rising level of fear typical of an RPG adventure designed to be scary.

This diagram illustrates a rising level of fear typical of an RPG adventure designed to be scary.

But, for the most part, in most campaigns, the only time fear will be a primary element will be in individual adventures that focus on being scary. In such adventures, the fear will usually be unrelenting and steadily increase, with occasional very brief interruptions for gallows humor before rapidly ramping back up to its previous levels. Reaching a crescendo only at the culmination of the adventure (when it goes off the cliff), this is a slight variation on the patterns described earlier. It looks as shown to the right:

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here, but when you look at it more closely, it all makes sense. What the diagram shows is a progressively-increasing series of highs as events increase the level of fear, punctuated by passing moments of relief (probably not as many as I’ve shown here, it’s exaggerated to show what’s going on more clearly) with the degree of relief conforming to a late-crescendo pattern, and then the emotion reaches a cliff and falls rapidly. This is fairly typical of this sort of pattern, (except in terms of the number of punctuations; three or four might be more typical of an act, though this is more reasonable if we’re describing an entire adventure).

A little later in the article [actually, in Part Two], I talk about drawing these sort of diagrams as a planning tool and playing guide; I would not do a fancy one like this, instead I would draw a solid line for the maximum and a dashed line for the minimums. I know it’s getting ahead of the discussion, but I wanted to make the point while this more detailed version was at hand.

Drama

Drama is an emotion that doesn’t follow the usual patterns when viewed over an entire adventure. It can rise and fall in a series of waves, it can represent a compounding of two of the standard patterns and/or their mirrors, it can go all over the place. It also has cliffs and valleys a lot of the time, but it tends to dwell in those valleys for a lot more of the time.

When looking at an individual act, things become a lot more orderly. While drama may start high, it tends to fall fairly rapidly at the start of the act (mirror of the late crescendo), and then rise steadily (with valleys) through the course of the act. Significantly, it normally ends the act at a higher level than it started.

Similarly, when viewed at the broadest possible scale, that of an entire campaign, those peaks and valleys tend to dissapear and what you are left with is generally something somewhere in between the ‘steady rise’ and ‘late crescendo’ patterns.

Revelations and resolutions tend to be represented by a sharp peak in the drama level, followed by a rapid drop as the consequences, implications, and ramifications are explored.

Consider a great example that everyone will know: “Luke, I am your father”. You had a very dramatic battle between Luke and Darth Vader, punctuated by lulls in the action; this battle ended in Luke’s seeming defeat by Vader, but the Dark Lord Of The Sith didn’t finish the job, and Luke didn’t get away, so despite the battle ending, the confrontation – and the drama – continued to rise. Vader then tried to persuade Luke to join him, only to be rebuffed; he continued the pressure, until playing his trump card, the statement that would have dismissed as propaganda and misinformation until proven otherwise were it not for the mystic detective powers of the Force. Luke was on the verge of surrender, and knew it, and attempted to kill himself to escape the ultimate betrayal of what he believed in, ending the confrontation and the drama – at least for the moment.

Sacrifice & Sorrow

It’s very rare that this type of emotional content will last beyond a scene. Most of the time it will yield a dead-flat trace. One of the major reasons for this is that it’s not always a lot of fun. But having an NPC ally (or a PC) sacrifice himself to achieve an otherwise-impossible victory; having a funeral scene – there is clearly a place for this emotional content in many RPGs.

When this content is present, it tends to be at a high level from the start of the scene, and to follow a steady increase; the scenes to either side of it will either be zero for this emotional content or close to it.

The only exception to this is when a PC learns of the death or serious illness of someone the character is or was close to, when the transition from zero to high takes place within a scene; this will usually follow either the late crescendo or rapid-buildup model, depending on whether or not the GM chooses to let the PC display the grief and sorrow or to cut to another scene with strongly-contrasting emotional content.

Tranquility & Calm

At first glance, you might not think that these qualify as emotional “intensity” at all; they seem more akin to a lack of intensity. Nevertheless, since the force with which a scene conveys this emotional content can be varied through the choice of language, tone of voice, and so on, it does actually have a form of intensity. These are emotions that pervade moments of introspection and self-discovery. Unlike the other types that have been discussed, however, these qualities are qualitatively different. With the bolder and more aggressive emotional content, a brief interruption of mood can be accommodated and even used to punctuate and emphasize the changes in intensity; with tranquility and calm, any disruption completely destroys the mood, which derives its effect cumulatively over a sustained period. It’s entirely appropriate that such disruptions are often described as “shattering” the emotion in question.

Tranquility and calm have a tranquilizing effect, making it more difficult for even normally boisterous players and characters to swim against the current and disrupt the mood when they prevail. These are emotions that pervade moments of introspection and self-discovery.

Unity & Harmony

Not satisfied with the names given to this emotional content? How about “communality” and “shared purpose”? These emotional qualities are both very real and very hard to pin down in descriptive language. This type of emotional content emphasizes the “we’re all in this together”-ness and brings a sense of a team that stands united in common purpose against whatever the world throws at it.

There are two (collective) responses to adversity; one is disruption, where everyone goes there separate way and deals with their own problems in a solitary manner; the other is the opposite, where people come together and unite in common cause. These emotions deal with the latter; I’ll cover the former in the next subsection.

Unity and Harmony tend to be at their highest just before the final confrontation in an act or adventure. This is where (in the movies) the theme music swells and the stars display their best Hero Shots for the camera. No matter how dysfunctional they may have been to this point, the forging of a group of disparate individuals into a team is a major event in such movies & TV shows and generally signifies the point at which the good guys begin to claw back whatever advantage their antagonist has been able to claw out.

Once again, to take an example from Star Wars, this emotion peaks in intensity when the Millennium Falcon appears out of nowhere to save Luke’s bacon and give him the chance to take out the Death Star. This example shows that the peak can also come at the height of a battle, rather than just before it.

In terms of intensity, this emotion tends to stay at a low level with sudden peaks; each time that it peaks, it then falls back to a slightly higher level than it was at previously. Over the course of a campaign, there is a gradual rise overall, though there may well be a middle period in which it falls to a low ebb as internal tensions work to destroy any unity within the group.

A team’s sense of unity and cohesion are emotional intensities that can be manipulated like any other. There is one important difference, however; most emotional content can be triggered by the GM through imagery, dialogue, and narrative, and the players (and their characters) will respond accordingly. This emotion doesn’t respond well to external force; the best the GM can do is try to create an environment which is disruptive to it or encouraging towards it, and wait to see if the players respond.

Acrimony & Fragmentation

“We must all hang together or we will all hang separately” said Winston Churchill. This type of emotional intensity exists when a collection of individuals are putting their efforts into being lone wolves and/or prima donnas, and is all about the “hang separately”. We’ve all seen sports teams and political parties and alliances fall apart in the past, just as we’ve seen them come together to achieve things that a team without unity would find impossible. It happens in sports, in boardgames, in politics, in society – and in roleplaying games.

This emotional content has some peculiar characteristics, especially in an RPG or media context, where circumstances simplify into an ‘us vs them’ bubble. Viewed from the point of view of one group within this bubble, it is either consistently high until overwhelmed by a new sense of unity, or it is low until it all falls apart. Viewed collectively, it often seems as though one side “gifts” it to their opposition, as though there is only so much of it to go around. Initially, the good guys are fragmented while the enemy are winning and united; as the good guys (the PCs in an RPG) come together, and begin to gain traction over the enemy, the unity of that enemy begins to strain and crack until it collapses and they turn on each other.

Success seems to be the glue that creates unity, failure and frustration the driving force behind acrimony and disintegration, based on this analysis, but there’s more to the story; individual egos can swell beyond the bounds of entitlement, and individual members can value their contributions as more important than those of others. It happens all the time in music when bands break apart. If the fans of a band are lucky, after enough water has passed under the bridge, the individuals can rediscover the unity that they had initially – look at the history of the Eagles, or of Fleetwood Mac, or of Yes, to name just three examples. Such disintegration in unity is usually followed by a catastrophic decline in success.

This can even be used as a political or social tactic – its called “giving them enough rope to hang themselves”. Marshalling your strength and reserves as secretly and quietly as possible, waiting for self-importance to begin to erode unity, and then overwhelming the opposition one at a time when the unity collapses and fragments.

Viewed collectively, then, this emotional intensity remains at or near a fixed level throughout an adventure or a campaign, but is not experienced equally by all participants. It starts off focused on one group and ends focused on the other.

I really didn’t want to split this article in two. I’ve even put up a couple of smaller articles written at the last minute in an attempt to avoid it.

But some things are just meant to be, I guess.

So this part has dealt with the theory, and the next part will deal with the practical.

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