I didn’t want to split this article in two. You really need to have read part one before you can get full value from what’s below. So I’m going to assume that you’ve done just that, and don’t need a synopsis to refresh your memory, and just dive straight in…
Transitions & Global Emotional Flow
The ebb and flow of emotional intensity can be one of the most subtle and most important factors in the success or failure of an RPG adventure or campaign. It is all too easy for key scenes to fall flat because they have the wrong intensity. It’s easy for one scene or act to become decoupled from those that surround it.
Its all well and good to have the intensities correct in individual scenes, in individual acts, even in individual adventures; but if the transitions between each of these structural elements are incorrectly executed, the scene will fall flat. When that happens, the structural element loses its cohesion, becomes turgid and meandering, something that has to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Emotional intensity can’t be turned on and off like a tap; it is more akin to a type of pressure, that builds and then requires a release to lower it once again. That buildup can be rapid, employing a revelation or dramatic turn of events, or it can be an inexorable climb. Increasing an emotional intensity is relatively easy.
Lowering it is much more difficult, and is usually where the problems set in.
The worst possible approach is simply to start the new structural element at the desired emotional intensity and wait while the players or audience shift mental gears. It’s one thing to annoy and frustrate the PCs, it’s quite another to do the same thing to the players, and that’s the usual result of turning things down a gear just as they are gearing up and getting excited.
A resolution or release achieves a lowering, but these are not always appropriate to the action within the structural element. How do you achieve a successful lowering of intensity without one of these, and without the next structural element failing catastrophically?
Fortunately, there are a couple of tools available to achieve this.
Emotions come in two basic flavors; think of them as heating and cooling. Heating emotions promote rising intensities of their own accord, while cooling emotions tend to promote a reduction in intensity. On their own, this fact is not enough to achieve the desired result, but used in conjunction with one or both of the other tools I’m about to describe, they get the job done.
The Substitution Of Emotions
The simplest technique for a transition between two scenes with superficially different emotional intensities is the Substitution Of Emotion. You simply replace one variety of emotional content with another which starts at the same intensity as that of the previous scene. Sounds simple, right?
If you’ve been building the emotional intensity and need to calm things down for a bit, simply drop in a cooling emotion starting at the same intensity as you had reached in the last “building up” scene and let things cool down of their own accord, releasing that pressure slowly rather than in a sudden burst.
This technique has become part of the Australian social ethos over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the phrase “work hard, play hard”. “Work Hard” builds intensity through accumulated stress; “Play Hard” sustains the same intensity, but permits a release of the intensity by shifting the emotional landscape. In terms of an RPG or a novel, if you’ve spent a lot of time building up an emotional undercurrent of fear, you can dissipate the intensity without dissipating that sense of fear by substituting a different dominant emotional state at the same intensity and then releasing that.
It sounds more complicated than it is.
But this is far from a complete solution on its own.
The Narrative Insert
Fortunately, we have a couple more tools in the shed. If the problem is going from high intensity to low intensity, as shown below, one of the tricks we have up our sleeves is the Narrative Insert.
A narrative insert means that we skip a little of the action and have it happen off-screen, rejoining our protagonists a little later in the story, and filling in the missing period with a small section of narrative that is designed to bridge the intensity gap of the transition from one scene to the next, like this:
This works just fine in novels, and in comic books, and even TV shows and movies. It’s also quite common to cut the low-intensity scene altogether and jump directly from the decision to act right to the beginning of the action; the audience has come to understand the various forms of cinematic shorthand that tell us “time has passed in between”. It helps because the narrative insert can actually be put into the mouths of one or more characters or into a second paragraph designed to put the new scene into the broader narrative context of the overall plot.
It doesn’t work as well in RPGs because players are reluctant to yield control of their character’s actions, and even more unwilling (most of the time) to be a mouthpiece for the GMs dialogue. The narrative shorthand is required to be different, therefore. But this technique can still work, simply by spelling out explicitly that each of the PCs has done exactly the preparation for action that they had said (in the previous scene) that they were going to do. Players will understand that you are compressing time somewhat to skip over the boring bits. (Personally, I think my threshold for what to cut out is too high, and I tend to leave in more than I should, but I’d rather be safe than sorry).
The Flashback Insert
There are other ways of achieving the same effect. Another technique that I have employed successfully from time to time is to skip directly to the new scene, complete with its incomparable levels of intensity, establishing what the new intensity is, and then briefly playing through flashback sequences the interval in between showing the players how their characters went from high intensity to the new, lower, intensity. This works because short vignettes of roleplay disrupt the constant buildup of any one emotional intensity, deflating the balloon somewhat. All this does is break up the gray-filled box into a set of smaller gray boxes and move them all into the beginning of the next structural element.
The Insert Scene
The final technique is simply to insert an additional scene in the form of the gray-filled box. This can give you quite a lot of creative control over the intensity; I have used everything from “cosmic visions” through to having the players “observe” a scene at which their characters are not actually present, ending with an NPC saying to the PCs “…and that’s what I think might be happening right now”. This final statement takes a puzzling “where are we?” sequence and reveals it all to be happening in the imagination of the PCs, a visualization of speculation on the part of an NPC that may or may not bear any resemblance to reality – but it fills the intensity transition “box” and delivers the characters to the right level of intensity for the next sequence.
With a tease, you substitute a sequence of the same type and intensity as the one that the players are expecting but directed against another target. The result is a James Bond -style intro sequence – which has a resolution, and hence a drop in intensity – without changing the situation that produced the intensity in the first place. You may not be able to turn intensity on and off like a light bulb, but because the underlying situation hasn’t changed, the intensity can be regenerated relatively quickly. And, of course, if the situation should happen to worsen (or be discovered to be worse) before that happens, the end result can be an even higher level of intensity.
Pacing By Scale
Early in this article (in the first half, actually) I defined a series of scales. These were the Campaign, the Adventure, the Act, and the Scene, with the latter coming in several varieties, including, most prominently, the Battle. While those scales have received a mention now and then in subsequent discussion, what’s been more relevant so far has been the relationship between one scale and the next scale down, regardless of what the scales under discussion actually were.
It’s time to change that, and look at the pacing of emotional intensity buildup and release in more specific and practical terms. Once again, each scale will have a role to play in setting the parameters and boundaries for the subordinate scales – establishing an overall pacing pattern for a campaign also establishes, by definition, an overall trend across the range of adventures that comprise the campaign.
Pacing in Campaigns
In many ways, it’s easier to apply pacing at the campaign level than at any other. Because this is the largest possible scale, it simplifies the patterns to a fundamentally basic level. Or does it?
Establishing a pacing pattern at a campaign level offers a theoretical ideal, and an overall trend, but within that trend there are all sorts of bumps and hollows. While you can employ a campaign-level pacing pattern as a guideline, it remains an approximation, one that – in practical terms – has to be subordinated to the far noisier level of the adventure. Campaign level pacing can help determine how important the stakes should be in an adventure, how dramatic the events should be, and how meaningful that adventure should be within the scope of the campaign; but it can never serve as more than an imperfect and theoretical guideline. To be honest, if you view the campaign-level trend as a trace connecting the most intense points within each adventure, you can’t ask for too much more than that, and the general guidance already listed in this paragraph.
In the “Back To Basics” series, I looked at a number of fundamental aspects of campaign and adventure construction, starting with the simplest possible technique, then a more advanced one, and so on, all the way through to the most advanced practical technique that I had to offer. The idea was that each GM would read until he ‘got lost’ and would thereby find the level of planning that he was comfortable with employing at his current stage of development and with his current levels of experience and expertise. Part 1 dealt with plot structures within an adventure; Part 2 with assembling adventures into campaign structures. I also offered a simpler technique for doing so in Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited. Long-time readers may also recall the advanced technique that I suggested back in 2010 in Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow, which is worth bringing to the reader’s attention because it specifically discusses flowing emotional intensities at a campaign level.
This illustrates the difference between theory and practice for a hypothetical 5-adventure campaign.The differences between the two are in red, the parts where the two agree are in blue. The first couple of adventures are fairly close; the third one is noticeably more intense than the goal level. The fourth adventure drops to a lull, after an apparent resolution at the end of the third adventure, and it looks like the campaign is all but over – but in the course of that adventure, it soon becomes clear that the PCs problems are far from over; probably the real villain, who has been lurking behind the scenes, is making his move. The resolution of the fourth adventure probably consists of establishing that, and once again, at its end, theory and practice are in close accord. Similarly, although there are some small differences, the final adventure of the campaign is reasonably close to the ideal model set out by the master plan.
Decide what you want for the overall campaign. Then use that as a guideline to individual adventures. It is more important that these connect seamlessly to one another to provide a sense of continuity of style than it is to slavishly follow some master blueprint.
Pacing in Adventures
Pacing within an adventure is a more complex issue. While adventures can be broken up into acts, it’s at least as common to break them directly into scenes without a collective principle to unite them into sub-adventures; and an awful lot of the best advice completely ignores an act structure. Whatever advice I offer has to function, regardless of the sub-structure of the adventure, which can vary in all sorts of ways. At the same time, I want to avoid getting general; I promised practical advice, and this is where it matters most.
So, with the caveat that what I’m about to offer may need a little interpretation on the part of the individual, let’s press on.
An adventure has an initial intensity that is defined by the conclusion of the preceding adventure and a peak intensity that is defined, in approximate terms, by the overall intensity map of the campaign. The critical question, is how to get from A to B?
In general terms, that’s already been described. First, get the initial level down to whatever intensity you need in order to accommodate the start of the plotline, by whatever mechanism you deem appropriate – whether that’s emotion substitution or a narrative insert with time shift or insert with flashback, or with the tease.
From there, it’s a matter of using the overall plan you’ve chosen from amongst the three basic shapes to map out – in general terms – how the structure within the adventure will proceed, then crafting the adventure from its constituent scenes or acts. This ensures that the adventure respects the overall intensity pattern without being hamstrung by it.
It really is that simple.
Or is it? When you descend to the adventure level, there is more to think about than just the overall intensity. For the first time, you can and should also start thinking about the type of emotional content. It might be fear, or uncertainty, or confusion, or determination, or just about any sort of reaction that you can have.
Individual emotions don’t function quite the same way as overall intensity, because you have to take into account the nature of the emotion in question.
Some emotions are complimentary, others are contrasting. What exactly does that mean? Simply this: a complimentary emotion is one that doesn’t break the mood of another emotion, while a contrasting one does. This adds two new wrinkles to the whole question:
- First, an emotion can be complimentary with another, while contrasting with a third.
- Even more complicated, circumstances can change that emotional relationship, so you can’t even prepare a table of relationships.
That’s not good news. That means that there’s no hard and fast rules that I, or anyone`else, can offer. But all is not lost; you can tell which category a given emotion falls into relative to another by its effects. Simply put, does the new emotional content kill the mood, or enhance it?
Take a jolly, happy mood, full of jokes. Moving into an action sequence can kill that mood if it’s all grim and dramatic, or sustain it by incorporating an element of slapstick. A romantic mood can be killed by either humor or by grim and moody scenes, but it can be sustained by melodrama and passion – even if the object of the passion is completely unrelated. A scientist who treats physics as a lover, perhaps, and speaks of having to seduce nature, tickle her fancies and tolerate her whims, before she lets her guard half down and reveals a hint of the mysteries she clothes herself in.
Scenes are generally written in a reasonably chronological sequence; when you start writing a new scene or a new act or a new subdivision of the adventure, no matter what format you are using for those divisions, all you need to do is think of the proposed emotional tone of the next subdivision for a few moments and then reread the last few paragraphs of the previous scene. If, on that re-reading, the scene suddenly falls flat, if you feel it’s too big a mental gear-shift to be seamless, then you know that the new emotion is contrasting rather than complimentary.
Complex emotional constructs
One dominant emotion followed by another within the same subdivision of an adventure is called an emotional construct. It’s a through-line of mood and tone that links two portions of the scene together. It might be assumed that contrasting states are to be avoided, while complimentary ones are to be encouraged, but that is an oversimplification; both are useful at times, when employed the right way.
To demonstrate this, let’s imagine that you have an adventure subdivision with a predominant mood, A (it doesn’t matter what that mood is). The next subdivision of equal measure alternates between two moods, one complimentary to A and one contrasting. Call these B and C, respectively.
Let’s now consider three different situations: one in which there is more B and less C, one in which they are roughly equal, and one in which C dominates over B, in terms of the effect on the intensity of mood A established in the preceding subdivision of the adventure:
So what’s going on, here?
- The first graph shows lengthy spans of complimentary B and short spans of contrasting C. The result is a steady erosion of the intensity in A that had been built up in the previous subdivision of the adventure while never resolving the circumstances that had led to the buildup of A in the first place. As a result, if the next subdivision again starts building A, it will very quickly resume its previous levels, but that very suddenness will make the awareness of A all the more acute. Another feature to note is that because the initial emotional content is complimentary to A, A will continue to grow through emotional momentum – in other words, through the players awareness of the preceding part of the adventure and the way it made them/their characters feel. Finally, it should be noted that contrasting emotions are far more disruptive of an established mood than complimentary emotions are supportive. Some readers might now be asking why you would want to do this? Why not simply sustain A throughout, neither increasing nor decreasing it, if the objective is to restore it to where it was? What has to be borne in mind is that people can’t sustain any emotion at an unremitting constant level; you get used to it. The intensity of any emotion is`either waxing and waning; you have to control it so that the intensity of the desired emotional impact peaks at the right moment. Which is a lot easier to say than to do.
- In the second graph, there is a roughly equal ratio between periods of B and C. As a result, there is a steady decline in the intensity of A throughout this part of the adventure. Any subsequent rise in A will have more intensity to recapture, and so will not be transmitted as suddenly. What this shows is that by controlling the attention devoted to B and C, the GM/author can manipulate the rate of decline in A, and the abruptness of any recovery of A.
- These effects are even more pronounced in the third graph, and it might appear that there is nothing more to be learned from examining it; that is not entirely true. The descending curve of intensity in A is much smoother, to the point where it could be argued that the brief moments of B might as well not be there. Unlike the situation in the first graph, where there were continued reminders of A through the complimentary B emotion, here B is used to only to punctuate an overall expression of C. This is probably a good point to also point out that there is a natural tendency for GMs and authors to think of these curves in terms of emotions that are useful for his story – fear and tension in thrillers and horror plots, and so on, and while a lot of focus SHOULD be devoted to controlling the delivery of those emotions, that does not mean that unwanted and undesirable emotions should not be mapped and controlled. On the contrary!
- So what’s the fourth graph? This shows how the intensity in A can be manipulated in a more realistic way. The graph is identical to the second one, except that the final occurrence of C is replaced with a new serving of A, as the significance of the events taking place in the A and B periods suddenly compound with the preexisting A to suddenly ramp A back to somewhere close to the levels previously experienced. The yellow lines give some idea of how this might be expressed as an overall curve in A. This is exactly what happens when PCs are floating various theories as to what is going on and discussing their shortcomings between themselves. When they come across the one that fits, the discussion that follows develops a very different emotional tone; and (if the GM has done his job right), most times, they will find that they have underestimated the importance of what’s been happening. At last, they can see more than just the tip of the iceberg…
Pacing in Acts
There’s not a lot more to be said here. There’s not much difference between breaking an adventure into acts and breaking an adventure into scenes; nor is there much difference between building an act out of scenes and building a whole adventure out of scenes. All the same principles apply.
It follows that you need a reason other than emotional connectivity and content to go to the trouble of grouping scenes into acts – commonality of characters, or location, or a series of smaller mysteries or adventures that connect to each other in some way, or thematic material. There is one exception, and that is when each act deliberately has a very different emotional key, a sub-story that begins, develops, and culminates in each act. This is extraordinarily difficult to pull off because each of these different acts still have to come together to form a whole adventure. I’ve seen it done successfully just once: A scary act, a monster-movie act, an anime-robots act, and finally a love story act. And that should probably be all the clues you need to reconstruct the basic plotline!
So let’s move on to scenes.
Pacing in Scenes: Roleplayed Encounters
There are four basic types of scene, at least in terms of their emotional impact. The first of these, and in some respects the most complex, is the Roleplayed Encounter. The PCs consult an expert, or meet the King, or try to squeeze information out of the local police force, or, basically, any encounter-centered scene in which combat is not expected, and therefore what is expected is conversation, dialogue, and/or discussion – in other words, roleplay.
A little less than 1/3 of the emotional content of such a scene will derive from the relationship between the PCs and NPCs involved, but that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, because the NPC is not just himself as an individual, he is his reputation, and the relationship between the PCs and the organization that the NPC represents, and the reputation of that organization, and politics, and religion, and history, and social expectations, and (in some games) race and sub-race, and the list just goes on and on. All of those compound to create a foundation, and a context for the interpretation of what is said by an NPC.
A little less than 1/2 of the impact comes from what is said, the primary message being the bulk of that, and a small fraction being the side-chatter.
And the rest, considerably less than 1/3, of the impact comes from how the PCs react to what is said, and whether or not it probes any sore spots in their personalities.
You’ll notice that nothing has been said about the personality of the NPC. Does that mean that it doesn’t matter, at least in this context? Not at all; that personality not only shapes the latter contribution, it also plays a large part in the manifestation of the first, and finally, it colors everything that is said in the second. More than half the emotional impact derives from the personality of the NPCs involved; its just that those contributions are spread amongst all three elements of the scene.
Or, to put it another way, the primary modes of expression of that personality are (1) how it shapes his communications; and (2) past history of encounters with the NPCs. And both of those are already covered.
Emotional impact in scenes would be so simple if an NPC had only one thing to say! Alas, that’s never the case. Instead, they say one thing, and then another, and then another, and so on – and each of these can contain different emotional content, to at least some extent. An NPC can start off blustering, or threatening, or dismissive, or overly-enthusiastic, or any of a dozen other emotional states, and through the conversation can move from that to a completely different dominant emotion, and then to still a third. Or more. The longer the conversation, the more emotions can be evinced.
The most complex dialogue I’ve ever delivered in an adventure started with the NPC being dismissive, then becoming arrogant, then belligerent but surprised, then reverent, then lost in a sense of wonder, then fearful, and finally, accommodating almost to the point of subservience – at least until the then-current crisis was resolved. Throughout the dialogue, the PCs remained cool and calm, a constant point of contrast with the emotional journey experienced by the NPC – but without expressing it in their dialogue, the emotional impact on them was one of initial uncertainty becoming a blend of confidence and satisfaction by the end of the conversation! Ultimately, the NPC in question became a sometime-ally and sometimes-neutral character, having started off being the arch-villain of the campaign to that point! I’ve seen (and run) entire adventures with less of an emotional roller-coaster than this one piece of dialogue!
Pacing in Scenes: Combat
Combat scenes tend to be simple in comparison, at least in the mind of most GMs and players. And that’s a serious problem, because monotony is boring. It’s no coincidence that I opened [the first part of] this article with an extremely monotonous combat sequence recital.
A really good combat sequence should have pauses, and emotional development, with first one side and then the other on top, and plot twists – just like any other good scene. But, unlike differing emotional intensities in a roleplayed encounter (where the variation can be delivered simply by the GM roleplaying the part of the NPC), this won’t happen by accident in a combat sequence.
When I’m preparing a D&D Encounter, I run through a quick checklist of things to note. I provided this list in the section “Spell and supernatural abilities” of Taming The Time Bandits: Some Time-Saving Combat Techniques. In a nutshell, there are five things that I’m looking for when I glance over an encountered creature’s description of abilities, designed to enable me to make sensible combat choices on its behalf.
As the combat encounter proceeds, each time the creature gets to act, I will use the results as a guideline to the creature’s range of options. But I will also look at the combat environment. In D&D you always get to move a five-foot step, minimum. The last thing a creature wants to do is stay put, unless there is a compelling advantage or objective that requires it to do so; so the default assumption is that it will move. The question then becomes, “in what direction?” is there a location that limits the ability of the enemy to attack or that offers some other tactical advantage? Is there a location that offers a potential escape route? Is there somewhere that would enable the environment to attack an enemy on the creature’s behalf?
One House rule that I have toyed with the notion of implementing for quite some time is: If a creature (including a PC) gains an opportunity to make an attack of opportunity, it can choose to make an extra 5′ step instead. This can open up a lot of tactical options.
From an emotional intensity standpoint, there are a number of different levels of intensity available in the course of a battle, ranging from the desperate (high drama, high intensity) to the supremely-confident (high excitement, high intensity) with some very low-drama, low-intensity actions in the middle:
- Encounter does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory;
- Encounter does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of a single enemy;
- Encounter does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage;
- Encounter executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target;
- Encounter executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the first three items on the list;
- Encounter maneuvers into an advantageous position;
- Encounter maneuvers towards an advantageous position;
- Encounter rests or heals itself or does something that doesn’t have obvious effect in terms of combat advantage even if it does confer such;
- Primary PC combatant rests or heals himself or does something that doesn’t confer an obvious combat advantage;
- Primary PC combatant maneuvers towards an advantageous position;
- Primary PC combatant maneuvers into an advantageous position;
- Primary PC combatant executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the last three items on this list;
- Primary PC combatant executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target;
- Primary PC combatant does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage;
- Primary PC combatant does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of the encounter;
- Primary PC combatant does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory.
That’s all well and good if the combat is one-on-one, with non-combatant hangers-on. In most circumstances, there will be multiple attackers on one or both sides. The actions of these secondary participants can be considered a modifier to the above, shifting the significance of what the Primary Attacker (encounter or PC) is doing by a number of steps.
- Secondary Encounter does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory: -5
- Secondary Encounter does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of a single enemy: -4
- Secondary Encounter executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target: -4
- Secondary Encounter executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the first three items on the list: -3
- Secondary Encounter does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage: -2
- Secondary Encounter maneuvers into an advantageous position: -2
- Secondary Encounter maneuvers towards an advantageous position: -1
- Secondary Encounter rests or heals itself or does something that doesn’t have obvious effect in terms of combat advantage even if it does confer such: -0
- Secondary PC combatant rests or heals himself or does something that doesn’t confer an obvious combat advantage: +0
- Secondary PC combatant maneuvers towards an advantageous position: +1
- Secondary PC combatant maneuvers into an advantageous position: +2
- Secondary PC combatant does something that gains it an immediate and obvious combat advantage: +2
- Secondary PC combatant executes a failed attack, or a successful threatening move, that demonstrates the potential of gaining one of the last three items on this list: +3
- Secondary PC combatant executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target: +4
- Secondary PC combatant does something that immediately threatens the life or combat capability of the encounter: +4
- Secondary PC combatant does something that threatens to achieve immediate overall victory: +5.
The result is a scale from -12 to +12. The farther from zero a situation is, the more intense the emotional impact of the battle scene. Plus scores are positive for the PCs, negative scores are problems for the PCs. It should also be noted that even though this is described as a D&D system, it works with any rules.
A quick example: Secondary PC opponent executes a failed attack: +3. Primary PC executes a successful attack doing significant harm to the target (4). Total of 7. The combination means that the Encounter should view the result as being equivalent to a threat of immediate victory (by some considerable margin), and react accordingly. Of course, if an secondary encounter achieves something dramatic on the battlefield at the same time, that changes the picture markedly; executing a successful attack on another combatant that does significant damage, for example, adds minus-four to the seven to get a net score of 3. The PCs could still be viewed as having a combat advantage, but it’s hardly a decisive one.
Note that I don’t use this as a system in actual play; instead, this puts a framework around what I do more instinctively. On closer examination, you will find that it bristles with deliberately undefined terms – who is the “primary PC combatant?” How much damage is “significant”?
But even if I don’t use it as hard-and-fast rules, its enough that I can choose enemy actions based on (a) their likelihood of success, and (b) the impact on the intensity of the battle, letting it rise and fall, with the advantage swinging back and forth, move and counter-move as each side strives to execute a strategy that gets them over the line, each basing their choices of action on desperation and urgency. Good combat should breathe, like a living thing!
When PCs do relatively non-threatening things in a round – maneuver, or heal, or rest – unless the encounter has a strong level of certainty that it can pull off a 4-or-5 rated move, it will also tend to perform a relatively non-threating action. When PCs perform a high-rated action, the encounter can either perform it’s own (restoring the status quo of the battle), or it can perform a neutral action, conceding some psychological advantage to the PCs but bettering its overall tactical position. If it can’t do either without risk of defeat, and the encounter hasn’t had enough time to breathe, that’s when environmental circumstance, or reinforcements, or some other battleground development, should alter things – especially if the encounter has a home-ground advantage, and can therefore know what’s going to happen.
Note that not all battles have to be epic struggles. There’s nothing wrong with letting the PCs have easy victories a lot of the time, if that’s the way the dice fall.
And don’t be afraid to incorporate non-combat elements, either. I once had the PCs encounter an enemy who would recite a line from a poem after each action. That had the players guessing – was it a clue? Would they miss something important if they ended the battle too quickly? One even dropped out of combat to write down what the enemy was saying, just in case! On another occasion, they encountered a Habilinth (don’t bother trying to look it up, it was an original). This creature had a devastating attack that could take out half the party in one fell swoop, but it didn’t use it. Instead, it looked to establish dominance with a lesser attack – if the PCs responded in a neutral or submissive manner, it would then become completely docile. If they responded by attacking it, they were a threat to its authority, and Blammo!
There are always two ways of handling combat. The first is full battle, in which all the relevant rules are in play, characters roll for attacks, do damage, and so on.
The second category is what I call “cinematic” battle. No dice; each character acts when they are supposed to and simply describes what they are doing, and I adjudicate the results accordingly.
The big difference is this: Intensive game mechanics tend to contrast with about half of the emotions you can name. Suspense; fear; light-heartedness; the list goes on and on. Cinematic combat permits the mood and tone that have been established to shape the combat, sustaining these elements, even enhancing some.
Cinematic combat treats the battle as a roleplaying encounter. Its ideal for things like barroom brawls, or where one side has significant information to impart. It also tends to take a fraction of the time. Whenever I write the potential for a combat sequence into an adventure, I always ask myself whether or not there is a pressing need for it to be a full-combat-rules encounter; if not, I ask if there is a clear benefit to employing a more cinematic style. If the answer to both questions is no, I rewrite the encounter until the answer is ‘yes’ to at least one of these questions!
Pacing in Scenes: Activity
Activity scenes are scenes in which the characters are doing something. It might be traveling, it might be watching a political debate or a sporting event, it might be browsing through the shelves at the local library, it might be reading old mission reports or a good book or conducting an experiment. It may be for a single character, or it may be for the whole group, or something in between. It can lead to any other sort of scene, even another activity scene.
By and large, activity scenes often have limited emotional content; and that’s another common mistake that GMs and authors make. They get so wrapped up in describing the activity and its consequences that they don’t take advantage of the opportunity to add emotional impact to the scene.
Unless deliberate steps are taken to enhance an activity scene with emotional impact, it will be at least partially disruptive of any emotional intensity that has already been established, simply because they focus on the practical.
The obvious question is thus posed: How do you do that? There are three techniques that I employ regularly.
The Narrative Technique
Method one is to treat the activity scene as a series of micro-sized narrative scenes – and I know I haven’t covered them yet. Suffice it to say that the same techniques described in the section on narrative scenes can be applied here in describing the action that the player specifies that their character is performing.
The Roleplaying Technique
Method two doesn’t apply in all circumstances, but it can be stretched to apply in a lot more than you might think. Simply treat the environment with which the PC is interacting as thought it were an NPC having a dialogue with the PC. If the character is reading a book, let them confer upon the words a delivery that conveys emotion – even if it is all in their heads. Have that tone react and respond to the reactions and responses of the PC doing the reading. Manipulate the environment if you have to, again employing the techniques of a narrative scene.
This is especially easy to do because any action scene is essentially a dialogue between the GM and the player. Most GMs, when describing such scenes, adopt a tone appropriate to that interaction, which is generally very neutral, because the GM’s rulings should not be biased, one way or another, or because the GM has a real-world relationship with the person they are speaking to. So speak to the character, instead.
The Off-hand Comment Technique
Again, this won’t always be applicable. Stray thoughts or a side-comment from another character (preferably an NPC) that perpetuates the emotion desired can work wonders. Minor actions can substitute for verbalized statements and will often be more effective. If, for example, fear is the emotion you want to maintain, have an NPC start whistling as though trying to keep their courage up, or asking the Priest/Cleric to bless them/forgive them their sins, or frequently glancing behind themselves, or staring intently into every shadow, or whatever. Don’t tell the players that the NPC is scared; simply have him behave as though he is scared.
Pacing in Scenes: Narrative scenes
Narrative is all about conveying information. Too many GMs focus on the information to be conveyed, and not on the phrasing and delivery of that narrative.
When describing an environment, view it through the eyes of someone feeling the emotion that you want to convey. Ignore or gloss over elements that don’t support that emotion, while focusing intently on those elements that do. Use emotion-laden choices of language: a sunset is not “red and gold”, it is “a sheet of gold dripping blood through wild slashes of cloud across the sky”. Thunderclouds aren’t “dark and threatening”, they are “oppressive” and “the color of nightmares in the dark”.
Don’t be matter-of-fact, be matter-of-mood.
The reason this works is because, when you’re experiencing a certain mood, you tend to look at the world as though it were “tinted” in that mood, and you focus on the environmental elements that correspond with that mood. By deliberately inserting that mood and tone into your descriptions, your players will view the world through those same tinted “lenses” – and assume subconsciously that the reason is because their characters feel that way, and alter their character’s mood to match, without consciously realizing it. Perhaps by a lot, perhaps by just a little – but the smallest raindrops can still deposit a surprising amount of water into a receptacle.
Employ as many nuances of language and vocabulary as you have at your disposal to convey the mood to the players while never actually coming out and naming the emotion that you want them to feel.
Remember, too, that humans ascribe humanizing characteristics to all the things around them, from the rustle of the leaves to the temperature of the wind to the “personality” of our tools. USE that fact; don’t rely on the players to imbue emotional nuance to the description of the world, do it for them, and let them draw their own conclusions about the state of mind of their characters.
Pacing in Scenes: Transitions
Transition scenes can be either especially useful, or a royal pain in the butt, in emotional-intensity terms. Travel exposes the characters to all sorts of environmental situations, from passing images of great beauty to scenes of threat and danger. More than anything else, though, transition scenes are prone to monotony.
Monotony can be toxic. An interval between scenes can either permit the current of an established mood to take root and grow, to permeate the thinking of the players and hence their characters, or it can stifle it.
Early in a campaign, I tend to roleplay every mile, because it gives me a chance to educate the players in the parameters of the world. Once I have done so, I start to cherry-pick transitions that can be used (via the narrative scene technique) to build and enhance whatever the emotion is that I want to intensify, or to put the brakes onto that mood if it seems to be peaking too soon. If I can’t find something to cherry-pick that will be supportive, I increasingly simply hand-wave the transition, and do a hard cut: “Three gloomy and mud-spattered days later, you crest a hill, the product of some past violent disturbance that lingers on the landscape like a festering wound, and behold your destination.”
In other words, if you can’t build the mood, or perform some other desired manipulation of the emotional intensity, cut straight to whatever is supposed to happen next. The early occasions are an overriding of this general principle for the express purposes of establishing the world, and stop as soon as that brief is completed.
You can do more to convey the mood you want by describing the journey in retrospective narrative than you can focusing on every detail along the way, except where some of those specific details add fuel to your “fire”.
The Effective Use Of “Meanwhile…”
Emotional intensity has a sort of inertia. It tends to keep doing whatever it was already doing if you shift the focus to somewhere else or someone else, unless that second scene’s dominant emotion is contrasting with that of the first. It follows that you can manipulate the intensity experienced by one character simply by establishing the trend you want and then cutting to a different character with a different player in a different scene; if the emotional content of the new scene is supportive or compatible with that trend, it will continue to grow (at least somewhat) and will be at a considerably higher intensity when you return to that first scene – provided that the gap between the two is not too large. Alternatively, you can relieve the pressure without reducing the cause of the intensity by cutting to a scene with a contrasting emotion; this means that you can quickly build that intensity back up to where it was.
“Meanwhile” can be used to intensify an emotion, or to let a character catch their breath. It all depends on two factors: how quickly you get back to the character experiencing the emotion, and how they as a player react to what happens in between.
If a “meanwhile” scene is contradictory in mood, you can contemplate taking the players concerned aside, or asking the players who were central to events prior to the “meanwhile” to step aside for a few moments. As a general rule of thumb, however, I DON’T recommend this approach, because it is fraught with danger. If a player isn’t at the table, who knows what stimuli he will encounter? Although I haven’t made a big thing of it, simply labeling emotions “complimentary” or “contrasting” is an oversimplification; there are degrees to which one emotion can be one or the other, depending on the circumstances. It follows that unless the emotion of the “meanwhile” scene is going to be catastrophically contrasting, you are probably better off keeping control over the situation.
There are only two reasons that I will accept at the game table for temporarily separating players from the group: (1) If the emotions in question are likely to be catastrophic to the mood I had built up (in which case, I would probably also have had the players who will participate in the “meanwhile” scene step aside during the buildup so as not to contaminate their moods); and (2) If the “meanwhile” scene is going to reveal information that I don’t want the players not taking part to have. It’s not a matter of not trusting the players to be able to separate player-knowledge from character-knowledge; it’s a question of how the information in question will shape the player’s thinking. Nine times out of ten, such separations will happen for the second reason; the first is relatively rare.
A brief note on flash-forwards
A Flash-forward is a variant on the Insert Scene, which was described a long time back in this article. Instead of “…that’s what I think is happening right now” it’s “that’s what must have happened” or something similar. Essentially, you are plucking a scene out of the future, out of context, and out-of-continuity, and using it foreshadow the emotion that you want to dominate, then employing a segue back to the start of the story. This is only a brief note, because (in a way), this has already been covered in another article. The risks of a flash-forward are addressed in The Perils Of Prophecy: Avoiding the Plot Locomotive, though many of the solutions to the problems won’t work in this application. The benefit is that it gets players thinking along the right direction from the get-go. An additional problem can be player’s determination to prevent the situation from reaching this point.
I sometimes get mileage by using a “vision from a parallel world” as the source of the flash-forward; that means that the degree of accuracy and relevance to events to the game world is always uncertain, and hence is a way of having my emotional cake and eating it too. But it’s still a technique that I employ sparingly at best.
The Impact Of Interruptions
I hinted at this topic when I discussed separating one or more players from the main group, a few paragraphs ago. But it’s time to take a closer look at it, because one thing’s for certain: there will be interruptions.
Interruptions are temporary disruptions of play, and come in four different sizes. Each has a different effect on the emotional intensity and prevalent emotional context that have been established in the course of play. In some cases, they can be manipulated to benefit the adventure; in most cases, they have to be endured.
A momentary pause
The impact of stopping long enough for people to use the rest room, or get a drink from the refrigerator, etc, is relatively minimal but is also largely dependent on what the players do during the interval. Conversation about what has just happened can continue to build whatever emotion the GM was trying to generate, but it also gives players an opportunity to think, and can derail whatever plans the GM had.
The natural points at which to call such breaks are immediately after revelations of some sort, or some dramatic twist. These are not always the best choices, though – if you expect and desire the PCs to take immediate action as a result, this timing is fine. If you don’t want that, if you want to emphasize the scale of what they are up against, or want them reacting emotionally rather than with forethought, it’s probably better to interrupt the intensity buildup than to wait until after the “trigger” gets pulled.
Out-of-game activity like side discussions that are completely unrelated to game, or that appear so, tend to have much less impact (even if contrasting) than an in-game interruption with contrasting emotion. It can even help players keep their heads from getting scrambled with emotion, permitting them to put a little distance between how they feel and how their characters feel – enabling them to enjoy the game more, provided they are good at separating player knowledge from character knowledge. They then drop readily “back into character” when the GM restarts play.
GMs should be wary of pauses, but not afraid of them, and should try to anticipate the need for them and schedule them where they will be least disruptive and most helpful.
A meal break
A meal break is exactly the same but on a larger scale. There will be some diminution of intensity, simply because it’s a bigger break. Anticipation can still build up intensity, but this is something that’s largely beyond the GMs control – sometimes it will happen, sometimes it won’t.
Every danger posed by a brief pause is amplified by the greater length of the break, and some are also increased in likelihood. I find it occasionally useful to get players to jot down a quick reminder of what their characters are thinking and, more importantly, how their characters feel, just before the meal break.
Meal Breaks are something that are hard to schedule; instead, I find it better to plan around them, especially if they are to interrupt play.
A deliberate intermission
There are times when a deliberate intermission is called for. It doesn’t happen often. There have even been occasions when I want to use such an intermission with a deliberately-chosen activity that will help enhance the context of what is about to happen. That might be anything from watching a short TV show or documentary, to listening to a piece of music, to bringing out snacks that relate to the culture that the PCs are about to enter. I even once had a player phone his girlfriend at a specific point in the adventure because I knew how he would react to doing so. That backfired when they had an argument, however.
On a couple of occasions, I have mandated that everyone play a board game or a card game for 30-60 minutes (even if that game went unfinished) just because it would help get the players into the right mood. And once, I planned a mini-party, with strict timing on when people would show up and when they would leave. And on one occasion, the players were in the middle of such a game when (without warning) their PCs arrived and found themselves in the middle of the game board – and bound by the boardgames’ rules!
And, on one memorable occasion, I orchestrated an intermission and a diversion for the player concerned; when he returned, it was to find that another GM had taken over running the adventure, and was now set up and sitting in the chair I had occupied!
The deliberate intermission is somewhere in between a momentary pause and a lunch-break in terms of impact, but is enhanced by the fact that it is deliberate and designed to (hopefully) achieve some particular effect that is beneficial to the game as a whole. Used sparingly, and creatively, they can be a very effective tool.
The End Of Play
Nothing disrupts intensity more than the end of play. By the time play resumes – be it a couple of days, a week, or a month later – whatever mood you had built up is gone, yesterday’s news.
On rare occasions, you can use that to your benefit. Most of the time, it’s like an earthquake – you can’t ignore it, you just have to figure out how to live through it.
Most of the time, I make no special preparations. My next most frequent approach is to prepare and/or deliver a synopsis of last time’s play that emphasizes the mood that I want the PCs to recapture, regardless of what the tone actually was at the point in play that is being described. On rarer occasions, I will have asked the players to note what their characters are thinking and how they are feeling, just as I suggested might be done every now-and-then before a meal break; this helps connect the players to the emotional intensity that I am trying to recapture at the restart of play. And every now and then, I will have prepared a preliminary out-of-game sequence to establish the right mood.
“Picture an afternoon sky, blue and clear except for a puffy white cloud, which is melting like ice-cream and dripping onto a giant skull with bullhorns. The grass-covered ground moves uncertainly this way and that, squirming underfoot. Your every tentative step carries the fateful sound of bones snapping and being ground into powder beneath you feet. The skull’s gaze is mesmerizing, like that of a snake; you can’t help it, you can’t look away. Imagine that a shadowy figure has crept up behind you, wielding a knife that is poised to strike, but you can’t look in that direction, you can’t take your eyes of the skull… that’s how your characters feel regarding what they have just been told by [name]; it is fascinating, forbidding, and horrifying in equal measure, and everything you were certain of has suddenly been thrown into question. You both can’t believe it and yet can’t not believe it, and it is lurking at your back ready to strike.”
Replacing Instinct with Awareness
Most GMs don’t think about the pacing in their adventures and campaigns in any depth, relying on their instincts as storytellers to see them through. Some have better instincts than others. I’ve seen campaigns run by imaginative, creative, and strongly communicative GMs which nevertheless feel completely flat because they got the pacing all wrong; every time the PCs started to feel revved up, he would throw cold water over their enthusiasm and the players feeling deflated, then he would have to artificially pump them up the next time he wanted them to get excited; only to repeat the entire process of failure when the snowball began to roll downhill. I have to admit that this is an extreme example, but it was observing that campaign (and playing in it a couple of times) that made me seriously aware of this subject for the first time, thirty-odd years ago.
GMs need to be aware of the effectiveness and accuracy of their natural instincts for pacing. The worse those natural instincts are, the more a GM needs to replace instinct with deliberate awareness and pre-planned intent.
The Thumbnail Trick
Instincts can be educated. In my early days as a GM, I came up with a method of doing so that immediately improved my games, pacing skills, and instincts. I left a bit of margin on one side of the page next to my description/notes concerning the adventure or the individual scene. In that space I drew one, two, or three square boxes, a little bigger than half and inch in size, freehand – they didn’t have to be especially pretty. The first one I labeled “overall” and the others (if any) I labeled according to the emotional reaction that I wanted to target – whether that was “tension”, “levity”, “intrigue”, “mystery”, “fear”, “threat” or whatever. Then I drew, in the box, a quick and simple graph of how I wanted the emotional content of the scene to develop; I then used that as a guide to my phrasing, how I responded to questions posed by the players, the forcefulness of my delivery, the way NPCs would act/react (within the context of their personalities), how I would manifest & interpret wild luck when it occurred, the descriptive language that I would employ to describe critical hits, the likelihood and morale of reinforcements, etc, etc, etc.
These were not unlike the charts that I have been using to illustrate this article throughout – though they were a lot smaller and generally simpler.
I also drew a line that halved a box, quarter to quarter, and filled one side as a reminder when a “meanwhile” scene was likely to be toxic to the mood that I had been building, or the scene contained information that one or more players was not to be told.
Awareness of what I was trying to achieve not only helped me to achieve it in the course of the game, it made me immediately aware of when something was said or done that violated or broke the mood, pinpointing areas where I had to improve.
So, if you think your pacing skills to stand a little polish – or a lot of improvement – or you just want a reality check as to how sharp your skills really are in this department – give it a try!