Sorry for the delay in posting this – my ISP is conducting maintenance of some sort, and my connection kept dropping out, making it hard to upload and format the article in the usual manner.
So far, I’ve been looking at the different elements of pauses-in-play in as much isolation as possible, going beyond that only when it alters the primary effects that an element has on the game. But it’s in the multitude of combinations possible that the real subtlety and power of manipulating these game elements can be found.
In the third part of this series, I examined 9 types of pause. Compounding two types of pause gives 36 combinations, assuming that the sequence in which they occur makes no difference (72 otherwise); compounding three gives 84 sequence-irrelevant combinations, or 168 sequence-relevant combinations. On top of that, there are the end points of the interruption, characterized into 4 types of pre-interruption content and the same types of post-pause content, for a total of 16 combinations. Putting those together gives:
- Mono-ply Pause: 144 combinations;
- Two-ply pause: 576 sequence-irrelevant combinations or 1152 sequence-relevant combinations;
- Three-Ply pause: 2688 sequence-irrelevant combinations or 5376 sequence-relevant combinations.
If I were to analyze all of these (3408 or 6672 combinations, depending on the relevance of sequencing in the compound interruption types), taking a minute to do each, that’s more than 50 hours work, possible much, much more. If I were to use 1 line to summarize the results of each, the resulting article would be boring – and could be as much as 148 pages long.
Not going to happen. The only approach that makes rational sense is to look at general principles, and let each GM analyze the particular situations that confront them as they come up.
Before I Go Any Further
It’s worth taking a moment to explain a couple of assumptions.
- Any analysis of the number of combinations described will show that I have assumed that two breaks of the same type are effectively just a longer version of the one break. There may be an exception if sequence matters – a 1-2-1 combination might mean that the type-1 breaks have different effects – but I’ve chosen to ignore that because it’s irrelevant, given the decision not to analyze different combinations. It would just add to the already excessive total.
- I am assuming, however, that the sequence of types in compound breaks does matter, until it is proven otherwise. It might even be that this is dependent on the types of break – that sometimes it’s true and sometimes not.
- I haven’t bothered looking at 4-ply combinations because it didn’t seem rational for these to actually occur. My thought was that two break types might easily occur back-to-back, or have a meal break or other third type of interruption in between – so up to three is practical, but more is almost certainly only theoretically possible, and should probably be avoided anyway.
General Principles Of Combinations
I have identified ten general principles. Some of these are derivative of general rules for writing, which were identified as key considerations in my earlier series on Emotional Pacing in RPGs (Part 1, Part 2), but they are sufficiently important to the subject at hand that I’ve included them anyway.
1. Pre-break Content Effects apply over the entire duration of the break
It doesn’t matter what the type of break is, the foundation consideration is always the trend in intensity, excitement, anticipation, and tone established by the pre-break content, which extends for the entire duration of the break, whether that break is simple or compound in nature.
2. Pre-break Content Effects may be modified by Break effects
However, this “trend continues” principle does not mean that the effects of pre-break content override the effects of a break. Break effects compound with the initial impetus. For example, a break that promises the satisfying of anticipation reduces the trend for that anticipation to become frustration; however, if that break is followed by a low-intensity interaction that is not obviously leading to that satisfaction, the “frustration clock” can resume where it left off and even proceed at an accelerated pace. In effect, post-break content of the latter two types (low-intensity interaction and introspection/analysis) can be perceived as an extension of the break, compounding with the effects.
There is a lot of artistry involved in a good script or other delivery mechanism for a plot. The more improv is involved, the greater the flexibility you have, but the less time to refine the sequence of events into a satisfactory flowing of the story – and it’s worth remembering that player contributions are always ad-hoc and improvised.
3. Some Break Effects Compound
If you have two different break types that increase anticipation, the two compound. To a large extent, however, the effects will overlap, so you won’t get “full value” from the second. In general, if two breaks have the same effect, they can be considered one break for the purposes of determining how long that effect has within the game to manifest, and the compound effect will be more extreme than either in isolation.
4. Effects are experienced in succession
Taking a five-minute break and then setting up a combat battlefield may produce a net increase in anticipation, but that only occurs once the process of actually laying out the battlemap begins. If the pre-break content generates anticipation – for example, if conflict appears to be inevitable – then the two effects compound, with the battlemap setup adding to the anticipation and delaying the onset of frustration because it is obviously moving the game towards resolution of the pre-break situation, ie satisfying the anticipation that had built up.
5. Some Break Effects Cancel
If however, the two breaks have antagonistic effects, one that inflates expectation and one that deflates it for example, the two will cancel out overall.
5a. Beware oversimplifying
Just because the net effect appears to cancel overall, events are experienced sequentially – one set of effects will take place, and then the canceling effect will take place. This can generate peaks and valleys in the dynamics of the session even while no play is occurring. Having a peak occur outside play always detracts from the satisfaction levels deriving from the play that does occur.
5b. Sequence Does Matter!
The inevitable conclusion is therefore that the sequence of elements in a compound break does matter – and that it is better for the game’s building of tension/anticipation if any elements that deflate it precede elements that inflate it. Coming later in the sequence gives an element increased emphasis in a compound interruption, and (past a point of immediate reaction) minimizes the effect of the preceding break elements.
In point (4) I used the example of a 5-minute break compounding with a battlemap setup. That example actually reflects the above conclusion to at least some extent. But consider the effects if the battlemap is setup and THEN a five-minute break called: You have an immediate increase in anticipation from both the pre-break content and the preparations to satisfy that anticipation – and then nothing. The frustration begins to build as soon as the pre-break anticipation is unsatisfied, but is masked by the battlemap assembly – but once that assembly is complete, the subsequent break means that anticipation is no longer building, and there is no longer anything to dissipate the rising frustration. The players will be in need of catharsis in the course of the combat when play resumes – so the battle has to be more satisfying than is the case with the break elements the other way around. In effect, the benefits of the battlemap setup have been reduced in comparison to the effects of the five-minute break in play.
6. Peaking Too Soon produces anticlimax
There is a maximum level of anticipation that can be achieved. If that peak is achieved before the actual resolution of the events creating the anticipation, then that resolution will feel anticlimactic even if it is nothing of the sort. The game will be less satisfying to all involved as a result. This is the underlying truth behind the comparison of “5-minute break plus battlemap setup” vs “Battlemap setup plus 5-minute break” – the combat has to “work harder” to overcome this sense of anticlimax.
7. Peak Intensities are unstable
Nor can peak intensities be maintained for very long. If you don’t dissipate the tension by resolving the situation quickly enough, something else – side chatter or table jokes – will do it for you. The results, once again, are an anticlimax when you do get to the point of resolving the situation.
This is the real problem with game mechanics that have slow combat resolution – they delay satisfaction past the point at which intensity can be sustained. A fight that was interesting or exciting to start with bogs down and both interest and excitement wane.
8. Tension and Release
Reaching a peak and then resolving it permits the next peak to be achieved more quickly, so the same level of buildup actually achieves a higher level of anticipation than was possible for the initial peak. This effect only persists for a limited period of time, however; a 30-minute meal break is fine, a 60-minute meal break is dangerously close to the limit. Certainly, the floor is reset to zero after the end of play, necessitating doing it all over again.
My experience is that the more fiction a player reads, the greater their tolerance for retaining this heightened responsiveness, because they are more used to putting a book down and then picking it up again at a later time. TV and movies have more tools at their disposal for the generation of heightened anticipation but less ability to sustain heightened responsiveness. However, having the right lead-in can make a big difference, because the second show can build on the responsiveness and excitement generated by the show that precedes it. It is for this reason that watching multiple episodes of a show in succession can produce a completely different impression of the show than viewing the episodes “in isolation” – you get “tuned into” the show’s world and don’t have to recapture that immersion at the start of the next episode. Some shows capitalize on this better than others; “it’s better on DVD than I thought it was when it was on TV” sums up the effects.
The same thing happens with RPGs. Most of my games are run on a once-a-month schedule, and this is a definite handicap to immersion and sustained excitement. Playing more frequently definitely makes a difference in this respect, and playing on multiple days in succession has an even bigger impact.
The problem with this tension-and-release pattern is that every peak offers a fresh chance to get the timing wrong, producing anticlimax. If there’s one thing that should be clear from the variety of break that I listed in the third part of this article, it’s that there are a lot more breaks in play in a typical RPG than may have been suspected, and that also increases the potential danger of anticlimax. This is why mastering breaks is so important!
9. Underlying Intensity
Every game also has an underlying intensity that derives from the overall situation in-game and the metagame situation out-of-game. At the beginning of a campaign, this derives more from the latter source than the former, and is based on the number of unknowns and general mystery about the new campaign; at the end of a campaign, it derives more from the in-game situation. As a campaign heads toward its conclusion, this underlying intensity increases the “floor” or “zero point” from which in-game manipulation of intensity proceeds.
If the balance between these two is mismanaged, ie the GM plays things low-key for too long, or goes high-key too soon, the results are a lull in the underlying intensity that leaves campaigns vulnerable to all sorts of other problems that can lead to a premature ending of the campaign. In fact, every campaign that I’ve ever experienced that ended prematurely suffered from this problem.
It’s something that even experienced GMs experience. It frequently manifests in the GM being insufficiently inspired to put as much effort into his games as he used to, or in an increased tendency for players to not turn up. My Shards Of Divinity campaign is the most recent one to suffer this fate.
10. Cumulative Sequential Effects
Determining the net total of the effects, in sequence, gives you a modified interpretation of the pre-break Content effect which can then be used to determine the optimum post-break content.
Determining the post-break content and subtracting the influence of breaks in reverse sequence permits the determination of the type of break that best marries this content to that which is going to occur pre-break, i.e. what you should have in-between.
Comparing the contents of one scene with the next that is to occur permits the selection of the optimum placement points of different kinds of breaks.
Some Combinations are Valid…
Some combinations of breaks and endpoints just work. A dramatic situation leading toward a combat encounter, setting up the battlefield, then running the combat immediately, works. Giving out experience at the start of a game session works far better than doing so at the end, or in the middle (unless it is carefully timed) – if that’s practical. Only at the end of an adventure is this general principle not true. Meal Breaks are best preceded by low-intensity situations or revelations; session ends are best preceded by cliffhangers.
…And Some Are Not
Some combinations, on the other hand, just don’t work very well. High-intensity interactions shouldn’t follow post-combat game mechanics; you are better off going straight from the combat into the interaction, and combining the game mechanics with your next five-minute or meal break, or even the end of play for the day. Longer breaks like meals can permit players to come to grips with revelations and plot twists, at the expense of a discontinuity with how their characters should be feeling; roleplaying at least a short period of reaction and confusion before the meal is a far better solution, most of the time.
There are, thankfully, very few combinations that should be willfully excluded; there are rather more that can be useful tools in the right circumstance or crippling mistakes if applied when they shouldn’t be.
It can be argued, in fact, that there are no genuinely invalid combinations; instead, there are combinations that have a more desirable effect and combinations that have a less desirable effect, and that this desirability is a function of what the GM is trying to achieve at any given point. The right choices add to the excitement and interest of the campaign, the wrong choices detract from it.
Analyzing A Combination
It might seem, with so many possible elements, that it would be quite difficult to analyze a combination, but it’s not all that difficult. Most GMs do it instinctively all the time – and sometimes, as you would expect, they get it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. The purpose of this series has been to put a little more intellect and less instinct into the process.
When it comes down to it, there are only three steps to a practical analysis:
- The Pre-break Element;
- The Post-break Element;
- The Break Type(s).
1. Pre-break Element
There are two facts that you need to extract from the Pre-break element: The classification type and the resulting intensity “trend”.
2. Post-break Element
Using the details provided in Part 2 of this series, you can use the information from step one to understand how well the intended post-break content will connect with the pre-break element, and whether or not this is a suitable time for a break at all. You can also consider scene insertions prior to the “official” post-break content or to the break itself to shape a better connection across the impending gap.
3. Break Type(s) – in sequence, with weighting
The relationship established in step 2 is not the final word, it’s a preliminary analysis. The break types examined in part 3 of the series, together with the general principles discussed earlier in this article, give you the tools you need to modify that relationship to accommodate the impact of the actual break anticipated.
Full Forwards Analysis
This starts with the pre-break content and then applies the influence of the break types successively until you reach the post-break content. Remember that the sequence in which different breaks occur weights their relative impact. If that says all will be well, there’s no need to invest any further thought on the matter.
If, however, there is some indication of a problem, you now have the opportunity of manipulating the course of play to achieve a better fit. You have a number of options for doing so:
- Insert a pre-break bridging scene that overcomes the incompatibility with the post-break content;
- Insert a post-break bridging scene that overcomes the incompatibility with the intended post-break content;
- Reorganize the sequence of break elements to better fit the combination of pre-break and post-break content;
- Insert one or more other relevant break elements to better fit the combination of pre-break and post-break content;
- Analyze the effects of delaying the break until after the currently anticipated post-break content;
- Determine that despite the discontinuity of intensity, having the break now anyway is the lesser of two evils.
Advanced Technique: Thinking Ahead
The earlier you carry out your analysis, the more options you have. If you know that a break is required at some point prior to content scene 4, you can determine where best to place that break. Options include:
- Before Content Scene 1;
- Between Content Scenes 1 and 2;
- Between Content Scenes 2 and 3;
- Between Content Scenes 3 and 4.
- Further adding to the available options, there may well be another break type or two at one of these positions, introducing sequencing options.
- And there may be another break needed at some point post- content-scene 4 that can be brought forward.
- And if none of these suit the circumstances, perhaps there is a way to actually delay the pause until after content-scene 4.
- Finally, each of these options are spots to which all the Correction Options can be applied – so each of the above is really five or six options.
Sometimes, it’s more useful to have a checklist of things that have to happen before a given content-scene, and then determine where best to have those things happen, working backwards during the session/adventure planning in order to deliver the players to that content-scene in the optimum state of mind. This effectively treats breaks as just a different type of content.
Your options approach infinity by the time all of these possibilities are considered.
Really Advanced Technique: Flashbacks
At one point I had a very complicated adventure planned to occur. Essentially, it consisted of a contemporary mystery leading to the PCs being trapped and under siege. Overlapping this was explaining the context of the situation which ultimately related an untold chapter of game history featuring one of the characters, which not only explained the current circumstances but which created, retroactively, the mystery that had led the PCs into the contemporary situation, bootstrapping itself into existence.
The basic adventure could be laid out very simply: Mystery, Siege, Situation Explanation, History/Revelation, Solution, and Escape. But there were several problems with this, not least of which was that it requires a long period of exposition during which most of the players were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Instead, I chose to break the History/Revelation into a series of flashbacks which could be told out of sequence, triggered successively by elements of the Siege and Situation Explanation. The History/Revelation sequences – the back story of the adventure, in other words – effectively became breaks in the main action. The use of triggers enabled each “chapter” of the flashback story to be relevant to the current situation, and enabled me to present it to the entire group as a “collective vision of the past”; even though they weren’t directly involved, this held their attention and built anticipation toward both the revelation and the next slice of contemporary action. This solved all the problems of the plot and produced a very memorable adventure – one who’s solution hinged on paradox, the multidimensional nature of the multiversal game setting, and the topology of a Klein Bottle as applied to arcane tools, and which re-created the original mystery!
In effect, a major component of the adventure – the narrative section – was broken into a series of bridging scenes that were interspersed with the main content, enabling control over the pacing of the whole adventure. What would have been a very “flat” period was turned into an advantage by “telling” two different stories simultaneously. It took a LOT of design effort to pull off, but the results were well worth it; I would consider adopting this approach in the future if faced with a similar pacing problem, though it’s not a solution that I would pull out of my back pocket at regular intervals.
One final break type/manipulation solution
Do you hand-wave travel from point A to point B? (I wrote an article on the subject a little while back – The Gradated Diminishing Of Reality – Travel in FRPG). Anything that you choose to hand-wave in this fashion constitutes a break of (near-) zero duration in game play, enabling you to skip over a “dull bit” and go from interesting event to interesting event. Which becomes significant only when you realize that because it takes virtually no time, it can overlap any other sort of break required.
PCs set out for a destination – set up battlemap while simultaneously narrating the hand-waved journey in which nothing of significance occurs, but letting the players roleplay social interaction between the PCs – PCs arrive at destination, have an strong-interaction encounter leading to imminent combat – five-minute break – combat (using the battlemap already set up). From the point at which the setup of the battlemap commenced until the point it was eventually used, anticipation was growing.
The same essential technique can be used with ANY hand-waved content in ANY game. A character goes into a library to research answers to a problem the PCs have to solve? Rather than roleplaying a tedious search for information, deal with something else and cover the research with a series of handwaved bridging scenes:
PC A (commencing research) – PC B scene/subplot – PC A (a promising lead evaporates) – PC C scene/subplot – PC A (a new lead materializes) – PC D scene/subplot – PC A (the new lead fizzles out but breathes new life into the first promising lead) – PC E scene/subplot – PC A (gets answers but the GM doesn’t relate them) – All PCs gather and PC A, voiced by the GM, delivers the Answers, with the actual research having been handwaved or handled by a single die roll.
So long as the total screen time for each PC in the above sequence is roughly the same, everyone will be happy – and anticipation of the results will have been building from the moment the research was commenced, lending considerable gravitas to the outcome which can only be paid off with a significant revelation – but which makes such a revelation even more memorable and dramatic. In effect, every scene between the commencement of the research and the GM delivering the results is a Bridging Scene. Because the momentum would be lost, I would not incorporate any other breaks into the above sequence; if any other sort of break was going to be required, I would place it before the first scene. I certainly wouldn’t want a break at the end; I want the players to be “in character” when assimilating and acting upon the research results. However, immediately after a decision is made, a break would begin building anticipation anew.
In The Real World
Not every break can be anticipated. Sometimes, things just happen. The analytic tools provided enable you to get play back on track when the expected takes place, through one final principle: Interruption inherently builds anticipation of resumption.
That means that simply resuming where you left off after an unexpected interruption is sometimes not good enough; you may need to increase the intensity post-break, or even drop in a bridging scene, just to get back to where you were.
The Power of the Pause
The examples shows how powerful the Pause can be as a tool for manipulation of the intensity and tone of a game. Consider that the solo scenes can give each PC a different tone, so that each player will have a slightly different mood alloyed with anticipation at the end – that’s the sort of foundation that makes for good in-character interaction between characters and adds massively to the sense of the PCs being “real people” to the players.
Pauses and breaks in play are game content just as surely as rolling to hit a target or having a conversation with an NPC. Learn to manipulate them to your game’s advantage – or at least to minimize any disadvantage. It will only be a session or two of play before you see the benefits.
And the biggest secret of all: unless they are paying very close attention to what you are doing “behind the curtain”, the players will never be aware of your manipulations; they will only notice the resulting benefits.