Discovering The Principles
This was originally envisaged as one small and relatively quick article. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, this is the first part of three…
I was watching a repeat of an old TV show the other week – one that had been subsequently re-cut to facilitate more ad breaks – and noted some extremely interesting consequences of the editing. Those gave rise to some additional thoughts on the pacing of an RPG game session, and a few lessons that can be derived from that and related observations.
Breaks In All The Wrong Places
The first thing that I noticed was that the ad breaks all seemed to fall in “the wrong places”. They sometimes didn’t come at the end of a scene, but would occur in mid-scene, with the dialogue being continued immediately after the break. The post-break dialogue when this occurred always seemed flatter, in terms of emotional connection and drama, than it had been previously; it dragged, as though we had been conditioned by television to expect the scene to end only for it to continue, possibly at some length. It didn’t matter how vital or important the content of the post-break portion of the scene was, the pacing was wrong.
More often, breaks still occurred at the end of scenes, but quite often the content of the scene that followed the break suffered from the same problem. The scene that preceded the break would be one that promised immediate action and drama, in part because of it’s pre-break placement, while the scene that followed would be exposition or dialogue or something else low-key. Again, the scene fell flat and for a period of time, the show was less engaging than it would otherwise have been.
This wasn’t the first time that I had noted these impressions without thinking anything more about them; in the past, I had associated this with the insertion of breaks into a movie when televised, because the movie was never intended to pause for advertising at that particular point in time. Because of the intrusive nature of the break into story flow in this circumstance, I ignored the phenomenon, paying as little attention to it as possible, because anything else might have made it worse. Instead, I shifted focus during the breaks – get a drink, get a snack, use the facilities, channel-hop, write something, whatever. This distracted me from the break so that when the movie returned, it was as though I had pressed the pause button on a DVD.
Because I was seeing the phenomenon under different circumstances – a show designed to have three advert breaks, and four acts, which now had four breaks – I was able to perceive the events from a slightly different perspective, and that enabled me to discover the significance in what I was observing.
The Absence Of A Break
Once I had noticed the impact that having a break in the wrong place was having, I began paying more attention to the pacing of the plot, and another phenomenon that I had noticed on previous occasions became apparent: the absence of a break when one was expected. There would be a dramatic moment and a fade to black followed immediately by a fade-in on a relatively low-key scene. It was as though you were trying to hit a moving target but kept over-anticipating and hence missing the target. Again, the pacing felt off, somehow.
I had previously observed this phenomenon when watching DVDs of TV shows. Most of the time, the fade-to-black for a commercial break was fine, but every now and then, the following scenes would fall flat or feel out of step with the rhythm established before the non-existent break. But, as with the “inserted breaks” mentioned above, I had thought nothing of it on those previous occasions; we never talk about this sort of thing, after all, being far more interested as fans and viewers in the content than the delivery.
It showed me that even back in the early 1970s, television producers were striving to take advantage of the advertising breaks that they knew would be imposed upon their products, and had devised techniques to make these interruptions work on their behalf. They may not have always been successful, but that’s true of any experiment. But, in modern times, it showed that the absence of a break when one was natural could be just as harmful and deflating as inserting a break where one should never be found.
The content prior to the break-that-should-have-been-there built up to a crescendo of tension – and nothing happened. It was as though the level of drama had a momentum of its own that was calculated to catapult viewers back to the screen at the correct level of dramatic tension, but that took time to achieve that effect. When there was no break, the programme overshot the mark quite a bit – it was pushing when it should be pulling, you might say.
It was at this point that I remembered a line in, I think, “Dream Park” by Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes, which talked about Disney using the psychology of waiting time to build anticipation when the rides for Disneyland were being designed. I had never really thought that this was all that relevant to the internal construction of a TV show, never mind an RPG session, but I was starting to see unexpected connections.
We’re used to thinking of waiting times as a source of frustration, and – when it comes to being served in a restaurant or business – that’s quite reasonable. Certainly, the negative aspects of queuing and waiting time dominate the research sources that a Google Search produces for consideration. Searching Wikipedia for articles on “waiting time” and “anticipation” bring up all sorts of articles that are both tantalizing and yet not directly relevant. My conclusions, at this point, were in stark contrast to that perspective – I was quickly forced to the conclusion that waiting times, correctly applied, could be not only a positive factor, but a vital tool in the entertainment process.
Before I go too far down that path, however, there was one other phenomenon that I observed and that warrants scrutiny: the “invisible break”, where internal content functions as though it were a break in the plot, even though it isn’t one. These are what I sometimes think of as “Meanwhile” or “Elsewhere” moments, but not all of these seem to work. It took me a lot of thought to identify the factors that were at play, and even now I’m not 100% certain I have them all correctly assessed.
First, there’s relevance. The content of the “invisible break” has to be relevant to the main action, explaining a why or how about it. One example is having one character facing an opponent or situation who is far stronger or more dangerous than he is supposed to be or expected to be while another character is elsewhere, discovering the reasons for that increase in effectiveness.
Next, contrast is important. If the main action is violent or action-oriented (and it usually is) then there should be lots of shouting, excitement, and noise while the “break” should be cool, calm and collected. This helps keep the break distinct from the main sequence. This is relatively easy in a TV show, where it is easy to hard-cut between the two scenes and you can even have the calm dialogue over the top of the action. I mention this because it can be much harder to achieve in an RPG.
The final factor is duration, and it’s the hardest to pin down. The break needs to be long enough to have its own level of significance, but not so long that it overshadows the main action in importance. This is not only a variable quantity in its own right, it is variable according to the precise content of the main sequence. Now, that’s an inconvenience when editing a TV show, but you can cut and trim until the timing is exactly right. In any RPG application of these thoughts, that’s not going to be so easy.
Nevertheless, there is a way, and while it’s getting ahead of myself slightly in the article, this is the best time to explain this part of the the technique. It relies on having prepped a combination of ad-hoc and pre-scripted dialogue. The pre-scripted part consists of a couple of lines of dialogue between two participants that leads directly to one of them providing the key information or resolving the scene. You can then pad with as much incidental ad-hoc dialogue as you need until your GM’s instinct tells you the scene is approaching it’s length limit – then switch seamlessly to the pre-scripted dialogue. Note that this will only work if the revelatory dialogue is succinct and to the point – no long-winded explanations or chains of logic; use those as the content of the ad-hoc conversation, if necessary!
Episodic Breaks: Good & Bad
Of course, there’s another sort of break that bears contemplating because of its impact on the pacing of the content – the end of episode break in a more serial environment, such as a two-part episode, which is to last until the start of the next episode. That could be just a matter of seconds if watching the show on a DVD or it could be a day, or a week – or it could be several months, in the case of an end-of-season show.
Because the show needs to sustain interest over a longer period, and – if possible – water-cooler buzz and speculation that keeps the memory of the show alive – the content immediately prior to the break needs to be even bigger and more dramatic than that of lesser breaks. There are two essential techniques: the cliffhanger and the paradigm shift.
The cliffhanger leads a situation unresolved, even seemingly incapable of being resolved in favor of the protagonists. While cliffhanger scenes were used in television and movies, and were a mandatory ingredient of Saturday Morning Serials and radio dramas, the modern usage really hit its stride with the “Who Shot J.R.?” phenomenon at the end of the 1979-80 season, which had most of the western world hooked until the anticlimax revelation several episodes into the subsequent season.
These days, we’d describe it as having Gone Viral, but the term (like the web itself) had not yet come into existence; even without that instant explosion creating a critical mass of opinion, the question was the topic of social conversation for months. It became the prototype for the modern end-of-season cliffhanger.
The dramatic tension of the unresolved situation demands some sort of resolution immediately following the break. Where the producers and writers of Dallas were especially clever is that they were able to resolve the shooting itself and its aftermath, i.e. the immediate situation, while leaving the larger question hanging for months after the show resumed. But this also became a liability, as the buzz about the situation continued to build until it became impossible to deliver anything but an anticlimax. And that’s the big danger with a cliffhanger – that the payoff doesn’t live up to the expectations.
Things are a little different when it comes to RPGs. The closer analogy is to part one of a mid-season two-part episode, which doesn’t have to quite set such a high standard. However, many gaming groups don’t meet over the Christmas period, simply because there are more outside social obligations to get in the way, so you might end up with an end-of-season analogue as well.
The Paradigm Shift
The alternative is to end your season with a resolved, self-contained plot, but one that nevertheless engenders interest in what is to follow by ratcheting up the intensity, threat level, or importance of what can be expected in the next season. One of the most common approaches is to package the final episode as a Paradigm Shift, i.e. the delivery system for some revelation that completely alters the fundamental foundations of the series.
The Utility Of The Pause
Clearly, pauses can be extremely useful, though this utility can operate on negatives as well as positives if the pause is mistimed, mishandled, or of incorrect duration. I keep finding myself thinking about ballistics.
The illustration shows a ball in ballistic flight. It starts with a certain velocity, i.e. a certain energy in this case, an energy of movement) which continues to elevate the ball until gravity slows it’s vertical motion to a stop – and then it begins to decline, at first only slowly, becoming more and more rapid with each interval of time. In a very similar way, the pre-break content “launches” the plot’s emotional energy, which continues to grow for a while, but then begins to decline, a decline that increases in pace with each passing time interval. A break functions, then, as a natural amplifier – for a while – increasing whatever the mood was, on-screen, just prior to the break, through the power of anticipation.
Complicating The Ballistics
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Emotions of a given type can only be sustained for so long. The analogy would be for a second ballistic trajectory to be in play – one that began at the commencement of the scene, and operates throughout – and for there to be a “lethargy barrier” which constrains the audience’s capacity and tolerance for that emotional energy. You can’t go from zero to 100 in one step, you need to build up to it in a series of smaller gains, followed by partial relief, before building up again from the new base point. What’s more, the “angle of launch” is effectively varied by other content in the course of the broader scene – interruptions and side conversations and cutaways and whatever.
Now think about a motorcycle jump – this also follows a parabolic arc, but requires the moving object to land on the other side. The altitude of the landing point can also be quite different to that of the launch, and that is all that’s required to make this a useful analogy to make. The landing point is the post-break content – and if it’s too high for the trajectory of the moving motorcycle, or too low, the results are a horrific crash. Only if you get the height exactly right is there a seamless transition from pre-break to post-break. And, because the vertical speed is changing all the time, the time interval – the length of the break, in other words – is a critical element in determining what “the right height” actually is.
Fortunately, audiences have a might broader tolerance than motorcycle stunts – you don’t need to get the landing point “exactly” right, only right within that tolerance level.
Used correctly, a break builds anticipation and gives tension elements and drama a chance to increase to new levels as though there was exciting content on-screen. But anything can be amplified, and the timing has to be correct, and the launch energy and landing elevation have to be a reasonably matched pair – so there are many ways to get it wrong.
The Gaming Break
All of which is quite interesting in and of itself, but this is a gaming blog. So let’s now start to seriously contemplate the value and necessity of breaks during gaming. To differentiate them, I intend to use the term “Pause” to describe such gaps in play, leaving the term “break” for use in referring to media analogies.
The earlier discussion has been very useful, insofar as it’s told us what needs to be considered when examining the role a break can play in a successful gaming session. There are three major plot functions that a pause can fill: Punctuation, expectation, and linkage. There are a number of basic types of pause within gaming – I have a list of seven, from a metagame perspective. I’ll go into all of these within the rest of this article.
In part two, I’m going to look at the construction of the gaming pause. I have identified four types of pre-pause activity, some good and some bad (in terms of the effects that the pause will have). The same four types of activity can also exist post-pause, so there are 16 combinations of types of plot content that can be connected by a pause – not all of them successful. Then there’s the pause itself; there are all sorts, from both and in-game and out-of-game perspective. I’ve come up with a list of nine that I think reasonably comprehensive, bringing the total number of possible combinations to a rather unwieldy 144.
In part three, I’ll attempt a broad, in-principle analysis of those 144 combinations, first looking at combinations that work, and then at combinations that don’t, and in particular looking for common patterns. I’m then going to wrap the series up by looking at how you can analyze whatever circumstances you find yourself in to determine the most useful course of action for you to take at any given moment. Call a break? Don’t call a break? Start the next scene/activity before a break? Start it after? Interrupt it mid-way? How long should the break be? The timing is everything! Finally, I’ll talk about building break-points into your games in advance – how many there should be, and how often they should occur.
Pause as Punctuation
The first major function of a pause is to serve as punctuation. This can be a full stop, an exclamation point, or an ellipsis (…).
The Break as a Full Stop
A scene has been resolved or concluded. The break puts an interval in real-time between that scene and what follows. Audiences and players subconsciously associate a real-time interval with an in-game interval, so the plot can either resume immediately after the pause or a period of time can be hand-waved out of existence by the GM, effectively saying “nothing of significance occurs until…”
This can be important, because without such a real-time break, the subsequent scene feels like it is occurring immediately after the resolution. This can feel rushed, even forced. It puts the players (who are still on a high from the scene that was just resolved) out of emotional step with their characters (for whom it was some time ago), so the absence of an appropriate pause can actually hinder game-play.
What’s more, players can be mentally fatigued by the concentration required in certain kinds of scenes, whether that’s an exciting battle, a confrontation of high drama, or a period of hard thinking and absorbing of information. A break can give the player time to recuperate – often at a price in the latter case, as details become lost or blurred in memory.
Full stops are important. Most paragraphs end with one for a reason.
The Break as an Exclamation Point
A scene has just begun that promises exciting action, some revelation has just come to hand, or a dramatic pronouncement has just been made. The break can function as an exclamation point that lets the significance sink in, and the ramifications grow in significance in the minds of the players. It heightens the drama of the situation.
Again, this can come with a price-tag, and there will be times when the price is too high. These costs are similar but not necessarily the same in all three cases.
With the promise of action, it can negate any surprise experienced by the players, giving them time to formulate plans of action. This is fine if the characters are less likely to be caught off-balance than the players, but can be counterproductive when this is not the case. The depth of planning possible is a factor to be considered when determining the length of the pause.
In the case of a revelation, the shock value can wear off to at least some extent. How much effect this has depends on the magnitude of the shock dealt to the players. Some developments are so stunning that players can respond, “I don’t know what to do” – which makes for rather dull gaming, and can even be fatal to the characters if hostile NPCs are present who were not stunned by the revelation. However, if the revelation holds significance beyond the immediate situation, especially significance with respect to the future rather than the past, the pause can give that significance time to grow in the minds of the players exactly as it would do in the minds of their characters. There is no definitive right-or-wrong general answer; it depends on the nature and scope of the revelation, the degree to which the players have anticipated it (which can be entirely different to the degree that their characters have anticipated it), the personalities involved, and more besides. You’re the GM, you have to make the call.
In the case of a dramatic pronouncement, the effects and possible consequences of a break are the same as for a revelation, but the circumstances are entirely different. What may have been undesirable in the case of a revelation can be entirely appropriate under this circumstance.
The general rule of thumb for both of the latter cases is that the more you want the players and PCs to be able to respond smoothly to the pronouncement, the more utility you will get out of a break; the more you want them to feel the shock, the more undesirable a break at that point becomes.
The Break as an Ellipsis
An ellipsis is somewhere in between the first two applications. It generally emphasizes an ominous foreboding imparted by the plot sequence which has just occurred. They are actually easier to define in the negative – what they aren’t, rather than what they are.
The exclamation mark and full stop generally signal a change in the emotional intensity of the scene that is about to unfold, compared to the one that has just unfolded. They may or may not also signal a change in the emotional content, i.e. the tone. An ellipsis conveys much less of an expectation of a change in intensity, or an expectation of a much smaller change of intensity, while definitively flagging a change in tone, usually toward the grim, dark, or serious. Contemplate the following four examples of the use of an ellipsis to conclude a scene:
- “Let’s get to work.”
“And, when we’ve finished, it’s Payback Time…”
- “You know he’s not going to come quietly, don’t you?”
“Yes, but one way or another, I’ll make it happen…”
- “Whatever it takes, Whatever the cost, he’s going down for this…”
- “I’ve decided to ask Juliet to marry me…”
In all cases, they are suggesting a change in emotional content that’s about to occur, and promising a deferred change in intensity, and they all have in common a decision that has been made in the course of the scene that they conclude.
Another way of looking at it is this: the full stop suggests that what follows can be handwaved, at least up to a certain point where it is approaching fruition. The Ellipsis says that rather than hand-waving that subsequent period of preparation or cleanup or response, it needs to be presented in-game, that it is going to be significant.
Pause as Expectation
Pauses can also be viewed as a function to convert expectation into anticipation. The expectation that derives from the pre-pause scene is that something is going to happen as a result; anticipation builds during the break because that expectation is not being fulfilled, making the release of anticipation far more intense when it eventually does occur.
A common element of many of the examples of breaks in the wrong place when thinking of television programs was the fact that no expectation had been created.
Contrast the following examples of break placement:
- “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain…”
“As you watch intently, a door appears as a line in the hull and then begins to slowly grind open; revealing, in the blindingly-bright interior, first the feet, and then the entire silhouette, of the the pilot.”
- “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain, and the outline of a door appears in its hull…”
“As you watch intently, the door begins to slowly grind open. Within, you can see nothing at all because it is blindingly bright, but slowly the feet of the pilot, and then his entire silhouette, can be made out.”
- “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain. The outline of a door appears in its hull, and begins to slowly grind open!”
“At first, all you can see is blinding light, but slowly, his feet first, the pilot’s silhouette is revealed.”
- “The flying saucer lands on the grassy plain. As you watch intently, a door appears as a line in the hull and then begins to slowly grind open, revealing first the feet and then the entire silhouette of the the pilot!”
Each of the examples places the immediate focus of the post-break action on a slightly different element of the scene. In the first, the flying saucer itself is the object of dramatic focus during the break, suggesting that the identity of the pilot is less dramatic than his mode of transport. In the second, it is the appearance of a door, and the focus is on the question of when it will open. In the third, the door has opened, and the emphasis is on what is about to be revealed, and in the fourth and final example, the dramatic emphasis during the break is all about who the pilot is; the mode of transport is rendered unimportant in comparison with that identity, and since the mode of transport is very dramatic indeed, the promise, and the expectation, is that the pilot’s identity will be earthshakingly important. If that subsequently is not the case, or not sufficiently the case, the post-break scene will be an anticlimax.
This is also a problem in the second example, but it has the drama of the door slowly griding open, followed by the the revelation of the pilot, to sustain interest and overcome whatever level of anticlimax may have resulted. Similarly, the third has the same advantage, simply occurring in a different point in the sequence of events. The first example is perhaps the most pure example of anticipation of the four, simply because so much of what’s about to happen is a mystery.
Pause as Linkage
A pause can link cause with effect, joining two halves of a particular scene. This is usually simply a different and much lower-key form of expectation and fulfillment, with the intervening period hand-waved. The characters decide to do something, there is a break, and then the results of that activity are shown. A break can even be used to imply cause-and-effect when no such relationship is immediately obvious, by virtue of this function.
The most extreme example that I have experienced was an experimental game session in which an unusual game structure was trialled. The PCs would learn about a situation in the course of roleplay, and decide what they were going to do about it. There would be a break. After the pause, the scene would be inside the chief villain’s lair as his subordinates informed him as to the results of the PCs action, and he reacted accordingly. The scene would then cut back to the PCs, hand-waving the resolution of their actions completely; play would resume with them assessing the effectiveness of their actions, roleplaying their post-activity interaction, and letting them decide what they were going to do next. Repeat the process until you reach the point where the PCs finally confront the villain.
This greatly accelerated the pace of the session, cutting out virtually all combat – so it will not work with all players. I subsequently found that this structure also works where the PCs are decision-makers with NPCs actually carrying out the decisions that they make, and ran an entire campaign based around this structure; instead of cutting to the villains, I simply had the NPCs reporting the results to the PCs.
Another time this structure could work is when the PCs are so effective in comparison to their enemies that victory in combat is a foregone conclusion; this would simply describe the outcome ex-cathedra.
It might seem like there are an awful lot of breaks involved, but in most cases, these don’t have to be what you actually think of as breaks; there’s enough variety (as you will see in part two of this series) that it becomes practical. Without jumping the gun too much, for example, contemplate two concurrent plotlines being run with the same characters; developments in one plot constitute a break in the other.
Pause as Thinking Time
The final function a pause, in game terms, is as a means of giving the players thinking time. This is especially important when the capabilities of the PC outstrip those of the player considerably; in effect, the break is a time-out for the player to think about his character’s options.
If you are going to use a break in this fashion, it’s important to tell the player, or his attention will be on whatever else is going on in the meantime, whether that’s side conversation or whatever. It can also be important for you to make yourself available to the player for discussion about the decision the character faces.
Finally, there is the question of whether or not you permit the player to discuss the subject with the other players without them necessarily playing the role of their characters. I generally permit this, with restrictions – the other player’s PC has to be there, so that if necessary, the conversation can be retconned or reinterpreted as character-to-character conversation.
There are seven types of pause from a metagame perspective. This system of classification, unlike the analysis that will appear in part two, can have any type of content; this is more about why there is a pause.
Most of what I’ve talked about has assumed that the GM has made a deliberate choice to pause at this point in play, intending to use that pause to the game’s benefit. Even if the decision is made for negative reasons – “A break is needed sometime soon, and this is the least harmful time to have it” – that is still a decision based on maximizing the entertainment value of the game for all concerned.
It might not be obvious, but there are times in a game session where play naturally pauses, usually to permit game mechanics to function. Examples include handing out experience, listing treasure, dealing with hit points and post-combat recovery, and even (at its most fundamental) the characters going to sleep. If you have any reason to hand-wave time, it constitutes a natural break. The decision that needs to be made when a natural pause becomes available is how best to take advantage of it; your choices come down to whether to eliminate the possibility of a pause being needed for other reasons, permitting a longer stint of uninterrupted play to follow, and what sort of scene you will reopen play with after the pause.
But there’s also another sub-variety that has to be considered. It’s my experience that players can only go so long without side chatter starting. This is yet another natural pause.
There are also times when you need to pause whether you want to or not. If it starts to rain, you may need to close windows. If someone trips over, you need to pause to ensure that they don’t need medical attention. If you’re dependent on a computer and the power goes out, you may be forced to stop play (depending on battery condition and the nature of the computer in question). A can of soda can have been agitated unintentionally and – when opened – sprays everywhere. People can suffer from sudden incontinence. Someone’s telephone can ring. There can be a knock on the door. The pizza delivery can arrive. A die can get lost under the table. Heck, the table, or a chair, can collapse (I’ve seen it happen)! The list of reasons goes on and on, and they all boil down to an intrusion by the real world on the gaming table.
When this happens, you have no choice as to the timing of the pause, and may have no choice as to its duration; all you can do is decide how to reengage the game following the forced pause.
You can call a pause when you shouldn’t. This happens to everyone; experience teaches better judgment, but takes time, mistakes, and reflection to do its work. You usually can’t tell that a pause is of this type until after the fact.
In truth, pauses can be flawed only in two ways – the content prior to the pause, and the content after the pause. Everything else is manageable. Pause length is at best, a secondary factor, only relevant in the context of these content considerations.
One of the greatest skills that you can develop (within the context of Pause Handling and Pacing) is the ability to recognize a flawed pause while still in the pause, giving you the opportunity to adjust the game accordingly. Insert an additional scene, if you have to! Have a salesman knock on the door! Provide a moment of in-game levity! Tune in on a character’s private moment! Have something arrive in the mail! Something!
Or it might be that you are fighting an impending anticlimax. Throw in an accident to ramp up the activity/excitement! A soldier accidentally discharges his weapon. A car crashes, its driver distracted by whatever is going on. You spot an intruder on the gamma-bomb test range! A scuffle breaks out in the crowd, which is already close to rioting!
Remember those broader tolerances that I talked about a while back? Your intervention doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to get you close enough to where you need to be to reach that tolerance level.
If, for some reason, you have cause to speak to a player privately, away from the game table – perhaps because the PC he controls is doing something the other players shouldn’t know about – it constitutes a natural break for that player/PC combination, but may not be a natural break from the point of view of the other players/PCs. There can be times, when you let your PCs pursue private agendas, where circumstances will intersect and they will cross paths, necessitating an interruption of dealing with one player/PC to get the other one up to the same point in time – simply because there’s only one of you, and no GM has yet mastered the trick of being in several places at the same time.
With careful planning, these problems can be minimized. I make it a point, when planning these solo scenes, of building in what I call potential pauses – a point where a natural break can be inserted in a solo plot sequence so that I can switch to handling another seamlessly.
The players are the other sources of unnatural pauses. It doesn’t happen often anymore – I have too much experience under my metaphoric belt – but whenever I am totally surprised or caught off-guard by a PC’s choice of action, I will deliberately call a break to think about how to handle the unexpected development. These actually work as pauses normally do, because the unexpected nature of the action that has triggered the pause is enough of a dramatic development to sustain a brief interruption. Again, one of the most important considerations is how best to restart the game after the pause.
This is also the case when I realize that I’ve gotten carried away with something at the game table and need to reassess the “big picture”. Again, this isn’t a mistake that I make as often as I used to, though it remains something I have to remain alert to.
Longer pauses need more careful handling than brief ones – meal breaks, for example, or someone needing to pop down to the corner store. The “ballistics” metaphor explains the reasons – the longer duration gives more time for reactions to occur. Either the action pre-break needs to be even more intense and dramatic in order to sustain the interest level through the longer break, or you need to cut to a lower-intensity scene (inserting one if necessary) if excitement will have waned.
Because these longer breaks give players a chance to discuss their options and plan, or simply think about the situation their PCs are in, it is sometimes helpful to require them to write down what they are trying to do at the moment the break begins and how they intend to go about it, simply to help them get back into the head-space that they were occupying on behalf of their characters before the break.
Ending On A High: The ultimate Pause
Of course, the ultimate pause is the end of the day’s play. If the adventure has come to an end, that’s not a problem; but if this is only part one of two, three, or more, it can be vitally important. Especially if there is any risk at all that your next-scheduled game date might not happen! You may need to sustain interest for a lengthy period of time; failure to do so can kill campaigns. And that’s no fun for anyone!
My usual pattern is to start from an abstract or theoretical perspective and explore my way to practical application of what analysis of that exploration reveals. Because this article has been divided, we are still midway through that process; most of the practical advice is still to come. Hopefully I’ve been able to include enough nuggets along the way to make the article worthwhile!