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August 7, 2014

Pacing 4 - Eight Quick Techniques

This post is part of a series on pacing.  See the other posts, below.

Here are 8 quick pacing techniques you can take and use this week.

1. Insert Story Beats Every 10 Minutes
In film, a story beat is something that happens that changes the stakes for the protagonist.

In a tabletop RPG, the part of a threat, opportunity, or exposition scene that increases or decreases the stakes.  They tend to be the introduction of problems, decisions, and opportunities, and the resolution of problems and attainment of opportunities.  Try to include story beats every 10 minutes or so.

Examples:  “You come up to the pass, but the narrow cliff-side path is entirely snowed over.” This increases the stakes. “The spell blows the snow off, leaving the pass clear.”  This lowers the stakes.

2. Use Bang! Moments at least Once a Session
A Bang! Moment is like an inciting incident that can go anywhere in the story.  It’s a call to action that forces a player to make an in-character decision.

The Bang! Moment threatens the character at the Plan or Story Goal level of scope (see Part 2), forcing them to decide whether and how to change their plan or their entire goal for the story.

Bang! Moments demand immediate decisions and immediate action. Try to use at least one Bang! Moment per session.

3. Track Your Scenes and Beats per Hour
As you run your game, try to determine how many scenes and story beats you have per hour.  Watch what kinds of scenes drag on with fewer beats per hour, and what kind rush ahead.  I find that when the players are in unsafe surroundings, the stakes are higher and Bang! Moments happen a lot faster.  They get more beats per hour.  So the pace is faster both because of stakes and the rate at which the stakes occur.

In film, the rate of beats is almost all there is to pacing.

4. End Over-Planning
If you find your players Over-Planning, you have three choices:

1.       Create a threat or opportunity that demands immediate attention (a Bang! Moment)
2.       Ask them if you can cut to the chase.  Isolate the “if” statement or decision point in their plan and jump right to it.
3.       Ask them to skip planning and get to the first step.  Give them 3 re-rolls for the session as compensation (or Fate points, etc.) for the planning time they sacrificed.

5. Use Fast Cuts when the Party Splits
When the PCs are apart, think of an immediate threat for each, then introduce one threat, quickly cut to the next PC, introduce the next threat, cut again, and repeat.  Keep cutting quickly.  Let the PC react, then have the threat counter, then cut. 

To speed the pace even more, reverse the order, use the Cliffhanger technique:  Have the threat advance, then let the PC react to the threat, then cut.  This makes the audience wait.

6. Use Cliffhangers
A cliffhanger introduces tension by cutting away from the action before the audience sees how it resolves. 

In a tabletop RPG, the players always know what their characters can do, but never how the world reacts to their actions. 

Thus, the best cliffhangers don’t end with the GM asking “what do you do?” but with the player asking “how did that work out?”

Use Cliffhangers with Fast Cuts to drastically accelerate the pace.  

Try to end your sessions with cliffhangers and Bang! Moments.

7. Keep Time
You have to pace game sessions so that they build tension toward the end, and conclude with a Bang! Moment or a Cliffhanger.

Make a goal of want to accomplish for the session, and then check in at the half-way point (in time).  If you’re more than half-way to the end of your material, add a threat to speed the story pace while delaying the end.  If you’re going too slow, skip an exposition scene to make up time. Fewer exposition scenes speed up the story pace, too.

8. Use Call-Backs
Story call-backs happen when a current problem connects to an old loose end.  Keep track of your loose ends as the story progresses.  I called these "magic beans."  When you reveal that one of your old loose ends is actively antagonizing the PCs, they will feel a strong sense of agency because the decisions that left the loose end unresolved were probably theirs to begin with.  

Agency accelerates the the pace; when the players feel their decisions create more ripples, the stakes increase.  And higher stakes accelerate the story pace.

Using call-backs also creates a story beat that addresses a high level of story scope - the new information changes the protagonists' plan and maybe even their goals.  

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