Monday, March 16, 2015

Back to Basics: Pacing and Tension, Pacing Tool

Two wonderful videos below on Pacing but I'm here to talk about some ways to apply it immediately.

Pacing Grid

I have my players/PCs names in the left most column going down in rows, and Columns are named for the 3 phases: Set-up, Conflict, and Release. I can implement this in a much larger scale, across two notebook pages.
This is a simple MAP by which I can tell where I am and where I'm headed. In each Phase I mark down the actions of the PC/Players.
Ex. I get everyone's set up (see below what should be done in set up). This informs me of what would be the best way to introduce conflict
The use of the GRID is to manage the attention mechanics of running a game: I get lost and my attention resource is severely finite.  I just need to look down and glance, if there is an empty space then I've not adequately extracted a significant contribution from the player.

When I complete a Column, I round it off and quickly summarize what happened. This happens every column.

Game PREP. This tool can be used to plan a GAME session. Simply plan out the cycles of Set-up/Tensions/Release. Problems foreshadowed will be here and in PREP mode, I will be writing down the "buttons" I should be pressing per character.

The Set-up - Player Buy In Time.

This is when the GM needs to get the Players to have their buy in. To do this I establish a kind of "down time" or "sand box". I then ask the PCs what they want to do, as these actions root the PCs into the world as they begin to shape it.

The PC's Persistence. Action is agency but, to create buy-in you need Persistence - Permanence of the Players's actions.  Activities like buying stuff is one of these, but more so are activities that lets the players freely shape the world around them. Let the PCs fix/manage their household or holdings, make some strategic decisions about their resources, or cultivate relationships with NPCs. Let them make preparations, and set their long/medium range plans in motion.

Building Value in the PC's effort. Letting them buy or make stuff or preparations is not enough.  Putting Value in what they buy and make is the next part. This is true with the relationships they cultivate, and the elements of the world they personally try to shape. Basically I "Yes&/but..." then proceed to highlight the values. When I get better I will find a way to weave in the risks through implication.
Its one thing telling the PCs what part of the world they are affecting, its another to tell them the repercussions and the value of how they affect the world. We can describe it, or we can show it, and it will take up some time to convey it. So you will find me trying to Actively Listen if the Players get it.
I take note of the relevance, and its used for material for the next session, improving the value of the buy-in as each cycle of Buy-ins add greater and greater value. The more I can recall these details and weave it in the next session, the better the appreciation - as well as it reflecting in the Post-Session Notes.

Rising Tensions - Enter Conflict

After setting up the PCs roots (filling up the Set-up side of the Pacing Grid), Tension rises when the Problem, Challenge, or Conflict is Introduced. In basic Problem-Solving "Frame the Problem" and let the PCs work on it. Typically the session already has fore-shadowing of this problem. The better the Story teller, the more "Narratively Aesthetic" the problem/conflict is introduced (I'm not really good there).  

Initial Reactions - This where players start asking questions or interacting with their environment. Don't let them ask questions directly to the GM (that breaks immersion), let them perform Informing Actions (I fail to do this). Informing actions is letting their PCs ask questions and interact with the world to learn more. This is to keep immersion and to have something for the PCs to do.

The same goes to the GM, "Show" don't "tell" (another weakness of mine). Typically this is a Loss, or a Change of their Environment, or an Event! I try not to use monologues to describe things, let them perform Informing Actions. they ask questions to NPCs or make Skill rolls analyzing the situation, but they have to be specific?
  • Rolling against Skills in Informing Actions: Can I use Intelligence Analysis/Streetwise/Criminology/Area Knowledge to determine the source of the threat? - this is not enough. I, the GM, should be asking what "facts" or "clues" do the player is taking into consideration. The Player Actively interacts with the world to get their answers.  
  • I go to around, talking to X, Y, Z, and get a clue of what is happening and try to use A-skill to figure it out. Then the GM asks what specific "questions" are you asking? Move towards finding the right questions. Wrong questions Ok, it just leads to an unsatisfying answer or an answer that leads to more questions. 

Managing Tension/Suspense/Conflict. Informing PCs/Players manages Tension. I should start with answers that make more questions. These are typically General Sweeping Statements, typically Loaded with so much particulars and details that would take time to sort.
  • Start Close and Work towards Farther Threats/Problems. People who are good with analyzing threats analyze from the closest/most immediate to the farthest! (something I am working on myself) Begin with what is CLOSEST to the PCs. 
    • You notice tracks that are not you own! 
    • The Immediate area has gone dark and quiet. 
    • Your radios can't seem to work. 
  • Distort Information! ALL ROLLS ARE SECRET!!! No Player Rolls from this point. This is where Players should not be listening too closely to Out-Of-Character Knowledge.  (I always lack the presence of mind to do this more systematically)
    • In the cave - Tell the ranger one thing, the rogue something else, and the dwarf another. 
    • Put each other's expertise and credibility against each other. The hireling expert disagrees with the PC Expert. 
  • Initiative! (using the same principles of Narrative Combat Initiative) Resolve Actions before Questions! Get everyone's Declarations, then resolve by Actions to Asking. Create a sense of Urgency, and let Threats and Problems cause losses and more problems (use the Minor Problem method)
  • Occupies the Players Attention! You don't want them to disengage, but you can only deal with a few Players at a time. a Player challenge keeps things occupied, because they need time to formulate their best answer while the clock is running. 
    • Acting vs Asking will require the Players to frame their Questions in the form of Actions that will give their PCs insight. 
    • Framing Questions, then there is the right way to Ask Questions. To keep things moving, i the player is stuck with "Ummm..." just look at his PC skill. Never penalize trying or Initiative, reward it.
    • Actions have COSTS! For every action there should be a tangible and substantive loss in resources or time.
  • Urgency! Everytime no one steps up on to the "plate" create a loss or more problems. Action and Trying, and even Failing is better than Idle time. We Improv and our PCs have skills we dont have, we can forgive failures but not the lack of Initiative. 
    • Their breaks are only my break to take notes, have a drink and snack (which I always forget and would have made for a more sustainable energy level) , and regroup my thoughts.  
    • If they need a break, then I better take a break as well. This is for fun and there is diminishing returns. When idle I can write down what is happening and What I'm trying to do!
vs Drawing Out Tension - The moment I think I am drawing out Tension, then the PCs may have realized that already and they may disengage. If I'm caught up WITH THEM in the Urgency and the Problems, then they will detect it and by sympathy continue to engage!

Managing means Pacing. Heck take deep breaths would help! Lets manage the Tension together to keep it engaging.  

Release! - Ending the Conflict  

Feedback is Release! My problem is how poorly I can judge the weight of the Information which leads to a clumsy release. I really need a method to handle information even when my brain is maxed out. The answer lies in the Mnemonic of the Pacing GRID!

I should be noting already what Release would be on the Release column and manage how it comes out by the actions of the Players. Simply glancing back and forth between columns should get my brain thinking of how to connect it in the most "engaging" way possible.

The Release Notes happen before I Release! Its the only way for me to Check and run through an Improvisation. This is where skill from practice, and experience will matter more and more. The sooner I get this process down the sooner I can maximize how on my experience and skill.

I will have more on Release in future Posts.

In Conclusion. 

Pacing is hard, but I would not have been able to work on it had I not been listening to myself GM in Hangouts On-Air. In fact I now NEED to listen to it despite how painful it is to catch myself do so many wrongs.


An example of Pacing in (any game system) Mass Combat, 
  1. The Set UP is the Recon, and Army Preparation. 
  2. The Conflict is introduced when the GM describes the Actionable Recon and Prepration Results. The Tension rises as maneuvers are executed, Ideally these are now secret rolls of the GM and Players do not make any rolls. the GM rolls factoring the bonuses from the maneuvers. GMs who suck in dressing a scene (like me) work on reports of lieutenants, the sounds of familiar voices, and familiar battle instrument tones and notes. 
  3. Release Happens depending on the circumstance, always there to Inform the Players when 

Pacing As a Sensing Technique (EDIT: 7-2-2015)

Now that you've understood the basic use the Pacing as a way to ask questions. Here are a set of questions you ask to know where you are in a situation.
  1. Are the Players ready for the Next Challenge? Do they want to prepare? What are their current distractions? - this checks if they players are in the Set up Stage.
  2. Have they latched on a Problem or Conflict? Do they want to Escalate?  Do I have buy in of the next challenge? - to check if I can move to conflict and rising tension. 
  3. How is the player's Buy-in? Are they still engaged or how is their engagement? They are typically looking  to fight in their own terms have you noticed their communication for this?  Are they feeling unprepared or unready? What is the mood of the PCs vs the Mood I am trying to achieve? - Sensing how Conflict is fairing. its ok to take a short break to think and re-examine when there is a Lul in the action.
  4. Is the player exhibiting Decision Fatigue? Has the players reached buy-in or excitement levels like before? What will bring certainty or end this chain of uncertainty? What conclusion or consequence will have something definite to say about the Motives and Character of the PC? - This is Breaking Tension with a Climax or consequence).

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