Every player wants to have fun at the table. The fun at the table arises from exciting events. Excitement comes from tension. Regardless of why a player is interested in RPGs, tension comes from game-world problems they can solve. Those problems arise from the story. From a tactical gamist to a "story now" narrativist, the story is key.
Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun
Whether you’re playing for art or entertainment or some mix of both, the goal is to generate excitement and emotional impact. You need to pace your story strongly to most effectively generate the emotional impact you want. This sounds vague, but very soon we’re going to nail it down to concrete behaviors you can practice. Some GMs are naturals at pacing. Others need only to know what to do to become masters of it. Both sorts of GMs can benefit from thinking about it in practical terms.
Pacing is the process of multiplying the tension of your scenes, either by contrasting different pacing elements or gradually turning your pacing elements up. It is a moment to moment skill that you, as a GM, can develop explicitly. Most of the work of pacing is done in a game session, between planning for the session and hooking players into scenes. But it can also relate to bigger story concerns. Concepts like the Three Act Structure and the Hero Cycle tie into pacing, and inform what pace you should set to set the tone for different stages of a narrative.
In these posts, I will give you a framework for understanding pacing, followed by concrete advice to practice to improve your pacing skills. This is called Run a Game, not Game Theory. Anytime I start talking theory, I'll make sure to bring it home with a concrete tool you can use.
Setting the pace to where you want is a discrete skill, and knowing what pace to set is a totally different consideration. We'll talk about both.
Pacing relates to a lot of valuable discrete GMing techniques. Among the concrete skills we're going to talk about, I'm going to address the cliffhanger, the bang! moment, the story climax, a satisfying wrap-up, "the darkest hour," player empowerment, campaign longevity, starting a game session, rising action, the emotional impact of a plot twist, the three act structure, and the hero cycle. Every one of those GM skills is a direct application of the principles of pacing.
Pacing in RPGs is Different
Pacing in prose and film is a simple matter of sentence length, exposition versus action, camera motion, shot length, cuts, music and motion. But story elements define pace in prose and film more than all that other gimmickry. I’m going to talk about how to use story elements as well as that sort of simple gimmickry (unique to tabletop RPGs) to improve your pacing.
Up next: Pacing 2 - The Elements of Pacing