Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pace Maker

I searched for the word "Pace" in Wikipedia. Here's what I've found:
All time arts – music, dance, drama, film – are enormously concerned with pacing – with rhythm or tempo. As the film director translates events in a script into actions that make up scenes and sequences, that is, as the director shapes the actors' performances and stages the other actions in front of the camera, one of his paramount concerns is pacing, making the action swell, subside, and swell again. The director does this to keep the scene from losing its energy and intensity. Later, after the shooting is over, the director, working with the film editor, will further control, construct, and perfect the pacing in the way he builds shots into scenes and sequences.
In my home campaigns, events usually unfold at a pace that is dictated by the players. Their characters do X, and event Y follows. I rarely declare that something happens "out of the blue". It keeps things simple around the table, and also reward a proactive play style.

But sometimes it really messes my prep time.

For a couple of years I follow the advice of Chris Perkins, who showed how to create a single summary page per session, with a recap, a list of major NPCs, and a short summary of up to 5 events you (the DM) want to see in the session. That single sheet of paper, along with some scribbles, is usually all I need to pull off a good session.

In my last session with one of the groups I run, something funny happened. I did the recap. I presented the first 3 or 4 NPCs, and kicked in the first event. And that was it. For nearly four hours, we played (and I mean played, with roleplaying scenes, combat, everything) that single event out of my notes.


This isn't a bad thing - mind you. There was a lot of improvisation going on, and I surely didn't have comprehensive notes for all the locations, RP scenes and combat encounters that session encompassed, but I felt it was a good session, and some of the players even said so themselves (feedback! from players! I know...unbelievable....)

But I kept wondering, throughout the session and afterwards: Did I waste my prep-time? Did I plan too much ahead? Did I really expect the group to go beyond that first event, or was I overdoing things? Maybe the session would have been much better if I took that one event and used my prep time to make it better, and worth a whole session (investing in monster tactics, an interesting terrain to fight on,  fleshing out NPCs etc)...

So, here are my own thoughts:
  • Did I waste my prep-time? No, but I probably could manage my prep time better. I keep forgetting that combat can eat a lot of time (fun time!), and looking at my notes I had roughly 4 potential combat encounters planned, plus almost a dozen non-combat encounters outlines. Way too much.
  • Did I plan to much ahead? Yes. But sometimes players bypass entire encounters, short-cutting the plot. So planning ahead is important, just in case. But maybe I can plan for those cases in a different way. Instead of plotting to far ahead and writing it down in my notes, I can "expect the unexpected" outside my session notes - those should focus on what I expect to see during the session.
  • Did I really expect the group to go beyond that first event? Yes! I always have that feeling that players can see right through my plot, so I usually don't take into account time for non-combat encounters (such as talking to an NPC). I assume those will end in 5 minutes. Combat is easier to gauge. I estimate 15-30 minutes for a "small" encounter, and one hour for a "big" encounter. Maybe I should think about estimates for non-combat encounters. 5 minutes for a short encounter, 15-30 minutes for a heavy role-playing scene with a lot of interaction? Maybe.
Thinking about it, the best sessions I ran (technically) had the following in common:
  1. A clear goal, theme or concept.
  2. An interesting villain.
  3. A good explanation for why NPCs do what they do.
  4. Well placed combat encounters.
Goal - if the players know what are they trying to achieve during the session, things usually run very smoothly. Convince the king to dispatch troops. Steal an artifact from a noble. Save a young girl from slavers. Find the map that leads to the hidden tomb. Once players agree on the goal, they will do something to achieve it. As long as prep-time is invested in making that something interesting, you're good to go.

Villain - a villain doesn't have to mean someone the PCs have to fight. A villain is anyone with an agenda that crosses the PCs path, usually (but not always), in a collision course. If the players can spot the bad guy and interact with him during the session (again, that doesn't always mean a fight), then things get interesting. Prep time invested in fleshing out this villain, his motives, his actions and reactions is prep time well invested.

NPCs - a very small percentage of role-play scenes are initiated and played in PvP mode. More often than not, role-playing is PvD (player vs DM). To prepare for it, you need to have someone the players can interact with. But creating 3-d NPCs is hard, especially if you do it on the fly. Prep time used to create interesting NPCs is very well invested. Motives, ideals, bonds, goals, agendas, secrets - the players will enjoy them in an NPC, and its worthwhile to invest in it.

Combat - I'm done with prepping for combat. IMO the monster manual should do the work for me, all I need to provide is the setting. But prepping for the why/what of combat is something I still do. Combat should not just be all about tactics, maneuvers and XP. I try to think about "why" combat occurs (the PCs insulted a noble, so he hired some thugs to shake them) and "what" happens during and after combat (the city guard arrives, but stand down because their sergeant knows the thug as a hireling of a powerful noble). I also use combat to inject some life into a sleepy table. Sometimes all the players need is some butt to kick.

I'm still thinking about how to incorporate the above into my single-page session summary. Obviously fleshed out NPCs, villains and combat encounters require much more than a single page, so I'm still considering how to incorporate this into a structured format I can use as a template (which I love - the single sheet summary template I have is working for me for years now, but I think its time to innovate...)

Will keep you posted..