Thursday, 27 October 2011

It's all about Timing

As I stare down the barrel of the season's first snow, I find myself - to paraphrase Tom Lehrer - waxing philosophical while I wane sensical. Looking back on the weekend that just passed, everything went well. I and a group of friends ran a session of the Serendipity Station live action game and then the next day I got to play in A Dance of Flame and Shadow, an old school vampire game. By old school I mean that it harkened back to the live action games of the late 90's, so maybe the school isn't all that old.

I was struck by the structural differences between the two games. Having recently attended a weekend-long game (Once Upon a Time in Tombstone), a six hour-long game (Serendipity Station Game 5) and a four hour-long game (A Dance of Flame and Shadow), I'm in a good position to observe the differences between the three different forms.

In any role playing game, there is only so much game to go around. Whether you're talking about secrets to be discovered, interactions to had, puzzles to be solved, rituals to be performed, combat to be resolved, or any of the other myriad things that happen in a live action game, the most important thing is pacing. If all of your game gets burned through in the first quarter, you're going to have a whole pile of bored and grumpy players. But is it just as bad to have three quarters of the game all happen right at the end? There's nothing wrong with an exciting and dramatic climax, but if there's too much going on, players will feel rushed, confused, and yes, grumpy. Deciding how a game should be paced is a good start, but actually adhering to that pace during run-time is the brass ring. How to pace a game is a hotly contested challenge.

Once Upon a Time in Tombstone did it with a combination of lengthy and intricate character sheets, a moratorium on character death for most of the game, and regularly scheduled events. I think the writers also relied on the players having a sense of timing, drama, and fair-play inspired by the movies the game was based on. Most players won't want to have a big showdown with their arch-enemy first thing Saturday morning when they know that there will be a day and a half of game to play afterwards.

I've played in some great games that featured a steady trickle of information over the course of the game, sort of a serialized character sheet. This works particularly well in amnesia or other limited information games where that sort of thing makes sense in game as well as mechanically.

In Serendipity Station we employ a number of tools to control pacing. Our go-to method is something often referred to as a Social Puzzle. That's where one or more characters in the game know something that another character must discover in order to move forward with their own plots. This challenge has multiple levels. In some cases, the players (and their characters) don't know who has the information they need, so some time must be spent identifying who to speak to. An additional layer comes in to play when the characters with the information have reasons not to share it immediately or even at all. A well-written Social Puzzle will give the player the proper tools to eventually gain the information they need to move on. Examples include blackmail, fair trade, intimidation, or a mid-game paradigm shift that removes the original reason not to share.

We also had major in game information reveals that we hoped would spread through the gossip engine that most on-going campaign games enjoy. Since that information gave the players the tools they needed to resolve some major long-term plots we were confident that the information would get where it needed to go in reasonably good time. This is a risk because some players hoard information no matter how badly it hurts them, but we know our players pretty well at this point and we try to have at least three different sources for anything really important. We also had new characters enter game space at the half-way point and a half hour before game wrap with vital new information. That isn't always an option but when it is it can be a writer's best friend.

A Dance of Flame and Shadow used in game intelligence gathering methods (in my character's case, talking to rats), Social Puzzles, and escalating villainy to move the action and the plot inexorably forward to a series of rapid-fire climaxes and combats. I enjoyed the bulk of these combats from a nice comfortable laying down position as my character was a bit out of his depth in a fight and got hammered flat pretty quickly.

Pacing a live action or a tabletop role playing game isn't all that different from pacing a novel or a movie, but the writer has completely different tools, advantages, and limitations to make that pacing happen. In the end, the goal is the same: entertaining the audience. The main difference is how much absolute control versus collaboration the creators have in each project. From effectively complete control with a novel all the way down to the 'fire and forget' of an improvisational live action game, each level brings new challenges and rewards. Seeing what extreme wackiness players get up to with the pretexts and situations you have written for them is one of the great rewards of writing and running live action games.

But I'm still working on that timing thing.

October 27th, 2011
Chelmsford, MA

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to be honest- I'm not fond of the Social Puzzle. It hasn't worked out well for me in the past. I spent my only SS game feeling as if every character I talked to wanted to move on as soon as they realized I couldn't help them and they couldn't help me. I think one of my contacts didn't come to game or something, which really inhibited me. After 3 hours of talking to many people and getting nowhere with any of them, a person can feel pretty discouraged. By dinner time, my character didn't even have anyone in particular to sit with. I really wanted to enjoy my game, and could see that all of the players around me were busy and happy. I didn't even care about completing the plot successfully; I don't mind failing my goals. But I do mind when I've talked to a dozen characters, and feel like none of them can help me, and I can't help them in any way either. I'm sure my experience was just bad luck, but I feel if my character's plot advancement relied less on the Social Puzzle, or had a stronger clue, or a backup plot, that the odds would have been stacked a little more in my favor. Or if I'd had a socially-based ally, I could have latched on to a different plot.