Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a homebrew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM. (http://talesofagm.com/)
In my game, the rhythm and excitement of sessions ebb and flow. After a thrilling session, especially one where a major plot is resolved, then the next session always feels slow. Much as I try, it would not be appropriate for every session to be a thrilling finale. Individually, this may be a little disappointing. In the bigger picture, however, this is only to be expected.
Ebb & Flow: Pacing Game Sessions over a Campaign
An ebb session is when the game progresses slowly. Ebb sessions are also where the framework for setting and story content are laid out. For a plot to have meaning to the Players, then it needs to be given context. Ebb sessions are where much of this context is added to your game. Often there will be a lot of talking and roleplaying, which are important elements of the game.
Some Players prefer this pace of game, as it gives them a chance to play their character, or explore the depth of the setting. A slow, delicate negotiation with high stakes can be just as tense as a flow session full of swashbuckling combat. Ebb sessions do not equate to dull and boring.
In contrast, a flow session is where the action moves along swiftly. A lengthy combat is the obvious example of a flow session. Extended chases, or a session where the narrative jumps back-and-forth between two groups of Heroes, are also flow sessions. The climax to most story arcs should be a flow session, hopefully full of drama and excitement.
Some Players prefer this type of game, as it allows them a chance to assert their dominance over the game world by showing how powerful they are. Yet the fifth grinding battle in a row against yet another wave of goblins will soon prove repetitive and dull.
Balancing the Pacing
As with so much, the true art of being a GM lies in striking the right balance. Each group has its own feel for what makes a good pace for their game. Most campaigns are composed of a combination of ebb and flow sessions. The tricky part for the GM is to balance these two styles of game
Too much ebb
Beware of using too many ebb sessions. This slows the pace of the campaign and can cause some Players to lose interest. Speed up travel times and hand wave many mundane tasks to limit the amount of ebb in your game.
Add flow by having the opposition react more aggressively to the actions of the Heroes.
Too much Flow
The danger of too many flow sessions is that the action lacks context. Endless battle, just like endless anything, is repetitive. There is also a risk of overloading the Players with too much action. If every session features killing a dragon, then the only way to make the next session special will be to fight TWO dragons. This is taking the campaign towards the Monty Haul games of old.
Limit the amount of flow sessions by hand waving some conflicts, but this can be seen as cheating the Players of a chance to shine. Far better to add some ebb sessions, where you focus on character or background. Use these ebb sessions to give your flow sessions more meaning and contrast.
The bigger picture
Campaign pacing is a case of considering the overall story you are telling together. There is no set formula for balancing these two types of session. Use the descriptions above to understand how differently sessions can be paced.
The most common story structure is a gradual increase in pace over time. A story tends to start slowly, and then build as the Heroes near the climax. This climactic session stands out in part because it contrasts with much of what came before.
In this model, begin your story arc with an ebb session, then slowly increase the amount of flow until the story is concluded. Then return to ebb for the start of another story arc. There could be smaller peaks during this gradual build-up, but use an ebb session after each peak to ensure the necessary contrast and to allow for Player excitement to fade, before building it up again.
Pacing is a matter of taste, and contrast
Pacing of a campaign, as with pacing of an individual session, is a matter of taste for the group. You all know what your Players expect, and what works for your group.
However, varying the pace through the campaign gives more shape to the overall story. The contrast between ebb and flow sessions heightens the impact of each of them. Gradual changes in pace are useful, but for maximum impact, you need a sharper contrast.
Learning from Media
A great way to learn about pacing is to watch how it is used in films and television shows. While the effect of pacing is easier to see in films, the GM is better served by studying the use of pacing in a multi-episode television series. This episodic format within a longer story arc is a closer representation of a RPG campaign.
Whichever media you prefer, watch how pace changes between scenes. Is it one fight scene after another? Or are there interludes of talking to set the action into context? If your game is based on a media franchise, then take particular note of the way the story plays out through multiple scenes or episodes. To improve your recreation of the source material, model your pacing on the way it is used in the original format.
Ebb sessions are just as important for the overall narrative as flow sessions. This is not about the right or wrong way to play your game. The desires of your group will have precedence here. Rather, be aware of how pace can vary through a long story, and use these variations to add contrast and depth to your story.
How have you used pacing? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.