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May 17 2012

Storytelling and Pacing

This might take a second but I promise I’ll get to the gaming part of it in a sec. So I had two interesting developments occur today. The first was having one of my sit downs with my mentor/professor from my college. The second was seeing some of the things we talked about in a movie I watched.

I go to Empire State College where most of the classes are independent study, and you meet with your professor once every couple weeks to talk about your progress. You can also email or call them any time if you have questions. I’m taking Screenwriting this semester and that’s it. I graduate with a bachelors in Creative Writing which I can then use to go back to school for my masters so I can teach. Yay. In any case the conversation was interesting because we were talking about the screen play I’m writing for the class. It’s based on a game scenario I helped write which will be published in the future. This led to a discussion about RRGs and what they are. I almost always use Fiasco as my example of an RPG these days because of its minimal rules and relation to movies I can reference like Fargo, The Hangover, The Big Labowski, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or any movie in that Coen brothers or everything goes to hell style. Once I got that out and explained how the game is like a long form improvisation with a few simple rules for guiding the story she understood and actually was sort of interested in the concept. We spoke for a few more minutes and in the end I pretty much let her know some of these games have more rules but the premise is all about storytelling. In essence, gaming, and the way most of us game, is about storytelling. I’d like to talk about the bare bones of storytelling. I’m sure I’ll leave things out and a lot of this stuff will just be my opinion so you’ll disagree. That’s cool. I want you to disagree and bring your own opinion to the discussion so I can see what other people think. It’s a great way to learn.

So I watched a movie with Jen, she’s the woman I live with and love. It was One for the Money, that movie with  Katherine Heigl, where she’s broke so she becomes a bounty hunter and is chasing down this cop who skipped out on his bail. She gets caught up in something way over her head and blah, blah, blah… You still with me? Good? Sorry, but I do want to explain. Jen and I enjoyed the movie because we like movies. It entertained us for a couple of hours and it told a story. That means the movie had a beginning, middle, and an end. It introduced characters, developed them over the course of time, and gave them choices to make, some good and some not so much. There was an established setting, world building, and there was a pace. All these things are part of storytelling and I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. The question is how do I use these bits to allow for the creative explosion of storytelling at the table. I’ve covered some of this stuff in previous posts like From the Other Side – A Players Perspective and Worlds of “Our” Imagination. But I wasn’t explicitly talking about storytelling. Now I’ll try.

From the GMs side of the table I think the most important thing you can do is try and manage the pace of the game. Pacing is paramount in any good story. Track the up and down beats, find those transitional moments where you can move things from act to act whether your using the three act Hollywood structure, or any of the other various storytelling methods. Don’t be afraid to build in choke points in your stories, places where all the strands of your plot lead to. You can do this with out railroading. Just because the strands lead to a single event doesn’t mean you can’t have the world react to the events leading up to this single event and change how it begins, progresses, and/or resolves. Railroading is more about making the players choices feel unimportant than guiding them to a specific event. They won’t care if you’ve let them take actions that matter to the story at hand.

As players we can watch for the story beats too. We can take actions that help guide the story in ways we want for our characters, pace our stories, and exert pressure on the over arching plots. Some people would think of this as a tug of war between the GM and the players but I feel that’s the wrong way to look at it. Groups with excellent chemistry, and I’ve seen this in campaigns and conventions games, will get into a flow, almost like the tide rolling in and out, where each person gives and takes in a rhythm creating that perfect pocket of gaming. There’s no one way to do it either. Each group has their own pocket based on the people involved, the game they’re playing, and the perceived expectations. It’s the groups own personal rhythm.

I know this seems hypothetical but there are ways to help create this storytelling “zone”. I just happen to think pacing is the most important part of setting yourself up to achieve this. To help with pacing I suggest buying Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws, but if you don’t feel like it you can always try this. Make yourself an arrow. Whenever there is an up beat turn the arrow up, down beats you turn the arrow down. If you ever have three up or down beats in a row make sure the next beat is different. This will help keep your pace interesting to the players. If you’re a player and notice the games had to many beats in a row of one kind or another push to create that opposite beat. If you’re not sure what up and down beats are I’ll try to explain. An up beat is where something good happens in the story and a down beat is something bad occurring. There are also lateral beats where something happens but nothing really changes. Make sure you don’t have to many of those in a row either.

A lot of storytelling in gaming is about knowing what the parts are so you’re aware of them. Many of us can tell stories intuitively because our society has so many of them. We can flick on the TV, open a book, power up our eReaders, or play a video game. Almost everything in our lives having to do with entertainment has some kind of story associated with it. We’re immersed in storytelling. Now ask yourself what goes into telling a story? What are the parts, the bits and pieces, comprising a story? That question is a lot harder to answer definitively. Hopefully this idea of pacing and story beats helps get you on the road to understanding, and getting more enjoyment out of, your games.

2 comments

  1. Chris Sniezak

    @ Shawn You nailed the concept I was reaching for and maybe it’s a little to deep for role playing games but I think just having a few of these base concepts rolling around in the brain pan can help create better gaming experiences.

  2. Shawn Merwin

    This reminds me of something that Doug Glover, one of my MFA in Creative Writing instructors at Vermont College, talked about. He taught us to analyze each sentence, and sometimes each phrase within a sentence, to recognize what the narrative significance was. And then you could distribute those different pieces to control pacing. This sort of electron-microscope view of the work is important for a writer to know and understand, although the reader will never know the sort of granular manipulation of the words on the page.

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