[L5R 4e Hearts and Souls] Pacing and Avoiding Empty Scenes.

Posted: January 29, 2013 by Jay Steven Anyong in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games
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Pacing is something of a weakness of mine. Veteran players who are used to how I run games are well aware that I tend to snowball pretty quickly, and as soon as they start feeling comfortable something will happen sooner rather than later to keep them on their toes.

While this sort of default pacing is great for more action-y games, there’s the issue of how to keep games with a slower, more deliberate feel without it becoming boring. My current campaign, Hearts and Souls, is a primarily political game with a lot of interaction, introspection and politics, but without a lot of fights. I’m honestly still trying to come to grips as to how to properly pace the game, and while I feel that the players are still enjoying themselves, I’m hoping that the campaign doesn’t end up being too slow to enjoy.

Part of my struggle here is that I actually fall into the same trap that many GMs do: I rely a lot of combat to provide the big set pieces for a story. However, in this game, combat should be less common for everyone so I don’t have that crutch to fall back on. It’s a funny situation for me as now I’m forced to learn to work on my pacing and make sure that I don’t have any empty scenes.

Empty scenes are the enemy in social games. The moment you have plain interaction where nobody is actually after anything is one which has a high probability of dragging on for a little too long and affecting the pacing. While it is almost always nice to play things out in character, once you’re just making small talk with no objective then you’ve got an empty scene.

So how do we avoid that? I’ve been giving it some thought and here are a few things I’ve put together:

  • Set an agenda – Every scene needs to be one where the participants are after something. Whether the players are trying to achieve something, or block someone from getting their way, having an agenda per engagement is a great way to make sure that each scene has something at stake.
  • Keep notes – Having notes is always a good thing. While there may not be any such thing as a “random encounter” in social games, being able to ambush an NPC by bringing up something that was relevant from a previous engagement is a good way to push your agenda without having to wait for the GM to introduce it.
  • Mix it up – As a GM, try to avoid scenes that devolve to simple talking heads. A lot of RPGs have plenty of opportunities to introduce interesting situations where conversations and such can happen outside of the court or the office. Much like a day of golf with the boss, consider catering to interests to make the other character more receptive. A modern game might have people talking policy over a game of tennis, a round of golf, or in a firing range while Hunting and other kinds of sport make for good occasions for historical games.

It’s not a lot yet, but I’ll have to admit that this is a learn-as-you-go thing for me. This is perhaps the first game I’ve run that was completely political as opposed to mostly horror or action so I expect a lot of fumbling around.

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Comments
  1. samuraiko says:

    I have the same failing. It’s what has kept me from running a game of L5R thus far, even though I’ve been wanting to for a while now. I’ve only been GMing for a little while and I’m definitely more comfortable with action-adventure games with some mental/social scenes interspersed. I’ve been trying to work my way towards an entirely/majorly social RPG, but haven’t gotten there yet.

    I think one of the other things that holds many people up in social interactions, myself included, is that we can imagine actions, attacks, movement and such, but it’s harder to lend weight to the subtlety of courtly manner and social interactions. It’s also easier in combat to relate the effect that an NPC’s actions have on a PC (notably through damage or status effects), but telling a PC how to feel? I can’t think of a player that would go for that without some major convincing. Conflict, in general, is a matter of negotiating actions and reactions alongside intentions motivations and goals. Narrating combat is easier, since we have so much in entertainment/media to reference, but portraying the subtleties of courtly affairs and social interactions is more difficult and with less precedent. Plus, we’re also talking about an area of RPGs that is rarely covered in conflict resolution rules like combat is, so much of it comes down to role-playing and GM fiat.

    One of the things that many of my first social interaction scenes had was a feeling of woodenness to them. They were stiff and scripted, without a sense of dynamic give and take behind them that made them real conversations/interactions. In combat, reacting to the PCs is a lot easier since you know that it’s all going to essentially come down to one form of attack or another, and the NPC is either ready for it or not, and subsequently able to deal with it or not. Social conflict and interaction rests outside of that paradigm, and in a totally dynamic world.

    I’ve gotten better since beginning, but it’s still a process for me. One of the things I learned to do was to create what I call a “vector” for characters, organizations and other entities, whether for social interactions, combat or larger campaign progression. Each vector tells me where the subject is trying to get to and a rough idea of what their next step is, or at least ideally is. Having this general strategic and tactical dynamic in place has allowed me to navigate social interactions, among other situations better, and to be more dynamic and reactive to the characters’ choices and actions in the game world. I don’t have to try to script reactions and plan for every contingency. Instead, I know what their projected course is and can adjust and correct on the fly based on the choices made by the players. It’s not a perfect system, and I’m still working out ideas and such, but it’s helped a lot so far.

    I do want to note that I really appreciate some of the ideas you’ve put forward as well. Keeping each interaction to a specific purpose, rather than just a random encounter and conversation with no purpose. Pointless conversations can probably be hand-waved with a general relation of information or lack thereof, while important set pieces deserve more highlighting and attention. No one needs to necessarily role-play the scene of haggling with the blacksmith, but convincing the archduke to lend you an army should probably be played out in more detail.

    Keeping the backdrop in mind constantly is also something I forget to do (even in some combat situations). I know how important it is in combat, especially for cinematic effects, but I often forget the impact that the context of a conversation can have on the mood and atmosphere of a social interaction. I definitely need to work on this.

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