In the game of Dungeons and Dragons, there is more than one time. First, the mechanical time, that we often think as the round system. Then the time of narration, one that the Dungeon Master controls entirely. And then of course, the time outside the game. The way the actors at the table use their time and interact with it shape the pacing in grand part. As the arbiter of all things, the DM has a large part to play in that process. They should consider what kind of pacing they want, and know their tools (such as the scope, see my previous article on the matter).
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
Pacing is all about variations. In video-game design, it is often the case that an easier level follow a particularly hard level. This is a deliberate choice on the designers part. The same is true in writing. You need to vary the pacing to give some rhythm to the story. But first, let’s take a look at what is paced.
If there are multiple times in D&D, the same is true to some extent to space. Through how we view space, we map the action in a certain way. This influences pacing, if only because distance = speed x time. A group can travel two miles in a full session, or sail five hundred miles in a snap. This all depends on the pacing the DM sets. I see you are skeptical, what DMs would let their party on the sea unmolested?
For instance having a grid constrains us in more way that we think. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no grid around, does it really fall? At the very least, they become a hassle to manage. Even if the system allows for long distance and seem to encourage it through some features — ranged weapons, spell sniper, distant spell, eldritch spear — the grid does not make allowances for it. Especially in online play.
I remember once having a group charge at the enemy by crossing a 500ft field. The enemy was armed with crossbows, and waiting behind barricades. Despite my repeated warnings, the party still went with it and sustained heavy damage. The shooters were delighted and had a field day with that one. Eight rounds later or so, the barbarian had managed to cross the distance. He then took care of the small times guard. Still, they lost a lot of hit points.
Longbows and small feet
The issue of long range in D&D goes beyond how we represent space. Consider the large variations between characters. Some have only a 25ft speed, while others have a 40ft speed, and can even dash as a bonus action. The first would need ten rounds to reach the finish line, the second would be there in five. Conversely, by default, enemies don’t use that distance either. If they did, it would force players to do so, and radically change encounters. At best, we get battles within 150-300ft maximum of each other. Enough for tactics, but not enough to exploit the maximum distance of the game. Remember that I am speaking of the grid in general. A DM can still run a long-range battle in the theater of the mind. Or they could use a grid with a large scale, but it would create new logistic issues.
This concept of mapping the action in our head extends to all aspects of play. If the Dungeon Master presents the players with few locations, they might have a hard time introducing new ones. Instead of crossing the troll’s bridge, the party could travel upstream half a mile, and then cross the river with some rope. Thinking outside the box is harder when the box is your only point of reference. However, this is in my opinion the most rewarding side of role-playing. Once you learn to do it, you now think inside the world’s box.
Love thy neighbour
Space also matter at the table. You are more likely to discuss with your neighbor between active phases, and engage with them. Hence, your character might forge a bond with theirs, simply because of the seating. Conversely, players with close characters are likely to seat close to each other.
Now let’s look at time and speed in our distance = speed x time equation.
America has won the cultural war. And as always, they are merciless. We already buy blue jeans and listen to their pop music, but their victory goes miles beyond that. Their storytelling has become the dominant one, and none of the cultures playing D&D escaped unscathed. It has seeped so deep into how we make stories, in how we experience them, that we do not notice it. But it’s there.
Gasping for Dopamine
Most US TV shows are a sequence of short scenes, interspersed every five minutes with black cuts. Incredulous, I later discovered those were room for ads. I can’t ever imagine myself suffering through such a thing — where would even be the enjoyment? — and thanks to the Internet, so can’t American youth. With so many cuts, the viewer can’t but wait for his next shot of dopamine. This is not just TV shows. This concept of constant demand and immediacy permeates American culture; what the people want, they want it now. From stand-ups where comics fire up in quick succession unrelated jokes, to shops always open and cable news living on the perverse 24h cycle, America’s present is, if anything, evanescent.
This industrial process culminate at its grotesque peak with the Superbowl. At that particular time of the year, a hundred million people come together and commune around the black screen. People invite their friends, their family, and sit on their sofas, all to watch hours of millions-budget ads. The game itself must kneel in front of the sacred, for even the phases of play are aligned with the ads schedule. Hence, the ads are the show; the game is an afterthought.
Frustration mount as our team is making a play against the other team. The ball moves two yards. Things are looking up, that is amazing progress. Now comes ten minutes of hilarious and spectacular ads. Bottom stuck to the couch, eyes glued to the screen, throat dryness increases as chips make contact. That is no coincidence. Snacks manufacturers developed the perfect and eternal unfulfillable bite. One chip is enough to titillate your pleasure center, but never enough to fill your stomach or your appetite. Know that the industry spend millions of R&D on the matter. Hollywood can only dream of such a feat.
Quick, there’s no time to explain, get into Kwalish’s Apparatus
The D&D equivalent does not really exist. But if we tried to invent it, it might look like a binge of encounters and loots, possibly heroic showdowns and monologues, and all of those no longer than twenty minutes. Roll, play, cut, it’s in the pizza box. Is this a bad thing? Not in itself. But such a situation would not be conductive to story telling. Because of the inadequate pacing, and especially its lack of variations, we lose the gap between the now and the tomorrow. If a movie’s plot happen over a week but use a hurried pacing, then we experience that week as if was two hours long. As if there was no game, no room, for time itself.
Think of all the plots a simple phone call, a sending to the right people, would solve. Decisions that characters have not taken, not because of hubris, but because of the fast artificial pacing. The party unveiled Lady X’s plot. She plans to resurrect the half-snake half-giant Lim-tûl in twenty-four hours, or, as we know it, next session. Hence, the party has to prepare for a big one last fight as they assault the temple. For make no mistake. That is what occupies the group’s minds, the big finale, the last fight, the great hurrah. Forget warning others what’s about to transpire, gathering allies and so on. Yes Hero, you have to save the world. But don’t be a selfish twat and hog the glory all to yourself.
The 3-act Structure and post-plot Hollywood
The other and related form of American’s narration is a non-stop stream of actions scenes and dramatic occurrences with no relief in sight but a glorious apotheosis at the end. In addition to this quick pace, the story follows the three act structure, the now canonical format in Hollywood. Further more, the narrative impact of these movies is heavily diminished. Their plots are made inconsequential through humor (see Thor’s Ragnarok final scene), the weight of sequels, or the risk of rebooting. It is not per chance that most MCU’s Villains are weak: they are not characters, but meteorological events that happen to cross the hero’s path, giving him a bad day. At best, they are exact opposites of the hero, yet with no focus to gain substance. When you look into the mirror, there is nothing new there.
Writing this, I even found an interesting article from the LA Times, where the author discusses how Guardians of the Galaxy was an example of post-plot cinema. With their efficient mindset, the Hollywood Moguls have just realized that we should not even bother with a plot anymore. It is as if we forgot somewhere along the way that movies tell stories, whatever the quality and goal of that movie. No surprise then that people say what matters is how you finish, since that is going to shape our experience the most, out of all the movie.
You might think this is just what popcorn flicks are. But this was not the case in the 90s. The Fifth Element, Men in Black, Independence Day, Blade, … Whether they are bad or good movies, whether they dipped into humor or kept their tone all along, they had a plot. They still followed the three act structure, yet they had stakes, and tried to deliver on their promises. In short, there is nothing wrong with the 3-act structure, but Hollywood is drowning us with it. Hence, it helps to be aware of its inner workings. I could also relate that with kitsch, but it is best I do not go on that tangent.
The 5-act structure and Freytag’s Pyramid
Contrast with the dramatic structure, where the writer let the audience gently float down after the high of the catharsis, knowing that we need to be handled with care. That we need to have time to take in what just happened. The writer knows we need some time for the afterglow, the thoughts that start to germinate in our mind, and the emotions that are overwhelming us.
The Road goes ever on and on
Let’s take a look at the epilogue of Lord of the Ring. We get to see loose ends tied and every character’s future trajectory, as well as the roots of Middle Earth’s future. Tolkien, in a brilliant move, have us follow the hobbits along their reverse trip from Mordor to Home. Yet, not all is well that ends well. Frodo still feel the cold pain that the wraith inflicted upon him, on that fateful day, atop the hill. “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”, he says to poor Sam. He has no home, the ring — the journey — has taken its toll on him. Just like Samwise Gamgee, we have to accept to let him go and close the red book. With Gandalf, Bilbo and some elves, Frodo leaves the shores of Middle Earth for the Undying Lands.
The Lion King
The Lion King is a great example of that structure. It begins with Simba, the royal heir of Mufasa, living in paradise, his paradise. The dream come to an end with that absolutely brutal scene in the ravine, where the king is betrayed by his brother. Many of us were left with a big emotional scar that day.
But the hero must live on.
Simba flees and find refuge in a decadent version of his kingdom. There he wastes his day away, singing Hakuna Matata with his two new best friends. Yet, if you keep fleeing forward, at some point you fall on your old footsteps ; the past has that nasty habit of catching up with you. Old friends and mentors show up, and whip Simba in shape. He must take back the crown — and with it, the heavens. The movie’s climax is a wonderful scene where Simba sees his father’s ghost in the cloud; a few words of wisdom later, at last Simba is ready to fight like a lion. He returns to his kingdom, defeat his uncle, and reclaim the throne. As the action fall, the last scene shows Simba’s heir, closing the cycle of life. All is well that ends well.
Notice how the story is structured in five acts. This is no surprise. The creators never hide the parallels with Hamlet, another story structured the same way.
Both the dramatic structure and the 3-act structure are old as storytelling itself. And you use — naturally or not — at least one of them, if not both in your sessions. But how do they impact your game? It only makes sense that the culture of storytelling impact D&D’s. Furthermore, if you run a too fast-paced game, you risk collapsing the game time with the narrative time. As a negative consequence, your players will have a harder time retaining your plot elements, or find the gaps needed to plan (a bit) further ahead. Even if your players take notes, that might no be enough if they don’t have the opportunity to read them.
Thus, we need mechanics and ways to control pacing. Of course, the resting mechanics play a role here, and so do downtime when it is used. But before looking at the tools at our disposal, it was important to be aware of the schemas that molded our assumptions and preferences.
Pacing in D&D
Flat time = flat story
When the game keeps running from encounters to encounters, from scenes to scenes, then narrative time and mechanical time have collapsed. The story becomes a long sequence of scenes that lead to the boss-fight. The party might start to lose interest, especially at the later stage of the game, where the stakes become absurdly high every episode. Yet another legendary dragon to fight, I see that he’s ridden by a lich and her friend the tarrasque. Oh, we saved the world. Again.
When you use such a pace, the players have no time to breath or to think back on the story. You wonder why your party never picked on that obvious clue that you planted? Between killing zombies and getting drunk, the players never had a break to connect the perfumed soap they found in the dungeon’s depths, and the enticing smell that comes from that dancer. In fact, they might not have the cognitive time to spare, as they are busy planning their next fight, and managing their character — loot, levels and all that.
Let the players write the plot
Good news, D&D already has baked-in break time mechanics that allow you to control the pacing of the game. Between rests and downtime, there is plenty of opportunity to let your player rest their minds. They can then themselves and make connect the threads of the plots. Otherwise, you risk silly results that nullify any weight your plot, your world might have carried. If your players don’t have time to plan the desperate defense of Castle Blackthorns, they might just show up to the day of the battle with their spells and weapons, and that’s all. Just like in the movies, they forgot to use Sending to contact their good ole pal, the Troll’s King. Meanwhile, you are just thinking that them winging it is going to end so poorly. That can be fun. But if you want your players to amaze you, give them time.
With a break, you can vitalize the game, infusing the bloodstream with exciting tidbits and, better, questions. Prompt your players and guide them a bit during their rest. Instead of the reliable “What do you want to do?”, try “Are you going to identify that weird wand bone you found in the tomb, back there, you know, just after you fought two banshees and five wights?”. Ask them how they feel about Lady X’s decision to ban prostitution and have thieves hands be cut. Inquire innocently how they plan to manage the harpies next battle (“wait, what harpies?!”). This is not railroading, since the player’s response and attitude is going to shape the plot, not you. Furthermore, it’s a win-win, since it increases everyone’s fun. Yours noticeably, as you rub your hands in glee behind your screen, cackling at the thought of what is to come.
Let them breathe
Slow down the pacing of the narration with campfire scenes and impromptu meetings. Give them downtime and sweet festivals, so that they can think about current and past events. Another beneficial effect is that they can breathe in the world. They can find out more about the funeral rites of Moradin, experience the madness of the Carnival, swim along the reverse waterfall of Altaïr. And simply, get to know the people they are helping. That’s when the game turns sublime, that the table can find itself exalted. How can they genuinely be distraught when their long-time ally Melchior dies at the hands of the Queen of Wool, if they don’t know he likes corgis and caramels?
Till now, I have emphasized the benefits of slowing down, given the current trend of high-paced plots. But speeding up also has its benefits.
Imagine a campaign where the group is fighting the slow swelling of the undead scourge. Every week, they are defending this village, cleansing this other, finding those weapons, yet the slow tsunami of bones and flesh seems unstoppable. But things are under control, they have hope. They make progress and are close to get an idea of where the necromancer’s lair whereabouts. Cue in the great onslaught. Fifteen villages are taken, their inhabitants massacred and added to the ranks, the capital fall and the terrorized masses scatter in the country, with little water and no food. Worse, the paladins are rendered powerless as the spire is desecrated, and the royal dragon is slain. No doubt what kind of skeletal threat is going to defy the party next.
You could have foreshadowed that turn of event, it might even be the party’s responsibility. But no doubt fast-forwarding the plot ten thousand times faster for a moment is going to leave its mark. Some genres even thrive on those, if not require them. Suspense, horror, mystery, etc. All can use brusque variations in pacing. It might even be a challenge to dive into those without prior experience. But you have to try before you can fly.
The world of the story
Because pacing is related to how we map space, and how the story unfold, it is also naturally tied to world-building.
Put yourself in the passenger’s seat of a fast-moving car, and look towards the outside. At the very forefront, you see the edge of the road — or railtracks — moving so fast, that the pebbles and small plants here kind of become a blur. Just a bit further, are some bushes, barriers and so on. Behind that, you can see the fields and woods. Further behind, there is that impressive mountain with its snowy hat; it only moves ever so slightly of the horizon, because of the other landmarks you use as anchors.
This naturally creates an effect where multiple layers of the image seem to be scrolling at various discrete speeds. Of course the scrolling speed is continuous from a few inches next to you to the distant horizon. But in practice, our mind groups alike objects and elements and organize the moving image. In this analogy, the movement of the frame is the pacing, the image the story, and the landscape the world.
Architects and Gardeners.
Now, if you were to try to re-create that scrolling effect, you could either focus on building the various layers of the edge of the roads, the bushes and barriers, the fields and woods, and then the mountain. Or could you paint the whole image. Both approaches correspond to two philosophies of story telling; the architect, very detail oriented, who try to build things in advance; and the gardener, who has a general idea of what they want, but focus on the landscape, watering on the occasion a specific element.
Events are secondary to the story, what matters is perspective.
Keeping with our current metaphor, by varying the field of view, the scrolling speed and the focus — in short, perspective, what you decide to show the audience, their subjective experience — your final result will vary highly, to the point that you could even shift genre. Let’s look at an example.
A game of Queens
In the kingdom of Marn, two queens are fighting for the crown. The Golden Queen, whose supported by the elite troops, the spirit forest and the exarchs, and the Queen of Wool, supported by the people, the rural pastors and the spies of the crown. Also, very secretly, by the lich Narthum, who is exploiting the current civil war to invade with his horde of undead.
If you wanted to pace this campaign as heroic, you could use the following layers:
- On the foreground, the party protect holy relics, delve into dungeons to find anti-undead weapons, and hunt for historical heirlooms — to push forward the Golden Queen’s claim. They fight off regular ambushes and attacks by undead and masked assassins.
- Just behind is the plot engine. The party want to unmask the necromancer behind the undead hordes, they want to protect the forest spring from being desecrated, they want to undo any foil against the Queen. You would feed those of course by the immediate objectives they achieve in the foreground. But at the same time, you could also slowly add evidence that the Queen of Wool is supported by the lich Narthum, long thought to be destroyed, and now coming back to action after a slumber of three centuries.
- On the background, you move all three armies, tell of the intervention of greater powers, narrate the destruction of a village. You could speak of the siege of city X, the hopeless masses fleeing the country, and the famine that spreads. But you could also narrate how Duke Doggington, good friend of the Golden Queen, was poisoned, how a traitor opened the gates of X, how the chamberlain has been seen venturing late at nights. Yet this does not mean the party won’t act on them. Maybe the party is going to try to find out why that chamberlain is sneaking around.
Now, let us look at this campaign under the scope of intrigue.
- On the foreground, they could be trying to foil plots targeting Sir Doggington. The party might be working for the chamberlain, hence they are attacked regularly by enemy spies. Burglarizing and spying would also become part of their job description.
- Behind that, the party would slowly accumulate clues on the whereabouts of relics to later go dungeon-delving. They understand that Sir Doggington holds the heroic blood needed to wield the Holy Avenger, a powerful anti-undead weapon. The party might try to sabotage a bridge, or trigger an avalanche in the mountains, all to stop the queen’s army.
- In the background, little by little, they would start to get the whole picture, the identity of the mysterious backer of the Wool.
Those are two entirely different campaigns. But from the Historian’s point of view, they tell the same events. Just with a different perspective, as told by the group. History, after all, is written by the scribes.
Black Company, or the Mahabharata?
Another example, let’s imagine a war between angels and dragons. If you paced the campaign slowly, you could have a day-to-day account of how Hamal and his friends went through the war. What they ate, who they knew at the camp, and how their battles affected them. This could be the perfect campaign to focus on the dirty side of war, the infamies, the backstabbing, and the unexpected goodness that people can show. However, if you paced the campaign quicker, you could focus on the large battles and the hard fights. Let the party experience the joy of fighting Angels and their magic resistance and saving throw. Imagine, the party had to go defeat Devas and Planetars, and at the story’s peak, a true Solar! The tale of how it killed their musician companion Kira in one arrow will long resonate in their mind.
There is however no need to over-think it. If you paint the image as a whole, then things are set in motion naturally. Better focus on your storytelling skills. If you are an architect, then leave yourself plenty of room to react to what players do. I recommend you consider what each entity would do in your game, then play out the consequences, instead of thinking in terms of plot. And always work at being better at improvising.
The Great American Novel : The Wire
You might have felt I was cavalier with American fiction. Fear not, I do not ignore the mount of riches that can be found in their novels and their movies. So let me tell you about this little unknown show that you absolutely must watch.
If you want to learn, or more accurately, re-learn how to tell a story and make characters, I cannot recommend the Wire enough. Stick with it for a few episodes, for you might feel too uncomfortable with the pacing at first. And if you are an American, it is relevant to you as a citizen, as a historical piece of your culture.
I would also recommend the movie No Country for Old Men. The way it intertwines character story-lines in the beautiful landscapes of the state of Texas is masterful.