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For a game, gaslight fantasy meets weird west, I am looking for tangible props to establish the various pacing points (call them beats in Robin's newest fascination). I'm looking for a good idea that will allow me to ratchet up the pace and then slow it down (but not to slow) based on the story in order to recapture some of the feel of a serial.

The idea prop will enhance rather than detract from the roleplaying session and ideally be flexible enough to denote several different moments (laying pipe versus combat versus procedural for example).

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Please be aware that I'm not looking for technique. I'm specifically looking for tangibles. –  anon186 Sep 5 '10 at 19:58
    
I don't understand what techniques and tangibles are in this context. Can you clarify or provide examples? I wanted to answer with an example of how I used retrospectives or flashbacks to fill in blanks when doing a fast forward in the campaign, but then that seemed like a technique to me. Tanglibles sounds like using poker chips or something like that? –  Alex Schröder Sep 5 '10 at 21:42
    
I'm looking for physical tools/props (as my question stated). Physicality (and music) are both tools that can help control pacing and I'm looking for good ideas here. –  anon186 Sep 5 '10 at 22:52
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think an obvious answer is a metronome. This will LITERALLY increase the heartbeat of your player subconsciously. If you explain it away as something ticking in game(clock, gear, etc.), then they wont even think it is corny.

A second, more precarious idea, is fire. If you can work a flammable object into the plot, and burn a prop version IRL, they will move VERY fast. This works well for things like official documents or maps. You can bust out a lighter in game, and tell start burning right at the table while you await their reaction to your NPC doing the same in-game. If done carefully, you can get the desired effect.(I have done this before while bargaining for a map. A player picked up his dice bag pretending it was coin, tossed it on the table, and snatched the map, putting it out with his hand. So, it worked.)

I hope this is the type of thing you are asking about. My answer seems very different than those above.

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Is it easy to speed up and slowdown a metronome? –  anon186 Sep 19 '10 at 11:58
    
Burning stuff, I'd never thought of that! Pure brilliance. –  anon186 Sep 19 '10 at 11:59
    
Yes you can easily very a metronome's tempo, if you go analog, the sound is eerie as hell, but digital would be fine also. And thanks! –  BBischof Sep 19 '10 at 20:09
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The way I achieve this in my campaign is through manipulation of the players. I can do this because I tie the character into the my setting background through a one on one session prior to the start the campaign. We go back and back forth with the players telling me what they like and me telling them how it could fit in the campaign. The results is a short one page background with benefits and complications.

What the player don't realize is that I am also using the process to manipulate the choices so that there are natural reason for the players to be together. It not heavy handed so sometimes it doesn't quite work but often it helps a lot.

Then I have a plot, not a story. A plot is a series of events that would occur in absence of the characters. It includes associated NPCs and locales. It is a plan that will change once players start interacting with it. Basically after each session you alter it to account for what the players.

At times it may feel like you are throwing away a lot of work but with experience and a little awareness you can setup things so that the action will naturally flow to certain NPCs or locales. Just don't get wedded to any particular "thing" treat the elements of your plot as bag o' stuff that you pull out and combine in response to what the players doing.

Now the plot is where you first setup a "beat" and control the "tempo" of the campaign. I call them slack and climax. Slack times usually involves a lot of roleplaying, travelling, etc. The climax involves of course conflict either combat or other types of things a RPG can handle. (Some RPGs have social conflict rules for example).

I view the overall plot in two or parts. Slack1, Slack2, Climax 1, Slack 3, Slack 4, Climax 2. And it operates on several levels. For example Slack2 could have one or two small climax say Investigate Library, Investigate Tavern, Break into Merchant's Home. Followed by Talk with the Big Boss, Find out where Lefty is, Chase down Lefty.

To make this not a railroad you have to use the elements of your campaign as the Bag o' Stuff I mentioned earlier and think on your feet was to what to tell the players at each point. The players are making the decision but you setup things so that rational choices given their current goal and motivations is to go from A to B and not C. But if they do go to C (usually because they guessed wrong) you are not caught with your pants down as you have your Bag o' Stuff. Just pull out what you need to run that portion of the campaign.

Manipulating the logical choices is how you control as what you describe as tempo and setup beats. Doing the way I suggest make the players feel in control of their character's destiny, part of a vibrant and living setting. Not that they are observers of your story.

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Tangibles - maybe you can measure pacing better if you tightly structure scenes. Let the event structure be a creative constraint, and write each on an index card. So:

MEET THE TAILOR, A FIGHT IN THE ALLEYS, TAILOR'S DAUGHTER RETURNS, HORSE TRADING, THE BIG REVEAL, CLIFFHANGER

Or whatever. They need not be linear or even mandatory, but having your outline in physical form would allow you to see how many beats you had hit, how many remained, and serve as a very simple pacing prompt.

Depending on your style of play, this could all be transparent to the players or not.

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Not discussing other classic serial tropes like keeping the villain's identity secret and just addressing pacing - what you want, I assume, is for each session to be like a single chapter of a serial, with a specific self-contained plot semi-resolved but ending with a cliffhanger as part of a larger plot.

You have the advantage over traditional media in that you don't have to fill an exact span of time, so that helps. Have your cliffhanger in your pocket (or a batch of them) and pull them out when it's getting close to time (leave them wanting more!).

What you want to do is:

  1. Resolution of prior cliffhanger or twist (like new character introduction where you don't know if they're good or bad)
  2. Action to thwart the bad guys current crime/latest supernatural killer outbreak/whatever - have 3 scenes or encounters planned, and just omit them as needed to keep time on track
  3. Revelations about the plot/villain/whatnot
  4. New cliffhanger

Most current genre shows (Warehouse 13, Haven, etc.) basically do the serial format but with less cheese and without the cliffhangers.

Pacing in this format is pretty easy, you just have to make the characters essentially reactive. They're responding to the robberies or outbreaks or alien invasions or whatever - that means you can let them muck around the exact amount of time you want until "the call comes in." Also, roleplay and "story stuff" should happen against the backdrop of the action - it's discovering one character used to be an alcoholic while actively part of the investigation, and more "life at home" stuff is done in 30 second sniblets to show what people are up to when the call comes.

Of course you have to make things bite sized. This isn't the format for "lengthy self-paced dungeon exploration." Have very specific events and attacks, and fast forward through "navigating the maze" boring stuff. You can only control pacing if you are dealing with smaller increments. Have an "out" in your back pocket where if the PCs do take a really long time screwing around in a particular locale you can spring a "kick down the door" on them to get them going. Speaking of steampunk, in Warehouse 13 they use a stemapunk cell phone called the Farnsworth to do that - "Hmm, I wonder what to do, maybe we should just wander around and interview 100 people." "Buzz, buzz!" "Hello?" "OH GOD THEY'RE ATTACKING THE BANK" .

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