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The GM is a Pacing Mechanic

(I should warn that this is a bit rambly. I’m more exploring a thought today than anything else.)

I’ve been playing indie games for a few years now, and been tinkering with Forge-y designs for around as long. In that time, I’ve played with a bunch of different pacing mechanic ideas (more in GMless games than GMed ones), and have even tried to make my own. My first little indie project, my ashcan for Know Thyself (a psychedelic history-rewriting game), had some experimental pacing mechanics in it that frankly didn’t work at all.

Early designs of Mythender had stronger non-human pacing mechanics, but every version of that I made felt weak, and I felt a bit hamstrung as a GM. I felt like I could better feel the tempo of the game, and kept trying to adjust the mechanic to compensate for how I was reading the situation. But I was in this “man, I gots to have a pacing mechanic!” headspace, for some reason. And I’m glad I did, because it forced me to learn a good lesson:

The GM is a pacing mechanic.

It took around a year or so of fiddling with Mythender to finally throw out most of my adventure-scale pacing mechanics. (There’s still a bit of pacing in the game, but there’s that in all games. Things like hit points in D&D or the aspect/fate chip economy in Fate are pacing mechanics.) But it wasn’t my own failure that convinced me to ditch the idea. It was that I haven’t seen a game that both has a GM and has a strong adventure-scale pacing mechanic. To be specific, I’ll talk about my experiences with two games: 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars and Dead of Night.

It’s been some time since I ran Dead of Night, but if memory serves there’s a pacing mechanic called “tension” that is controlled by the dice. The GM is suppose to use that to guide his part in the game. Only, both times I ran this game, I could read the reactions of the players and know when to inject tension…but the dice told me no. I took away from those sessions two things: In general, dice are a poor substitute for a human-based pacing mechanic; specifically to me, I don’t enjoy GMing if the job of pacing is taken away from me. I would rather be a player then.

I ran and played 3:16 a number of times, and I found myself getting bored after the third game in a campaign. The pacing mechanic there is completely transparent and non-random. The GM assigns some of his budget of threat tokens for each encounter, and the players see how many tokens he’s assigning (as those are their targets for the mission) and how many he has overall. Now, the game was fun for the first couple hours, because I can totally get into the Veerhoven celebration, but after that there were no surprises, no ways to inject interesting twists into the game. The players saw everything that was up the GM’s sleeve. I took away from those games that a transparent, inflexible pacing mechanic robs tension from the game. I like tension. And it isn’t even just “oh, there’s only one more enemy here,” it’s on an adventure level, where we can tell when we’re at the last encounter and the like.

Granted, I could be playing these games wrong. I’ll throw that caveat out there. And I know other folks who love those games, especially 3:16, so I’m glad these games exist for those players. So I’m not trying to pour on hate here.

Interestingly enough, I don’t have this problem with the two pacing mechanics in Primetime Adventures, Budget and Scene/Act Structure. This is in large part due to the idiom — this is TV, so Scene/Act Structure being imposed on the game feels right. But the Budget is much like what 3:16 uses — a transparent account. However, the Producer (GM) of PTA isn’t forced to spend his budget in order to do something, only to really turn up the heat on a particular moment. Without spending Budget, the Producer still gets a chance — maybe a slim one — of winning a scene. So, that Budget lets him build up tense moments along with the players, pushing them to use their resources in order to get their desire.

That, and Budget has a mild recycling effect. The Producer sometimes gets some back when the players spend their Fan Mail, but it’s not predictable. That recycling is key to making the mechanic work for me — we know I have, say, 17 Budget to start, but I might get 3 or 5 of it back through the course of play. So, when I get down to 1 or 2 budget, we all know I’m *nearly* out, but we can’t say for certain if I am completely. I like that.

Also, until I throw down how much budget I’m going to use in a given scene, the players don’t know how hard I’m going to push. I might have 7 Budget left in the third act, but they don’t know if I’m going to sprinkle it all around the four scenes we have planned or if I’m going to save most of it for one heavy hit. I should also note that the game isn’t defined entirely by being out of Budget — the session can still end with the GM having some Budget left. It’s a tool rather than a mere constraint.

And that’s where I get back to my initial assertion: the GM is a pacing mechanic. Budget restrains how much I can bring the proverbial hammer, but it doesn’t tell me when to — it leaves knowing that to the human component, the GM. Scene/Act Structure places guidelines on pacing, but it’s not rigid enforcement — it’s advice and understanding.

Today, when I look at pacing mechanic design for GMed games, I’m looking for how a pacing mechanic helps the GM do his job of maintaining pacing. I’m looking at how I can use advice and guidance to inform structure rather than enforce it. I shouldn’t be looking at how to remove such a vital technique from the GM’s arsenal, but how I can help him use that technique in a particular game. And in designing such pacing systems, flexibility is important to look at.

In writing this, I realized that I still have an adventure-scale pacing mechanic in Mythender. But it’s like PTA’s Budget — the GM can use it as a hammer, but he can only hammer so often. And sometimes that hammer recharges, so the players can’t be completely sure the GM’s out.

– Ryan

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3 Responses to The GM is a Pacing Mechanic

  1. Michael says:

    I completely agree.

    I would reinforce that it’s those pacing mechanics from PTA that really inform HOW to bring tension to the table. I think the HOW portion of your ideas about come back around to the Fate point economy your mentioned briefly.
    I could also point to D&D 4E, which has it’s XP budget for the GM. With the budget (and some common sense) it shows a GM how to allocate monsters amongst a number of encounters; but it does not tell the GM WHEN to go over and under budget; leaving that at his discretion. It’s the systems that really give me a tool to enforce the tension that resonate strongly with my GMing style.

    I am also running into the problem you describe from 3:16 with the ‘Twist/Condition’ mechanic out of MouseGuard. Not only does it give me codified ways to enforce consequences, it tells me when to hand them out. Something about that structure drains a lot of the tension out of the game.

  2. Disclaimer: I have yet to play 3:16, despite it sitting on my shelf for three months and despite me having done an awful lot of reading and “prep” for it.

    Gregor’s design is one that:

    1. is brainless and ultimately boring for “beat the mission” play groups
    2. can be kind of fun for competitive play groups that tend to “stir shit up”
    3. includes a whole lot of mechanics that have very little to do with the actual purpose behind the game, which exists only on the periphery of those mechanics and is discovered only once you “stir shit up”

    In that light, the pacing tokens being common knowledge prevents both players and GM from engaging too much in “clever” pacing of or planning for missions. As one example, when there are only two threat tokens left, the players have no reason to sit around making NFA rolls to dig trenches or make sure their grenade launchers are properly oiled – instead they need to consider how many kills they need in the last fight to outdo the corporal and get that promotion. They will also need to come up with some pretty awesome climactic narration, and the public pacing allows them to understand when this is appropriate.

    I hear a lot about how dull the fighting mechanics of 3:16 are after a few missions, and every time feel compelled to put on my rules lawyer hat and point out that right there, on page 48, it says “the game is not about the missions [after you’ve played a few]”. The pacing mechanic and combat system becomes a routine you use to handle all that stuff the game is not about, giving you room to focus on all the dysfunctions of being a genocidal killing machine who’s a small cog in an much larger genocidal killing machine.

    I think the issue is similar with Mouse Guard (another game I own but sadly have yet to play) – twists and conditions are useful to codify exactly what a GM should do during the GM turn, either for the new GM or for an existing GM who needs to un-learn some habits to play the game “right”, but after a few sessions it should be obvious that the core gameplay is less about the GM’s missions and more about the mice following their own Beliefs during the Players’ Turn. The structure of the GM’s turn is supposed to feel restrictive, predictable, and a bit dull, because it’s the players’ responsibility to spice them up by acting out-of-the-box.

    If this feels unsatisfying as a GM of those games, I’m not surprised. It’s fully in line with the idea of the GM playing the baseline rather than rockin’ the guitar, slamming it into the amp in a huge rain of electrical sparks at the grand finale and storming off-stage.

  3. Josh Roby says:

    I’m intrigued by the “provide tools, not constraints” principle and wonder how widely it can be applied…