Manipulating Tempo

Felt like talking about a thing. Class is in session.

Probably the broadest selection of tools in my facilitation shed all relate back to manipulating tempo at the table.

What even is “tempo,” you ask? That’s harder to define than I realized when I asked myself the question! I think it’s a combination of things:

• Energy, like how engaged the players are with the thing they’re dealing with.
• Urgency, which is different than energy because I’ve totally had high-urgency moments that were met with low energy (these choices don’t really even matter but I have to make one right now).
• Scope, as in variety of decisions you might make in this moment. A very small scope might be a two-choice dilemma, yeah? “Save the child or kill the bad guy?” And a very large scope might be “are we mercenaries or do-gooders or what?”

That might be it. Maybe. I may swing back around to this later.

As I sit here thinking about the ways I manipulate these elements – energy, urgency and scope – I realize I have a variety of tools I use to massage each of these things. But the meta-tool at the top of the pile is variety. That is, I want my tempo to vary, because when everything is urgent then nothing is urgent. I want the big, open spaces to feel different than the claustrophobic, intense moments.

So I want you to read these not as ways to amp these things up, but as tools to twiddle the dial anywhere from low to high.

Energy tools
I can hear you asking: If energy = engagement, why on earth would you want a low engagement? Well, to help aim the camera in a more subtle way. Setting the agenda for what’s important is the core of facilitation, IMO. But in my universe, that definitely is not limited to “the GM’s thing.”

Energy comes from:

• Individual players, including the GM
• Interaction between players

This is such a feel thing. I would say the most important tool here is to simply develop a sense of the energy at each of these levels: what is engaging the players? What interactions feel most energetic? What’s hot and what’s cold?

Now you don’t have to heat up the cold bits. It might be that the cooler table temps – a lead the GM throws out, a backstory thing, some unanswered question that cropped up – just isn’t catching anyone’s attention. If you keep hammering at it, well, I think that mostly doesn’t work. At worst, you end up with players digging their heels in to resist what feels like railroad tracks.

One technique I don’t recall hearing much about is deliberately cooling off hot stuff. Mostly you don’t want to do this BUT! But but but! It might be bad-problematic and you don’t have a safety tool in place. Or it’s headed down a track you, as facilitator, just don’t care about. It’s shitty to say “ehh nope.” But it might be okay to back down the excitement for wherever that trail may lead. The players’ agendas are important but don’t forget that you’re a player too.

It’s not a technique I’d use much myself, because I’m service-minded, but I know I’ve done this. It’s not illusionism, it’s more…sales. Like you’re upselling this other thing but part of that is down-selling the thing they’re paying attention to but you’ve only got so much time and energy in any given session.

Urgency tools
I tend to run balls-out when I facilitate and when I play. It’s literal urgency, faster talking and demanding answers and whaddayado whaddaya do? It’s also situational urgency, snowballing consequences, escalation, constant new badness on the horizon. I’m good at it and I’ve done it for a very long time.

I don’t know that balls-out is always the right answer, though. It’s exciting, especially from a one-shot perspective. And I’ve written at length about running campaign sessions like they’re one-shots ( But just like how the best movies and books break up the tempo with quiet interludes, games need breaks too.

So probably the important tool here isn’t how to create urgency (although maybe that’s something you’ve not really thought much about), it’s dialing the urgency back. Some thoughts:

• Introducing scenes where maybe nothing super consequential is going to happen. What’s life like on your ship? What does your daily religious practice look like? (I’m thinking about stuff like this because I’m thinking about Coriolis this week.)
• Taking literal real-world breaks after high-intensity scenes
• Setting scenes from the very beginning of the scene, starting with all the sensory stuff (what can you see? What can you hear? Who’s present?). Breaking up the play-the-day pace where everything flows into everything else.

Scope tools
Probably the important thing here is knowing when to pull the camera waaaay back. I feel like this naturally has a tempo-dropping quality to it, but maybe not if you show the players that they’re on the cusp of a campaign-shaping change in direction.

One of my favorite things: stopping the action, maybe not overtly, but just kind of blue-skying your way through the “oh wow what does this mean?” You don’t want to pre-decide stuff, but you know what? I think you probably end up doing that anyway. And that’s not bad! But it’s on the facilitator to know where to draw the line, like “okay cool, so you’ve decided to pack your bags and head across the ocean on the next boat? Should we start on the far shore, then?” It’s a big move but maybe you stop the players from the next steps they propose, like “and then we roll in, take over the thieves guild in the first city we get to and…” because that’s just too far ahead.

Brand Robins also mentioned recontextualizing in another thread. Super important, I think, because the facilitator always has a higher-level view of what’s going on than the players. It’s so easy to get sucked into personal survival and immediate success, and losing track of the more authorial stuff. I mean some players never shift out of author stance, I get it, but for the players who just kind of default back to being an actor (or being their character, whatever anyone wants to call that, we are not starting an immersion fight in this thread) I think a facilitator who can remind them of higher level stuff, like themes and arcs and even big-picture setting stuff, that’s useful.

Well, I feel like energy, urgency and scope worked out pretty well for this. I’m imagining a grid, right? Or maybe a three dimensional space, where you have things like “low energy/low urgency/small scope” as one space any given moment of play is in, and then “high energy/low urgency/small scope” and “low energy/high urgency/small scope” and so on and so on.


Random thoughts generated by my wandering brain on this morning’s bike ride:

The setting is super weird. Weirder than Firefly and all the Chinese influences, because at least there you can sorta-kinda extrapolate Chinese culture taking on greater global prominence even within our lifetimes. But in Coriolis it’s not Islamic culture, it’s pre-Islamic. Whyyyy?

Then I started thinking about a sci-fi future where we passed through Christianity at some point in the timeline and reverted to something pre-Christian (and IMO pre-Judaic). That’s a grab bag of course: the Romantic and Hellenic, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticm, European paganism. I mean, I dig the aesthetics of a pagan future but getting there seems just impossible.

Then again maybe we’re already on our way to reinstating some kind of fertility-slash-prosperity divinity, yeah? I mean the prosperity gospel folks call it “God” but that’s a marketing decision. They could accurately call it “Trump” and 800 years from now, we could have a whole pantheon of war gods (Blackwater) and wisdom gods (Google) and messenger gods (Facebook) and gods of health (Kaiser) and death (Armalite) and beauty (Instagram) and love (Tinder) and on and on.

But because we’re writing this wild future for a modern audience, and because it seems reasonable, we might have this pantheon but still dress it up in the rites of western Christianity, with churches and tithing and big splashy capitalistic holidays and televangelists.

Which brings me back to the Coriolis aesthetic, which is clearly culturally Islamic but dressed up in pre-Islamic art, the Ali Baba and Aladdin (yes yes, a 17th century invention) and 1001 Nights stuff. I don’t really know much about pre-Islamic rites: were there calls to prayer throughout the day? Was there tithing? Pilgrimages to holy sites? Those things all remain in this distant future setting and yet they’ve relegated Islam to a minority faith.

Okay but how the actual fuck does a one page RPG that sounds like a Game Chef entry circa 2004 get this kind of coverage.

I don’t understand nerd media, like, at all.

Robot Park

So with Westworld season 2 starting soon I thought I’d better get my butt in gear with playable documents. If’n you were interested in looking at Robot Park, here’s the rules and my brand-spanking-new play docs. Which are horrible because I’m still a really long way away from getting Indesign figured out.

The elevator pitch is that this is a proof of concept design for a kind of distributed-GM game using PbtA play style. I think it works! If it’s fun, I’ve already got ideas for how to reuse the structure in other ways.

If you play, let me know what you think. I’m hoping to give it a run at NewMexicon in a couple weeks.

Sick day experiment: Fall of Magic with the kiddo. She’s playing Ellamura, Ranger of Mistwood.

We made it past Barley Town and she wanted to know when it was going to be more like Jumanji. Whenever you want, kiddo! Play to find out!

(She’s still a little young for self directed story games.)

Three days to go on the Cartel Kickstarter and I gotta say I’m super intrigued by the alternate settings getting unlocked. Maybe moreso than the modern real world cartel subject matter itself, personally.

I will also say that I’m glad Mark Diaz Truman is making Cartel, regardless of the cold war or the cyberpunk additions. It’s interesting, risky territory to take on. I’d love to see more interesting, risky game projects in the world.

Prep and Lonely Fun

Anyone else do the thing where you come up with aaaaallll the NPC names you might ever need, so you don’t sit there like a dope at the table and go umm ahhh how about Joe? No?

Here’s a metric buttload of names from various middle eastern countries. Alphabetized, trimmed for redundancies. Dunno what you might need it for but Coriolis sure needs it.