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.
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.
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.
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.