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.

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0 thoughts on “Manipulating Tempo”

  1. Mine is literally, and slowly falling over, with rotting floorboards and a broken window, and a door which comes right off it’s rotten hinges when you open it. It currently contains a wooden couch frame an old lawn mower ad a bunch of bedraggled tools.

    And spiders. And some kind of rodent (I know because the couch cushion was gnawed through) , and more spiders. Our cottage is down the road from Shilob’s layer.

  2. Tempo is like a wheel barrow. Sometimes you want high energy but low urgency as you move a large scope of dirt nice and slow up a big hill.

    And sometimes you want high urgency as you run full speed with that wheel barrow down the hill.

    And sometimes you go from a high energy state to a low energy state and then to a high urgency state…like when you’re running with that wheelbarrow and hit a gopher hole and immediately come full stop crushing your nuts and requiring medical attention.

    Tempo is like a wheel barrow…

  3. “When Eye-Catching Images Backfire” by Paul Beakley

    Anyway, to talk about your actual post, I’m not convinced energy and urgency aren’t pretty close to the same thing. Or at least, I tend to think “low-energy, high-urgency” sounds boring and should probably be the immediate victim of a change in scope.

    “Yes, all of the items in this shopkeeper’s inventory would be very useful in the upcoming dungeon, and it is important to pick the right things, but everybody else is falling asleep watching you decide. Let’s move on!”

  4. I suppose I can imagine a high energy low-urgency situation, such as something that is fun (to the players) and that isn’t important to anyone’s agenda- a friendly race as an interlude in the larger story, for example.

  5. I think energy and urgency are separable, if often related, just because I’ve seen a thing — mostly at cons — where GMs mistake a lack of one for the lack of the other and try to force the gap with a bad tool.

    Like a table where the players are engaged in what is happening, but are on a different pace than the GM wants them to be, and so the GM blows shit up to try and make them go faster/be more excited. Which sometimes works, but often just pisses the players off. Or a table where no decision actually matters, but the GM tries to get you all to make them really fast and jumps around and makes everyone roll lots of dice as though the commotion is going to replace the substance.

    I tend to think of it, in the negative at least, as times when enthusiasm is lacking vs. times where meaning is lacking. And while you can sometimes bridge those, and one does often lead to the other, you can’t make meaning by trying to pump more enthusiasm.

  6. Hmmm, I enjoy all four quadrants of energy/urgency:

    High Energy + High Urgency = super exciting, go go go, you have time for one last exchange with the Prince before the bomb goes off/he marries another

    Low Energy + High Urgency = very thinky, an in-game puzzle or the meta activity of figuring out how to mechanically do something (building or applying your dice pool)

    High Energy + Low Urgency = silly fun, a mook fight, lots of stunts, a glittery party with many conversations.

    Low Energy + Low Urgency = quiet moments, a conversation between PCs that doesn’t advance plot but does reveal character.

  7. Brand Robins yes! I was fumbling around for that and that’s exactly what was in my head. Not knowing the difference and misdiagnosing a solution.

  8. Joe Beason it probably makes you an exceptionally good player (and I know you are!) because you can find pleasure at all four corners. My bad-star-player tendencies sometimes makes me avoid boredom too much, and I start getting antsy in the lulls when I should be paying attention to other things.

  9. I think it depends on the content. My preferred mode of play is complicated relationships in motion, an evolving R-Map. I can be happy with snowballing PbtA moves or studious pondering of Annalise dice manipulations, as long as it serves that. Snowballing moves or complicated pool mechanics that serve other purposes, like a fist fight, are less compelling. I can get grumpy if I’m not fed a steady diet of emo or politics or whatever, even if it’s only a few minutes between trips to the dungeon.

  10. There are probably games that play “better” tending towards one corner or another, too. I played in a game of Durance this past weekend that had a very uncomfortable mismatch between energy and urgency in several of the scenes, especially as we were nearing the end and needed someone to turn the urgency knob up a touch.

    But I’ve played games of, say, Kingdom, where the same energy/urgency combo probably would have been fine.

  11. I’ve been needling around in the low-energy, low-urgency space with some of my designs for the last couple of years and I’m still trying to sort out not just how to make it work, but also my feelings about it.

    I’ve designed mechanics that slow the game down hard and I it works sometimes, but when it doesn’t the players start to connect story threads and amp things up while the game doesn’t give them those tools. At these times, I wonder, should my game (or me as facilitator/GM) accommodate the player’s desires or is it simply not the right game for them?

    The game I’m working on now doesn’t really have pacing mechanics at all (which is weird for me) and it’s kind of freeing in that we’ll have to rely on our guts to tell us how hard or slow or whatever to go.

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