GM Tips: The Power of the Pause
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! I was running a session recently, and I did something that I've done on many occasions before but haven't discussed on this blog yet:
I paused at irregular intervals on odd words.
This is something I want to discuss in further depth, because I think it adds a good bit to a game session for your gaming group. Over the years I've discovered that pausing adds a lot to a scene, but among them all there's one pause that does more than the rest to add interest and engagement from your players. And that's the one we want to talk about here.
I. Types of Pauses
There are many kinds of pauses, some of which you already use both at the gaming table and elsewhere. You have the pregnant pause, where everyone expects the next word, anticipating what will come. This is most commonly used when waiting for a roll to be made (by either a player or the game master) to see if something will succeed or fail, and I'd wager it's the most common one you see in a roleplay session, and for good reason.
There's also the ominous pause. The players have attempted to complete a puzzle, or have planned out how to talk to an NPC, and after making their attempt they look to you, wondering, "Did it work?" You pause as you look at one of them, and then you give the verdict on it through an engaging description.
And then there's the expectant pause. The game master has introduced an area to the party, they've searched the area and heard the result of their investigation, and the GM asks, "What would you like to do?" In this case, the pause is on the part of the GM, and the players fill the void with their actions.
But there's another kind of pause, one that doesn't come up nearly as often, I think because we feel a bit odd doing it. That's what I will refer to as the Churchill Pause. Winston Churchill commonly paused in places where people typically didn't pause so that people's minds would be slightly jarred by what they heard, which kept them engaged with what he was saying (complete aside: he did the same thing with word order on occasion for the same reason, leading to the amazing sentence, "Bad grammar is something up with which we shall not put" to prove his point).
This pause, which is not that hard to do, looks something like this. Let's say we want to say the following to our players: "You see an open countryside: a few cows grazing on the hill, and there are few clouds in the sky. Everything seems peaceful." I could see your average player losing interest for a period of time, but let's say that this is a setup for an ambush, and we don't want people who zoned out to be asking, "Wait, where are we? What are we doing" right when combat is getting interesting. So we try to keep them engaged, and we do this with a Churchill Pause.
The natural breaks for pauses are in bold:
"You see an open countryside (pause): a few cows grazing on the hill (pause), and there are few clouds in the sky. (pause) Everything seems peaceful."
So if we use the Churchill Pause, we would insert the breaks close to where they should be, but not quite there:
"You see an (pause) open countryside: a few (pause) cows grazing on the hill, and there are (pause) few clouds in the sky. Everything seems (pause) peaceful."
What this does is it places emphasis on words that are normally not emphasized, which gives both a dissonance and an intrigue that you don't normally get when speaking. And that keeps them tuned in, because it adds a special power to your scene: imagination.
II. The Power of "The Pause"
What are we doing by changing how we pause? First, it places emphasis in the sentence, which at least implies meaning even if there isn't any (maybe you intended this section to just be open space: we walk for a few miles). By pausing right before "open countryside," the mind suddenly begins thinking, "...wait, why pause before the word 'open'? Is it actually open? Is there something I'm missing?"
By pausing before "cows" the mind begins to wonder, "...wait, this world has magic: are they actually cows? Are they wizards in disguise? Do these cows eat meat as well as grass?"
And when you pause before "few clouds" they begin thinking, "...so wait: is there something behind the few clouds that there are in the sky? Is it abnormal for there to be few clouds in the sky? What was the weather like last night or earlier this morning?"
And the result is your gamers stay intrigued. And as their imaginations run wild, who knows: they may ask a question that gives you good grounds to ad lib something that sounds awesome if you want to, and to your players it looks like it was the plan all along.
This is a shorter post, but I don't think we need to dwell on it much. We have wonderfully imaginative people around our tables (whether you've seen it or not), and sometimes all it takes to make that imagination thrive is to add a bit of nothing to what you're doing. And they fill that space with something that might be even better than whatever you could have filled it with.
Just a fun tip - hope it's useful for you!
Until next time,