We return to the Zurn blog for our fourth post in the series on campaign creation, talking today about managing the pacing for your campaign. As a means of starting the discussion, we'll begin with a discussion on pacing for the campaign as a whole, and then tie this into a discussion on mission content (for reasons you'll see below).
1. The Campaign: A Cohesive, Dynamic Whole
As I mentioned, different people have different ways of running a session. My style has always been to wrap up a segment of the campaign (typically denoted by when the party hits a payday) by the end of a game session, so that when everyone goes home, they have some Advancement Points and/or Experience Points to purchase new things. We will refer to this theory for roleplay pacing - where everything gets wrapped up by the end of the session - as the TV Theory of pacing.
Others plan out sessions to cover as much of a given block of content as possible, but if it extends into a second, third, or fourth session, that's okay - we give the story as much time as it needs. We will refer to this theory as the Movie Theory of pacing.
For either theory, the campaign on the whole is broken up into a series of smaller blocks which we will refer to as "missions." Both are successful models for progressing a campaign, though I offer a warning if you use the Movie Theory: meet consistently with your group. It's okay for a party's stats and abilities to remain stagnant from one session to another, but it can hurt morale if the party goes for months without feeling like they are making progress (especially if you meet irregularly, as they don't know when they will ever progress from where they are).
Regardless of the model you use, a rightly paced campaign should be cohesive and dynamic. By a "cohesive" campaign we mean that all of the elements of the campaign should fit into a consistent whole: everything should have a purpose, and the central purpose of the campaign should be maintained over the inclusion of "a cool idea."
But campaigns should also be dynamic: the flow of energy and emotion should ebb and flow (not necessarily wax and wane, though this is one of the most common ways to do it) in a way that makes sense. An example from the Star Wars franchise illustrates this perfectly.
Case Study: Star Wars Episode I
Unlike the majority of people, I don't hate Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I loved the fight choreography, enjoyed the politics (I mean, seriously: we have to understand why people were willing to discard the Old Republic, and we got that in this movie), and didn't mind the presence of Jar Jar.
Yet the movie has two serious flaws: the age of Anakin (casting him that young makes his relationship with Padme creepy), and the last seven minutes of the movie. In a series of scenes that can only be described as a whirlwind, we have the Gungan defeat, the capture of Padme, the death of Qui-Gon, the destruction of the droid control ship, the defeat of the viceroy, the death of Darth Maul, the arrival of the Chancellor (showing us that the politics subplot has been resolved and the blockade is gone), the debate over Anakin being trained, the funeral of Qui-Gon, and the peace celebration. All in the span of less than seven minutes.
Now, to be clear, all of these plot points are cohesive - they all have a place, and they serve the purpose of developing and tying up plots from the movie. My argument against the pacing of the last seven minutes of the movie is not an argument against cohesion: it's a problem with the dynamic pacing of each element. We don't have time to take in the fact that Obi-Wan's mentor is dead (and mimics his death at the hands of Vader in front of Luke, with Luke being powerless to help), and don't have enough time between when the Gungans are defeated to the time that the droid army is incapacitated to be worried about them. It's so rushed that any emotion we wanted to feel doesn't have time to set.
And this is the heart of pacing: how do you build the emotion of your campaign (and thus keep your players engaged)? Good mission content, rightly paced. So let's look at missions.
2. The Session: Mission or Movement?
A "mission," as we defined earlier, is a portion of content for the story, covered in one or more sessions. So to continue with the Phantom Menace theme, "Mission 1" is, "The Jedi Knights Attempt to Negotiate," Mission 2 is, "The Invasion of Naboo," etc.
And execution on mission pacing is poor: in the first two missions we have the takeover of a whole planet, but we see none of the action from that invasion. We have two negotiation attempts in the first three missions, and one results in five seconds of combat (killing battle droids) that then leads to a GM v. Player standoff (with the droidekas), while the other is resolved with a mind trick.
The missions lack dynamic pacing. The scenes are cohesive, but it lacks a dynamic use of energy and emotion in how they weave the scenes together. When you build your campaigns, keep this in mind: a slow start can sap the interest from the story you are telling, so keep the energy moving. If your genre says that this means action, throw in action at punctuated points to keep everyone engaged. If it means drama, throw in a crisis for them to solve. If it's a tragedy, kill someone (kidding!). But keep the energy dynamic to keep everyone engaged.
In the campaign I'm writing, we're destroying five elven villages with a marauding army of minotaurs. This has the opposite problem: the camapign can become boring because we're destroying elven towns all the time. So as I started laying out the missions, I broke up the five siege missions, and then filled the space with opportunities to make connections with the elves (so that the dying townspeople mean something) and chances to sabotage the minotaur camp (which also introduces you to the characters on the other side of the war).
I also quickly realized that to keep the flow of the story dynamic, the minotaurs will need to use a different strategy for each village (to keep things fresh for the party), and that then led to a realization that each village will have to be different (to give a reason for the different strategies, and to help each village be distinct in the mind of the players).
This led me to create at least 6 distinct NPCs for each village, so that everyone has someone they resonate with and want to save when the village is attacked. Then that led to detailed maps (as we need "chinks in the armor" for each village), story elements (as critical villain NPCs suddenly came to life to fill roles for the plot), and the next thing I knew, I had two civilizations built, ready to go to war, all because I asked the question, "How am I going to pace the destruction of five villages?"
And that leads us to our final thought.
3. The Benefit of Pacing
Why is pacing so important? Because it does exactly what you just saw: it forces you to think through the different elements of your story, and the result is a full, rich story with nuance. And it's far more enjoyable for your players. I didn't use to think about pacing when I built campaigns, and my GMing and designing has changed immensely because of it. So I highly recommend, at the outset, that you give some thoughts to pacing your mission content as you design your campaign.
In our next post we'll talk more about building missions to add better pacing to your sessions, so keep watching this space!