Character Driven Pacing and Downtime

Another two weeks have gone by, and so I’m here again, planning for our game. I wrote this to myself (to get my thoughts down) but also TO my Players (as I want to them to think cerebrally about story like I do). I hope you’ll get some value out of it. I take notes in a medium without access to italics so I tend to capitalize for emphasis.

I’m studying about story-pacing this afternoon as I plan for tomorrow’s game. I am aware that “the camera” has stayed on The Heroes so long that it feels they haven’t gotten a break (thus also affecting Refresh). This was not originally a conscious choice, but I’ve realized that it keeps the tension high. It also leads me to question if I WANT to keep the tension high.

I watched all of Defenders over a few nights (no real spoilers follow). It does NEARLY the same thing by keeping the camera on the Characters MOST of them time… It was these few times that the camera ISN’T on one of the Heroes that got me to thinking.

In preparing for the LAST game, I experimented with a different style of narration. In my game I normally will write and narrate The Establishing Shot. I open with this to recement the setting for both you AND me. But if you remember, last time I established the setting as The City, in a big/broad panning down motion; and then did a montage of what some NPCs were up to.

I realize that Tabletop RPGS and Books/Movies/Shows are different mediums, but Defenders took time to show us what some of the Bad Guys and Support Heroes were up to, simply to humanize them. “Every man is the hero of his own story”: and ESPECIALLY when you’re telling an Ensemble type story, the longer you keep the camera on a Character (even a Bad Guy) it helps us understand their drives/motives/needs. By putting the camera on them, you tell us what type of Scenes they’ll likely be found in (rich operas, fancy hotels, steril boardrooms), but also make us voyeurs by virtue of our 3rd person perspective.

I don’t want to overdo it. But I think I’ll try and do this a bit more in the coming episodes to see how it is received. Maybe not JUST during the intros (for the sake of building intrigue) but also DURING the game, for a moment, between Player Scenes. To help slow down the pace, to spread out the tension. In our current game I can do this either by showing these lesser Characters struggling like the main Characters and/or by showing how they COPE with these struggles.

*Rereading this, I also realize I can start a Scene and during IT’S establishing shot, have the camera follow an NPC (maybe even someone mundane) through the Scene before letting it linger on one of the Player Characters before asking the classic prompts of:”Ok, what do you do? How does your Character act/react? What are they thinking right now/about all this?

So that brings me to my question to you all, my Players. To pick on Bri, Ennis is a “Chill Royal Apothecary and Physician to the King”. The events of the last episode caused Ennis (and by extension Bri) to lose her “chill”. How would Ennis cope and try to regain that Chill?

Sometimes you just don’t/cant. Some Characters pull a Theon, and rather than maintain Party/Player/Character cohesion they BREAK from the stress, they fail a sanity check, they become routed. They flip the table, say “F**K it I’m Out” and need to go somewhere else. This can be either to seek better answers, to FIND that chill; or they may even decide to not STAND with the other Players/Character at The Big Battle in the name of rationality/cowardice/self-preservation.

I don’t want you all to feel you HAVE to play a certain way to maintain Party Cohesion (let me worry about that). No, I want you to focus on your character, how to keep them dynamic and real, and together we will force the best-damn story we can tell-together to emerge.

In The Defenders, Jessica Jones has nearly half an episode in where she isn’t “buying this bullshit” and resists just falling in-line for the sake of “forming the party”, even though that would be convenient/expedient to the plot. She’s a drunk, foul mouthed, and skeptical Lone Wolf. To justify pushing her BACK toward the fold, she needs to Investigate (one of her peak skills) and also get the crap beat out of her (she’s tough but doesn’t know how to Fight well). These actions/Scene bring her back around and help cement her loyalty and role in the group. When she does make up her mind to be part of this “team”, she not only shows up with useful evidence/info, but she overcomes her weakness (her lack of Fight). She comes onto the Scene, not like a silent Devil-shaped shadow, but with her charming I-give-no-shits attitude: by crashing an SUV through a wall and taking out the first tier of mooks in a larger fight-scene/combat. In terms of Combat: she essentially goes last in the initiative chain, but it matters less since she essentially kicks off the fight.

Remember Consequences (ESPECIALLY Mental ones) don’t just go away with time, but need some catharsis, some action you ACTIVELY take-time/devote-Scenes to, to kick-start the healing. As your Characters DOUBT themselves, their role in the plot, the words/actions/intent of the other party members; how do they take time off? What does Chilling look like to YOUR Character?

Thanks again for reading this, I hope you got some cerebral value from it, and that you’ll talk openly about how this has come up in your games: either from a Storyteller OR a Player’s POV. How do you feel about scenes DEDICATED to down-time (rather than just hand waving it), and/or Scenes where we give NPCs screen-time alone?

Leave a Message