Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pacing In RPGs

I’ve been asked several times about how I run a successful Rifts demo at conventions. In a word? Quickly.

Rifts is the sort of game where I’ve found a breakneck, gonzo pace enhances play. You hand-wave or simplify whatever gets in the way, don’t worry about, and liberally allow for the player’s brilliance to deliver panic or additional explosions to the enemy, thus shortening combat.

It’s when you show up to a convention, expecting the kitchen-sink madness of Rifts you’ve always heard of, only to find that you’re arguing for 30 minutes over Mega-Damage that things get dull. Stick to the basics, toss out the rest, and emphasize utility. What do they do, what are the reactions to what they do, and what happens as a result. Oh, and why it is Awesome, and Probably Involves Plasma Weaponry.

The pacing in that case is contributing to “Refrigerator Logic”. That is, your players don’t have time during the game to question why the Rogue Scholar is riding a Triceratops—that’s saved for when they go and grab a soda out of the fridge after the game.

As a Game Master, pacing is one of the hardest things to nail down. Too slow, and the game founders. Too fast, and it can seem disjointed and shallow to players. Transitioning between games such as Call of Cthulhu, where going too quickly can stunt investigation and discovery, and Rifts or several Savage Worlds settings, where “Let The Bodies Hit The Floor” should be considered a dainty waltz, can be doubly hard.

I’ve never found a secret to it, except to react to the verbal and physical cues of the players, and to consider what sort of game folks are after (expectations). That comes back to communication, but then again, most things in RPGs do.

10 comments:

Barking Alien said...

This may sound like I'm trolling but honestly...

"It’s when you show up to a convention, expecting the kitchen-sink madness of Rifts you’ve always heard of, only to find that you’re arguing for 30 minutes over Mega-Damage that things get dull."

...its hard to imagine RIFTS run any other way.

RIFTS is probably the last game I would personally want to run at a con if time was a factor. Hand waving and fudging would seem anathema to RIFTS, since its exhaustive detail and rules for any and every possible thing that could ever happen ever are part of the draw of the system.

It would be like adding undue complexity to TOON or Teenagers from Outer Space.

Kudos to you for making it work.

pseckler13 said...

If you show up at a convention to run Rifts and throw out half the rules, a lot of players will want to know why you threw out the the rules, and won't be very happy about it.

James V said...

If you show up at a convention to run Rifts and throw out half the rules, a lot of players will want to know why you threw out the the rules, and won't be very happy about it.

Though you do have a point, I don't know if most of these scenarios are as extreme as you think Zach is portraying them. As someone who has run RIFTS rigidly in the past, I think the main point is that the spirit of the game makes room for some Rule Zero judgements for the sake of fun, awesome, and expedience, especially if the game is a demo, meant to "show-off" the game for people who are unexperienced.

Zachary The First said...

@BA: Like any other system, you use what you need. I learned long ago RAW was the path to madness.

@pseckler: Well, they haven't been yet. Knowing what's core and what isn't helps. I could see it causing widespread consternation in a Living Realms event, but that's got different expectations from a casual convention game. As long as I' upfront, there's no issue.

@James: Pretty much. Show me someone who insists on pursuing minutiae when demoing a game to new players, and I'll show you someone who probably isn't selling that game very well.

Thanks for the comments!

Zachary The First said...

Really, look at it this way: I would no more use all the rules to introduce someone Rifts than I would to GURPS or Rolemaster.

pseckler13 said...

Well, what I'm saying is you specifically mention megadamage- a lot of people don't like megadamage, but that seems like it would be a core part of the Rifts experience. Introducing an alternate system. If someone were running Rifts and said "No RCCs" or "No Coalition".. not a big deal. But if someone said "we're not going to use the MDC rules.. " that would be kind of a thing that would give me pause, especially if this wasn't mentioned until you got to the table (and presumably were beyond the point of a ticket refund). One thing you DO have going for you is there's no continuity in most convention games so people who do show up won't be that "invested" in their characters, that's probably easier for players to deal with. Still, the two things that I think are the most important to convention GMing are cognizance of time (a convention only lasts X hours, and you are going to be using up some fraction of that) and money (convention slots are often paid for with money, or the badge price). Even as a volunteer GM, you don't want to dissappoint a player-- because even if you never see a dime, you are in some fashion responsible to the player to deliver the experience they paid for and expect. Otherwise you might be wasting their time. So they'll hang around for the game because (after all) they paid for it, but then they might not be so happy that they got the bait and switch.

pseckler13 said...

Whoops, I guess I can't edit that. I meant to say that "introducing an alternate system" (for MDC, for example) or throwing out a lot of rules at the last minute (or not mentioning it in the game description in the program) is a risky idea, because the player comes in expecting one thing and you delivered another.. In your mind you might be doing this totally kick ass mind blowing unexpected thing, but the player might still be disappointed because he was hoping to play (whatever game), paid for that, but basically something else.. and now he's thinking he really should have stuck with his friends who went off to True Dungeon (or whatever).

Dr-Rotwang said...

That's a lot of energy for a tired old fat dude like me. But I LOVE a fast-paced game.

Well -- quick, more than fast. Brisk, maybe. Keep thingsmoving, gloss over the boring stuff, and if need be, make the boring interesting. I like...

...

...I like wearing myself out that way.

Jeebus, now I wanna game.

Zachary The First said...

@pseckler: Agreed, I think. There’s some things in Rifts I won’t take out. I’m lucky that I’ve been GMing long enough that I think I have a pretty good feel for the feel and experience of Rifts. But I’m also very careful to ask for feedback after any convention game—I do little forms, so the players can slam me if they need to and escape before I read it. ;)

@doc: I think GMing can wear you out, for sure. There are nights after I’ve run where I’m wiped.

Nikolas said...

YOU CAN RUN RIFTS IN A CON! WoW! Still, even if you simplify your method to speed and pacing it is still hard to pull off.

I mean, your like running all "parallel" systems on uber multi-tasking. Especially when you have so little time to pick up on player body language or cues.

Bravo!