Pacing is Important and Hard to Master

I’ve been a fan of the Walking Dead Comic by Robert Kirkman for many years, so I was delighted when they announced TV show version.  I enjoyed the first season quite a bit even with the changes/alterations to the original plot.  The second season started in mid-October and I have to say that much of this season has been less than stellar to me.

I could talk myself blue in the face about all the completely unnecessary changes from the comic book, etc etc etc, but in the end, what I see as the major problem in parts of the show, is the pacing.  I can pretty much sum it on with on example (SPOILERS AHEAD):

Sophia missing-  That little girl went missing in the first episode of the second season and has been missing since.  We are now on episode 6, which means that Sophia has been missing for 315 minutes of watching time.  She should have been found, at the latest, in episode 3.  Why?  Her missing is still fresh in the viewers head, you feel for her mother who is crying and desperate and lost.  You feel for Rick, who left her to hide while fighting off zombies and she disappeared and is now determined to find her alive.  You feel for the group  because on top of everything else that they have to deal with, they now have to deal with this girl missing.  By episode six..  Not so much.

Personally, I don’t give a shit about her any more..  Especially since she hasn’t been an integral part of the story AT ALL.  The only reason that there is an emotional response is because she is a child and lost in the woods, which is more akin to emotional manipulation than actually good script writing.  I want Carol (the mother) to shut the fuck up because I’m tired of listening to her whine.  I’m tired of Rick and Shane bickering about it.  It’s not fresh any more..  Now it’s just dragging.

Due to the pacing of this particular issue in the show, the possible intensity and emotions and responses it could have created for the viewer are now gone.

Pacing is why I find Return of the King to be so fucking boring (I’m sure some people are getting the pitchforks and torches ready).  I understand that it is the conclusion and it is this big epic battle, but holy fuck!  Does the battle need to go on for so fucking long?  A short concise battle is epic and gets the blood pumping and the viewer excited.  Look at the fight scenes in Braveheart and Gladiator.  They achieve, in their quick and vicious fights, what Return of the King could not, because it dragged on.  Also the scene where Frodo and Sam are climbing Mt. Doom…  I understand that they are struggling and exhausted after an arduous and deadly journey, but pacing wise do I really need to watch them climb up a pebbly hill with several slow motion exhaustion filled moments of slipping down the mountain grasping one another for support for fifteen to twenty minutes?  No..  by the end I just wanted the mountain to blow up and melt everything in a view of fiery screaming death because it was boring.  The suspense and excitement of that scene was lost due to poor pacing.

What Does this have to do with role-playing?

Everything.  Pacing and the ability to know how and went to spring an attack or reveal a important plot point is integral and essential.  Too many times in games I’ve played in and ran games where the pacing has been shot due to poor execution.  A GM describes their horrendous creature in loving detail, a bit too much actually.  Now your bored of the creature.  The springing of a trap is literally, “roll your perception check” which does not set the stage for excitement at all.

James Raggi offers advice for how to handle situations in weird fantasy.  Give total disregard for the rules in lieu for the ability to surprise, astonish, scare, and totally fuck your players up.  Now while I have some disagreements with doing that ALL the time (there are saves for a reason, giving the ability for your character to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, etc) having a surprise round where the characters didn’t get to roll will set the pace of a combat encounter.  Boulders tumbling down the hillside towards the characters as evil nasty creatures come charging in really sets for an interesting and complicated situation rather than just deflated by constant rolling.   Obviously you can’t do this all the time, but every so often for the sake of pacing and an engaging encounter and story, it would work.

The other day Beebo posted his recap for his latest session of Ravenloft.  I may be interjecting my own interpretation of the scene but this sounds like one where the pacing worked extremely well and created a truly awesome session and a truly climactic ending.  This is from his post:

While they groused about this turn of events, the ranger, Gregor, noticed the sound of bats, skittering and moving along the ceiling, just to the edge of the party’s globe of continual light.  “This can’t be good”.  The druid cast Speak with Animals and learned the evil ones were forcing the bats to move in on the characters – there were hundreds of them just beyond the light, waiting for the signal.

The Paladin felt the evil presences closing in.  “That’s right outside the door!  Man, this is a big fracking signal.  They’re in the room with us”.  Copious Aliens quotes as the Paladin detected multiple evil presences moving into attack position just outside the light sphere.

The decisive moment went like this:  the characters knew that once the bats attacked, they wouldn’t be able to cast spells because of the fluttering swarm.  Mordecai made a fateful decision to burn the Dispel Evil scroll (Dispel Evil creates a radius around the Cleric and lasts an entire turn).  The party made a crucial initiative roll, and won it over the incoming bats.  Mordecai cast the spell.

From multiple directions, vampires screamed out of the darkness baring fangs, but then they would hit the invisible globe of Dispel Evil and burst into flames.  Gertrude’s skull rolled to rest near the character’s feet, a pair of vampire fangs sticking out of the top jaw.  Top Hat Man’s hat fluttered to the ground, the rest of his body reduced to ash.  Cheers from around the table as the vampires missed their Saves.  The last standing vampire was Helga, who got a shot in on Gregor (killing him), but who ended up fleeing the carnage in mist form.  The druid cast Faerie Fire on the fleeing cloud and the group followed it through the dark crypts back to the starting point – Helga’s crypt was the first one they had found!  She was cornered and destroyed.  All the vampires left in Castle Ravenloft were part of the ambush, and they were all destroyed.  Total party win.

I can only imagine how awesome that scene would have been and how well it worked because Beebo had been able to provide excellent pacing.  He didn’t drag out the bats fluttering around.  He didn’t overuse theatricality or anything.  The scene could have totally ended up a bogged down mess had the pacing turned out differently.

There are ways to really get the hang of Pacing and narrative control and it takes time, often requiring a GM to slip out of their comfort zone.

I haven’t had a chance to read this yet, but I’ve heard that Hamlet’s Hit Points, by Robin Laws has some awesome advice for learning how to handle and perfect your pacing.

All rambling aside I’m not an expert on pacing and I still fumble with it from time to time.  Pacing is hard enough to handle when writing a book, short story, etc, but add in that role-playing is a living breathing situation that can change at a moments notice, the ability to keep that pacing going is a challenge.  Through trial and error and the ability to read  players, the story, and the situation good pacing can be achieved.


About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

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