Pace of the Game

So I wanted to start something of a discussion thread, specifically concerning how everybody handles the pace of their particular BW games. My background in role-playing (like so many others) comes from the d20 system. While I rarely (rarely) use this system anymore, I think that my current style of GMing comes from these roots.

Whenever I played D&D, generally a session corresponded with a single day, or a fraction of a single day. You heard there was treasure in yon “abandoned” mine, you stormed it, fought a bunch of stuff for a session or two, and emerged triumphant. Individual die rolls had very specific results, and generally lasted for only moments – climb this, hit that, intimidate him. Time was highly granular, if you will.

I get the feeling that BW doesn’t work so well with that style of play. As the rules say, only roll for the important stuff (Roll or Say Yes); don’t bother with all the little rolls that don’t really matter.

So I find myself in an interesting twilight zone. I’m used to the idea that sneaking into the palace to poison the ambassador and steal off with the beautiful co-conspirator would take an entire session – and what’s more, my players expect it as well. Yet in the back of my mind, I know that a couple linked tests could accomplish said task in just moments. If this is an exciting scene, which works better? What’s more, resources and circles seem like they are geared toward longer strides of time, rather than minute-to-minute play, making them feel forced at times.

So how do you all handle pace? Do your days, weeks, and months glide by as single rolls turn the clock with monumental power? Or do you find that six sessions results in barely a week’s in-game time passing? To those who have “larger rolls”: how do you maintain tension? To those who are practically gaming in real-time (myself included): how to you keep from being bogged down in minutiae? How do you all deal with large, complex plans that have many small parts begging to be rolled?

I’m coming from the same background, and I am interested to see what people say.

My take: I believe it comes down to Intent and Task. The Task has to be manageable, a small chunk, if you will. You can chain them together for longer linked tests if you want time to pass more swiftly, but you don’t need to.

I’d say the real question is about the opposition the players face. If they’re taking lots of different steps to avoid or eliminate their opposition - say, scaling a wall of the palace, avoiding guards, killing any who find them, find their way to the ambassador’s quarters, plant the poison in his favorite bottle of wine, and escaping - I’d say that could be a lot of rolls. It’s about what’s important. Each of those steps could be important. Or if they’re not, you can go with the linked test.

One of my favorite things about Burning Wheel is that it’s scalable. If dealing with the ambassador is really a sideshow, you could resolve it in a few linked rolls. Or you could roleplay it out, rolling dice each time they want to do something that someone else wants to prevent.

I spent several hours this Saturday just dealing with the social events of an afternoon: arriving, chumming around with important people, preparing for the banquet, and attending it. I roll less than in D&D, true, but each time it mattered - ie. they wanted to impress people, they wanted to find someoen - we still rolled. It ended up being a lot of rolls. I think that’s okay.

Have you looked at the Si-Juk write-ups Luke did in the Playing forum? The first one is here. I highly recommend reading all four parts. It’s got a mix of grand, sweeping narrative and nitty-gritty detailed actions.

Edit: I feel I didn’t answer your question very directly. I would say if there’s a bunch of different parts of the plan that actually matter a great deal for pulling it off, and they’re begging to be rolled, roll them! Just be ruthless about what actually matters. I don’t know that I can say more than that because what matters is very subjective. Every group will have its own norms.

You’ve only got so much time, and the more time spent on one element of the story, the more it’s emphasized. Do many characters have beliefs that hinge on the ambassador and his poisoning? Draw it out. Is the ambassador being poisoned to pin the blame on an earl? Just make it a few rolls and focus your time on the ultimate goals. You’re just trying to put together an interesting story, so skip ahead to the good parts!

Of course, sometimes it isn’t even about beliefs. If players are really excited about the gritty details of getting poison, infiltrating the embassy, slipping in the poison, and escaping, run with it. If they know what they want to do and don’t really care about the minutiae of it, roll and skip ahead.

Some fights are Fights, some are just Bloody Versus tests…

Is this a feel as you go proposition or something explicitly determined by the group as you play (or before play starts)?

It reminds me of the explicit structure of The Shadow of Yesterday with Bringing Down the Pain, although that more detailed mechanical minigame is only activated by the player, not the GM.


I struggle with this.

One of the factors that drags me/us into minutiae is fear, plain and simple. Particularly if you come from games that are heavy on the GM planning (e.g. adventure paths, linear modules or whatever), then you have a strong incentive to keep the session within your planning horizon. That’s going to cause you to make all sorts of unconscious choices that slow the game down, that focus on details.

As an antidote for this, all I can say is to try to be conscious of it, and whenever possible, rush beyond your planning horizon.

One random idea is to try to invert your thinking from detail-oriented to context-oriented. When the players arrive at location, the tendency is to add successive layers of detail to it. (I suspect this at least partly comes from old school gaming’s focus on finding treasure hidden in secret compartments.) As the players arrive at a village, for example, you might start thinking about how many buildings it has, who lives in them, that they’re thatched, that the baker walks with a limp, etc. Instead, try thinking about the village’s context, its relationship with other interesting big-picture elements.

Instead of figuring out what kind of clothing your ambassador wears and what’s in his strongbox, think about his context. What’s beyond him? Who cares about him? What other ambassador-level interests are at work? His lord?

Keep some big-picture elements in your back pocket. If they off the ambassador unexpectedly, and there’s really nothing ‘beyond the ambassador’, then you can always introduce another big-picture element.

Make your default “next moment of interest” two weeks later. So instead of saying, “What are you doing while Ethaniel is sharpening his sword,” develop a natural tendency to skip much further forward in time. Skip as far forward as you possibly can, in fact, until it’s hard to believe that nothing interesting had happened in that time frame. Assume the passage of time. “The ambassador is dead at your hands. Two weeks later, you’re holed up in a tavern outside Strasbourg when a messenger arrives bringing word from the Duchess of Penwith.”

If the party complains, “Hey I wanted to search his body!” you can just say, “Do you have an instinct along those lines? No? There wasn’t time.”

(Again, the caveat to all of this is to be aiming a players’ beliefs.)

There’s tension in the rolls, in the consequences of failed rolls making a smooth mission in to the castle into a brutal Fight! or a Range and Cover. Sure, if every roll is a success, players will roll right through but that rarely occurs. Failure is a part of the game, a big part and it will make the easy walk in to the castle in a few rolls have much more drama.

If they do succeed nice and clean, I find that there’s plenty of adventure and tension after sneaking into the castle and poisoning the ambassador. There are consequences that the death brings and other things to do. Beliefs might have to be re-written and we’re off to the races.

I don’t find that months and months go by in my games and I’ve certainly had sessions that take place over the course of a day or so.

If players find that their characters don’t have anything to do for a few months, they can bust out the training rules or I will bust something out as the GM that will slap hard at their beliefs, inspiring action.

That was an incredibly insightful post, Michael. I can see that I’ve very much been adhering to idea of scaling down (inventing details) rather than scaling up (recognizing larger contexts). What’s more, I like the idea that rather than make every moment tense, I can just skip from tense moment to tense moment, so that time passes in a realistic way without losing interest.

I do, however, have a question about the approach you just described. At least one of my players is very invested in controlling exactly what his character does. The way he phrased it to me, if he can solve a problem through straight role-playing without resorting to dice, he will, just to keep things as far removed from chance as he can. He has no real problem with rolling the dice when it’s necessary, but he dislikes having his character fail, as it takes control away from his use of the character.

So, if I were to say “You’ve killed the ambassador. Two weeks later you are here…” I get the feeling there would be immediate revolt, since he himself did not choose what to do in the aftermath of the murder. Have you had any experience with players refusing to grant any liberties with how their characters behave?

I’m no expect, half of this post is going to get translated to sharpie post-it notes so I remember it when I play next - this is the stuff I’m struggling with!

Since it’s a big shift in play style, sounds like it might warrant an out-of-character discussion beforehand. “Look, I know we tend to ‘play out the day’, but I’d like to try an approach where I cut scenes on a high point, then move the action to what I have planned next. I’d like to run an epic game where the plot advances more quickly than we’re used to, more like the pace of a fantasy movie than a dungeon procedural. It might feel unfamiliar at first - it’s unfamiliar to me - but this is what I’m trying to do. Are you up for that?”

I ended my example with a very authoritative grab for control of the pacing by the GM, but I don’t really do this - though I think some GMs are happy to. You can make rapid time cuts the default, but still allow players to backtrack.

Control is a separate issue. Frankly, I’d be a little leery if a player was so reluctant to give up control that he didn’t want to roll any dice. Is he trying to “win”?

If he’s really trying to ‘win’, he may want to apply his real-world knowledge (e.g. about how castles were built, how peasants really lived, engineering) or his interpersonal skills on you. (I’ve seen a player berate a GM that he wasn’t playing his NPC as easy to convince as he was in an earlier scene.)

If rushing beyond the planning horizon is challenging for you, then it may also be for the players. Big-picture elements tend to be social (simply because it’s easier to reintroduce an NPC than a location - dungeons can’t come and find you!) and there can be a degree of comfort in knowing that the next few hours are going to be devoted to finding traps and killing monsters. After fleeing the ambassador’s keep, the players are once more in the whirling realm of the larger social picture, same as you, which demands some initiative and creative effort on their part.

As a GM, I do want to see the heroes succeed, but the path is unpredictable. I remember being on the receiving end of a lot of failure during an early part of Burning Ahimsa. What got to me was not so much the failure, but the feeling that my character was losing his ability to affect the world, the steady dwindling of options. So, failure should always lead to a place where the player has more important choices to make.

In an impersonal, combat-centric campaign, the story is a treadmill that the players have to survive. Failure is bad, it means they don’t get to see the rest of the story, often through character death. In BW, failure is different - this is the hero’s story. I heard it said once that an author really has to love every character, or it will show. The PCs aren’t my characters, but I need to love them. If the hero fails, the camera will follow him - not mockingly (“what a putz, he forgot to search for traps!”) - but with sensitivity. So, here he is, crawling back from the Tomb of Horrors, weaponless and with a broken leg. Holy fuck! What’s he going to do now? (A great situation for accelerated time, btw.)

Control is a separate issue. Frankly, I’d be a little leery if a player was so reluctant to give up control that he didn’t want to roll any dice. Is he trying to “win”?
I’ve run into situations like this before in my years of GM’ing, and generally, my answer is “yes.” This is a person who is interested in telling his story, not the group’s story. I’ve found these people feel uncomfortable in in-game situations where they do not have a controlling interest in the action, and they tend to want the plot to be about them moreso than other people.

Your stuff is not immune to being messed with in Burning Wheel. If he doesn’t like someone messing with his BIT’s, he’s got to throw down dice.

This really does require a sit-down where you explain the nature of the game and how it differs from everything else that has been done before.

The best way to go is explain just what we mean by Consequences in BW. In D&D, you are punished for failure. In BW, failure makes the game complicated, and can often be used as a launching point for adventure.

The Resource maintenance cycle is my favorite example of this. Fail the test? Guess you’ve got a reason to go adventuring now! Or maybe you’re hounded by a tax collector. Or your squire runs off and now you go on an adventure to get him back.

Personally, I’d classify this as railroading. Jumping ahead in time without it being a challenge to a Belief and without giving the players/characters a say about it? That doesn’t feel very BW to me. There are times when it would rock. Like, after you’ve handed out a Deeds point and everyone has just accomplished something major, saying “seasons pass…” is pretty great. Or if there’s a lull and no one really knows what to do next, fast-forwarding and explaining what the rest of the world is doing while they’re sitting on their thumbs is a good way to ratchet up tension. Or, perhaps my favorite - which ties in well with the Circles enmity clause discussion going on elsewhere - making it the consequence of a failed test. For instance, making the months pass thing the enmity clause complication. “You want to find a Knight that’s not loyal to the king, eh? Ok. No matter what, you’ll find him and he’ll be open to helping you, but if you fail you and your party are going to waste 3 months tracking him down, which means the King will have more time to move forward on his plans.” THAT is hot. THAT is dropping a tough decision into a player’s lap and making him squirm to decide how to go about it. This is of course just one man’s opinion.

I like that a lot.