Last article, I talked about the narrative session structure (‘NSS’ for short), a way of viewing a game session so you can think about pacing in a constructive way.
The NSS works well if you are trying to think about a session that is intended to move the plot forward and provide a feeling of being in an ongoing story that is moving at a pace. But what do we do when we are looking at downtime or social events?
When we want the players to feel like things are moving at a slower pace and people are relaxing or shopping or just investigating a location?
When they split up and go to do different things? How do we manage that?
Well, I’d like to break down the specifics of my structure for such a session, one that has kept my downtime more fluid and sessions feeling fresh.
Hopefully, sharing it will help you find a way to keep those sessions from dragging as they sometimes can.
Cross-Cutting and Passes
So, in any downtime session, I’ll usually use a cross-cutting technique where I’ll simply pass the focus of the session between single characters or groups of characters accomplishing various tasks.
Cross-cutting is easy to do and just requires to you say ‘And now we cut to [insert characters names]’ at a point you think the action has started to lull in a scene or you feel it could be left on a mini cliffhanger. Then you can come back to the group you just left after they’ve had a rest, time to think, or their narrative has moved on slightly.
I tend to try and get around everyone in a group before I cut back to people, so that everyone has had some screen time before we see the first group again. It’s not always possible because of the way in-game timings and narrative work, but I try and stick to it. I call each of these segments of action ‘passes’ because I’ve passed by everyone in the game. As I am going around, I am attempting to accomplishing something with each pass
Pass 1 – Set up
In the first pass, I am going around each player and attempting to set up the thing/s they are trying to accomplish in downtime, letting them pick what is going to be the focus of their action.
As soon as I meet something that is going to require a little more effort to accomplish, I’m going to change to a different player.
The idea here is by the time I have completed the first pass, each player is clear about where they stand and what they need to accomplish and has been given time to think about how to resolve the task ahead of them.
Pass 2 – Active
Now each player/group has a scene set up; you can complete a pass with them attempting to achieve their goal. Maybe it’s persuading an NPC, maybe uncovering information, maybe locating something they need. If there’s dramatic action, you may need to leave a cliffhanger and come back for another pass.
This part of the session is about allowing each player or set of players a little bit of screen time and play to their own style to accomplish their goal, but you still being aware of the need to keep the pace up and not dwell to long on one story thread. Let everyone get close to their goals.
Pass 3 – Revelations
In this pass of players, you have to provide some new information and change the game. Try to completely reframe at least one of the threads in the third pass – make the moment with that player tell them something new about the plot of game world, provide a new threat, introduce an unexpected wrinkle or show us a new emotional side to an existing NPC.
This changes the dynamic and pace of the session and prevents the second half of things to feel different to the first, which allows players to feel like they’ve progressed forward even in a downtime session.
Pass 4 – Resolution
In the fourth pass, resolving the action you started and giving the players what they set out to accomplish. Let characters get what they want.
Provide new information, let them find a place or thing that is useful. Move there status quo in a favourable direction. Then look at the clock and see if you have time to accomplish another set of passes. If you do, start the next part of downtime, if not, then start to find a way to bring everyone back together and wrap up the action.
Some Thoughts On This Structure
You should always be thinking of when to let a scene play out and when to resolve a pass well so that the active and passive parties are both getting rotated frequently enough.
This can get more complex if some groups have tasks that are easy to accomplish or suddenly make progress. If you are struggling, you can always skip to an easy resolution or run one player through several smaller loops of passes if it is easier or makes the agency of players flow better.
The above might sound simple or obvious, but I have never seen it explained beat for beat for any GM to pick and use. Because of that I have seen GM’s trying to resolve all of the stuff one side of a group want to do for an hour or more while other sit silent or pacing slows down as things get complex and no one has checked a complete pass has been made.
Learning when you should jump the narrative across to a new focus can sometimes take some practice. Don’t let it consume you, but it’s always worth taking a moment to think about how long a scene has been going, usually when a player is speaking to another player or NPC.
Remember that you too are a player, so give yourself some time to let the game take time in something you are interested – really chew the scenery as an NPC you like or introduce something interesting to the narrative. But once you’ve done that once in a three-hour period, don’t dwell on a moment because you are getting all the joy out of it. Even if it serves your greater plot, if the other players need more focus, serve that need first, you can always come back around.
I hope the ‘Passes’ structure gives you something to think about in planning alternate structures for your sessions. Is there alternate structures or tricks you apply to things with less action and more disparate parties? Feel free to let me know. Until next time!
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