Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 8: Speed of Plot

Gah! Finally done with the write up for Colt Apollo 4. Normally writing anything this involved and grindingly slow is a chore, so you can only imagine how the game went. Or at least how the game went for me. Players seemed to enjoy themselves by all accounts and the dilemma in dealing with the Indian warrior really served as a good moral drama – as well as grounding the characters’ beliefs – that the players sunk their teeth into. But it was still an awkward and unwieldy game for me and it’s time to talk about one of my big dislikes about the medium: Distance.

I’ve run games and played in games where characters would walk 500 miles and then walk they’d walk 500 more* and I have nothing but sympathy for the GM if he/she finds themselves narrating the overland version of The Odessey. When it’s me running the game, this is where the wheels come off the wagon. I do not like any journey in a game that’s going to take more than an hour. Here’s why:

ME: So your characters set off across the desert on a grueling three day trek toward the Forgotten City of Opak Re. **

PLAYERS: …

ME: …And welcome to sunny Opak Re!

Three days of harsh desert conditions, tests of endurance, commitment and courage, all rendered down to a five second description.

This does not make for good storytelling.

Greatest gift to a GM in any system is the good old Random Encounter Table. For those unaware, it’s a series of tables where the GM rolls some dice that correllates to a particular event that occurs on the journey. This could be an ambush by bandits, a merchant caravan, somebody stranded or lost, etc. I’m pretty confident the designers of this table read Tolkien and said “You know, we’ve got elves, dwarves and humans but if there’s one thing that we’re going to take from this; it’s that walking is REALLY boring!” There’s a reason why random tables work and here’s the mechanics:

In comics, sense of slowing time is achieved by how many panels are on a page. In a movie or television show, its a montage of scenes. In a book, its the conversations between characters that chew up the time. The simple rule is: The denser the information you have going on between the end of your last arc and the beginning of the next one, the more amount of time appears to pass.

There’s probably a physics formula that can explain it better…

Back in Mackay, I ran a fantasy based game called Exalted. The story of this I won’t dwell on but I think there was enough travelling across various countries and continents to make Fellowship of the Ring seem a briskwalk down the block to the shops. There were two game mechanics that meant I wouldn’t have to be thinking about how I was going to describe months if not years of events that would take place while players were covering miles and what was ideal about them was that they traded distance for danger. Sure you could travel that far, but you run the risk of being killed and eaten in the process. Even if they weren’t killed and eaten, you’ve got some amount of information or an entertaining scene that chews up time and conveys the illusion to the player of how long a trek they’ve had.

Then one of my players got their hands on a spell that meant they would be perfectly safe from any kind of harm until they reached a destination.

This caused me no end of hair-pulling frustration and lead to an approximate of the example written above for many lengthy travels. Now ‘danger’ is strictly interprative and possibly I could have devised other means of distracting the players inbetween destinations but all the characters were evil or, at the very least, self-serving and so there isn’t a heck of a lot that’s going to draw them off the beaten path unless it’s to their gain. Which is problematic enough but it also means that you’re having to come up with scenes that take TOO MUCH time.

Make no mistake, it’s about distracting your players. But it can really only be a distraction. If the next thread of your story arc is taking place many miles away and you’ve lost one to two games to the minor encounter that the players have decided to take very seriously, to the exclusion of the encounter that you WANT them to take seriously, then you’re either trying to improvise an encounter worthy of their expectations or you’re going to leave your players disappointed that the old man whose horse had thrown a shoe wasn’t actually a god in disguise who was testing the players as being worthy for some grand mission that exists only in their heads.

And it’s not just about hiking overland either. Time becomes and even more important factor when you’ve got players doing things like building, investigating, experimenting or tracking. To bring this back to a more current example, last adventure of the Colt Apollo had Kane tracking Indians over the desert for three hours. Additionally this had Wilhem investigating a murder scene and all of the players warily searching underground for either a stash of iron ore, or a murderous Indian warrior. In each of these scenes I was trying to convey either a build-up of suspense, or the amount of effort involved in their actions. I don’t feel that I was sucessful in either endeavour.

NEXT ENTRY: Some strategies, either developed in hindsight, or some generic ideas to get around this problem.

*You hate it now but give it time. You’ll come to love it again.

**Stolen from Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassady. Cause I can’t come up with imaginary stuff today…

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4 Comments

  1. Slightly tangential, but on timing in comics:

    I don’t think panels per page is the heart of pacing. It’s relevant as part of the overall composition, but the sense of timing is about what happens in the panels – or more importantly, what happens between panels. Each panel captures a moment in time – the spread of that time is dictated by the implied action between frames (action in a very loose sense – even if nothing happens, a change in lighting, or even POV, can express the passage of time). The artist relies on the reader to fill in that action in his mind, so choosing the right moments to show is crucial – it’s also incumbent on the writer to take this into account.

    That’s not a fully-formed argument yet. More on this when I possibly develop it into a full article. Thinking in progress.

    • While I don’t necessarily disagree with what you’re saying, particularly in regards to what takes place between the panels, the panel grid on the page often determines the beats and pace of the story.

      Take a look at V for Vendetta and then compare that to, say, a Wolverine story. If memory serves, V uses a 9 panel grid and in some cases a 16 panel grid to move the story to its beat. See if the pace of reading changes between comics and what effect it has on your reading.

      My understanding at its most basic. More panels on a page means more information on a page which takes the reader a longer time to process before he/she turns the page. It conveys the a sense of how much time elapses at that scene.

      What you’re referring to, juxtaposition and transition, is a different mechanic from going between scenes and conveying time between.

      • The pace of reading is not necessarily linked to the pace of storytelling – a good artist and/or writer knows how to manipulate both, but they can be separated. For example, the classic 9 panel grid. They will always contain roughly the same amount of visual information – that is, nine distinct compositions within the overall composition of the page. It follows that a reader will always read those panels at a fairly consistent beat.

        What affects the flow of the story, however, is the nature of the information contained in those nine panels – and this is how the writer and artist can manipulate the reader’s perception of the passage of time. It can be made to dilate by describing an action in minute detail, almost like frames of a stop-motion animation. As far as I know, this is how it is used most frequently – to expand a moment in time. A perfect example comes from Watchmen, here. I imagine this is the kind of thing you were thinking of when you suggested the number of panels on a page as a key factor, and the point is not without merit.

        However, imagine the same panelling, but with a completely different set of compositions, spaced much further apart in time. The reader’s perception of time becomes condensed, as the scene jumps rapidly forward in the timeline of the story – in this case, and I suspect in many others, that would result in incredibly poor storytelling. The point, though, is that story pacing can be separated from panelling and visual flow. Whether they should be or not is another question entirely.

      • However, imagine the same panelling, but with a completely different set of compositions, spaced much further apart in time. The reader’s perception of time becomes condensed, as the scene jumps rapidly forward in the timeline of the story

        Strangely enough I think Fearful Symmatry, Chapter 5 of Watchmen, does this but that’s not the point.

        Yes you can separate panel progression from panel content and there are times where it could work, but to do it runs the risk of wrecking your story so its that mix of arrogance and clout to consider it, but that’s not the point either.

        Panel layout, and the beat in which it tells the story, is crucial when there are two fundemental parts of comic writing that can’t be ignored:

        1: You’re working in a fixed A4 portrait space, unless you’re working on the two-page spread. So your panels need to take advantage of that because…

        2: You lose, however briefly, the reader when he/she turns the page. That beat has to carry them to the next page. Juxtaposition and cliffhangers do that too, but ignoring the beat handicaps your story more often than it helps.

        But that’s not the point either. The point is:

        There’s a link between the amount of time spent on a scene and typically its the density of detail that determines it. Yes it is but one tool in the box of pacing in comic panels but it’s a noteworthy one and one that served as a common factor across other mediums and theoretically could be employed when telling a story through role-playing.

        The guts of that idea will hopefully become clear in the next article. Though feel free to refute the comics panel bit. It’s made me have to go hunting for some articles from 2004 that, shockingly, just aren’t on the internet anymore. I’m hoping that I’ve got them saved on the hardrives.

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