TTRPG Points and Pauses

image from ArtBreeder

filed under game design on 06 Apr 2023
tagged design, theory, game feel, and thursday

Note, I haven’t been blogging, but my itch page is frequently updated, if you want to see what I’m up to lately.

A model of ttrpg points & pauses

This is just a short warm up post, recapping a theory I’ve been exploring for a while, that a tabletop system’s feel is largely predicated on the points where it asks you to transition between mechanics and fiction, and the pauses to assess the fiction that are baked into that cycle, most notably when and for how long.

Note this is a very general cycle, presented to provoke thought, not to serve as rules or insistent structure. And every bit of “too much” or “too little” below is expressly “for my tastes” and presented so you can compare to your own experiences; your tastes will very likely be different. I also doubt it’s anything new, but I hope it gives insights into why a game might feel good to you in play, or why you might bounce off one.

In short, it’s that a conflict point leads to a pause for mechanics (and thought ), which leads to a translation point and pause for twists, then flows through to the next conflict point.

Conflict point. First, there’s the point where we all know we need to roll dice, usually a point of strong tension and uncertainty, a conflict. If this point isn’t strong enough, isn’t obvious enough, we may look at each other, uncertain for the wrong reasons. We may tentatively roll dice when we don’t have to, when there’s not enough context established to carry that resolution through the rest of the process, or the dice’s fiat contravenes our nascent, as yet unformed thoughts on what must happen next, from a dramatic perspective. Thus the tendency, as a designer, to lean on an established obvious roll point – D&D’s – and the strange wonder of games that don’t, like Swords Without Master.

Mechanics pause. The point of agreement it’s time for mechanics is followed by a pause to collect dice, tote up pools, add or subtract modifiers, whatever is required to get the resolution. This pause is a vital part of running a game; it allows you to reflect, to feel the tension of the conflict, and to consider your outcomes, however briefly, and keep them in your mind, even if they never come to pass. Often when a game feels like it just doesn’t flow, like I’m at a loss as to what should happen next, it’s because this pause is being skipped, either by design or by my own eagerness to get to the dice roll. The opposite, too much time spent paused here, can feel like “too much bookkeeping”, too much fiddling with dice, too mechanical.

Translation point (and Twists pause). Next is the ease in which the outcome of the roll is translated into the fictional outcome, as we rejoin the fiction; some folks prefer to have their “thinking pause” here, once they know what the dice dictate. It’s not a point I like to pause to come up with options, but it is a place to refine the options I thought up during the first pause, the point at which brilliant, cruel, and delightful twists will occur most often. “Oh, that means she is infatuated with his brother!” on a complicated success, when I had already dimly pictured a full success as a romantic confession, and a miss as a betrayal. For me, having the ability to introduce those twists here is vital to surprising myself, as I’ve used the earlier pause to lightly sketch out what must happen.

Flow-through. And finally, there’s how long the outcome carries us until we return to the point we need to roll dice again, how long the fictional tail of the last conflict and resolution is. If it’s too long, I find my play becomes unanchored, especially solo, and it’s too easy for me to elide things I care less about, and weaken my connection to those aspects I enjoy (God-mode doesn’t make for good stories). If it’s too short, it feels overly mechanical and disjointed if the rolls are producing too many twists and turns, or too much fictional grist.

When you consider your favorite games, and especially at what point they ask you to pause to collect outcomes in your mind (however amorphous and unformed) you may be surprised at the similarities between games that seem very different. This also points to why one system feels better in solo than another; it meshes with your own sense of when to roll dice, when to pause and evaluate, when to twist, and when to continue, and supports you along the way.