[This is part of the ongoing series on narrative engineering: design, organisation and writing. These short articles (which are republished from our wiki) deal with pacing.]
Pacing wheels and content reuse
Here’s a way you can get more use out of an existing bit of content. You have a story that’s ten branches long. But you want it to take a while, be a bit of a big thing. So, you create a pacing mechanic. You scatter a few branches around your Sometimes deck that give a point in a quality. Let’s say this is all spy fiction, and the quality is ‘Word from your Contacts’.
So, to play your big story, each step takes 10 points of Word from your Contacts. So the character has to run around accumulating that before they can advance the big story. Great.
But it gets better. You write another big spy story. You want a slow pace again – but you don’t need another pacing wheel. You can re-use the stuff that gives Word from your Contacts, and make the new big story also need that.
You can de-couple the pacing content from the story content, and reuse one with a new set of the other. It means that players will be seeing a lot of the pacing content – so you need to make sure it’s good – but it’s an efficient way of structuring things.
Let the player know where they’re going
Give the player goals. Or let the player choose from a set of goals. And then tell the player how far along they are in reaching those goals.
It makes for a better game if the player is working towards a goal, and understands how far away that goal is. So, it’s better to put important bits of story that the player is reaching for in Always storylets, so that the player will be able to see that they need only 4 more points of Investigating the Broad Street Murders to see the next bit.
You don’t have to treat every story in your world this way. It can be good to have occasional surprises or a story that can’t be advanced at will in Sometimes decks. But most often you’ll want players to be able to see where they’re going.
You can’t write content as fast as your players can play it. Or if you can, you’re probably an AI or an alien or something. There are various solutions to this, but a common one is to make some content repeatable. The player sees a few things that they’ve seen before and then sees a new thing. It means that the player stays with your world a bit longer, and isn’t sitting around waiting for you to write the next thing.
Repeatable content isn’t a problem (as long as new stuff comes along now and then), but it has to be done right. You need to keep it short – the player going to skim over text after a few goes through anyway, so there’s little point in writing lots. You should keep the fiction reasonably generic. That doesn’t mean boring, but it needs to be something that a player could do twenty times. So, stealing a diamond or meeting a wolf, but not stealing the world’s biggest diamond or meeting Lupius, father of all wolves.
Choice is important in repeatable content too. Repeatable content stays interesting longer if players can make different choices and do something a little different. It doesn’t have to be the whole thing. If there’s a repeatable chain of ten storylets, having a choice at number 8 that leads to a different final two is both interesting and efficient.