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Upward and Downward Beats

by Mike on 30 May 2022

Pacing may be the most important skill we GMs bring to the table and can be notoriously hard to do.

We must always have a gauge on the current pacing and feeling of the game, slowing things down or speeding things up when appropriate.

RPG luminary Robin Laws wrote an excellent book on the topic called Hamlet's Hit Points. Robin uses the pacing and beats of movies as examples of how to keep an audience engaged. While typical movie plots often don't make great RPGs, the concepts of beats fit well.

Hamlet's Hit Points covers a large range of different types of beats but us lazy DMs can focus instead on two: upward beats and downward beats. In addition to this article, chapter 24 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master expands on this topic.

Upward beats occur when anything good happens to the characters. Upward beats occur when the characters

Downward beats occur whenever something bad happens to the character or whenever they get through something but with a big struggle. Downward beats occur when the characters

Oscillating Upward and Downward Beats

We keep players engaged with our game by oscillating between upward and downward beats. Good things happen and then bad things happen and then good things happen and then bad things happen. Too many upward beats and the game gets boring and stale. Too many downward beats and the game becomes helpless and frustrating. Mixing upward and downward beats keeps things interesting and keeps them moving.

This oscillation shouldn't be perfectly symmetrical. A few upward beats followed by a big downward beat can work, as can the opposite. The main thing is to vary between upward and downward beats when running our games.

Improvising Beats

Our game is dynamic. We GMs rarely know how the beats will fall out before running it. We generally can't plan beats ahead of time. Instead, we can learn to improvise upward and downward beats. This means being ready to drop in an upward or downward beat as we're running the game, wherever they are.

For example, be ready to either add or remove monsters from upcoming combat encounters based on the current pacing. If the characters have had a string of hard battles, it may be time for an easy encounter. If they've had an easy time recently, add more monsters to a future encounter. Be ready to turn the dials to change the pace of combat if the dice aren't already doing it for you. When planning adventures, keep potential upward and downward beats in mind for the area you're running.

A Lazy Trick for a Hard Topic

Pacing RPGs is hard work and takes a lot of practice. Luckily, tricks like oscillating upward and downward beats can help. As Robin Laws described, eventually you get good enough managing beats that you don't even think about it. It becomes second nature.

Oscillate upward and downward beats and keep your players engaged in the story you share at the table.

Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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