Thinking about it today I came to realize that in a lot of ways GMing is like juggling. You have three balls: story, players, and mechanics. Your job is to keep those three balls moving in such a way as to be found pleasing to everyone in the game. Today I want to talk about this metaphor (or is it a simile?) how it holds up, how it isn't quite right, and how thinking about it can help you with handling your game once a session is in motion.
Two In Hand; One In Air
When juggling, at most points, you have two balls in hand and one ball in air. That means that at any point in time you have control of 2/3 of the game. The third? It's up in the air, in free fall as it were. Now, yes, I know some will say that a good juggler will control all three balls at all time but the control on that third ball, the one in the air, comes at the point of release. You control how it is tossed, how hard it is tossed, and any spin on the ball. However, once the ball is out of your hand, it is no longer in your control.
Story In The Air
Story goes into the air when you build up to a big decision point. Whenever someone, or something, important to the plot enters the picture. Story being in the air means that the game can take a strong narrative turn, one that you might not be expecting. It means that the story, not the mechanics or the players (or their characters) is the focus.
Players In The Air
Players being in the air often comes about because one of the other two balls. Story wise it could be a key decision point where the players are choosing which way they want the game to go. Alternatively it could be a time for internal RP, character interaction. It could be something specific to one character in particular
Mechanics In The Air
Mechanics being in the air means you're at a point in the game where the rules system is running things more than you or your players. This is generally what happens during combat. The system takes over and stats and dice rolls become the focus of the game. It can also happen for skill rolls, xp spending, or anything else that is pure mechanics.
The Order is Not Set
One of the fun things about juggling is that it doesn't have to go one way. Nothing says that you can't go backwards, or that you can't go back to going forwards at a moment's notice. The trick is knowing which ball you have in the air, and which ball you want to toss next. This is often planned in prep. You know when the mechanics ball needs to go up because you know where the skill checks, the fights, and the puzzles are going to be. However, sometimes the ball in the air will determine it. Sometimes when you throw the player ball up, it will choose for mechanics - or story - to come next.
Like a good juggler, you need to be able to catch whatever ball is up in the air, and have the next one - the right one for the show - ready to go.
Not All Tosses Are Equal
Finally, at least for the purposes of this post, you need to realize that not all tosses are going to be the same leak. Any learning juggler can do a controlled loop, but a good juggler - a good gm - knows how to mix it up. Sometimes the toss goes high and hangs. Sometimes it goes low and is quick. Varying up the tosses, switching the focus, pulling a ball right out of the air in front of everyone and making it something else, that's where the skill is, and that is what a good GM does.
The trick to all this is to think about the game you're running like a juggling act. You control which ball you make the focus, you control which ball is coming next, and you have a plan for when the order changes. Just remember, it's you tossing the balls and as soon as one isn't doing the job of entertaining the crowd you need to switch over to another.