Make a scene

Approaches to establishing, cutting and actively using scenes in roleplaying and freeform games.

A conversation with Austrian game aficionado Johannes this Easter reminded me of the unstated premises in play cultures. We played together for the first time at Danish Fastaval, having discussed games online for a year or so. He said having me as GM shed light on some expectations he’d found unclear in Matthijs’ Draug 2 draft on this blog.

Namely; how “we” run scenes.

Photo: Ole Mørk Sandvik (1927), via Nasjonalbiblioteket.

This article aims to illustrate some of that, from my perspective but with help from friends. They will appear in colorful comments along the way:

Elin is a veteran of the regional larp and freeform scenes, and co-editor of the Larps from the Factory anthology.

Matthijs is founder of this blog and a productive local designer.

Mikael is on an epic quest to play all the indie games.

In indie/freeform circles these days, thinking and planning in terms of scenes is well-established. I use the term loosely like in a movie context. Scenes are discrete parts of the action where something central to the story happens. You can cut back and forth between scenes occurring at the same time, like when central characters are in different places. Or you can compress a bunch of (down)time in those cuts, using it for pacing.

Stories have been compressed and chopped up in more easily digestible chunks since we started telling them. But I hope there will be some useful reminders for our particular format – roleplaying – below.

Cut!

The first encounter I recall with explicitly stated scene framing was at a local gaming convention in the early 00’s. It was a fairly straightforward fantasy scenario, but with an experimental approach. The GMs were instructed to cut ruthlessly, sometimes even in the middle of the action, and then establish a scene somewhere completely different, giving the characters (and players) little information about what had happened between scenes. That particular empowering of the GM made a lasting impression.

Since the word “cut” is in use as a safeword in local larp, I tend to say “thank you”, perhaps signalling with hands or other body language that it’s time to wrap up.

When to cut?

Using this technique, you’ll develop a sense for timing, of what’s right for the story. Generally, I’d say “cut sooner rather than later”. If the scene had a particular purpose or conflict in focus, when that has been resolved or complicated further could be a good place. I’ll usually try to cut before the scene, and players, lose steam and energy.

Erik Werenskiold (1883): Illustrasjon til “Kjærringen mod strømmen” i P. Chr. Asbjørnsen og J. Moe, Eventyrbog for Børn. Foto: Nasjonalmuseet / Ivarsøy, Dag Andre. Fotolisens: Fri ikke-kommersiell bruk (CC-BY-NC).

Matthijs: “Once your group is used to this rhythm, you can play with it by not cutting when the group expects you to. It becomes an unspoken statement, an expectation that something significant can or will occur”.

Elin: “What Matthijs mentions is also a good method to prompt the players to look for what kind of story you are after.”

Often it’s a matter of cutting when you see a good opening for it. It can be an interesting exercise to time scenes (I’ve hardly done this before last week), to get a feel for how long they are in minutes. Might surprise you.

When a really good, punchy line has just been delivered by one of the players can also be a great place to end the scene. You sort of underscore such statements when cutting after them. “And on that note…”

If some time is about to pass in the fiction, but you don’t expect anything particularly relevant to the story or interesting to the characters/players will occur during that time, skip it with a scene cut & time jump. E.g. don’t spend several minutes of game time having character shop around for junk they need to complete a task. Just assume they get it (or not), and move on.

Cutting is also an effective tool for pacing. A slower pace for more introspective scenes or “looking into personal issues”, a more rapid pace for action scenes, confusing circumstances and so on.

Elin says: “To provide a tight story, cutting is one of the primary jobs of the GM as they (often) have the only clear plan on how the story will develop. Unless it’s a prewritten game with clear instructions for when to (or when not to) cut.”

(Note that our discussion covers a wide spectrum of games, from GMless, via scripted freeform and chamberlarp, to convention games with prewritten scenarios and to more improvised home campaigns. I’d rarely say I had “a clear plan for where the story should go”, because finding out together is a big part of the joy. But in a convention game, that way of putting it will often make sense).

You could also, more trickily perhaps, cut early in an emotionally charged scene, to deny that tension release.

Elin: “Another technique is postponing the cut, to keep the characters lingering in the moment, and play on what’s beneath the surface: doubts, saving face, being uncomfortable and revealing their humanity.”  

With great power…

I think my GM style can seem authoritarian. But I believe I have more of a bird’s eye view than the players, and will often “know better” than them what the sweet spot for cutting is.

I also make an effort to see all the players, even those whose characters are not central to the scene/dialogue, and consider it part of my responsibility that everyone gets a chance to take part. In an ideal group, I think that’s everyone’s responsibility, but this isn’t an ideal universe. So even if you’re in the middle of something fascinating with your character, I also keep an eye out for Ola, whose character hasn’t been in the spotlight for a while.

Making it crystal clear who has this responsibility at a given moment will also allow the other players (whether the game has a GM or not) to focus on playing their characters and making things up. There is someone there who will help them when they start rambling, or when the scene is losing its edge.

Finding the Tao

Torghatten: Fruitful Void. Photo: Amanda Graham, via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I am aware of, and have made sort of a resolution to work with, my impatience as GM. My sessions tend to run 2-3 hours. To my mind, that is focused, high-tempo play, with little downtime and meta/off-game talk. I do short breaks every hour or so, but little of that in-between “are we playing yet or talking about Something Else” stuff. I enjoy this up-tempo play style, both as GM and player. But see some challenges:

  • Some players are slow(er), but still have gold to contribute if given time.
  • There is value in slow scenes, and in breather scenes. Tempo shifts, stuff that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the main action, but still highlights characters, opens the floor for surprisingly sweet or humane moments…
  • My default style can be a little exhausting.

Matthijs adds: “I have yet to explore those slower scenes fully, myself. Very often I feel there’s untapped potential in these breather scenes, and that we’re missing out by cutting scenes too quickly.”

Mikael: “Sometimes a slow buildup to establish characters and setting is necessary groundwork. This can also be done in the middle of play, to add context.”

Setting up scenes:

When I’ve cut a scene and want to establish a new one, I early, clearly and briefly establish who is there, where this is and what is going on.

Sometimes, the rough sketch for a scene will come from my prep or a scenario, usually it just grows naturally out of the action. Previous scene: they decide to go to the library to investigate, this scene: at the library. Often “what do you do?” establishes the basis of the next scene. It’s also good to ask the players if they have an idea for a scene they’d like to see. If you never give up asking for this kind of input, it usually starts coming naturally after a session or two.

Poster, ca. 1897-1915. Keller & Toft/National Library of Norway. Public Domain.

A great way of activating players whose character is not in the scene is letting them play secondary characters. I do this all the time, or ask them about other kinds of input.

Mikael cautions: “Keep in mind that NPCs often are your main vehicle to drive the narrative forward as GM. Only use this tool when you think the other players are willing to add as much tension as you (the GM) would. If this holds true, it should work fine.”

When I started using this technique over a decade ago, I was surprised how players (in general) would often push harder than I would allow myself as GM. Both messing up their own character’s plans, and those of the group. The early Itras By chance/resolution card experimentation drove this point home clearly.

(I’ll admit that not all NPCs are created equal, though. With a few, “central to the story” type NPCs, I may give a little instruction before “outsourcing”. Or keep them out of player hands.)

Outsourcing other elements of story also works. Maybe a player whose character is in the scene will ask about some detail: “what’s the weather like?” “What does this glyph symbolize?” I’ll often ask a “non-active” player to make up details like that. This has the added benefit of keeping players invested in the story, and focused during the session.

This collaborative approach also takes some of the entertainer responsibilities off my shoulders, and I like to think it underscores that what we’re doing is a collaborative pastime.

“Prompt”?

The term “scene prompts” wasn’t really in my active vocabulary before this Easter, but it seems to be something I do. The term reminds me of an early image I formed of GMing: poking an anthill with a stick. Throwing something at the characters and see what they do. Put them in a situation, some drama, some noise. If it’s boring, send in the guy with the gun, etc.

Photographer: Solveig Lund (1869-1943). Telemark, Norway 1905-10. Digital copy of postcard. Owner Institution: National Library of Norway. Public Domain.

Now, it’s usually best if the “prompting” or poking or whatever is a bit more focused, that there is some method to the madness. Some Forge-ite coined the term “character flags”, I still think that’s quite good. Look out for what is important to the characters (and the players). If they have invested character points in a +1 tubular flux wire of welding, you can safely assume they want to weld some shit together.

  • Read their character descriptions (or stats if that’s how you roll). It’s a wishlist addressed to you and the group. “I want to see this cool stuff in play!”
  • Listen to what the players connect with, what their characters talk about.

But also: surprise them, throw them some curveballs from time to time.

Mikael suggests an excellent alternative to reading up on old character and campaign notes: “Ask what they want”.

Make the scenes primarily about the characters! Not your cool plot, or some super-interesting NPC you made up. Make sure all of them get in the limelight. In 90% of roleplaying games, the characters are supposed to be at the centre of the action, the drama. You can certainly play around with that premise, if you do it in a mindful way. But not just because you forgot.

A scene can be “about” one character, and the scene based approach can be a good way to highlight an individual character’s intrigues or cool thing. Usually, I prefer at least two active characters per scene.

Elin, with her background in freeform, has the following tip: “if you have time to plan these scenes, mirror-scenes that seem to be primarily about one character but deliberately reflect the story of another character – or whole groups – can be really fulfilling, for both players and GM”.

What kind of scene?

On the topic of scenes, Mikael adds: “a big part of playing with scenes is to have players set an objective for the scene. It can either be something at stake or a color scene for characterization.”

Matthijs notes, along the same lines: “Prime Time Adventures does a cool thing where the group also decides whether this is a plot or character scene. It helps bring focus to the scene and balance to the story.”

(Personally, I’ve been underwhelmed by several systems for formalizing “the nature” of a scene before it’s actually played. Or at least that part of the system. I remember PTA as good fun overall.)

If you want to have a look at a different and elegant take on scene framing, I encourage you to keep an eye out for Jackson Tegu’s “The Boiler”.

That’s our show, folks! Readers are welcome to continue the discussion in comments.

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One thought on “Make a scene

  1. Yes, and… assumptions around setting and cutting scenes can seem opaque to those not already familiar with the techniques described.

    It’s easy to assume everyone is on the same page – and very often they are, particularly if they’re completely new to roleplay. If they’re used to a different style of play, there may be a few stutters and false starts before they find the fruitful middle-ground between “GM” and “player”.

    Now that we’ve played ITRAS BY and INTREPID HISTORIES and a few other games that rely on revelatory scene-framing as the engine for an emergent story, members of my group are much more likely to go freeform and act out scenes physically or make life difficult-but-interesting for one another. Vocal cues and body language are important but so is giving people room to work out their personal style and how it fits with the game and with everyone else playing.

    For a fast-moving, “don’t fret, don’t block” play-style, the guide to “Nordic Dreaming” in THE SOCIETY OF DREAMERS is good.

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