On your way to work, standing in line, on the bus, at dinner etc.
Everything is God, getting to know Itself
On your way to work, standing in line, on the bus, at dinner etc.
Everything is God, getting to know Itself
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Close your eyes if you wish. Hold hands if you wish. Someone reads.
Together we will ascend to the sphere of imagination.
We will meet angels and demons, gnomes and elemental spirits, maybe even gods.
They all stem from ourselves. They all gain reality by our words. We will see them, with our mind’s eye.
Yesod is the sphere of dreams, the unconscious, sexuality. Of the Moon. The word means “Foundation”.
Our journey is not without dangers, the creatures we will summon are real, after a fashion. And it will be us, speaking these words.
For the duration of the spell.
But we are armed with the sword of discernment, the cup of compassion, the wand of creativity and will. And our feet are firmly planted here, on this material floor.
Now, let us open our third eye.
A 200 Word RPG Challenge contribution: Supplement.
You have characters, setting and system. You’re running a game tomorrow. What do you do?
Pick two (or roll 1d8):
1. Skim character and campaign notes. Note ideas.
2. True dilemmas: sketch situations the characters must react to.
3. Outline 3-5 NPCs. Names and keywords only. Link some to characters or plot (adversaries, helpers, obstacles).
4. Countdowns: events that will unfold unless the characters intervene.
5. Keywords about scenes/locales, groups (with agendas), special items.
6. Extrapolate ideas from specific character agendas/abilities/backgrounds.
7. Organize some of this info on a mind-map. Keywords will suffice.
8. Detail one element you really dig. Delve into it.
If more time:
* List(s) of names. People, places, items.
* Random-tables: monsters, events, weather, locations, etc.
(May be recycled in later sessions).
_GM Principles (during the game)_
Practice two each session (pick or roll 1d8):
1. Ask questions, build on the answers.
2. Accept, and add (go with player ideas).
3. Decline, but offer.
4. Reincorporate elements.
5. Be obvious (say what comes to mind).
6. Discrete scene-framing and cutting.
7. Throw curveballs.
8. Sometimes delegate responsibilities (like NPC control).
* Take breaks.
Sources: Imagonem, Old Friends, AW, Sorcerer, Håken, Play With Intent.
Thanks: You guys, David Schirduan.
“I have, with no exaggeration, lost track of Archipelago. There are now hacks and translations that I only find out about by chance, and I don’t remember all the stuff that’s been done with it.
All is as it should be. The game is officially out of my hands. Who would have thought it.”
– Matthijs Holter
Archipelago is a story/role-playing game where each player controls a major character. Players take turns directing and playing out a part of their character’s story, leading them towards their selected point of destiny, while other players interact with and influence that story. The latest edition also utilizes fate and resolution cards, as well as the ritual phrases.
(The majority of the games and downloadable documents linked below are for free download, as usual here on Nørwegian Style):
It’s hard to know with these things.
Put together, the Archipelago II and III main landing pages have gotten 19.650 page views since 2009. Dropbox doesn’t provide download statistics, which would be even more “proof of the pudding”. Many sites link directly to the Dropbox documents, so we just have no way of knowing the exact # of downloads over the past seven years.
If we missed your favorite hack, adaption or translation, please let us know in comments.
Cover photo: Høgåsen, Hidra/Hanne Feyling/Visit Sørlandet (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Insight Fantasy RPG is currently kickstarting. Made by fellow Nørwegian Even V. Røssland. A bit different to the fare we usually serve up at this blog, but who knows? Even writes:
“What the GM knows is not always the truth. Change the story as you play, and complete your quests in a way no one could have predicted.”
Guess that sounds like us, after all…
Reviewers say of the previous incarnation, The Insight RPG System:
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
“An interesting, simple universal RPG system that’s worth the intro price.”
GMSMagazine review video (YouTube)
“What I hope is gonna happen is somebody – please – approach the designer and have a Kickstarter campaign, to get it out. Because this is an absolutely brilliant RPG system, and it’s flexible enough that you’ll be able to use it for pretty much any game.”
Guess this is your lucky day, YouTube review person!
Of course he knew the Empire was built on airy, at times vulgar, symbolism. He was, after all, an educated man. He knew how to interpret the Laws of the Elders. Could equally well listen to the speech of the stars as kiss one of his concubines below. He believed neither in ghosts, nor in symbols as anything other than representations.
Still, a part of him; one might say the child, believed firmly in the virtues:
Now he was standing by one of the altars, on the road to the Imperial City. The sunset painted the sky in shades of gold, pink, violet and orange. But not red, that had been forbidden by the Emperor.
Soon the star-song would begin.
The altar was a scrawny, ancient spike of stone. The little roof that was supposed to protect the sacrificial gifts; fire, incense, beautiful stones, blood, flowers and perfume, against wind and weather would probably break down completely in a few hundred years.
He left a small die for the enjoyment of the altar-eaters. Said a silent prayer to The Guardian of the Road that the ghosts he didn’t believe in would leave him alone this night.
On the long way home.
An OSR inspired romp to bring Nørway to your table.
Crowdsourced on Rollespill.info.
On a roll of 1d100:
Mandatory Sunday hike: parts of the second day of down time MUST be spent on a walking trip, either on foot or by ski. Roll a difficult Diplomacy to get out of it, otherwise roll a Con check against exhaustion. Tagline: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!”
Kidnapped by the Russ: It’s the first half of May. You are suddenly overwhelmed by 20 hammered 18-year olds dressed in red jumpsuits who takes you into their bus and drives you to a random location and leaves you there.
Nordic Social Awkwardness: You are unable to initiate dialogue with anyone unless they talk to you first. Intoxication removes the restriction. Other characters with the same trait will give you a -5 charisma reaction if they are sober, but a +5 reaction if they are intoxicated.
Hellemyrsfolket: Any character reading this book must succeed on a Will save or suffer 1d4 Willpower damage due to depression.
Pol-ferd. You arrive at the village seeking potions to heal your wounds after a dangerous quest. It turns out that only one shop in the village may sell potions. They have a long list of exotic (and heavily taxed) potions. Roll a d6. 1-2: Potionmonopolet is open! 3-4 it’s closed for the day. Come back tomorrow. 5-6: it’s closed because of a national holiday. Come back next week.
Snowdiver: If you spend at least 15 minutes in a very hot environment (such as a sauna), you gain 15 minutes of immunity to cold effects.
Travel Fever: The night before the onset of an adventure, you break out in fever. -5 to all rolls the next two days.
Greener Grass: You will never be satisfied with what you have, always craving something just beyond your grasp.
Tåkeprat: You gain a +5 circumstance bonus to any bluff check made to avoid answering a question, by engaging in “tåkeprat” for an exceedingly long time talking tangent nonsense, making it seem as if you’ve answered the question. Other characters can neither react with hostility or friendliness as a result of the answer. Aka “Fogspeech”
Lokalhistorie: Finding NPCs with proficiency in Knowledge (local history) is a trivial task, although this is at the expense of the availability of any other skilled NPCs.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Give others a chance to speak. Hear what they say. See how you can build or act on the information they impart to the story.
Accept, and add
If something is stated or established in the fiction, it’s probably true. Characters may lie, and you may forget details. But try to stay with what has been said. Add your own details as they come to you. Don’t try too hard. Say the first thing you think of. Reincorporate elements that have come up previously.
Decline, but offer
It’s perfectly fine for your character to refuse a suggestion, but try to come up with a counteroffer. Don’t block or stall the game. If you get stuck in discussion-paralysis; act. Make something up, like an accusation. Do something stupid.
Just pause. And breathe.
Before you add a new element, consider: what has already been established? Can I re-introduce it into play? Will it create contrast, or shed new light this time around?
Be willing to discard your plan, or even better; don’t plan for a certain outcome. Pick up on the creative “balls” others throw out for you to play with. Go along with ideas. This is key to having fun in this game.
Let the story emerge
There are no true secrets here. There isn’t a prewritten plot to discover. This story will emerge during play, and you will see the totality in the end. Relax. Give your character time to play their hand, say their piece. Watch what the others do. Listen.
You don’t have to be funny or smart. Let the words come to you at their own pace.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Cover photo: Steve Slater (CC BY 2.0).