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.
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
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 solo game that takes 10-20 minutes to play
1. Write down a thing that you want to do, but haven’t done yet.
2. Roll a die.
3. Let’s see what happens!
– On a 2-6, add 3 times that number to your age. Describe a change in your life. You didn’t do that thing you wanted to do yet; explain why. Now go to step 2 again.
– On a 1, you die. Oops! No need to describe or explain anything, you’re dead.
What it says in the title. This looks ugly as shit right now, but is a delight to play. Expect fun and darkness.
If you play or read this game, let me know what you think at matthijs1000 (at) hotmail (dot) com.
Tina Trillitzsch has translated LiToS into German! You can see the whole thing here. And it’s looking great!
I Like You!
A nano-larp for a group of people of different genders
0. What you need
If you can, get a bunch of little paper hearts. Have everyone write their name on 5 hearts. Have more hearts available, in case someone needs more during the game.
Divide the group into two factions, based on real-life experience, with this question:
«Hands up those who have experienced unwanted emotional or sexual attention during the past week».
If less than half have their hands up, ask about the past two weeks. Continue expanding the time window until about half have their hands up.
The people with their hands up will play the faction of the Undesirables. The others will play the Desirables. To make them easy to tell apart, let the desirables put a heart on their chest, for instance.
2. General rules
Nobody is allowed to initiate contact with an undesirable, not even those who are undesirable. (Desirables can contact other desirables to talk.)
Everyone needs to team up with another player from the opposite faction before the game ends. Those who don’t, lose the game.
There are no actual characters in this game. Everyone plays themselves. If you’re asked to tell anything about yourself, that means you, the player.
3. Phase one, 5 minutes
Undesirables lay their hearts on the line!
To initiate contact with a desirable, the undesirables need to give them a heart and tell them a truth about themselves. This must be something that leaves them vulnerable.
During this phase, desirables must consider the different undesirables in order to find out who they might want to team up with.
Desirables: You don’t have much time to find your ideal mates here. Remember, you have to wait for them to contact you! Don’t waste time if you’re talking to someone who’s not what you’re looking for.
4. Phase two, 1 minute
Desirables reciprocate to potential mates!
Desirables are now allowed to give away hearts as well – paired with a truth about themselves. Remember, desirables have to wait for the undesirables to contact them!
Undesirables should continue to initiate contact and spread their hearts as in phase one. Make sure to approach those you believe might reciprocate!
Desirables: Time is really running out now! Don’t waste time on those you don’t want to team up with!
5. Phase three
Desirables make their final choice!
Desirables, stand in a row.
Undesirables, if you have received a heart from one or more desirables, walk up to one of them and stand face to face. If you haven’t, sit the fuck down.
Some desirables may now be facing multiple undesirables. Desirables, if you have several undesirables in front of you, push them away until only one remains.
If you get pushed away, sit the fuck down.
6. Winners and losers
Anyone who’s still standing – that is, teamed up heart to heart with someone from the opposite faction – wins. Hold hands and smile while other winners applaud you.
Everybody else loses.
DEFINITELY debrief after this game. For some, it will be a fun experience. Others might be pissed off. Others again might feel hurt. Sit in a circle, tell each other how you’re feeling, discuss the game.