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  1. Scenes are the building blocks of adventures. Scenes are exercises in set design, casting, and props. The act of assembling scenes together allows the Games Master to create something for the Players to enjoy at the gaming table. This week, we look at scenes, and how to use (and reuse) them creatively to provide endless variety in your gaming sessions. Sources I'll be referring to Plot Points Publishing's book, Encounter Theory, and also to Mutant Chiron Games' Republic. There are links to these titles at the bottom of the post. The Purpose of Scenes The point of scenes is to stage events which move the adventure forwards. Encounter Theory points out that scenes serve two basic purposes: the characters interact with the setting in some way (e.g. the environment, an object, a door), or they interact with a being in some way (any type of non-player character). Any other type of scene where the characters are interacting with neither the setting nor other beings in any way (such as a narrative scene where the Games Master is just describing something going on, and the characters are spectating), is a literally useless waste of time, and it can be dropped without it affecting the course of the adventure in any form. As Encounter Theory puts it, Everything is an interaction with the setting, or an interaction with another character ... the encounter, the unit of game during which these interactions occur, should be the centre of the adventure-designer's design. Where Design Meets Play Encounters are where design meets play. Every encounter - every scene - presents an opportunity for the Adventurers to do something meaningful, either to advance their own stories or to advance the plot of the current adventure. Four Principles Encounter Theory presents four Principles of Encounter Design: "Face The Player And Free The Player," "Present Problems, Not Solutions," "Use The Dungeon As Adventure Structure", and "Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description". Face The Player And Free The Player The Players are the audience for this medium. Scenes should have something for the Players to give their Adventurers to do. Whether it be negotiating with a stranger to persuade them to enter an alliance or provide truthful intel; solving a puzzle lock; avoiding a trap; fighting a dagger-wielding foe; or summoning an allied spirit; each scene is about offering the Players something to satisfy them. You must only put something into the adventure that the Adventurers can discover, bump into, fight, and so on. If the scene is anything like Yaskoydray's legendary Eternal Monologue scene from the Classic Traveller scenario Secret of The Ancients, where the First Ancient turns up and monologues at the Travellers ... you should replace the scene with something else, such as the Travellers discovering something like stone slabs which allow the Travellers the chance to discover the story for themselves. Present Problems, Not Solutions Conflicts in a scene, whether they are with the setting or with encountered beings, should give the Adventurers situations which they can solve, using the skills and other resources they have to hand. Let the Players come up with their solutions, and run with them. An example: On their way through a forest road on horseback, escorting a wagon pulled by a mule, the Adventurers encounter a gang of thieves, who've felled a tree across the road. They defeat the rabble easily, but how to move the tree? It's up to the Players to realise that they all have Brawn skill, and they also have a very strong mule ... Oh ... the problems should be soluble. Do not create a Tomb of Horrors, or Kobayashi Maru. Your goal, as Games Master, is to enable the Players by enabling the Adventurers. It used to be the custom for Games Masters, or rather Dungeon Masters, to be fiendish, and present the Players with problems designed to be impossible to solve. That is not the custom now. Your job is to give the Players a great, and memorable, game, not cheat them with a total party kill out of nowhere, or bore them to tears with a twenty minute Yaskoydray monologue. Use The Dungeon As Adventure Structure I have a personal dislike of the word dungeon to describe the background of a setting. There are so many different kinds of sets you can use - tombs, crypts, halls, loggias, tunnels, T-junctions, stairways, bridges, piazzas, streets, parks, shorelines, rooftops, wood-bordered gardens, library reading rooms, laboratories with a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling ... However, this principle is sound. The things and beings available in the scene should be there for the Adventurers to enjoy interacting with. How they interact is not entirely up to the Games Master. They could be meeting by moonlight, in a semi-secluded, partially-enclosed, corner of the garden bounded by a clematis-strewn trellis curving overhead, and an open space with a bench ... but what the Adventurers do when the Non-Player Character shows up is up to the Players, as long as it is fun. The purpose of the scene is to interact with the Adventurers, and have them interact with the scene / set / props / beings. A scene which just has three non-player characters talking with one another is probably best cut out and replaced with something where the focus is on the Adventurers instead. Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description Keep your descriptions to the point. Also, keep the descriptions limited to the things, backgrounds, props, and beings with which the Adventurers can interact. If they can't chat with the guards, or try the door to see if it locked, or draw over the sleeping guard's face with a Sharpie, probably leave those out. This goes for anything which requires there to be a prop, or a specific skill, or a particular spell or magic item, or advanced tool. If you need it to solve the problem, or if it's going to cause a problem in the adventure, introduce it somewhere else or make sure to include it in the scene's description. Chekov's Gun is a thing for a reason. Theatre Terms A good way to think of how to describe the elements of scenes is to use the terms of the theatre - sets, props, and actors. Sets The sets are the places where the action happens, whether the action is a negotiation, or introducing a new element or being, or a straightforward combat. The nature of the set is important: a steel-walled enclosed room filling with water is going to involve a lot more problem solving and maybe checks of Brawn, Endurance, Swim, Engineering, Perception, or Mechanisms (and maybe even Luck Points spent) and not so much Customs or Seduction checks. And a scene set in an oak-panelled gentlemen's club, full of very old, very rich men sitting in upholstered armchairs is much more likely to involve quiet negotiations (Influence checks, not Oratory or, Gods forbid, Sing). Props The props are important tools and resources which the Adventurers can bring into play. A book of magic spells must have the correct spell for the Adventurers to chant out loud; a door lock must be opened with an actual key, or failing that an Adventurer's lockpick set. If an adventure involved possessing, say, a magic wand, then the Adventurer wielding that magic wand must get to use it at some time during the adventure - and it must work: say, a Wand of Flesh to Stone with a little carving of Medusa's head at the tip should work perfectly against the monstrous foe at the end of the adventure, even if it does expend all its remaining charges and break up into dust after one last discharge. The point being, the tool is there to facilitate the Adventurer's action. Actors These are the beings (people, non-human people, animals, AI, androids, holograms, spirits) with whom the Adventurers must interact. If there is a guard, she must challenge the Adventurer, to allow the Adventurer to use their Influence, or Insight, or Acting / Disguise, or magic, or Seduction checks. Again, bring in actors to allow the Adventurers someone to interact with in some way. Do not bring in actors with whom the Adventurers cannot interact; and don't leave out actors which must specifically be there for the Adventurers to interact with, such as, oh, using Influence on the guard (and possibly a hefty bribe) to get her to unlock the exit to allow the Adventurers through. In order to open the door, either the team's lockpick must have their lockpicking kit, or the guard with the key must be there. Putting Scenes Together What structure do you use for your scenes? This is a matter of personal taste. Games Masters have struggled with this since the first adventure modules sprang into being. Unlike writing or music, game scenes don't have to follow a linear path. As long as they do follow some sort of pattern, the Players can make decisions of what their Adventurers do, and create branch points at random linking one another in some weird pattern. Linear The simplest form of connective tissue - a scenario which goes from Scene 1 to Scenes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ... Never satisfying, because it just leads the Adventurers down the line from one box to the next, by the nose. Also known as railroading. Stochastic Also known as Drunkard's Walk and sandbox, essentially the Players decide what their Adventurers do, and the Games Master makes up stuff on the spot to keep the momentum going. Matryoshka Named after the Russian nested dolls. Resolving the problem in the outer scenario unlocks the portal to the next tunnel, which unlocks the next, and so on. Each new level unlocks a new surprise, a new secret, a new depth to the story. Like unlocking levels of trance recursively, you just go deeper and deeper. Improv Theatre We've covered improv before. Here, improv is about the Games Master keeping a whole "prop room" and/or "set room" in the background, basically a collection of items and places in a journal, and inserting them with some moderately-tweaked attributes here and there into play. The Adventurers open the double doors of the crypt, possibly smelling fresh air through the keyhole, and find themselves in an open air garden, with a set which looks familiar (corner of the garden, trellis climbing overhead, partial enclosure) but which has been tweaked (no bench in the middle, no clematis) and which contains a prop - a scroll case containing a scroll and a little note, "Cast this spell next time you meet the Duke - he is not who he appears"). Kinds Of Scenes Scenes, or encounters, are meant to break down the scenario into manageable chunks. Those chunks are there so your Players can run their Adventurers through the game, sampling and enjoying the delights of their game. Each scene has a point to it, whether it is introducing a new thing, or something the Adventurers do. Modularity is your friend. Reuse and recycle everything. Planning Start with a planning scene. Let the players make plans and pick a direction for the story. If a story stalls, planning scenes can allow the Players to take stock and regroup. Social These kinds of scenes allow the Adventurers to interact with NPCs meaningfully, so the characters can advance their agenda. Investigation Knowledge is power. By learning whatever the can about about their opponents, and developing their understanding of the current issues, the players can make changes in the direction the story takes. Investigation scenes are for learning new things, and exposing secrets. Action The Adventurers are up against some sort of immediate conflict, and there is little time to debate when there is something physical to be done, whether it be moving a corpse or trying to turn your opponent into one. Antagonist Reaction Whoever is opposing the Adventurers' agenda strikes here, requiring the Adventurers to respond to the challenge. Leverage This is an action taken by the Adventurers to get power or influence over something, which then enables you to get what you’re really after. Consequences What political ability a character uses determines how they get their way, but it can also have unintended consequences. Resolution In these scenes at the end, everything comes together. Closing Thought Scene design and structuring is very much like designing and writing a play. You describe sets, props, and actors. And like a theatrical play, all the words in the world are meaningless unless you get together to make the sets, props, and costumes, and to allow the players to read at least some of the script. Unlike the theatre, however, the audience and the actors are one and the same. It's like a script - the readthrough is nowhere near as satisfying as the finished performance. And for the Players, that means getting their hands dirty, via their Adventurers putting their lives on the line to make a difference to the world the Players are playing in - which is the world you are running for them. But if you keep thinking of each encounter, each scene, in terms of the Adventurers doing something in each one, either with whatever they encounter in the scene or with the scene itself, then you'll be able to provide the Players with keenly-remembered, well-structured adventures and stories, even if you are literally throwing the scenarios together on the spot. Links Encounter Theory can be found here. Republic can be found here.
  2. In the world of 2021, between the lure of video games and the rise of solo roleplaying where game engines have been developed to emulate the Games Master's role, the role of the Games Master can sometimes feel precarious. A tabletop game dies if the players desert - but even a single player can enjoy a solo game if they have a solo engine / GM-in-a-box book to automate the GM's role. Games Masters need to up their game, nowadays, more than ever. This is where the fine art of storytelling comes in. In he earliest days of tabletop roleplaying, where all the Games Master (who used to be called the Dungeon Master before DM assumed a different meaning nowadays) had to do was just randomly create a dungeon and moderate technical queries about what a player could or could not do, their job was relatively simple and involved consultation of the Dungeon Master's Guide for what could, and could not, be done. However, you can now consult all sorts of online resources yourself for answers, meaning that the Games Master's role of provider of technical feedback is now redundant. That leaves them with the role of story creator / adventure creator, and the market demands a lot more effort nowadays. Fortunately, the Games Master has access to storytelling tools, which have existed for a long time, unnoticed and generally unused. One of those storytelling tools is hypnosis. Hypnosis You may be feeling a little disconcerted right now. Hypnosis is a scary topic for some of you here. Your characters probably suffered at the hands (or the gaze) of some vampire or sorcerer whose commands were laced with a sorcery spell such as Dominate - or even worse, Enslave - forcing Hard Willpower checks to resist the glare of their dread hypnotic eyes. However, it is not so bad. Every person has the capacity to go into a trance. Everybody can be hypnotised. In fact, you are likely to have experienced hypnosis personally, every time you picked up a game core rulebook or supplement, and found your mind going through an adventure or just taking in the scenery if it's a compelling sandbox environment you end up in. Have you ever been interrupted while you've been totally immersed in a thing, and had to experience waking up from reading such a book in depth, and blinking, and staring in a state of shock trying to work out what the person who interrupted you is saying? Congrats. What you got woken up from was a trance, and the person who interrupted you was an insensitive clod. Hypnosis is like that, and it is so easy to learn storytelling tools to keep the players engrossed and immersed in the setting, and make Gamesmasters relevant. Immersion When you are creating a setting for an adventure or a campaign, or establishing a setting for sandbox play, you are setting up something for the players to immerse themselves into. Each player has an unconscious mind working behid the scenes; and it is when the unconscious mind is engaged that the players become immersed in the world, the scene unfolds about them, and they become their characters. Your job, as Games Master, is to learn to do this consistently. And yes, it is a skill. Fortunately, it's a skill you can learn really quickly. Put your granddad's fob watch away. You won't need it. Unconscious Mind It is not the "subconscious mind," no matter what you heard or read from whatever sources. It's the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious is what you're probably using right now to argue with me. The unconscious is the bit you use all the time, but are unaware of - that's why it's called the unconscious. The term subconscious implies that it is somehow beneath the conscious mind, perhaps even subservient to it. It is nothing of the sort. Modern psychology uses the model of the iceberg to describe how the conscious and the unconscious work. You remember the old myth that humans only use 10% of their brains? Any medical surgeon could tell you that humans use 100% of their brains - but any competent psychologist will tell you that they use only 10% of their minds for conscious thought. The other 90% is the unconscious mind. The unconscious is where your imagination comes from. Literally. It builds up images and crafts sensations from your memories, and then runs them in your mind, creating from scratch things which only exist because you have remembered something similar in the past. Example: Imagine you're walking up towards your front door. All the familiar sounds, sensations, sights from memory are running in your mind. Describe what you see to yourself. Now when you open the door and step inside, you're not in your home any more - you're inside a glowing palace of stained glass windows and ceiling, a cathedral with a vast floor, a flat plain dappled with a million colours of light filtered by the glass, a light which comes from the sun far above you. There are scents: incense, burning orange blossoms, wine ... Now come back here, and remember what you just experienced. The unconscious constructed that for you. Your job, as Games Master, is to work with the unconscious mind to create such scenes for them. The players' unconscious mind ... and your own. The Conscious Censor and The Power of Perversity Some of you might have just asked "But what if I don't like the smell of orange blossoms?" or "What if I've never smelled orange blossoms?" Fear not. That's the conscious mind talking. The conscious is, literally, a shield against all the data impacting on the unconscious mind. If the unconscious had to process everything all at once, it would break down. Nothing would get done. The conscious mind, the bit that responds when someone says "you" to them, the bit that thinks it is the main part of the mind: that's just a buffer, capable of holding no more than between 5 and 9 things in short term memory at one time. When someone mansplains, or when they are being an insufferable smart alec - they're dwelling in their conscious mind. That is not "the highest expression of human or civilised thought" that rationalists think it is. In fact, it is a staggeringly illogical mindset, because it can hold so few facts, like having a supercomputer which you can only access through an interface whose core is a Raspberry Pi. The conscious' main job is literally to censor and delete the imagination. You cannot live in an imaginary world all the time, and sooner or later you have to disengage from that and focus on the boring day to day minutiae of the here and now, such as washing the dishes and filling out the tax forms. Or arguing over inerpretations about a trivial ruling in the back pages of some core rulebook. Continued next week
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