Setting the scene

A lot of indie games break the action of the game into scenes. A scene is a slightly ephemeral concept, and generally not well explained in gaming texts (I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print). Quite a few uninspiring roleplaying experiences have resulted from not having much of an idea on what a scene should look like. So here’s a short discussion of how scenes work, how to establish and resolve them.

One person, often the GM but sometimes a player, is the director for the scene. That person should have an idea for some kind of interesting situation that one or more of the protagonists could find themselves in.

Examples could include:
– She is having a row with her boyfriend because he slept with someone else.
– He is trying to repair a ventilation unit, which is about to catch fire.
– She hears screams from inside a crashed bus and goes to investigate.

Once that person has decided on a central focus for the scene, they should say where the scene is happening and who is present.

The scene can now begin. The players then play out the action, roleplaying their characters as appropriate. Conflicts may arise and be resolved, either through randomness (dice etc), through the dictation of the director at the start of the scene (“she is having a row with her boyfriend and during the scene they will break up with each other”), or through players making in-character decisions (“screw this, I’m dumping him”).

The scene ends when we have resolved the central issue – the row with the boyfriend, the response to the burning ventilation unit or the rescue or death of the children. The director is generally responsible for calling the end of the scene, but other players are free to indicate if they think the scene should end, or to object, for instance if there’s some loose end they’d like to see tied up. The director has the final call, however.

The director should have some idea of what the central issue is before you start, and therefore what might trigger the end of the scene. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that the scene will wander aimlessly. You might not specify what that issue is at the start, though it’s a pretty good idea to do so if you want the other players to act appropriately. Even though you’ve got a good idea what the scene is focused on, remain flexible as the action may change your view of what the scene is “about”. If so, you may change your mind about when to end the scene.

The location of the characters may change during a single scene – it’s still the same scene as long as the central issue remains the same. (Though it might be that a scene ends when it becomes obvious that the characters are not in fact going to address the issue – don’t just keep following them around until they do!)

In general, when a scene has ended it’s time to think about what the next scene might be. Again, don’t just follow the characters around 24/7 – you want to be there when interesting stuff is happening, just like in a book or movie.

So there we go, that’s my attempt at explaining what scenes are all about. Does that make sense to you? Do you have different ideas? Let me know what you think!

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

12 thoughts to “Setting the scene”

  1. I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print

    Scenes first appeared in Vampire in 1991, as part of the timekeeping system (turns, scenes, chapters). That’s always been good enough for me.

    It’s a reasonable analysis, except that I don’t agree with your definitions of “situation” or “central issue”. If all scenes were only composed of a “central issue” that was resolved at the end of the scene, there would be no narrative.

    Scenes need
    – a plot related reason for the characters to be there
    – a dramatic element that is resolved (this is your “situation”)
    – a payoff that drives the narrative forward.

    Without the payoff, each scene is an isolated event. If you and your players want to pass around the GM’s hat and run your game like a Robert Altman film that’s fine, but it’s not how most games are run.

    1. Certainly we could analyse scenes further into “why am I here?” “what is happening here?” and “what next?”. But I’m not sure I agree that these are critical to the point of a scene.

      “Why am I here?” tells me why your character might be in such a scene – but it doesn’t tell me why we’re bothering to play through the scene rather than just leave it passed over in a short bit of narrative or even left unstated. The reason we play through a scene is because there’s some issue we’re interested in seeing resolved, even if that’s just “what is X going to say to Y”. How we got there is incidental to the scene, if not to the overall narrative.

      Similarly, “what next” is interesting for the story as a whole, and will probably inform the next scene, but isn’t necessarily an important part of the scene when it’s happening, or helpful in telling you when the scene should be concluded.

      By the way, your mention of Vampire is interesting. I think Vampire is fairly traditional in how it handles the flow of dramatic events; the use of the term “scene” is simply a useful demarcation for how powers and such are applied. But the kind of games that really go to work on scenes, like Fiasco, fundamentally structure the entire game around them. For instance, in Fiasco you get exactly 2 scenes per player, then the Tilt happens; then you get another 2 scenes per player and game is over after that. So “scene” is quite a bit more important in these games, and needs a much clearer understanding on the part of the players. The need for a central issue seems of high importance to me; IIRC the Fiasco guidance does say you can set up a scene without having some idea what you’re doing with it, but I don’t recommend this unless you’re an experienced improviser.

  2. But I’m not sure I agree that these are critical to the point of a scene.

    Well, I strongly disagree. If the PCs do not have a reason to be there, they are passive spectators or interfering in another character’s narrative.

    Setting a scene in isolation is dangerously close to abstraction, and distances players from realism. I don’t object to this kind of dadaist roleplaying–I used to run random scenes with no plot value in games–but I do not think it represents good gaming.

    You mention Fiasco. This sounds like a game that has its own rules to simulate a shared experience. That’s fine; the Fiasco rules have been developed with this in mind, and if they achieve the aim then good for them. I don’t see the need to apply the same analysis to every game.

    I think Vampire is fairly traditional in how it handles the flow of dramatic events

    Only insofar as it tries to adhere to dramatic conventions. This text is from page 137 of VtM1e:

    “The better you can give each Scene an exciting start, an action-packed middle and a fulfilling end (or a strategically frustrating one) the better your Story will be.”

    and from page 138

    “any time that is not spent in a Scene is Downtime”.

    Maybe in the context of our postmodern high-art indie games this advice is trite and outdated; I maintain that for its time, the advice in VtM is groundbreaking and we owe quite a lot to it.

    1. Well, as noted in the OP, this was chiefly about indie games i.e. not including Vampire.

      In general, I can’t work out whether we’re discussing something substantive or dickering over semantics. I’m certainly not advocating dadaist roleplaying, whatever that is – indeed, the whole point of the article is that you should not run random scenes with no “plot value”. The central issue is precisely the plot value of the scene.

      I doubt anyone would set a scene in isolation, but there are lots of factors that will play into the decision to set a particular scene. What kind of game am I trying to run? Who are the characters? What have the other players showed an interest in previously? What plot has happened previously? What do I want the overall arc of the story to be? and so on.

      Now, it’s certainly true that my framing doesn’t guarantee the scene will be about a particular set of characters. Most games require that anyway; for instance, Fiasco runs scenes that are about each player character going round the table. But that’s not necessarily the case, for instance Microscope allows you to look over the whole arc of history and pick out scenes that address issues you’re interested in without necessarily having regard to the characters involved.

      The Vampire advice seems helpful enough, though it doesn’t really say what would constitute a fulfilling scene. (“Exciting” and “action packed” are perhaps easier to get your head round, but hardly helpful for scenes that aren’t about, well, action. Conversation, anyone?)

      Anyways, if you haven’t yet I think you should give a GMless game like Fiasco a try. You’ll probably get a much better idea of the reason for my writing the article.

  3. I think (tell me if I am wrong Rab C Abalias) that this blog post is about providing advice on a specific sub-set of Indie Games a la Durance, Fiasco and The Trouble with Rose.

    and the point of these games is pretty much…

    “If you and your players want to pass around the GM’s hat and run your game like a Robert Altman film that’s fine…”

    The idea being to collaboratively create a story not simply in the sense that everyone plays their character but people also get to direct scenes.

    I think in Durance there is a rotating director (read: GM) chair and each scene starts with the Director setting a question e.g.

    “I wonder what will happen when the Gang Boss finds out her second in command has been ratting her out to the Prison Governor.”

    Scene is over when the question is answered. Then you cut to another scene which might not have anything to do immediately with the previous one…but overall the story of the prison colony as a community gets told.

    It is a very different style to what we are used to, and I personally don’t particularly prefer it to more character driven play. It is very interesting though, but as Rabalias says these games depend heavily on a scene setting system but don’t get the best advice on how to achieve the best scenes.

  4. I appreciate your point of reference is indie games, but your opening statement is provocative. I just provided a counter example, that Scenes have been part of mainstream gaming for as long as Vampire has been in print. That fact is often ignored because the concept was ahead of its time and a lot of the VtM early adopters were grognards applying old school gamist values–hence Storyteller’s reputation for power gaming.

    Clearly if your scope was limited to GM-less or GM-share games, that changes the debate.

    By the way, I have played at least one GM-less game, which was Baron Munchausen. It did not go as well as we thought it might. I’m willing to try more structured games, but I’m not ready to drink the kool-aid just yet.

    1. Munchausen is definitely not the introduction I would choose to hippie games. I like it, but it is a very specialised product. I’d be happy to host a game of this sort for you at some point. Having said that, these sorts of games definitely require a different skillset to traditional games. It takes some adjusting. Probably not surprising it didn’t go super-smooth first time. Indeed, the OP is partly a reaction to my own early experiences with indie games.

      VtM is another debate entirely, of course. Personally I’d say that the reputation it attracted had as much to do with the way it was written as the players who picked it up. I would say VtM is a pretty gamist system. Looking back my impression is that it, and many other games of a similar era, were trying to move towards a more story-focused approach but hadn’t yet entirely developed the tools for it, and were still wedded to some of the tools of its predecessors. The scene advice may well have been revolutionary – but it looks pretty limited from the standpoint of more recent games.

  5. VtM is another debate entirely, of course… The scene advice may well have been revolutionary – but it looks pretty limited from the standpoint of more recent games.

    What “more recent games” are you referring to, besides the indie games you mention here? I’ve gone through my collection and the only games that come close to discussing scenes are Cinematic Unisystem games (Angel, Ghosts of Albion). I’ve looked at ORE games, Burning Wheel, Amber, Exalted, Over the Edge, Continuum, Savage Worlds, AFMBE, all post-WoD games; none of them approach scenes. I’ve looked at Everway, which is about as narrative as you can get; it discusses “quests” but not how to subdivide them. Angel refers to Seasons, Episodes and Scenes, although the emphasis is on plot arcs during episodes.

    Even the nWoD franchise effectively drops scenes; there is no “drama” chapter in the nWoD corebook (or my copy of Mage: Sorcerer’s Crusade).

    My point is that outside of the indie games the concept of “scene” has not evolved, it has faded away. And you can’t dismiss Vampire as “pretty limited” and then say it’s a completely different debate: either you intended your scene analysis to apply to all games–in which case comparison with Vampire’s scene advice is reasonable–or you limit the scope of scene mechanics to the indie subset, in which case Vampire is no more limited than any other system on the market today, and arguably contains something they lack.

    Final point: if it’s the indie games which are scene-focused and yet fail to establish how scenes are run, they have been badly designed. If there are good examples of “scene simulation” games then they fit a specific niche, in the same way that Riddle of Steel has a niche in simulating combat. Some games will value that focus, most don’t need it.

    1. Smiorgan – I was chiefly criticising the text you quoted “give each scene an exciting start, an action-packed middle and a fulfilling end”. It isn’t telling you very much – it doesn’t tell you what a scene is at all (though I appreciate you may not have quoted the whole thing), it just tells you to be exciting and action-packed, and wrap up properly. I don’t see this as particularly revolutionary advice, though it may have been at the time, as I said.

      I am indeed contrasting with Indie games such as Fiasco, Durance, Microscope, Archipelago, Apocalypse World, Sorcerer (these are the ones I own, and I list them only to give a sense that these aren’t just a tiny niche but a significant part of the market). Fiasco doesn’t do enough to set out the basics of how a scene should work IMO, but it contains reams of advice on how exactly you should make a scene interesting. Apocalypse World devotes a huge amount of time to this issue, and structures its entire system around it. That’s why I think Vampire looks limited by contrast, though I admit I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, and perhaps Vampire has more to say on this than what you quoted or what I remember of it.

      I totally agree with you, though, that to the extent that indie games (or any other games) rely on a concept like scenes and then don’t do what’s necessary to define it and explain how it’s done, they’re badly written. (I’m not sure about badly designed; it depends on what you count as part of the design, I guess.) It’s something that has frustrated me reading into this part of the game market, and though I think I’ve now started to develop the skills that make it all look easy, I shouldn’t forget how challenging it was at the start. This doesn’t take away from the fact that these games tend to contain more GM advice per square metre than other games I’ve read.

      I’m sure you’re right that scene-focused games are a niche. But having said that, I think the techniques which apply to these games could be profitably applied elsewhere. The endless “does anyone else have anything they want to do, or can we move on?” of traditional map-and-plot based gaming (I recognise that I’m describing them in crude terms) could benefit from some of the rigour of the GM thinking “what is this scene about” and “have we finished with it now”. Which isn’t to be overly critical – I love the map-and-plot format.

      …actually, this is making me think apropos of another thread on here that plot points may have their benefits after all. We can all be spared the “anything else?” question if everyone feels they can just plot point up the stuff they need when they need it. Then again, I return to thinking that if it’s so great to be able to do this, why limit it. Sigh.

  6. Rabalias – the point of that quote was that VtM, rightly or wrongly, likes to stick to dramatic conventions. It wasn’t meant as a definition of a scene, only that VtM chooses to define scenes as dramatic units with openings, dramatic content, and recognisable conclusion. That’s not so far from your own definition. I didn’t quote the definition of scenes verbatim, nor did I mention the system’s use of foreshadowing, flashbacks, mood, theme, and so on. What I wanted to illustrate was the system values dramatic scenes highly, and recommends non-dramatic scenes be relegated to “downtime”. In doing so it tries to avoid the scene “wandering aimlessly” as you put it.

    Any quote taken out of context could be used to argue a system is “limited”. But let’s say VtM’s approach is limited by comparison with the structure you’re used to in these indie games. I could just as easily argue that applying structure is restrictive; that advising a GM to define closing conditions may unintentionally rob a scene of further interaction or meaningful conclusion. Both approaches require skill to get the right effect, but the important thing is the designers have taken the time to engage with these subjects so the GM can get a good result.

    OK, I don’t want to be adversarial. I agree your scene structure can be usefully applied to a lot of games and also that a lot of games don’t define scenes at all. My focus on VtM was in response to your claim that “[scenes are] not well explained in gaming texts” (when VtM is a direct counter-example) and that VtM is somehow limited and outdated. I think you’re unfairly applying your indie game standards to VtM and finding the latter wanting because of its gonzo reputation and the fact it’s open to gamist abuse. The very best parts of that game are the bits with no system; much of which has been lost or de-emphasised over 20 years. This is evidenced in the commercial scenarios where they stuck to the mood/theme/act/scene format rigourously (even though many of the scenarios are either dull or absurd). Compare these with D&D and Traveller modules of the 80s which were little more than annotated maps, or contemporary “lite” scenarios that could be written on the back of an envelope.

    1. Fair enough; I’ll have to go back and look through VtM, see if there’s any interesting lessons I can take away (haven’t read it for some years).

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