Thursday, April 25, 2019

Scenes at the Gaming Table

Salutations, my curious congregation! I have been doing a lot of plot study recently in the vein of writing things. I've always held to the idea that you can't really DM like you're writing a novel because you can never be sure what your players are going to do, but I've been thinking about that. You can have some pretty decent guesses.

Structure isn't bad. I think we're all agreed that railroading is. Can you have structure without it being railroading? Well, you bet your sweet bippy you can. And what about those groups that need just a little extra push to actually do stuff?

I want to talk about crafting scenes at the game table, how they differ from writing fiction, and what makes them similar.

Content warnings: The usual dose of irreverence, probably some swearing, and a lot of unsolicited advice about how to run your game. Also the flamingo in your back yard is not my fault. Don't ask me who left it there. Idk. Maybe Starbucks.

What is a scene?

So at it's bare bones, a scene is this: A character wants something. There are forces trying to stop them from getting it. Character and Forces struggle until the character either does or does not get what they want. That simple.

Well, sort of.

That's what happens in a scene. The scene is also the locale it's set in, as well as the tone set for it. And those are things that you can plan for even at the gaming table. If you have a group that likes to take the story by the nads and make it their bitch, fantastic. Not every group is like that. Some of them need a push.

How to do it at the gaming table...

Here's my trick: in a novel, you have to know how the scene ends. In a tabletop, you shouldn't. Don't write down "this is what is going to happen here". Instead, write down what the characters could want out of this scene and make sure there are a couple of options. Also write down what they need to get out of the scene.

For example, say your intrepid adventurers have been sent to scout the coast for potential naga activity. When they arrive, they investigate to find tracks in the sand leading back to a cave as well as signs of a struggle and the torn banner of a local orc horde.

So you have scene one:
-Location: The beach
-The PCs Want: To find out if there has been naga activity.
-The Players Get: Two leads, one suggesting orc involvement and leading to the orc hordes, and one that leads into a nearby cave.

The orc hordes and the cave then become their own scenes. You can take it a step farther and imply things they might want from each of these scenes as well. Remember that you can split as many times as you want but eventually you're going to have to start knotting those scenes back together. If you have an overarcing plot you are going to want to follow a loose outline at least.

Stringing a set of scenes together without railroading your players...

Prepare locales. Prepare NPCs. Prepare conflicts.

Remember it is always up to your players what they want in a given scene (though you can feel free to offer suggestions and probably should, particularly if your players are not the sort to take the reigns or if they are very new; I would advise against trying to force a group that doesn't naturally drive the plot into doing so, it typically doesn't end with anybody very happy.)

Remember that it is always up to your players how they go about getting what they want in a given scene.

Remember that although you do not owe them a certain outcome or even a good one, you do owe them an outcome that is in response to their actions and choices.

You know you need your PCs to go into this tavern and you know you need them to come out knowing that Duke Balway is crooked. You work in several hooks that could get them there; there is a high stakes poker game that takes place in the back on some nights. The bartender has a certain liquor for sale that is meant to make you speak gnomish if you drink too much. Maybe someone left a nasty passive aggressive note on the PCs cart and they tracked the source back to this place.

Whatever it is they want, there should be something in the way. The frequent patrons aren't at home to someone that isn't a regular sitting at their bar. It's hard to get into the poker game because you need a certain amount of money up front and to get past the bouncer. The note-leaver is, obviously, a crochety old person that doesn't want to admit they did it.

Whatever they want, say no. Remember the rule of three; most of the time, you want to say no  twice and then say yes. This makes it feel like a challenge without becoming a drag. Break the rule of three if your PCs do something particularly clever; sometimes it can work the first time. Sometimes it can be two yesses and a no. Just be aware of what patterns you're setting up.

Always be aware: What do the PCs want right now, how am I preventing them from getting it, and where do I need this to lead?

Set piece choices

Fixed points. Things that are going to happen regardless. Sometimes, you've just got to set up some big campaign choices in advance.

Are the PCs going to save the capital city or the little town where they live? They can't have both.

Does the bard they befriended live, or do they save the woods hermit instead?

Do they decide to keep the dark forbidden magic around because it would be worse to destroy knowledge or do they stamp it out because, dude, it glows acidic green and can't mean anything good?

Have a rough idea where your prefabricated choices lead. And then be ready and willing to run with a third option if the PCs manage to come up with one. PCs are really good at doing shit you didn't expect so when you're outlining your plot, try not to make these set pieces anything so important as to derail the entire story.

The Illusion

The truth is you are going to be constantly reworking things on the fly no matter what. I know some DMs that just don't plan in advance, but the truth is that's not me. I have to have at least a rough outline of things that can happen so I have a list of things to throw at my PCs.

The important thing to remember is that you are creating the illusion of narrative. You can't have outlined the whole thing, but you outline loosely enough that the PCs can do anything and it will still come around to the motifs you had in mind.

Remember what is important to your PCs. Some want to amass wealth, others want political sway, others still want romance and some just want to be the very best like no one ever was. Challenge these desires, and write a plot that allows them to explore what they want while still keeping some kind of shape and structure.

If your PCs kill someone important, recycle the stat block and think of another NPC to fill the roll. You can even plan this in advance if you think your PCs are going to do that; or alternatively send them a less important liaison of an NPC. If your PCs decide to say fuck the plot and become master chefs...well hell, let them do it. That becomes the plot and if your PCs ARE the types to run with things that makes your job so much easier.


What do we want?

Why can't we have it?

Where do we go from here?

Always be asking yourself these three questions and it should make your game run much more smoothly. Conflict is the life blood of any story, RPG or not, and as long as there's something to be desired and a conflict to work against, you'll have our players attention.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. Obligatory trying to sell you something. Torchlighters is still over here and 99 cents and you should go check it out.

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