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Action! Scene-Crafting in Role-Playing Games
And now we come to what is in essence the single-most quintessential skill for gamemasters (when it comes to crafting settings): Scene-building. As we have previously discussed, each layer of setting builds onto each other and brings the players and their characters more into contact with the story and the game. Scenes, while the most focused tier of setting (being constrained to a single micro-location within a greater location), are the direct conduit for characters to be interacting with the story. After all, a conventional story is composed of a series of scenes that carry the story from one point to another. Each point/scene will contribute something to the story in one manner or another.
Besides the fact that Scenes will help you tell your story and allow players to interact with the story at the same time, it is very important to learn to craft Scenes because that is the majority of storytelling when it comes to role-playing games. As a GM, you are going to be making countless Scenes for your players and each will serve some purpose in the end. Whether it introduces the characters to the World, gets them onto a new storyline, brings in new and exciting characters (both PCs and NPCs alike) or helps add to the overall atmosphere and flow of the setting, each Scene will be an opportunity for you and your players. But don’t think that you are going to have to make Scenes perfect on the first go around. No, no. As long as your group is patient, you are going to have a LOT of chances to refine your craft at Scene-building. So, let’s help you get a good start anyways, shall we?
Not Too Much and Not Too Little
Much of GM’ing is storytelling; this includes detailing out the Scenes that constitute the story. The right details will set the proper image you had in mind for your players. As a GM, you should determine how much and what details to reveal to your players (obviously, don’t share the secret ones with them until the right time or when the uncover them). Utilize whatever criteria you want for detailing your Scenes, but bear in mind that being vague in your descriptions can lead to interesting results.
For example, if you were to tell your players that they are chasing (or following) someone down a street, then there can be any number of ways to interpret and visualize that Scene. Since the description is ambiguous (not necessarily a bad thing, but we will get to that in a moment), you as the GM will either have to field a number of questions the players may have about it (e.g. how many people are there, how well-kept is it, how open/closed off is it?) or you can allow a number of possibilities for you players to assume (and potentially exploit) any number of details (significant or otherwise). Neither option mentioned just now is meant to be bad or intimidating; just the bare facts, In fact, they can be helpful in that it allows you an opportunity to see how involved your players want to be (‘cause if they keep asking questions then that means they want more info to get a better image) and it can present you with chances to practice being more spontaneous in your games (‘cause you may have to think of something on the fly for something you hadn’t anticipated).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, taking your time to lay out every single carefully crafted detail can be a tedious experience for you and your players. While you do want to provide your players with a richly detailed and nuanced setting to be immersed in, you do not want to detract from the overall experience (by taking them out of the immersion) and/or bore them with an overly long description. Likewise, gaming sessions take up time out of everyone’s schedules. You are going to want to make the time worth it and unless the Scene is just THAT good, not everyone is necessarily going to be comfortable spending an entire session on a single Scene. So, the challenge in detailing the Scene is striking a balance between enough detail to carry the Scene and interest your players, while trimming away enough extraneous details to allow for a good flow for your story and give your players time to interact with the story.
allows for more spontaneity and player-GM interaction; brevity
too open to interpretation; less immersion
deeper immersion; fewer questions; clarity of gameplay/story
time-consuming; caution required to avoid too much detail
One of the means to craft your Scene is to do it beforehand. This seems obvious, but more specifically you should prepare the details of that Scene as a script. Rather than having to describe the Scene as the players come upon it, you can have it written out ahead of time so you can just read from a page rather than your head. When doing this, I recommend studying the written description so that you know which details you may want to emphasize (for story purposes, for dramatic reasons, or what-have-you). Remember, these scripted details can be for immediate details (such as what the characters see as they enter a room) and they can be for revealed details (such as when a player opens a chest or secret passageway).
You can also add further scripting by writing out NPC’s dialogue preemptively for your Scene. Personally, I make notes on what points they are going to hit, so that way the speech comes across spontaneous and more natural. However, this can still be a strain (cause I have to remember how the character speaks) and sometimes it is better to have a fully written dialogue; particularly for actual speeches.
While I have already talked much on the topic of spontaneity as a gamemaster, there are some points to reiterate and highlight when it comes to Scene-building. Even when you have scripted details or plot points in your Scenes, you are not going to avoid the random factor of your players. If and when they throw something totally unexpected at you in one of your Scenes, then you are going to do your best to think on your feet.
As an example, I had a Scene where an NPC was threatening one of the players; just an intimidation tactic that was intended to add to the atmosphere of the player’s story rather than be anything bigger or contributive in terms of story details. The player responded by turning the Scene into a combat sequence. I had to think of some reasonable statistics for the NPC on the fly and run with it as best as I could.
The expression goes that a picture is worth a thousand words; one way to put that to the test is to utilize pictures for your Scenes. It can save you a great deal of time describing a Scene if you already have a specific photo or other such picture at your disposal to use. After all, with a picture propped up for your players to see, you can spare more than a few words by saying, “it looks like this.” Other ways to use existent pictures for your Scenes is to springboard from the image and add/subtract elements/details pertinent to your story; then when it comes to the reveal, showcase the picture and describe the differences. If you are artistically bent, then you can make the picture yourself on any of the number of media or use whatever technique you are most comfortable with.
A specific form of picture that is very common among gamers is the map. Typically reserved for combat Scenes, using maps helps to relay where characters stand in relation to each other and the environment. Maps can be abstract with only game relevant data being depicted (e.g. cover, differences in elevation, difficult-to-traverse terrain, etc.) or maps can have any number of details to help sell the immersion of the Scene. A number of companies produce maps and map tiles with such details (both abstract and concrete) for players to purchase at any local retail shop.
Terrain and Miniatures
If you are not content with the two-dimensional world of maps and map tiles (even though the latter can be stacked and produce a pseudo 3-D environment, but I digress), you can always utilize miniatures and miniature terrain to help tell your Scenes. While miniatures in role-playing games are a common sight and often used with maps, miniature terrain allows for even greater immersion because you get to see how visually striking and the depth in comparison to your character(‘s miniature). Unless you detail it on the terrain itself, you will have to explain and field questions on how the terrain impacts the mechanics of the game (e.g. what kind of check/difficulty is it to clamber over X, what type of cover is this, etc). Also, fewer companies produce terrain for gaming (miniature or role-playing), so you may have to make the terrain yourself. However, there is much to be said on that topic (foreshadowing . . .) and in my opinion, terrain building is a very creatively rewarding experience.
Ideally, you are going to prioritize the visually interesting and/or important Scenes in your story with the lion’s share of details; and most often, that is what you are going to do because it is the intuitive thing to do. However, an obstacle in doing so is that you may be “tipping your hand” to your players on the relevancy of the Scene. If you are banking on dramatic twists or other such surprises to help challenge and engage your players, then laying out maps or terrain for a big fight may spoil the surprise for them. Mixing in high-end detailing with lower priority Scenes can help throw enough of a curve to players to give them false expectations; so then they may not know what to expect at any given Scene and treat each one with the respect it deserves. You can do the same by splicing in your maps and terrain for non-combat Scenes.
The ultimate challenge when it comes to crafting Scenes is striking the balance between making them engaging for your players and making them pertinent to your story. As we have discussed, there are numerous factors in this equation and multiple ways in finding that equilibrium. Even though it is a challenge, every GM will get plenty of chances to fine-tune their craft to their satisfaction. All you need (besides imagination, but I know you’ve got that covered) is patience.