Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Teaser and Coda

Something that has become a signature part of my style as a GM is the use of scripted cut-scenes during play. This is something that many players greet with skepticism (or even open hostility) the first time they encounter it, and I was no exception to the rule.

Cover for BB2. The painting is really top-notch.
The first time the technique registered with me was when I played a scenario out of the Call of Cthulhu book Blood Brothers 2, and I didn't like it at all. The idea of that collection was to present horror adventures (minus the Mythos) in the style of not-very-good old horror movies. The one I played was called "An Alien Kicked Sand in My Face", and was in the style of old Frankie-and-Annette beach party movies with the added twist of alien invaders.

What I remember about the scripted bits was that they inserted themselves into the story during the ending, so that stuff that would ordinarily be in the hands of the players to do actually happened on the printed page. That chafed with me at the time, in much the same way that some people hate the FMV cut-scenes in games like Metal Gear Solid. Why was I reading this, instead of playing it?

Slight aside: Thinking back on it now, some of the "text box" material in earlier TSR D&D adventures -- particularly those in the Dragonlance series and other adventures by Tracy & Laura Hickman -- came close to the same technique. The idea being to frame the action and highlight key scenes with formal elements that made the adventure hang together more like a story, or -- in the case of BB2, a movie. The original Ravenloft adventure comes with an optional scripted scene ending the narrative, and includes a few scenes that are fleshed out in the text. The same is true of Pharaoh. Both of those adventures are among my favourites of all-time, and probably among the earliest that I ran as a DM. 

So BB2 put me off the idea, but with the passage of time I returned to it about ten years later. I was working on a new campaign for the Angel RPG (the Joss Whedon one, not a game about literal angels) and had decided that I could punch it up by emphasizing the "TV-ness" of the material. The core book did a good job of talking about the conventions of the game through the lens of television, and I wanted to take it a step further.

I was thinking of a game that was more episodic than typical RPGs I had played up to that point, with short, contained stories that built into an arc exactly like a TV show. What if I created little framing scenes around each episode, just like the "teaser" and "coda" scenes that close a large number of shows (and often Buffyverse shows in particular). I had taken a course in screenwriting since my initial experience with BB2, and so I had skills that seemed to be well-suited to the task.

I had seen reference to the technique of "cut scenes" in roleplaying games before (probably in R. Talsorian Games' grab bag of ideas for the Cyberpunk game, Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads, which I still think is jammed with good stuff and unfairly dismissed because of the chapter on screwing over players who get too big for their britches). They seemed usually to consist of the GM describing a scene where the players were not present, with the GM taking the parts of any characters present. This seemed less than ideal. Besides, this seemed another intrusion into the middle of the adventure that was probably best left to players. A frame seemed less shoehorned into the action (although I occasionally use this technique now myself).

I introduced the scripts to my group with the proviso that they were an experiment, and if they didn't like them, the scripts would not return. Fortunately for me, they embraced them. (It helped that most of my players had at least a little background in theatre. This was familiar territory.)

In play, we found that they gave a satisfying sense of "roundness" and closure to each session -- something that I still strive for, many years later, which ultimately drove me toward shorter campaigns with a tighter structure. They allowed me to include players in delivering what would be exposition in most other games -- I was simply able to put the important words into the mouths of the PCs, rather than having to info-dump the important story points. Any time you can get players participating, rather than spectating, that's a good thing and well worth your effort.

The scripts also functioned on the level of signal to my players that the game was about to begin, helping to get everyone's attention focused in the same direction. (What reminded me of the scripts in the first place was my idea of including a theme song for the series, as a Pavlovian signal to my players that it was Game Time and the chatter should stop. If that sounds awful -- and it kind of is -- you're forgetting those evenings when the table talk goes on and on. I'm not sure the theme songs ever worked the way I was hoping they would, but I liked them and still use them today. The scripts fill the same role much more effectively.) They also played a nice structural place in the session as a way to build anticipation for the next episode -- I'd drop a little hint of Awesome Things To Come, and boom! Instant anticipation of the next session.

There are a couple of qualifications to this that bear mentioning. Firstly, some players are never going to be okay with any technique that puts words in their characters' mouths. Hell, a lot of people are willing to stick a shiv in your gut for suggesting that story has a place at the game table. Secondly, this technique takes a lot of time and effort. As someone with a background in screenwriting, a decent sense of scene and dialogue, and good speed at the keyboard, I may be uniquely qualified to use this technique regularly. If writing dialogue is not your strong suit, this may not be for you.

Thirdly, the choice of scenes used as frames is very important and bears careful consideration. I spent a couple of hours last week working on a teaser for the latest episode of my Victorian vampire hunter game Sunset Empire, only to cast it aside at the last minute (even though it was finished) because I wanted to play out the scene with the PC involved, rather than let the script decide her reactions or the outcome. (It turned out I needn't have worried, because it played out very closely to the way I'd written it on the page.) I think the lesson here is that significant scenes that involve important character moments or decisions should not be part of a script, they should be in-game.

That said, over the course of years I have incorporated the technique into my style and won over many players with the idea. It's not for everyone, but it's a handy technique in my bag of GM tricks.

It's also worth noting that a lot of these ideas (and others that I developed during that Angel game) are also at the core of the indie game Primetime Adventures, which borrows a lot from TV structure and tropes. Anyone who loves games that are heavy on the drama -- and if you're reading this blog, that probably includes you -- should really check that one out.

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