On the use of scenes in roleplaying games

Posted on June 28, 2011


In the comments to my last post, Tim Koppang (designer of the great game Mars Colony) said:

…players don’t use scenes as a tool in D&D like they do in, say, My Life With Master. Instead, they have “encounters,” or whatever. And I think that is more than just terminology. It means something different, both in structure and purpose, to a D&D player than a scene in My Life With Master.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is that each game defines the unit of story-telling organization differently.

He was making some good points about that post, but what I want to talk about here is that “unit of story-telling organization”.

That describes it more succinctly than I can, but let me try to unpack it. What we’re talking about is how the fiction is approached in any particular roleplaying game: Do we have explicit scenes, with beginnings and endings, CUT! and then it’s the next scene? Do we describe moment-to-moment, with no hard scenes but maybe the GM fast-forwards when we’re traveling or whatever?

Those are two examples I can think of (hard scenes vs. no concept of scene), and Tim is right. They are discretely different categories of fictional units. The meaning of a scene in My Life with Master (a fictional chunk of time, ending on a climax/roll, that’s also a player resource, and as such the only way to approach the fiction in the game) doesn’t translate at all to, say, D&D, where the fiction just flows from what I say my character does, with the GM calling for rolls when she deems it’s unsure if I’ll be able to do something. There are no rules for starting or ending scenes in D&D, just for resolving player actions.

So if, as sometimes happens, we play D&D with scenes, cutting from one group of characters to another at a dramatic moment, it doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in My Life with Master–it’s not designed as a part of the game, to work with the other rules in the game. It still works, dramatically, because scenes work as fictional units in any storytelling medium, but it’s kind of confusing: If I talk about scenes in D&D and scenes in My Life with Master, you’ll know what I mean, because you’ve read books and watched TV and movies. At the same time, though, you kind of won’t know what I mean, because “scene” means something specific, game-mechanically, in My Life with Master, in addition to its normal dramatic meaning. In D&D it just has its normal dramatic meaning.

So: not every roleplaying game uses scenes, and not every roleplaying game needs them. What a scene does, though, and why it’s so useful, and so many roleplaying games of the last 10 years or so use scenes explicitly, is to get us to the dramatic point while skipping everything that doesn’t matter. When I’m playing a roleplaying game, and the GM asks what everyone is doing, and doesn’t seem to have anything in mind, I get kind of nervous. Because usually that leads to talking to some NPC for 20 minutes with no rolls and no drama. I hate feeling like we’re dancing around what we’re there to do (“Look! I have Beliefs on my character sheet! Challenge them!”). Now, this may be a little extreme–I think I’ve been conditioned by scenes in RPGs so much that sometimes I can’t just let the game breathe. I’m always worried (especially as GM) that we’ll waste time somewhere and not hit the important dramatic stuff that I want to.

But the point is, explicit use of scenes lets us almost always get to the point, which is a really handy design tool! I already appreciate scenes, but now I’m in the process of trying to understand the use of moment-to-moment play*, and how maybe that lets RPGs build their own narrative language, as opposed to borrowing from film and fiction. This is just a little idea. I’m MCing an Apocalypse World game right now, and I find that I almost always use scenes: “OK, so we leave Kickskirt confused in the woods, what are you doing back at the compound, Burdick?” It’s a handy dramatic tool, but I’m wondering if I should experiment with letting the narrative breath a little bit, and not worry so much about getting to the point as soon as possible.

*which I’m not as familiar with as some longtime roleplayers; to understand where I’m coming from, you have to know that I’ve only been playing these games since 2007 or so.

Posted in: Processing Play, rpg