Sunday, August 08, 2004

Scene Framing

posted by Bruce Baugh

I owe a debt here to a variety of folks, most particularly Neel Krishnaswami, for insightful observations in recent years. None of what follows is intended to look as if it sprang full-grown from the brow of Zeus.

There are a lot of ways that roleplaying games operating in a chosen genre differ from stories and shows in the same genre. One of these is pacing: the rpg version of the scene will almost always start sooner and end later than the other versions. It's customary for those of us with arty pretentious ambitions to sneer at the socially incompetent masses for their need to game out all the details, and I have done that in my time, but I'm mellowing in my stance about it. I don't think it's unreasonable to want to make sure your character (and your influence on the story) doesn't get hosed because of conflicting assumptions. What's played out is much easier to agree about than what's glossed over, summarized, or otherwise pushed off screen. That's as true for a group with a lot of trust and shared creative framework as for any other.

It struck me just recently that game mechanics like inspiration (in Adventure) and hero points (in the cinematic Unisystem) provide a good tool here.

The point of including the stuff around the edges of the scene is to make sure that characters have the information and resources they need, the chance to set up plans, and so on. Well, hero points let players declare such things, and come with guidelines for the cost of increasingly significant interpolations. I think that in a game run with each scene in a tighter frame, it might work to simply give the players more points to spend - probably not in a hard-and-fast conversion of expected play time versus increased points (though if anyone were to work out math for that, I'd be glad to see it), but with a significant boost, perhaps enough for one or two really major changes or a bunch of smaller ones for each scene tightened up this way. Then play starts at the first exciting, dramatic, or other worthwhile moment; interpolations are handled in compact flashbacks, the narrative version of zooming in for a sudden reveal, and like that.

(I also wonder if it would help to declare a caption or summary for each scene: "At the Bank", "Two Conversations", "The First Assassination Attempt". The sort of strong-genre story I'm thinking about here has a familiar structure amenable to themes and variations, and it seems like it'd help players use their resources effectively if they know at least some of what's coming. There's still room for surprise.)

Has anyone tried deliberately running in this style? I'm looking forward to trying it out myself.