The Alexandrian

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Now that you know what the scene is about and the bang you’re using to launch it, you need to fill it with content. (Although, to be fair, the distinction we’re drawing here is not a hard-and-fast one: By the time you’ve set the agenda and the bang of a scene, you probably already know a lot about it.)

The process of filling a scene with content is an artistic one. And, like most artistic processes, there’s a virtually unlimited variation in the methods people use to do it. I’m not even particularly consistent in how I approach it and I actually think it’s a mistake to treat it as something that can be hard-coded. So I’m going to toss out a whole bunch of ideas that I personally find useful. Maybe you’ll find them useful, too. But regardless of that, you should poke around and see what other people have to say about it. And you should give yourself permission to experiment and really play around until you start getting a feel for what works for you and for your players.

First, however, there’s an all-important maxim:

You may know where the scene begins, but you don’t know where it ends.

You’re not writing a book or filming a movie. Unlike a traditional author, you may know where you’re starting off, but you’ve got no idea where the journey will end. Viewed from one perspective, this is a major limitation. But if you look at it from another angle, it’s a major opportunity.


Here’s my basic philosophy: Take all the elements of the scene – the who, what, where, when – and fill those elements with all sorts of toys that both you and the PCs can play with.

(You could also think of these as “tools” that you use to build the scene. But, personally, I find the imagery of the toy – a thing which is meant to be played with; which becomes the focal point for a liberated imagination – to be far more evocative and, thus, useful.)

Hand-in-hand with this philosophy is the idea that the more flexible these toys become the more useful they will prove. If you include something which only has a single utility, that’s pretty good. But if you include something that can be used eight different ways, then you’re really cooking with gas.

(The good news is that your players are probably a gaggle of creativity: If you let them, they’ll take even the most boring stuff and spin it in ways you never imagined. But the key here is if you let them: Remain open to the players twisting or even completely inverting the people and things you include in the scene. Don’t let yourself get locked down on a preconceived notion of how things are “supposed” to work out.)

LOCATION: This is the “when” and the “where” of the scene. It’s the immediate environment for the actions of the scene and it can be either claustrophobic (“the back room at Bill’s”) or absurdly panoramic (“the highways of Texas”), depending on the nature of the scene and the characters in it. Ideally, remembering that minimizing contextualization makes for a better bang, you want to keep things short and sweet while simultaneously maximizing the number of toys that your players can grab.

A few rules of thumb that I use for crafting evocative descriptions as a GM:

Three of Five: Think about your five senses. Try to include three of them in each description. Sight is a gimme and Taste will rarely apply, so that means picking a couple out of Hearing, Smell, and Touch. (Remember that you don’t actually have to touch something in order to intuit what it might feel like if you did.)

Two Cool Details: Try to include two irrelevant-but-cool details. These are details that aren’t necessary for the scene to work, but are still cool. It’s the broken cuckoo clock in the corner; the slightly noxious odor with no identifiable source; the graffiti scrawled on the wall; the bio-luminescent fungus; etc.

Three-by-Three: Delta’s 1-2-(3)-Infinity talks about psychological research demonstrating that repeating something three times takes up the same space in our brains as repeating something infinitely. Thus, once you’ve hit the third item in a sequence, any additional items in that sequence are redundant.

Extrapolating from this, for minor scenes you can describe three things each with a single detail. At that point, you’ve filled up the “infinity queue” in your players’ brains and their imaginations will impulsively fill in the finer details of the scene you’ve evoked. For “epic” scenes, use the full three-by-three: Describe three different elements with three details each.

CHARACTERS: This is the “who” of the scene. I find it useful to conceptually break the characters present in a scene down into three categories: Leads, Features, and Extras.

Leads are the major characters in the scene. They’re the characters who are most affected by the agenda of the scene or who are capable of having the greatest impact on the agenda of the scene.

Features are the supporting cast of the scene. They wield an influence over the Leads; or provide crucial information; or are important resources in whatever conflict is being fought.

Extras are scene-dressing. They might find themselves being taken hostage or appealed to for mob justice, but they can usually just be thought of as part of the location instead of as active agents in the scene.

 The Matrix - The Woman in Red

PCs in a scene are almost always leads. You may find it useful to think of some PCs as being the leads in the scene and the others PCs as features (because the agenda of the scene is primarily of interest to the former and of less interest to the latter), but if you’ve got a scene where none of the PCs are leads you might want to take a moment and triple-check what you’re doing. Unless you’ve got some amazingly good reason for side-lining the PCs, it’s probably a good idea to find a way of reframing the agenda of the scene.

(Off-hand, the only example I can think of is a situation where the PCs are deliberately not participating in a scene. For example, maybe they’re eavesdropping on a conversation. Although even then you should double-check and make sure that a secondary agenda in the scene isn’t about the PCs avoiding detection. And then triple-check to make sure that the scene isn’t really about something like, “Will the PCs stop Roberta from confessing her love to Charles?”)

CONFLICT vs. COLOR: The “what” of the scene is largely encapsulated by the agenda of the scene, but in actually running the scene I often find it useful to categorize the scene as either being primarily about conflict or primarily about color.

Conflict scenes are about two or more characters who want mutually exclusive things. The result might be a firefight, a formal duel, a boardroom takeover, a political debate, a psychic assault, or a torrid argument. Whatever form it takes, though, heads are going to butt and (in a roleplaying game) dice are probably going to be rolled.

Color scenes, on the other hand, are about exposition, planning, and/or preparation. They’re a time for character development; for showing what the PCs are like (and how they relate to each other) when fireballs aren’t flying at their heads. They’re the scenes when your crew studies the blueprints and calls in their favors. They also provide a valuable contrast – a negative space to highlight the positive space; a moment of calm to emphasize the frenetic chase.

From a purely utilitarian standpoint, color scenes are also where the facts get established which will allow you to minimize contextualization for later bangs. (For example, if you know a character’s long-lost brother is going to show up on their doorstep next week it’s more effective to seed information about the brother into a series of scenes leading up to that bang instead of trying to communicate the full meaning of the bang in the same moment that the brother arrives.)

With all of that being said, most of the time you’re going to want your scenes to be about conflict: Conflict is usually interesting and meandering exposition is usually boring, so try to find ways to build your exposition into conflict. (For example, you might have a scene where the PC’s mother is angry because she feels like the PC has stopped caring about his missing brother.) This frequently allows you to have your cake and eat it too.

Addendum: How NOT to Frame a Scene (Starring Harlequin)

Go to Part 4: Closing the Frame

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9 Responses to “The Art of Pacing – Part 3: Filling the Frame”

  1. Neal says:

    This 3rd part of this series is the most interesting and useful so far.

    *I find the imagery of the toy – a thing which is meant to be played with; which becomes the focal point for a liberated imagination – to be far more evocative and, thus, useful.)*

    Re: Color…*They also provide a valuable contrast – a negative space to highlight the positive space; a moment of calm to emphasize the frenetic chase.*

    These are both helpful visualizations. The first as something to make the scenes better, without seeming so much like a chore, and the second as something good for GMs to remember to keep in play, opportunities to contrast to action.

  2. John says:

    “[…] repeating something three times takes up the same space in our brains as repeating something infinitely. Thus, once you’ve hit the third item in a sequence, any additional items in that sequence are redundant.”

    The “rule of three” probably is good DMing advice, but the above doesn’t actually logically follow.

  3. gaynorvader says:

    I have made my PCs extras in a scene and it worked out nicely. They arrived at a city to find it beseiged, vast armies were doing battle in the plains below them. They felt insignificant and awed, then I had one of the captains come up and re-establish them as leads, asking them to fight through the sewers and kill the demon-possesed king. I seem to remember that they actually entered the portal the demons were coming from and killed the demon possessing the king in the end. Still, it’s useful for some scenes to give PCs a sense of scale and show that they’re not the only entities in the world.

  4. Neal says:


    That’s cool stuff. Makes for great visualizations that go off in all kinds of adaptable directions for me to borrow/steal.

    The captain basically requisitions the party onto a sub-mission within an enormous battle environment. I love that! You get a dungeon/sewer crawl (with demoniac possession thrown in for a horrific angle) in a massive landscape of power and chaos.

    For a lower powered party, since I like that kind of gaming world, you have any suggestions about missions they could be requisitioned for in a battle or siege? Maybe a captain, or officer recognizes the party has good equipment and some unusual skills beyond his rank and file and thinks they’d be useful as scouts/saboteurs to infiltrate a city on some mission? That would be an angle I’d try. Any ideas?

  5. gaynorvader says:

    @Neal You could have them kill a local band of kobolds/goblins/troops holding a water source/key pass (Siege commander can’t spare the troops, but having that strategic point could be important). You could have them rescue a hostage, maybe a inspirational figure, such as the attacking army’s prince reagent was on his way to give a motivational speech and was captured (Don’t want the troops knowing the prince is captured as that would lower morale). If you have a more diplomacy-focused party you could have them go to outlying villages to negotiate food to be delivered to the attackers.
    If the party is on the defending side, they could be asked to go outside and destroy the siege equipment or fight their way through the goblin burrows to deliver a message to allies for reinforcements (this is particularly good for low level parties as higher levels just teleport or use some other magical means of accomplishing the task). If you want a less combat-orientated adventure, you could have them try to find a saboteur who has been stealing equipment/poisoning the wells (again, it’s bad for morale if the men find out it’s a traitor).
    Remember that in a siege, both sides are pretty strained. The besiegers need to maintain supply lines to feed their mounts and men, the besieged need to ration their food/control their populace. Any helpful outsiders can be given any number of tasks. If you have PCs with craft/profession or knowledge skills, find a way they can help the side they’re on. Maybe they can give advice on repairing/destroying walls, give tips to the blacksmiths on how to make repairs quicker, tell the commander how trolls are afraid of fire and he could drive out a local band to force them to attack the besieging army.
    I love finding ways of getting the player to use their skills. I find if you don’t you get a party full of people taking Spot, Search, Listen, Climb, Swim, Jump, Use Rope and not much else.

  6. gaynorvader says:

    One thing I forgot to mention, you don’t need an NPC to come up and tell the PCs to do these things in a lot of cases. You could just tell them something like “The attackers catapults are taking a heavy toll on the western wall, [party member with some stone working knowledge] doesn’t think that it will last another day at this rate. If you need to prompt them any further you could have them overhear an officer complaining that the commander denied him permission to take a small raiding party to destroy the catapults. This will only work if you’ve invested the PCs in defending the town (I usually have them live there, it’s amazing the lengths players will go through to defend their modest house!).

  7. Neal says:


    Good stuff. You summed it up towards the end of the #5 Comment, what I was thinking… both sides of a siege are strapped for soldiery and workmen. From that point, you just need ideas to give the party stuff to do. Save somebody, kill somebody, spy on somebody and report back, find out whose messing with the water, go negotiate for food. I’m going to find ways to use some of these.

    Re: Getting PCs to take on skills beyond the basic dungeoneering ones… how do you go about this? Have the PCs encountering problems they can’t solve with those skills, where there’s a financial and heroic reward for them to solve them? Have some injury befall them if they don’t have more broad based skills?

    It sounds like a great idea to broaden the color of the experience, now, how do you motivate players to pick things that only come into use once in a while? Obviously, you’ve got some method and it works.

    GM: “You guys should consider taking a bigger view of life and take other skills, so things don’t get so stale.”

    Player: “How often is being a cartwright and fixing wagon wheels once in 3 years going to enable us to spot secret doors leading to magic, treasure and escape routes, or listen and hear trolls on the other side of the door waiting to kill all of us? We have priorities that we need to maximize for survival! (and power leveling).”

  8. gaynorvader says:

    Good question, and one that plagued me. I found that simply telling them after an encounter something along the lines of “You know, if you had skill x you could have y and gotten an extra 100gp”. Or something along those lines, really makes them appreciate that knowledge or gather information or bluff or appraise are worth money just like search or open lock.

    I also give each character an extra skill point every odd level (2 at level 1) that they can only spend on a craft, knowledge or profession skill. Between adventures they are assumed to be spending weeks in whatever town/village they’re in and try to ply their trade, earning money. I tell them that they need these weeks when levelling as they have to be trained in new skills, taught new feats, given coaching on how to better resist spells, trained in new spells, taught combat trick, etc. This time is also spent waiting for word of new challenges for them as the world is not constantly in crises every day.

  9. Neal says:

    @ gaynorvader,

    Ok, I’m literally writing down notes here!

    Along those lines of encounters that could have had a more valuable alternative outcome with a certain skill, as GM you take a quasi-interventionist stance. Which, I’m totally cool with, cause I think that’s the way to go. After the encounter, you pipe up with a “you, know… you could have done such and such.” Nowadays there’s an attitude that the GM is violating player agency, free will, promoting the wrong number of angels dancing on pinheads (Zippy, that’s looking at you), yada yada, by saying anything to players, without letting the PCs only learn by dying the first 20 times. Seems to me, that if the players can read magazines (Dragon, etc.) that contain tons of tips, online sites, or word of mouth from other players telling their adventures after the fact, that player knowledge/skill is something that’s viral, anyways… You might as well have the GM use whatever tools he/she has to educate the players besides snuffing out their favorite characters over and over. Obviously, you let them go through the encounters on their own, and impart ideas after the adventure/encounter. That’s enough player agency for me.

    Who out there really thinks that using 10 foot poles and flasks of oil as napalm, is something that just keeps getting re-invented from scratch, without any imitation, by every single role player on the planet? My guess is that probably most of the basic templates and strategies of player skill is viral.

    On the idea of spending time between adventures learning new skills, I guess you could say they are going to the local swordmaster’s “dojo,” and working on the moves they encountered in the previous adventure, to cement them into their combat repertoire.

    Something that doesn’t seem to be addressed much for downtime spent studying, is Seasons. If its heavily raining and the roads turn to foot deep mud, you can’t travel very well. High snowdrifts make travel exhausting and dangerous, too. Maybe the bad traveling parts of the year can be spent studying, and you just ‘fast forward,’ to a frame with Spring, to begin again after the studying times are over?

    Re: using skills during down time to earn a living… maybe you can award PCs cash for the down time earned from those skills? An actual number they get to add over and above their expenses at the local inn, or abode they own?

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