The Alexandrian

Shadowrun: HarlequinYesterday I was talking about the different types of characters in a scene and why you should think twice (and preferably three times) before having the PCs be anything other than the lead in a given scene. Before that, I was talking about setting agendas as part of scene-framing.

As an example of how NOT to frame a scene, I just got done reading the Harlequin campaign supplement for Shadowrun.


After a series of adventures, the agendas of the penultimate scene in the entire campaign are, “Will Jane Foster help Harlequin?” and “Can Harlequin complete the ritual of chal’han against Ehran?” Neither Foster nor Harlequin, you’ll note, is a PC. Most of the PCs are relegated to being extras for this scene, although PC spellcasters could arguably be called features because they’re allowed to assist in the ritual (although they’ll have no impact on its success or failure).

This transitions us to the ultimate scene of the campaign in which the agenda becomes, “Will Harlequin or Ehran win their duel?” and the GM is specifically told to do everything in his power to prevent the PCs from having any impact on the outcome of the duel.

It’s a terrible way to end a campaign.

The argument can be made, of course, that sometimes reality just works like this: Sometimes you’re side-lined and all you can do is watch other people make their decisions. Let’s ignore, for the moment, that everything about this situation has been designed and therefore could have been designed differently. (If a situation like this had arisen organically through simulationist play, for example, it might be very different.) Instead, take a moment to consider how easily you can shift the agenda of these scenes without changing the given circumstances of the scene.

Instead of, “Will Jane Foster help Harlequin?” the agenda becomes, “Will the PCs turn Jane Foster over to Harlequin?”

Instead of, “Can Harlequin complete the ritual of chal’han against Ehran?” we have, “Can the PC spellcasters contain the magical backlash from the failed ritual?”

Instead of, “Will Harlequin or Ehran win their duel?” we say, “Will the PCs help one of them and, if so, which one?”

The interesting thing about this is that even if you still railroad the outcome of the scene (which I don’t recommend), these re-framed agendas are still clearly superior: Even if Harlequin just takes Jane Foster after the PCs refuse to turn her over, the ethical struggle and moral debate that results from focusing the scene on the decisions of the PCs still tells us something really interesting about the PCs and can serve as a crucible by which they can express or grow their characters.

Harlequin’s ritual is doomed to fail and he’ll definitely save himself by reflecting the energy into a dormant volcano and causing it to explode (which, I’ll admit is pretty cool), but focusing the scene on the PCs trying to contain the rest of the magical backlash allows them to actually contribute to the proceedings.

Similarly, focusing the scene on the PCs’ decision of which morally ambiguous power-player they’re going to help is not only interesting in its own right, but will also have potentially¬†huge consequences for their future. (Who do they make an enemy? Who do they make an ally?) And that’s true even if it turns out that Harlequin still wins the duel and cuts off Ehran’s ear no matter what choice they make.

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8 Responses to “Art of Pacing – Addendum: How NOT to Frame a Scene”

  1. Neal says:

    Sounds like the designers got too caught up in creating preprogrammed epic scenery, and either forgot, or never cared about player autonomy and meaningful choice. Typically, the excuse is the designers have deadlines and somehow overlook these obvious things. My attitude is that they should just diagram out some kind of adventure schematic or flow chart, and work from a list of bullet points of all important issues they need to incorporate into that flowchart (player agency being a big one).

  2. Broozer Bear says:

    I don’t think that the player characters have to be the leading men in every scene. They HAVE to have ample opportunity for solid decision making with real consequences, but the scale of those decisions is another question. I believe in realism, and on the altar of that realism, if a thief gets caught stealing in town, s/he gets a large O (for Outlaw) branded on the forehead for all to see the caught thief and deprive him or her of the protection accorded individuals by the feudal law. If the other players try to help their brethren, but they will have to realistically contend with angry townsfolk, twenty or so men at arms, and angry nobleman etc. Maybe players will show that flash of genius and spring the fool from under their noses, before s/he gets branded, and maybe ears cut off for repeat offenders. Having players adventure with an Outlawed and thereby out-casted player character will make the campaign so much more challenging and a serious game for adults, in terms of realism. I like to embed my players in a larger party containing higher level NPC’s to improve their odds of survival and increase the adventuring flexibility of low level characters. By virtue of role playing itself, the players become the lead actors in a larger group where the lead NPC’s may have an upper hand (and agendas of their own), when dealing with the campaign world.

  3. Broozer Bear says:

    @ Neal,

    End point of the campaign does not have to be anything like the end date with things neatly wrapped up. Things are no more wrapped up than when someone dies in a car accident while driving home from work. Things need not end suddenly either. War ends and fighting ends and combat stops but you are till on the ground. Wild West did not end, it just petered out, with fewer and fewer gunslingers operating in a wider and wider world I which they get more and more outgunned and irrelevant. Maybe you can settle the scores before the campaign ends and culture shock sets in.

    Also, not everyone is a reliable narrator, or an NPC. Just because the Baron says, 30% tithe on all the loot and all of the magic items, doesn’t mean that is able to collect all of that, which is due to him, but he can try. Also, there might be other considerations involved, when working out the political relationship between the local nobleman and Clergy and the Wizards Guild. They might charge him for some services, but not all, and the repayment from the feudal lord might be not in coin, but in consideration.

  4. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    Ok, those sound mostly like good interpretations. Whether PCs should always take center stage or not, mostly it seems to be more fun if they are. Having some guy Ehran doing all the action while the PCs twiddle their thumbs doesn’t sound fun. And in the spirit of altars of realism… making sure that nothing the PCs do alters the outcome of some guy called Ehran taking center stage at the end of the game, doesn’t sound like good player agency to me. Sounds like… railroading.

    The thief being branded with an O is a good one. And it’s pretty much accurate! In the book, Pillars of the Earth, which was well researched by Ken Follette, an early scene involving a thief stealing the family’s pig takes place in the year 1136. The thief was a hard case and a repeat criminal,they knew this because he wore a scarf over the lower half of his face, since his lips had been cut off in punishment for previous thievery. They believed in letting people know that you were somebody not to be trusted just by looking at your missing ear, eye, nose, lips, fingers, or in some places, right hand. Prison wasn’t actually used for crimes, so much, more for hostages to be ransomed.

    It certainly generates realism and an altar of realistic strong consequences.

    If the lord has laws in place to TRY to take 1/3 of gold and all magic, ok… that is realistic and reasonable. The lord can try to collect his steep taxes, and sometimes he may succeed. Any PCs that wish to flout him take their chances. Maybe 9 times out of 10 they succeed, and the 10th, his observers spot them one time too many in the vicinity that month… and they go running when the party enters the ruin, and he’s waiting outside to meet them after they’re beat up from orcs, etc. With a hot branding iron, and this time he takes 100% of the gold and magic. And they owe him a year of slave labor in chains in his quarry for openly flouting his laws, encouraging others to imitate them, and robbing him of his “rightful taxes on his own land.” Plus, the wizards and clerics may also do the lord favors and take payments in kind. Politicos and Big Wheels do each other favors.

  5. Broozer Bear says:

    @ Neal,
    Whoa there pardner!… If the feudal lord can only get his revenue 10% of the time, he won’t be a feudal vassal for too long! Those guys watched their domains like hawks, and we are talking about half a day’s ride from the center to the Barony’s edge, he can watch over it quite successfully, especially in the light of the fact that he keeps the area clear of monsters. And forgetting the greedy vassals and the relative stability of the area, between a Wizards Guild and a large Christian (Cleric) community of two major and a few more minor denominations, wouldn’t Wizards at least, have discovered and looted every respectable dungeon in the area?

    And there is another solution to keeping historic ruins (er… dungeons) safe from looters (i.e. grave robbers aka the Adventurers!). It’s called brick and mortar. Forget about diverting a stream to flood the dungeon (that’s a major engineering undertaking), humanity has been building walls and cities with carpentry and masonry, making own tools from scratch just part of the craftsmanship of any historical mason and carpenter. The Baron can order that any entrances to known dungeons be bricked up and sealed. To a point, where it would take low to medium level adventurers at least two days to break through the brickwork. And by then, the constant roving patrols would have checked the area for any squatters… it is HIS land, damn it!

    Does this sound unreasonable? Not at all. It is just that if you are in a SAFE area, or a relatively safe one at that, it will take a lot of research to locate an un-looted treasure, and nothing is safe when we talk about easy loot, in this world or in any other! Trying to find the dungeon, becomes part of the game, then. DM’s hard task is a realistic clue placement, and not to reject the rumors at the proverbial tavern, but you will never find a direct route to your treasure mine based on what someone told you at the common table of the local tavern, unless it is the local thugs trying to get you out into the woods to relieve you of your belongings (Player Treasure Type HM for Help Me!).

    Which leads us to the real meat and potatoes of the Somethng Better AD&D Campaign – exploration and expedition planning. If you go far enough, no Baron will be in your way, and there are real prizes to boot – ancient gold and magical artifacts, unknown and powerful spells, holy shrines and relics, ancient lore, but are you ready to take on a dungeon with no comforts of a tavern or healers anywhere near.

    The other part is about Railroading. I am strongly against it. I ran a one on one session with a player, who was left bedridden in the village for three weeks game time to recuperate from his injuries. It was a four hour straight role playing session which started with him laying in bed and local village women taking turns nursing him, and there was enough material and decision making made available to player to base a role playing game session based on that (and it couldn’t have been anything other than role-playing, since the player character was far too weak for anything else). However, I do believe there is a time and place for railroading on an extreme scale, on the extreme scale of the being judged by King waiting to be hanged variety. This kind of play should be avoided at all costs, and should only occur as a result of players’ choices (i.e. less random than the Total Party Kill). Something similar did occur. I had a frustrated/temper tantrum throwing player of the I won’t go in the dungeon I am afraid of the dark variety, except his thing was to throw a flask of Greek Fire into every room and burn everything inside of the I am sick of this kind of BS variety. It so happened that a room where kidnapped villagers were kept among piles of straw was lit up by this Fighter. I didn’t throw it at him, it was in the Dungeon Room Key. Most died, a few survived horribly burned. Players carried them out to the surface for the NPC Clerics to heal. As they were brought outside and carried to the base camp, they dying villagers denounced the players as the villains who burned them so horribly, and particularly THAT ONE! Who threw the fire at them as they were crying for his help! Men at arms seized players, for whom things started happening too fast and unexpected, and brought them before their sergeant at arms, who let the local Priest judge them, who took them before the village elders (drawn out role playing scene). The elders then confronted the players with the mourning family members of the dead and (magically) healed, but permanently disfigured survivors, especially one young woman, who used to be beautiful, but is not unmarriable. The Elders demanded to know how these poor souls should be recompensed for their unneeded suffering, they crowd was getting angry, riled by the raging father of the girl. The Baron and his captains were silent waiting in the wings. Then something like guilt overtook the player of that fighter. He decided that his fighter will drop on his knees and beg forgiveness from the villagers, stating that he will become their defender and champion if only they give him a chance. Elders accepted, they were of ethnicity different from the Baron and Men at Arms, though the Baron is a sworn protector of theirs as their lord, the Baron was on hand to accept the fighter’s oath of fealty to the villagers. This rile-playing encounter was unscripted. I rolled saving throws for the burning captives (at a -2 penalty), key players were fleshed out as NPC’s and I rolled for the reactions of the major factions in the encounter, as the encounter progressed. I was improvising as the events developed and the die rolls governed the way things were turning out.

  6. Neal says:

    Ok, so if I understand you properly, the PCs can get treasure and magic, they just have to go several days travel beyond any lord’s land. They may have to do research beforehand to find the dungeon/ruins, etc, too. This way they get to keep their treasure, without having it taxed horribly.

    re: PCs that want to burn everything with oil/Greek fire first, ask questions later… you can also have them burn up valuables within those rooms (paper, books, sacks of flammable silks, costly carved wooden objects, perfumes, incense, gigantic room-sized stockpiles of… Greek fire). Plus, the PCs are going to need enough flasks of the stuff to burn every single room that may be empty, which often is most of them.

  7. Broozer Bear says:

    Yeah, the deeper into the demonlands you go, the more likely you are to find an un-looted location. Not so much to get away from the Baron, but to get away from the other individuals also in search of treasure and power. The further back to civilization you go, the more likely you are to be separated from your wealth and magic, unless you fight to keep it.

    With regards to the Greek Fire, the PC’s were the Spearhead of the Baron pursuing raiders who attacked deep in his territory, and so the PC’s had the full backing of the Barony. Never mind flasks of Greek Fire, they were getting higher level scrolls that can be discharged by first level wizards, a feat of the entire Wizards Guild working around the clock, free resurrection on demand by clergy standing by, and countless healing scrolls and potions. THAT was a training wheels adventure and unique situation, because players did a lot better than I thought I would and did a lot more damage to the raiders than I anticipated, and forced the raiders to halt their slave raid and the pull out at around 3:30 in the morning instead of at sunrise. That was some good combat rolls and original actions by the players in which they found their way into the raiders rear staging area \, which they decimated in a bit of the unexpected and excellent tactical play. Made some fond memories of the three or so game sessions.

  8. Neal says:

    @ Broozer Bear,

    Re: Previously Looted Locations. I’ve been pondering that one for the newest Initial Starting Area in a campaign I’m setting up. Unless its just handwavium, why aren’t all the obvious ruins, mines, etc all long looted by other adventurers everywhere within 100 miles of civilization, long since? Forget about super powerful wizards with wishes that could find every object of value, why haven’t common adventurers just gone after the places and left all the cupboards bare?

    Sure, it’s a game, but I like to find reasons to make things consistent with logic, so I and my players can say… “I can relate to this, cause it makes sense.” In a recent post apocalyptic scene, you can claim that the population is so low, the places haven’t been looted, cause nobody has gotten there yet! After 300 years or so, the population rises, or in a fantasy world, it’s pretty much been sizable for centuries/ millennia, and it gets harder to explain away.

    Any ideas?

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