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Posts tagged ‘art of pacing’

The Art of Pacing: Prepping Bangs

February 20th, 2015

Bangs are the explosive moments that define the agenda of a scene and force the PCs to start making meaningful choices. But you don’t necessarily need to come up with all of your bangs on the fly. In fact, Bandolier of Bangsprepping bangs can be a very flexible and effective way to prep. In Sorcerer, Ron Edwards talks about prepping a bandolier of bangs. It’s a great image. The GM goes into a session armed with his bangs, ready to escalate and respond by hurling the material he’s prepared into the fray.

For example:

  • Suzie calls. She’s pregnant.
  • A death knight kicks down the door.
  • Your muse starts howling. Your system is getting hacked by something ugly.
  • A dark miasma creeps across the surface of the moon. The werewolves begin bleeding from their eyes.

Grab any of those and toss ‘em like a grenade.


Bangs force choices. If the choices forced by a particular bang – and the agenda it brings into play – are focused on a particular character, then the bang will shine a spotlight on them. One easy way to create a compelling session is to simply ask, “What interesting thing is going to happen to each of the PCs today?” Hit them with those bangs and then see what develops.

One technique for developing spotlight bangs is the flag. The idea here is that a player’s character sheet and background can tell you a lot about what they’re interested in: If they’ve handed you a PC decked out with investigation skills, you should probably be tossing them juicy mysteries. If their character background is drenched in orders of chivalry, they probably want to get involved with the royal knights. And so forth.

(Of course, this is more of an art than a science. Some times, for example, people put points into an activity not because they find it interesting but because they find it boring and would rather dispatch with it quickly. But those exceptions are rare and, when in doubt, you can just chat with them.)


In The Shadow of Yesterday, Clinton R. Nixon introduces the concept of keys: These are motivations, problems, connections, duties, and loyalties that players select during character creation. For example:

Key of Bloodlust: Your character enjoys overpowering others in combat.

  • Gain 1 XP every time your character defeats someone in battle.
  • Gain 3 XP for defeating someone equal to or more powerful than your character.
  • Buyoff: Be defeated in battle.


Key of the Mission: Your character has a personal mission that she must complete.

  • Gain 1 XP every time she takes action to complete this mission (2 XP if action is successful).
  • Gain 5 XP every time she takes action that completes a major part of this mission.
  • Buyoff: Abandon the mission.

I’m going to genericize the term here and use key to refer to any mechanic or method of character creation that formalizes the creation of flags. These mechanics allow the player to specifically say, “This is important. You should use this.” And when these mechanics exist, the GM needs to respond to them with key scenes: Opportunities for those keys to be turned.

Key mechanics are often called out in a lot of indie games from the past decade or so, but you can find these mechanics lurking all over the place. For example, the keys of The Shadow of Yesterday are mechanically almost identical to the “Individual Class Awards” found in the AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. The rules for creating covenants in Ars Magica are similarly filled with mechanical cues for the GM to use.


In Sorcerer, Ron Edwards uses the concept of a kicker: A specific, life-altering bang that the player defines during the process of character creation and which basically happens at the moment that play begins: Their mother is murdered. They win the lottery. The village is burned to the ground. By getting the players involved in the creation of these “initiating bangs” you can give them a lot of agency in defining the shape the campaign will take. But even if you create the kickers independently, this is still a solid technique for getting the PCs involved in the campaign.

For example, one of the quickest ways to customize a purchased adventure is to figure out how to tie the initiating bangs of the adventure directly to the PCs (their interests, their cares, their goals). Once you’ve done that, everything else will flow naturally.

The kickers in Sorcerer are epic in nature because Edwards uses them to launch (and drive) entire campaigns, but the basic concept of the kicker can be used to create adventures on a smaller scale, too.

If you use an episodic approach in structuring your campaign, for example, you can set up your situation like a toolbox (see Don’t Prep Plots), and then figure out the big, effective bangs you can use to launch that situation into motion. You don’t have to do anything more than that. From that point forward, you can just react to what the players are doing.

In this guise it may become clear that you know kickers under a more common name: Scenario hooks. But the idea of hooking players into a scenario often seems to result in a limited palette: It’s the guy in the tavern who wants to hire them. Thinking about these hooks through the lens of the bang can help to expand your concept of what a “hook” really is. Instead of just thinking, “How can I make the PCs aware of this cool thing?” You can start thinking about how you can kick things off with a bang.

To put this more prosaically: There’s a tendency for scenario hooks to be delivered with a really weak agenda. (“Will they accept Bob’s job offer?”) Strong kickers means using hooks with more compelling agendas and higher stakes.


Of course you don’t have to limit your prepared bangs to the beginning of a session, either. One effective way of organizing prepared bangs is a simple timeline: Bang X happens at time Y. Other things may be happening in direct reaction to the choices made by the PCs, but the clock keeps ticking and the next bang that will complicate their lives keeps drawing inexorably closer.

I’ve also found that timelines are often a useful conceptual tool for people who are struggling to grok the concept of bangs in general. For example, here’s the timeline from an old campaign status document from my Ptolus campaign:

  • 09/27/790: The PCs gain access to their Hammersong vaults.
  • 09/28/790: Arveth uses the dais of vengeance on Tee.
  • 09/28/790: A Pactlords strike team arrives at Alchestrin’s Tomb.
  • 09/29/790: Maystra and Fesamere Balacazar approach the PCs. They want to hire them to break into the White House.

Some of these things are appointments the PCs have made. Others are ambushes. But every single one of them is a bang waiting to happen: When the clock reaches that moment, we’re going to frame a new scene, set an agenda, and bang our way into it.

(This is why I generally find it useful to keep two separate timelines in my campaign notes: One for stuff that’s generally happening in the background and one for stuff that’s going to directly affect the PCs.)

One other thing to note about these timeline entries, though: They aren’t fully-formed bangs. They’re more like bullets that are waiting to be fired. When the moment arrives, the actual bang will be customized to the circumstances of the PCs.

For example, if the PCs are at home when Maystra and Fesamere come looking to hire them, then the bang happens when the well-known members of a criminal family that bears them a grudge come walking through the door. If the PCs aren’t at home, then the bang happens when they come home and find the letter that was left for them.


Another form of prepared bang which is often not thought of as such is the random encounter.

I’ve talked in the past about the effect OD&D’s 1 in 6 chance per turn of generating a random encounter has on dungeon exploration. If you think of each random encounter as a bang, the net effect of this system is to automatically deliver a steady pace of them. (This is another example of how the classic dungeoncrawl structure delivers effective pacing in the hands of neophyte GMs.)

One problem with this form of bang, however, is that it is so often just the same bang (“A WILD POKEMON APPEARED!”) leading to the same agenda (“Can you defeat the wild Pokemon?”). As I described in Breathing Life Into the Wandering Monster, you can solve that problem by finding new ways to contextualize the encounter.

For example, if you generate a random encounter of “8 skeletons” you can go for the predictable bang by saying, “You see eight skeletons and they attack you.” You can enrich that by varying the bang and saying, “From within the sarcophagi to either side, you hear the sounds of bone scratching against stone.” Or you can switch it up by changing the agenda and saying, “You see eight skeletons. They are arrayed around some huge mechanism of wooden gears. Some of the skeletons are pulling at levers, others are pushing on wheels.”

OD&D accomplished agenda shifts mechanically through the use of random reaction tables. Judges Guild applied similar techniques to urban encounters, separating the generation of what you were encountering from how and why you were encountering them.


One risk in preparing specific, evocative bangs before play begins is that it can encourage railroading. (Or directly create it depending on the techniques employed.) A few tips for avoiding this:

First, bangs should never dictate a character’s response. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, the best bangs are the ones that provoke the most choices. Note the subtle distinction between:

  • “Saving the princess” / “Discovering that the princess is trapped”
  • “Killing the wolf” / “Hearing the wolf howl”
  • “Escaping the police” / “Hearing the police sirens pull up outside”

Second, as I described in my use of timelines above, you can often prepare bullets instead of bangs. These half-formed bangs can be quickly actualized during play based on the current circumstances of the PCs.

Third, don’t over-prepare the bangs. As the name implies, bangs are supposed to be short and sweet in any case. If you’re writing more than a sentence or two about your cool ideas for bangs, you’re probably investing too much in them. Invest less time in bangs (which will make it easier to let them go if the players go a different direction) and invest more time in preparing the toolbox of your scenario.

At the beginning of this I talked about having a bandolier of bangs: Bandoliers give you explosive options, but the stuff in the bandolier isn’t loaded. You haven’t pulled the pins. The bangs are there and ready and waiting for you; but when you pull them and how you pull them and where you throw them is stuff that gets discovered during play.


Go to Part 1


Framing a scene in medias res is to start things in the middle of the action. It’s an effective technique because it jump-starts the scene at its most exciting or interesting part. In other mediums it also intrigues the audience by creating a mini-mystery: How did the characters find themselves in this precarious situation?

This element of mystery in the in medias res becomes problematic in an RPG, however: While it’s all right for an audience to remain ignorant of how the characters found themselves in their current circumstances, that can create significant issues when the players are supposed to be the characters and need to know what they know so that they can make coherent decisions.

Let’s lay the mini-mystery aside for a moment, therefore, and focus on a more basic form of in medias res that I highly recommend regardless of your predilections: Framing past the entrance.

Warehouse in ChicagoGMs tend to frame to the arrival: If the PCs are heading to a warehouse, the GM will cut to their car pulling up outside the warehouse. If they’re going to question a suspect, the GM will cut to them knocking on the suspect’s door. It’s a safe choice, but it’s frequently unnecessary. For example, if you know that the PCs are going to Boss Man’s office to search for clues, you don’t have to go through the laborious process of having them enter the office building, pick the lock on his door, and so forth. Instead, you can cut straight to them rifling through his filing cabinets and pulling out the incriminating documents.

This works because the assumptions you’re making in framing the scene are obvious: You’re assuming that the PCs are, in fact, going to do what they said they were going to do. And you’re assuming that they will be successful in doing it. (If the latter is in doubt, of course, you’d call for an action check and then frame accordingly. For example, if the PCs fail an infiltration check then you might frame to the moment where the flashlight of a security guard flashes across them.)


More dramatic examples of in medias res are common in other mediums, but relatively difficult to pull off in an RPG without railroading. But it can be very rewarding if you can make it work.

In my experience, that requires a high degree of trust and understanding between the GM and the players: The GM needs to know his players and their characters well enough that he can accurately predict their reactions. And then the players need to have enough trust in the GM to believe that he has made an accurate prediction.

However, there are also ways that the GM can “cheat” in order to achieve satisfactory in medias res scene openings. A basic method is, “Why are you here?” The GM opens the scene by saying something like, “You’re in a dark tunnel underneath the Parker Corporation’s headquarters. Why are you here?”

This technique basically says, “Yup, we’re railroading to this point. But I’m going to mitigate it by giving you some influence over exactly what model the locomotive is going to be.” Obviously that’s a lot heavier handed than a lot of people are going to be comfortable with. (It’s way out of my personal comfort zone.) But if it works for you and yours, the pay-off is that you can get away with much harder frames and much tighter pacing.

Another “cheat” is to use the in medias res in combination with a flashback: You show the PCs mired in a situation and then use a flashback to establish how they got there. The “future” knowledge of where they end up obviously constrains choice, but once again you’re mitigating the heavy hand you’re applying by allowing the players to influence (or even define) the path that leads to the events they’ve seen. (And there can be a fine art in portraying something compelling in your flashforward which is not particularly binding in its content.)


An epilogue scene is a specific type of color scene which immediately follows a major conflict or bang. During the epilogue scene, the characters are able to reflect and react to the things that just happened to them.

The purpose of the epilogue is both aesthetic and practical. (And it’s practical in both the game world and the metagame.) Aesthetically it provides a natural formula for effectively varying the pacing of your game: Moments of high tension and exciting action are contrasted against the relative calm of the epilogue which puts those moments into a larger context of progress or setback or revelation.

In the context of the metagame, an epilogue scene is practical because it often comes at a moment when the players and/or GM need to take stock: Damage needs to be healed. Resources need to be tallied. Notes need to be consulted. If your group can develop the ability to roleplay effectively through these moments of mechanical bookkeeping it can greatly enhance your game sessions. (Note that the roleplaying does not necessarily need to be about the mechanical bookkeeping that’s happening: It’s possible to say “we heal everybody up” and then handle the mechanics of that while actually roleplaying a later scene in which the PCs are discussing their options for raiding the palace.)

Meanwhile, in the context of the game world, it’s perfectly natural for people to kick back, relax, and take a moment to recover from a stressful situation. Or to sit down and try to talk their way through earth-shaking revelations. (“Dude, you’ve gotta bring me some beer. Betty just broke up with me. Also, I think she’s been possessed by a demon.”)

In practice, these scenes will often happen quite naturally if you give the PCs a bit of rope. If you’re using harder scene framing, however, you really shouldn’t neglect them.

An effective technique for this sort of thing is to establish common “set pieces” for epilogue scenes. For example, in my Ptolus campaign these scenes often happen in their rooms at the Ghostly Minstrel, during a carriage ride across the city, or while they’re looting the bodies of the dead and tending their wounded. We’ve established these as common themes in the campaign and when they show up the group has naturally developed a habit of falling into an epilogue scene.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer - In the Library

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, epilogue scenes often happened at the school library or (in later seasons) at the Magic Box. But Buffy is also a great example of how you can use a set piece for epilogue scenes and then shift it by occasionally dropping a conflict into the location. This is a basic example of disruptive pacing.

The pacing of a book or movie often falls into a repetitive pattern. The same is true of an RPG. This regular rhythm can be very satisfying in its familiarity (particularly when it feels like the whole group is suddenly on the same page and participating in the ineffable synergy of an instinctive collaboration), but it can also easily become stupefying or stale in its predictability. To avoid that, you need to occasionally disrupt the familiar pacing by throwing in something unexpected: A scene that should be color suddenly erupts into conflict. A sequence that feels as if it’s winding down is abruptly escalated with a fresh bang.

What’s interesting about disruptive pacing is that it can easily degrade back into the expected. For example, the first time a supposedly dead monster suddenly reappeared during what was supposed to be the epilogue of the film it was wildly successful disruptive pacing. Now, however, it’s become part of the expected pacing for a horror film: You’re more shocked when the slasher villain stays dead than you are when he suddenly pops back to his feet.


I really can’t emphasize enough the degree to which we’ve barely even begun to scratch the surface of RPG pacing in this essay.

On the other hand, that may be for the best: While film, for example, has certainly benefited from a richer understanding of how pacing can be used in the filmmaker’s toolkit, the process of effectively pacing a film is still very much an art rather than a science. Similarly, it can be a little too easy to fall down the rabbit hole of one-true-wayism if one tries to develop trite maxims.

Instead, I hope that I’ve managed to convey a handful of useful conceptual tools that you can use in a myriad number of ways to better understand and control the pacing of your own campaigns. How you choose to use those tools is up to you: Experiment with them. Play with them. See what you can discover and what you can improve.

Film Banging: The Avengers
Film Banging: Alien
Film Banging: The Matrix
The Art of Pacing: Prepping Bangs
The Art of Pacing: Running Awesome Scenes
How NOT to Frame a Scene

The Art of Rulings
The Art of the Key
Gamemastery 101

Go to Part 1

Now that we’ve established the basic tools for pacing in roleplaying games, let’s briefly visit some advanced techniques. This will be by no means an encyclopedic treatment of the subject. In fact, we’ll barely even scratch the surface. But hopefully even a quick exploration of the topic will point us in some interesting directions.


Let’s start with simultaneous scenes: Half the party leaves to explore the abandoned water tower while the other half of the party goes to question Jim Baxter, the farmer with an inexplicable supply of Nazi gold.

Order of the Stick: Don't Split the Party - Rich BurlewOn two entirely separate occasions I’ve had a group I’ve been GMing for spontaneously announce that they weren’t going to split up because they didn’t want to make things tough for me. In both cases, I rapidly dissuaded them from their “good intentions”: The truth is, I love it when the PCs split up.

While it does take a little extra juggling to handle multiple sets of continuity, that slight cost is more than worth the fact that a split party gives you so many more options for effective pacing: The trick is that you no longer have to wait for the end of a scene. Instead, you can cut back and forth between the simultaneous scenes.

  • Cut on an escalating bang. (The bang becomes a cliffhanger: “The door is suddenly blown open with plastic explosives! Colonel Kurtz steps through the mangled wreckage… Meanwhile, on the other side of town—“)
  • Cut on the choice. (Remember that everything in a roleplaying game is a conversation of meaningful choices. When a doozy of a choice comes along, cut to the other group.)
  • Cut on the roll of dice. (Leaving the outcome in suspense. But the other thing you’re eliminating is the mechanical pause in which the dice are rolled and modifiers are added. All of that is happening while something exciting is happening to the other groups. And when they get to an action check—BAM! You cut back to the first group, collect the result, and move the action forward.)
  • Or, from a purely practical standpoint, cut at any point where a player needs to look up a rule or perform a complex calculation or read through a handout. There may not have been a cliffhanger or a moment of suspense to emphasize, but you’re still eliminating dead air at the gaming table.

The end result is that effective cuts between simultaneous scenes allow you to easily tighten your pacing, heighten moments of suspense, and emphasize key choices.


Once you’ve mastered the basic juggling act of simultaneous scenes, you can enrich the experience by tying those scenes together through crossovers.

The simplest type of crossover is a direct crossover. This is where an element or outcome from one scene appears immediately in a different scene. For example, if one group blows up the arms depot then the other group might hear the explosion from across town. Or Colonel Kurtz flees from one group of PCs and ends up running back to his office… which the other PCs are currently searching.

Indirect crossovers are both subtler and more varied. These are common or related elements in each scene which are not identical. For example, you might have Franklin discover a cult manual bearing the sign of a white cobra while, simultaneously, John sees a white cobra painted on the face of his murdered wife.

An indirect crossover might not have any specific connection in the game world whatsoever: For example, Suzy might ask Rick out for a date at the Italian Stallion on Friday night. Simultaneously, in a different scene, Bobby gets ordered by his police lieutenant to arrange surveillance for a mob boss meeting at the same restaurant at the same time. Suzy and Rick have no connection to the mob or the police, but that’s still a crossover.

This also demonstrates how crossovers can be used to weave disconnected narratives together: Suzy, Rick, and Bobby are all going to end up at that restaurant at the same time. Franklin and John are both going to be launching separate investigations into the white cobra. It’s still not clear exactly how their paths are going to cross, but they’ve definitely been set on a collision course.

This technique can be particularly effective at the beginning of a scenario or campaign: Instead of having the PCs all meet in a bar, you can instead launch them all into separate scenes and then seed crossovers into those scenes to slowly and organically draw them all together.

Another way of using these techniques is to strengthen the role of player-as-audience-member. You know that moment in a horror movie where the audience doesn’t want a character to open a door because they know something the character doesn’t? Hard to do in an RPG… unless the table knows it (because it was established in a different scene), but the PC doesn’t. (This assumes, of course, that your players are mature enough to handle a separation of PC and player knowledge.)


It should be noted that techniques similar to crossovers can obviously be used in sequential, non-simultaneous scenes, too. (John sees a white cobra painted on his dead wife’s face and then, later, the PCs discover the white cobra cult manual.) But the specific idea of the crossover is that you’re specifically juxtaposing the two elements both for immediate effect and to tie the simultaneous action together.

For some people, this can easily feel artificial. What are the odds, really, that both the dinner date and the surveillance order are both being made at the same time? One way to work around this is through the use of non-sequential scenes: The scene in which the dinner date is made might take place on Tuesday and the police lieutenant might order Bobby to set up the surveillance on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean we can’t run those two scenes simultaneously at the gaming table.

This non-sequential handling of time is also a good way of avoiding another common speed bump GMs often encounter when splitting the party. It starts when a PC says something like this: “Okay, you guys head across town to search the warehouse! We’ll stay here until David can finish cracking the encryption on this database.”

And then the GM thinks: “Well, it’ll take at least 15 minutes for them to get to the warehouse. So I’ll have to play through at least 15 minutes of activity here at the server farm before I can pick up the action over at the warehouse.” But that’s not necessarily true. There’s no reason you can’t run the warehouse search and the server farm stuff simultaneously.

I refer to these as time-shifted scenes. For me, personally, the time dilation on these scenes usually isn’t significant in and of itself. The point is merely to take advantage of more effective pacing techniques. A common example is when everyone splits up to take care of personal errands: We know everything is happening at some point on Wednesday afternoon, but I’m not particularly interested in strictly figuring out what happens at 2pm as opposed to 2:15pm. Instead I’m going to cut on the bangs, cut away from the dice rolls, and do all that other nifty stuff.


Memento - Christopher Nolan

Flashbacks are another common form of non-sequential scene. Or rather, they’re very common in other forms of media. In my experience, they’re exceptionally rare in roleplaying games.

Unlike a scene that’s been slightly time-shifted, the nonlinearity of the flashback is often a significant feature of its presentation: What it depicts from the past is meant to be either thematically relevant or expositionally revelatory to the current events of the narrative. (Some non-RPG examples would include Godfather II, which is an extensive but relatively straightforward handling of the technique; Memento, which is an almost absurdly complex use of the technique; and Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons in which both sets of scenes originate at the same point in time, with one set of scenes moving backwards through time and the other moving forwards through time.)

Flashbacks and non-sequential scenes in general do require a careful handling of continuity. This is usually a mixture of setting things up to avoid continuity errors ahead of time and also a willingness by everyone at the table not to deliberately violate known continuity. (“I call him on my cellphone!” “Okay, but we already know he went to the warehouse regardless of what you said on the phone call. So play it accordingly.”) The occasional retcon may be called for if things fall seriously out of joint, but that’s obviously not a desirable outcome.

The advantage of a flashback is that it allows you a lot more flexibility in how you explore both character and situation. In addition to, for example, playing out scenes that took place before play begins, flashbacks can also be used to mitigate or enhance hard scene framing: If you end up skipping over something that turns out to be important, you can simply flash back to it.

Go to Part 6: More Advanced Techniques

Go to Part 1

We’ve framed the top of the scene and filled the middle of it. Now we need to close the frame.


The actual act of cutting a scene is generally pretty straightforward: You stop talking about that thing and you start talking about this other thing. Use phrases like “meanwhile”, “we cut to”, and “two days later” to make the transition explicit and then move straight to banging your next scene.

The interesting question, however, is knowing when to cut. And, once again, we’re going to discover that this is more of an art than a science.

FINISHING THE AGENDA: If the agenda of a scene is defined by a question, a really obvious place to cut is the point where that question has been answered.

This line of thinking, however, can also be a trap if you think that’s the only way to end a scene: Some of the most interesting agendas develop over multiple scenes before being resolved. Other conflicts literally can’t be resolved until some other event has occurred. Staying mired in a scene which has reached an impasse is a quick exercise in boredom, so you’ll want to identify other moments when it’s time to move on.

THE SECOND LULL: The Smallville RPG offers this advice:

There’s an ebb and flow to a scene, with the dialogue coming hot and fast, the dice getting broken out, gloating and cheering and tense confrontations. And then sometimes things start to drag. That’s okay; your players may need to absorb what’s happening and figure out which direction they’re going next. Give them that moment, because a good pivot makes for a great scene. Things will pick up again right after and proceed onwards. The trick is to cut before the scene hits that second lull. One pivot makes for a good scene; two pivots makes for a muddy mess. If things start slowing down again, it’s time to move on.

Not much I can add to that.

ON THE EXIT: If all the PCs leave, that’s a pretty clear-cut signal that the scene is over. But often even a single lead leaving (whether that’s a PC or NPC) can be a good point to cut the scnee.

Until We Sink is a storytelling game which says that every scene ends “as soon as two characters have left the patio”. That’s not a bad rule of thumb: The exit of the first lead makes it clear that the scene is coming to an end, but still gives everybody else a chance to wrap up. When the second lead leaves, it’s a sign that interest in the scene is waning fast and it’s probably time for a change.

FLEE: When the bad guy gets away or the heroes are forced to retreat. This is a specific type of character exit, but it deserves a special call-out. The key thing about this sort of scene ending is that it specifically doesn’t resolve the agenda: A key lead is making the decision to run away from the scene instead of dealing with that situation.

Combat is an obvious example of this, but it can also take the form of Billy running out of the house when you confront him the syringe you found in his room. Or Susan waking up in the middle of the night and sneaking out of bed after sleeping with Roger.

A NEW BANG: Sometimes, instead of going to a new scene, you can bring the new scene to them. If the current scene seems to have hit a lull, hit back with a new bang: The doors of the inn burst open and a team of assassins pours into the room. Betty gets a phone call with dire news. One of the NPCs says, “This might be a bad time to mention this, but…”


On that note, when one scene ends it’s time for a new scene to begin. All conversations are loops and it’s time to close this one: If the current scene has been happening in “now time”, then it’s time to up-shift to abstract time or cut hard to the next bang.

Go to Part 5: Advanced Techniques

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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