On the Scene

My issues with pacing

One of the things I’ve always had trouble with as a Game Master is pacing. I recognize it’s my responsibility to keep each session moving along at an appropriate clip but I’ve never really understood what that means in concrete terms. How do you actually do it?

When I first read the Dresden Files RPG it introduced me to the concept of a scene as being the fundamental building block of a game session, just like it is for a TV show or a movie. The essence of a scene is simple and obvious. A scene has a beginning and an end. It’s almost tautological in its elegance. I realized how important a scene is when I deconstructed my last game session. I would start a scene then let it go on and on. One player would begin playing out a bit of action and then another player would interject with their own character’s actions and when those don’t push forward the original action of the scene we have an issue because we have now split the scene in two.

Imagine, for example, that we start a scene where Negotiating Character is negotiating with a third world police chief to get custody of some prisoners. Fine and dandy, but now another player has Sneaky Character sneak into the prison to bandy some choice phrases with those prisoners and see what he can learn. Both characters are pursing the same goal of getting information from the prisoners, and both scenes are totally interesting and legitimate, but the second player is implicitly asking for a new scene that involves his character; a reasonable request, but badly timed. When the second player brings up his character’s actions in the middle of the currently running scene then what is a GM to do? What I’ve always done is to bifurcate my attention and try to run both at once; flipping back and forth like a tennis judge. This doesn’t work very well. With two scenes going at once, neither gets the attention they deserve and neither of them comes to a satisfying end, they just spawn more little scenes like tributary rivers and flow sluggishly on and on. When there is no break between scenes, no clear end and clear beginning, then you lose one of the greatest tricks of story-telling, the transition. Transitions allow you to skip over the boring bits, or change locations in a flash, or take the story in a startling new direction. Without them you end up limping rather than leaping through the story.

So, after some thought I wrote myself a little manifesto for scene control.

Each scene must have a distinct purpose or objective. Once that purpose is achieved end the scene

Think about how you will recognize when the scene is over. If it’s a fight, that’s pretty easy. If it’s an argument or discussion then it might end with agreement or it might end once each character involved has had their say. Or it could be cut short by a surprise action scene.

Play only one scene at a time

Give each scene and the characters in it the attention they deserve. The sooner you can end this scene the sooner you can start the next which will lead to a sense of pacing momentum in your game.

If you’re character is not in a scene then either join it or save unrelated questions and actions until the scene is over

The time between scenes is a distinct thing. It’s the proper time for players to suggest what they would like the next scene to be, often by describing their character’s actions. Even if your character is not in the current scene you can still provide commentary and suggestions that relate to current scene. And remember, you can use a fate point and some narrative pretext to join the current scene.

Not everything has to be a scene

Making something a scene is always choice that the group makes even if they’re not aware of it. You have control over the level of abstraction that you use. Some groups might choose to resolve all conflicts, even major ones, with a simple consequential contest so they have more time for character interaction scenes. This might vary from session to session as well.

You don’t always have to use all the rules, or require a roll for every action. It is always a choice. You can resolve many actions with one or two dice rolls and a minimal bit of narration.

Every character deserves a scene of their own

Most of the fun to be had in role playing is playing a character who’s involved in a scene but, some scenes can only really support the actions of a single character. Other characters might be present, but they are forced to be spectators. Watching a duel or a tense treaty negotiation, for example. Scenes like these are when inactive players start expressing their character’s actions and so implicitly ask for a scene of their own. Every character ought to get a fair share of game time and so scenes only some can participate in should be brought to an end fairly quickly.

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