Setting a scene in a story game doesn’t work quite like setting a scene in written fiction. Because these games are collaborative, you don’t have control over the action. As the scene-setter, your power only applies to the first few seconds of the scene, before the other players jump in. After that, you can only react to the plot as it develops. Luckily, with a little effort, a few seconds is all you’ll need to ensure a strong scene that entertains all the players at the table and keeps the story moving.
1. Start with a Location
It’s tempting to begin a scene by talking about the plot. After all, in written fiction, plot is the most essential factor. But story games don’t work like written fiction, or even like a GM-created scene; the action is entirely collaborative. This means that the success of a scene is built not on the events that occur but on the engagement of the players.
If you begin a scene by diving into the plot without spending time on setting, you will have a hard time getting that player engagement. For instance, in a crime-caper themed Fiasco game, you might begin a scene by saying “All right, I’m going to confront Chaz about the missing loot. I’m here, Chaz is here, and we’re both armed. Let’s go!” From a plot perspective, this seems good; it not only relates to the core plot of the game but also builds interpersonal conflict right off the bat. The problem is, though you have plot and character, you haven’t presented any context. The other players are stuck imagining you and Chaz on a dramatic confrontation in an endless white void. It’s even worse for Chaz’s player, who begins the scene with no goals, no motivation, and worst of all, no real presence in the world. A clever player might be able to jump into a scene with no direction, but as a scene-setter, your job is to give players a solid starting point.
So start with a location. “We’re at the local bar, the, uh, The Rusty Shiv; it’s an absolute pit, popular with bikers. Chaz is there already, and I walk in. I’m going to confront Chaz about the missing loot. Let’s go!” Now Chaz has a reason to be in the scene – he’s getting a beer. This is a small change, but personal motivations are what make Chaz a character and not a plot device to be on the receiving end of confrontation.
Clarity of the setting is the most important thing here. More detail is good and will liven up the setting, but it’s clarity that ensures all the players are seeing the scene in the same general light. It’s useful to re-use locations from earlier scenes, too. Coming back to a familiar place means the hard work of creating a clear location has been done for you.
The other upside of a well-defined location is that players whose characters aren’t necessarily part of the scene can remain engaged by stepping in to play NPCs. The white void is empty, but the Rusty Shiv has at the very least a bartender, maybe a couple of old drunks in a booth in the back. Suddenly, this simple confrontation becomes more dramatic as more people enter into it, and the scene is more exciting because the other players stay involved.
2. Give Your Scene an Explicit Purpose
Although a scene’s location should come first, setting alone won’t carry a scene. An engaging scene will have the elements of a well-crafted plot: a problem which develops into a conflict and an eventual resolution. A resolution here doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is solved or the conflict ended for good, just that the scene comes to an end after something has changed. A scene without a purpose either meanders for several minutes until the players stumble across their problem or sputters out lamely because no problem gets discovered. Neither is fulfilling to play or watch.
By giving your scene an explicit purpose, you lay out what that initial problem is going to be. As with the setting, clarity is essential. Be specific when you’re explaining the purpose of a scene to the other players. “I’ve gathered the tribe to talk about Chaz” does give a scene a purpose, but not a very strong one. “I’ve gathered the tribe to argue that we should exile Chaz for his crimes” is much more specific and clearly points to what the conflict might be.
A scene’s purpose is not the same thing as a goal. A goal is a targeted endpoint for a scene. With a fully-powered GM, scenes can be manipulated to pre-decided ends. If the GM thinks this is the scene in which Chaz gets exiled for dabbling in necromancy, no combination of dice rolls and complaints can stop her from seeing it happen.
In story games, however, the scene-setter only has authority over how things begin. Once the scene is set in motion, the players are back on equal footing. Keeping the players engaged means following the unexpected plot threads that develop over the course of the scene. In other words, while you provide the setup, everyone comes together to figure out the resolution.
3. Tie Your Scene to the Ongoing Narrative
A location and a purpose can make an individual scene good, but a story game is made up of many scenes. Once you’ve passed the first few, scene-setters need to start thinking about the game as a whole. How does your scene relate to the scenes that came before, and how will it impact scenes that come after? A series of disconnected-but-entertaining scenes might be fun, but it won’t make for a memorable story.
The most organic way to handle this is to make your scene a natural progression of the one before. For example, if the last scene featured Chaz hitching a ride at the local spaceport, this scene we’re at the spaceport, trying to find out where he went. Our purpose stems directly from the previous scene. Over the long term, this will create a story with a very linear plot, but that’s not a bad thing; like a scene’s setting and purpose, clarity of the overall plot is beneficial. If the plot arc is a straight line, players will be able to follow the action, and that’s what keeps them interested.
If you want to break from a strictly linear narrative, go for it, but make sure it’s clear how the scene connects to the greater story. In Kingdom, all scenes must relate in some way to the Crossroads, which is an upcoming decision that the characters will have to make at the climax of the game. In The Carcass, scenes are all built around a tribe’s attempt to find a new leader. These games make it easy; as long as your scene touches on that core concept, it’s clear how it belongs. Other games, like Fiasco, don’t have their core concept so explicit, but they have a tendency to generate a clear plot thread in the first few scenes. In Fiasco, this usually means a scheme that characters are working on.
In games without built-in core concepts, you as the scene-setter have to make sure everyone knows why your scene is relevant. If you think it might be unclear, be explicit. Tell the other players why the scene is plot-relevant. You might say, for instance, “I know we’re going to follow Chaz eventually, but he’s been to this spaceport a couple times, so let’s figure out what’s significant about it.” This tells everyone why you’re not following the obvious, linear path, and also lets everyone know where your scene stands in the plot as a whole.
4. Mix Up Which Characters Are Present
Most story games require players to determine the relationships between characters during setup, before the game even begins. Often, this takes the form of a relationship circle, in which every player’s character has a relationship established with the player to their left and to their right. This helps the game take off running because everyone knows two people, at least, and we don’t have to deal with characters who completely lack social ties. On the other hand, these relationships can become a bit binding later in the game.
It’s tempting to create scenes with the players you have pre-established relationships with, because you know how you can interact with them. If Chaz is your estranged brother, for instance, you can predict the conflict he’ll bring to a scene. This is useful early on, but as the game progresses, you may find yourself pulling Chaz into all of your scenes. Unless things change drastically between your characters, returning to this conflict over and over will create repetitive scenes.
Mixing things up means pulling in characters with whom you don’t have as clear a relationship. If there’s a character you haven’t shared any screen time with, go out of your way to make that screen time happen. As the director, you have the right to just pull them into your scene, so do it. New character combinations can have unexpected results, and that keeps everyone interested. Furthermore, it’s through exploring these new pairings that characters grow and change.
At the same time, mixing up who you have scenes with lets you be a little metatextual by making sure that the players are involved. If someone’s been in every scene for the past hour, and someone else has been out of the spotlight for about as long, you can use your power as a director to switch that up, giving one player a chance to take a breath and the other a chance to be engaged.
Keep in mind that two-character scenes can compound this issue. With only two characters, there are only so many pairings, and it’s easier for scenes to fall into that lifeless zone. Sometimes it really does make sense to keep things limited to just two characters. For instance, if you and Chaz are planning to rob the party and take off into the night, you don’t want everyone there while you discuss your secret plot.
Or do you? As a character, privacy is desirable, but as a player, it’s not very interesting. Bringing just one more person to the party immediately adds a wrinkle to the action, and it gives another player an opportunity to be involved, Here, you and Chaz have to discuss your plot without making it clear to this third person.
5. Keep Your Conflicts Interpersonal
Rules light, narrative-first games can do great things in the realm of story outlines and narrative arcs, but they aren’t built for action scenes. The tension associated with, say, a bank heist makes more sense with moment-to-moment risks and die rolls, and the associated chaos benefits from an outside GM to conduct the action. You can make a scene with a lot of action, but you’re using the story engine in a way it wasn’t intended.
While some story games have an external measure of whether players succeed or fail, many don’t bother with success or failure mechanics. Instead, characters succeed at whatever they want to succeed at, provided no other player characters oppose them. Without the need to roll dice, the only tension in a scene comes from people standing in one another’s way (or purposefully failing at a task because it’s funny or interesting). This means action scenes are often stilted, and situations when everyone shares a goal aren’t dramatically interesting.
Instead, skip it. What story games handle well is the setup and aftermath of an action scene: “We robbed the bank, we’re in the car fleeing the scene, aaaaaand Chaz has been shot. I think we all have different ideas about how things went down, so let’s have a nice argument about who screwed up.” The actual conflict is pushed to the background. It’s still important because it led to the scene you’re starting, but it’s not what’s fun to play. Arguing about what happened, trying to assign blame for poor Chaz’s predicament – that’s what keeps players bouncing off one another.
Don’t let your excitement overshadow your purpose, however. In this case, the purpose is still to answer a question, “What went wrong?” Saying that we’re leaving the job because Chaz sold us out is going a step too far, because it pulls narrative power away from Chaz. Remember that your job as a scene-setter is to keep the players engaged, so don’t alienate a player by putting their character in an unfair position.
Scene setting isn’t a long or difficult process, but it can have a huge impact on how invested the players are. If you follow these tips, you’ll keep the other players engaged in your scene and in the game as a whole. More than anything else, that player engagement is what makes a story game come alive.
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