Scene-Centric MC Style?

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Scene-Centric MC Style?
« on: November 27, 2013, 12:27:25 AM »
This topic came up in another thread under the AW section, but it is something that I thought might be interesting in its own thread.

Quote from: Munin
I too have come to really concentrate on scene-centered methods.  It's funny, because this is something for which we all have an intrinsic feel, but that is very rarely spelled out explicitly in telling you how to MC a game.  Vincent's "don't make your character's lives boring" is fantastic advice, but unless you understand framing, pacing, introducing tension and escalating it to conflict, exposition, dialogue, and juxtaposition like a filmmaker, it's kind of like black magic - as a player you can feel when a GM is doing it right and when they're not, but it's not always easy to say why.  It's like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography vs. art - you know it when you see it.

In that thread, zefir made the comment that the most fun comes from having good scenes, regardless of the story.  When I think back on some of the most memorable moments in all the games in which I've played or GM/MC'd, I think this is a very insightful statement.

And if you think about certain movies or TV shows or whatever, it's the great scenes that stand out.  Goodfellas is an OK movie, but the scene in which Joe Pesci busts out with "whaddyou mean I'm 'funny'?" is amazing.  So intense, so evocative.  The scene in A History of Violence where Viggo Mortensen's character drops the "just a small-town short-order cook" act and opens up a can of whoop-ass on the goons threatening his family is awesome.  The way his mannerisms, tone of voice, and even facial expression change as though he's flicking a light-switch is crazy-memorable.  From Boromir's heroic/tragic death scene in Fellowship of the Ring to the unforgettable, "I am your father, Luke" it's these scenes that grab us, throw us to the ground, and make us beg them to violate us.

That is the shit I want to capture in my games.

But how do we do that?  What distinguishes a good film/TV episode/book/whatever from a mediocre one?  As it turns out this stuff is kind of hard, and there's a reason that good directors, screen-writers, and authors make fatty boatloads of cash - doing this stuff well takes some skill and a whole lot of dedication.

Over the years I've had a chance to ruminate on a bunch of this stuff, but recently I've actually begun formalizing it.  I'd like to barf forth some of those ideas and get feedback.  Specifically, I'd like to hear what has worked for other MCs and what hasn't or how different players' play-styles have interacted with MCs setting a scene.  So here goes...

When constructing a scene in which the player characters are "on-screen," I find it useful to consider the following ideas.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think it helps to keep me focused:

Setting: In this regard, AW gives some great advice in the simple tip "barf forth apocalyptica."  I find that in just a few sentences, the MC can create a very evocative setting, specifically by appealing to the player's senses.  Not just how the scene looks, but how it smells, how it feels.  Instead of "you meet with Cage way out in the Ash Wastes," give it a little extra oomph: "Cage is waiting for you in the Ash Wastes under the dessicated husk of a huge old oak tree.  There's a bit of a breeze, which ruffles the messages that travellers nail to the tree for passers-by to carry on if they happen to be going in the right direction.  The withered trunk provides the only shade for miles, and he's squarely occupying it."

This kind of description is cool because it also sets up a little tension from the start.  Cage has claimed the shade, a psychological ploy.  It's minor but a subtle dig.  And real people play little power-games like this all the time, so it speaks to both Cage's personality and the verisimilitude of the world.

You have to take a little bit of care here though, because it's easy to go all JRRTolkien and describe the place in too much detail.  Three or four sentences max.  Choose your words well and you can pack a lot in those sentences, especially if you use words that are heavily laden with connotation.  If you want to add extra details, do it as the scene unfolds.  Maybe the meet with Cage isn't going well.  You can use the setting description to ratchet up the tension: "Cage looks kind of pissed, and keeps tugging on the collar of his coat.  Probably from the inevitable ashen grit that gets kicked up out here."

And don't forget to rope the players in by asking: "How do you cope with the ash dust?"

Extras: Unless this is a scene with only the PCs, give some thought to the other people around.  Maybe give them a sentence when you describe the scene, "The place reeks of rag-weed smoke, and the clientele look pretty sullen and dirty."  Any NPCs with whom the PCs interact should get a little something more.  "Nabs is 'cleaning' the glasses by spitting in them and wiping them out with his filthy apron.  He looks up at you with a bored expression, puts the glass he just 'washed' on the bar in front of you, and says, 'whatcha drinkin?'  What do you do?"

It is here that the concepts of setting (world) and setting (scene) come into contact.  One of the key elements to creating a verisimilitudinous world is to have NPCs with believable motivations, goals, foibles, and quirks.  Like Vincent says in AW, they "follow their parts."  That's great advice, but in order to convey it to the players, you have to actually convey it to the players.  But just like you never reference your move by name, you shouldn't openly describe your NPCs' motivations directly.  Describe what Nabs does not what he thinks, but have him actually do stuff during the scene such that the players can see him for who he really is.  Give your players enough to piece together on their own the idea that Nabs is a lazy fucker who cares only for coin.  They'll feel clever and Nabs will feel more real.

Tension: Every scene should have some built-in tension.  It doesn't need to be a full-on gunfight or anything crazy, but there should be somebody in the scene who isn't happy.  Or maybe who's too happy.  The tension doesn't even have to come from the primary NPCs - it can come from the nameless extras or even from the setting itself.  But it should always be there.  Maybe when the PCs walk into Nabs' establishment, the filthy, desperate looking patrons at one of the far tables give them the stink-eye.  Now the players are on the alert for trouble, and even if nothing comes from it it still helps set the stage.  And the players can never be sure which threats are real and which are imagined - and their reactions to things have the potential to take the story in directions you never imagined.

Similarly, this is a good place to stick an established NPC as an extra (as opposed to a speaking role).  So if we've already established that Parsons, the Hardholder's chief lieutenant is a prick, and if he and Deke the Battlebabe have already tangled, having Parsons sitting at one of the tables when the players enter Nabs' place is great.  "Deke, once your eyes adjust to the dim, smoky interior, you notice that Parsons is sitting at one of the corner tables.  He leers at you, and makes a rude gesture. With his tongue."  And again, even if the players never interact directly with Parsons during the scene, his presence helps set the stage.

And from the setting itself?  Maybe the scene takes place in the manufactory, where it's hot and noisy and sparks and molten metal occasionally drop from the catwalks above.  Or like the above scene in the Ash Wastes, where it's hot, the sun is blazing, the grit is irritating, and everyone knows you don't want to get caught out here after dark.

Even in a place where the PCs are "safe" there should be some situational tension.  Maybe a couple of the PCs are chilling in the Savvyhead's workspace when an urchin brings a note from Spider impatiently wondering when the Savvyhead's going to be finished with his bike.  Note that this setting of situational tension is a great use for "announcing future badness."  While the location might be a "safe" space, the intrusive external demand on the Savvyhead PC's time adds an element of external tension, even if Spider is never present in the scene.  And Spider may never have been mentioned before the scene started, but now the Savvyhead knows he's fixing the bike of a guy who lacks patience.  Even if Spider is never referenced again (which would be a shame), it gives depth to the world and the PCs' places within it.

As an aside, this is another great way to ask the players, and is a good teachable moment for players unused to having direct input into the story.  When your player says, "OK, but who the fuck is Spider?" just turn it back on them - "I don't know.  You're the one fixing his bike, so you tell me."  The answer is almost sure to better than whatever half-formed idea the MC had in mind initially, so go with it.

Conflict: AW gives us another fantastic piece of advice, which is "play to find out."  This is absolutely great, but if you're not careful it can be at odds with "don't make the characters' lives boring."  Sometimes, when left to their own devices players will get into role-play scenes in which there is no conflict.  Nothing actually happens in the scene.  Sure, they want to talk in-character, and you should absolutely give them plenty of opportunities to do so.

But something needs to happen.  It doesn't need to be a fight, or even anything physical, but the nature of the story and/or the PCs' roles within it should change, at least a little bit, in every scene.  I find that a good rule of thumb is that at least once during any given scene, dice should hit the table.  Give the players opportunities to use their skills and abilities, and they won't disappoint.  Even something as simple as "read a sitch" can be a conflict - something is hinky about the social dynamic between the NPCs and the PC needs to figure out what it is.  Or one of the NPCs doesn't seem completely forthcoming - what's she hiding?  And the more you have the players rolling dice, the more chances you have to subject them to fuckery.

And here the rule of "to do it, do it" is key.  If the player is describing their actions in a way that sounds like a move, make them roll.  Be free with information, but don't give them freebies.  The risks associated with the random chance of actually rolling the dice can serve to enhance the tension in the scene.

So before you frame a scene and begin describing the setting and the extras, give some thought as to what the central conflict might be.  You might be totally wrong, and you'll have to balance "play to find out" with "don't go in blind."  Just because no plan survives first-contact with the players doesn't mean you shouldn't have at least some kind of plan.  The players might take things in a very different direction than you imagined, and that's OK, but at some point something needs to happen, whether it's sussing out information, gaining a new insight, getting leverage over an NPC, or a vicious face-stabbing.  Or you know, all of the above.

Exposition: Right, so sometimes raw information needs to be given out.  Exposition is one of those things you need to handle carefully.  Like describing a setting, exposition is a great excuse to "barf forth apocalyptica", but suffers from some of the same drawbacks.  You need to make sure you're not droning and that your players are still engaged.  There are a couple of ways to do this, but I think the easiest ones are to a) bury the exposition, or b) put it under a microscope.

Burying the exposition means simply hiding it in the characters' interactions with the world or the NPCs.  So rather than going into a long-winded explanation about how the Fix Virus works and how members of the Sun Cult cut off peoples' lips to make sure no one has it, reveal it only through the NPCs.  "Nabs watches you drink and says, 'it's good to have customers with lips again.'"  Chances are good that this will make the players say "WTF?" and engage with him.  "'Yeah, we had a buncha Sun Cultists in here last week.  Idiots cut off their lips so's everyone can see they got no lesions on their gums.  On account o' they don't wanna have anyone carrying the Fix.'"  Boom.  Three sentences.  Instant apocalyptica.

Putting the exposition under a microscope means talking about it out of character, but bringing the PCs thoughts and feelings into the discussion.  "So one of the first stages of the Fix Virus causes lesions to form on your gums.  It's the earliest warning indicator.  Deke, what was your reaction the first time you entered a holding and the guards examined your mouth in some detail before they allowed you entry?"  Or "You see couple of dudes in the market, and their orange scarves mark them clearly as Sun Cultists.  They have had their lips removed.  Samson, how does watching them eat street-food with no lips strike you?"

Pacing: Try to keep scenes popping.  If a scene is hitting on all cylinders, you can let it go a while. But once the scene's central conflict (no matter how big or small) has been resolved, you should be looking for a way to wind it down, and quickly.  If you have lots of players, the easiest way is to just switch to a new scene for someone else.  But if the story demands that the same characters move from one scene to the next, you need to make that happen.  Use your transition to set the stage of the next scene.  If the players are going from Nabs' place to The Shrine, throw in a sentence or two about what's happening in the market along the way.  And maybe give the players the chance to interact there as well.  "As you leave Nabs' and head across the marketplace, the acid-drizzle has just started. Up the way there's a shunt-cart blocking the street and pissing everyone off.  What do you do?"

And if they answer, "curse at these filthy fucking poors and continue on to the Shrine," then that's fine too.

Flow: The concept of flow covers how you escalate or alternate things from one scene to the next.  Not every scene needs to be a tense, gripping, drama-filled vignette.  Intersperse heavy stuff with lighter stuff.  But remember that even comic relief can (and should) have internal conflict.  That conflict is low-stakes and may not even feel like anything important, but it's there.

This is also where you think about how best to share screen time among the PCs.  If your players are old-school, they'll have a tendency to stick together.  Use your moves to split them up and construct scenes that will let each character shine individually.  If the Chopper always feels like he's playing second-fiddle to the Battlebabe, construct a scene that is all about the internal politics of Chopper's gang, preferably after he's been separated from the rest of the party (and the Battlebabe in particular).  Make everyone feel special.

And even if a PC isn't on screen, you can still make them feel special by featuring their "crap" in a scene.  The Hardholder, Chopper, Hocus, Operator, Angel, and Savvyhead can all have associated NPCs.  Use those NPCs in someone else's scene (a great way to build PC-NPC-PC triangles).  You can even use their inanimate crap.  If the Gun-Lugger is looking for a quiet, arguably semi-private place to get his freak on with Maggie, maybe she pulls him into the back of the Driver's nearby van.  And ask: "Hey Lugs, how is it that Maggie can get into your van?"  "'Cause I forgot to lock it after she was in there with me."  Oh, dang!  And next time the Driver's car is integral to a setting, be sure to mention the suspicious stains on the leather seats.  Heh.

Juxtaposition: If scenes are long and/or complicated, it can be useful to break them up into parts.  This lets you play the kinds of cinematography games frequently used in movies, where you switch back and forth between two scenes.  This is especially cool if what's happening in the two scenes is related.  Like in one scene, Deke is trying get Nabs to tell her where the Sun Cult is holed up, and in the other scene the Sun Cultists are torturing the fuck out of Samson.

Another good use for juxtaposition is in a battle in which multiple characters are participating. I think this is related to what Vincent is talking about when he says to sometimes zoom in on the fighting and sometimes gloss over it.  By effectively setting "sub-scenes" within the overall scene of the battle, you can make each player feel like their character is contributing something beyond "I follow up on her move."  This is especially true if the PCs are more than a few yards apart.  Describe the setting for the Battlebabe's desperate fight for the gatehouse in as much detail as you do the Gun-Lugger's attempts to keep the Datsun Cannibals out of the wire.  Switch back and forth, especially as soon as someone fails a roll.  Give them a moment to ruminate on their "oh shit" moment and wonder just what sort of bad thing is going to happen to them.  And in a very real, concrete MCing sense, this allows you a little bit of a breather to decide just what sort of fuckery you're going to unleash when you come back to that player's scene.

Take Breaks: This one is straight out of the AW rulebook, and will be doubly important to the MC.  Breaks give you a breather to think about things like your pacing and the kinds of conflicts you want to frame your scenes around.  Give you a little time to think about how you want to describe a setting or which extras you want to have "on-screen" with the PCs.  All of the above stuff is work, and you'll want to give yourself a little mental downtime.  After all, individual players get a rest when they're not in the scene - you don't!  So take it easy and don't burn yourself out.

In the context of AW, remember that you're playing to find out.  But just because you're playing to find out doesn't mean that that finding out can't happen in the context of a well-framed scene.  Let the story unfold based on the PCs' actions, but keep that story moving in whichever direction it's unfolding.  And give them memorable interactions and scenes that will have them talking about "that time when Deke and Thompson hunted down Clemson's killer in the abandoned manufactory."

I'm sure there's stuff I'm missing or glossing over, and I'd love to hear other MCs' experiences here.  Is any of the above useful to you?  Which elements have you already been using?  What worked for you in your games and what didn't?  How much setting description could you get away with?  How did your players respond to "extra" elements within a described setting?  Do your players notice?



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Re: Scene-Centric MC Style?
« Reply #1 on: November 27, 2013, 05:29:45 PM »
Awesome post, a lot to mull over in that.

One quick thing I'll toss in to the discussion, I recently read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, a  wonderful examination of scriptwriting, process, structure and rules of the form (I recommend it). One of the things he says in there is that every scene in every script takes the emotional level up or down in some way. So people are getting closer/further apart, happier/unhappier, richer/poorer, etc etc in every scene.

Seems to me this is a handy tip going into making the PC's lives not-boring.



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Re: Scene-Centric MC Style?
« Reply #2 on: November 29, 2013, 12:52:08 AM »
Thanks for the book recommendation, Oldy.

Yeah, I think the part about making every scene useful is critical.  In film it's the difference between one that's tight and one that drags, I think.

I've always loved running very sandboxy games, with lots of setting detail to provide friction to give the PCs traction to go in whatever way they chose.  It's a lot more work up front, but in the end it's easier to roll with the punches when the players go off on some completely unforeseen tangent or totally new direction.  But frankly, keeping the pace of the game up is something I've struggled with in the past I think.  I was able to get away with it in some sense because my players were freaking awesome and (once they figured out that I wasn't limiting the possibilities to "The Plot") were very much self-starters, essentially creating story arcs for themselves and finding trouble into which to get.

But I occasionally caught myself starting a session with a brief recap to get everybody back into the in-game frame of mind and beginning the session with, "OK, so what are you guys doing now?"  I have come to realize that this is pretty lazy GM practice and have been trying to come up with better ways to keep things clicking.  Not pushing the players into a pre-determined plot, but always making sure that something interesting is happening "on-screen."  A scene might not advance "the story" per se, but it should tell us something about the characters, or reveal their relationships with each other and/or the world.

Trying to keep that in mind all the time is hard.  If the players say something like, "OK, we need to tell the Baron about the goblin menace," it's easy to segue into a perfectly banal, perfectly forgettable scene where the PCs are paraded into the great hall, make their report to their liege, and leave.  Just because something is the next step in "the story" doesn't necessarily mean it's worthy of a scene, and that (deciding which bits to feature on screen and which to gloss over) is one of the most difficult things.

I love the advice of always asking "what do you do?" after the MC makes a move, but I think the critical bit is that the MC must make the move to begin with.  It prods the players to action and keeps the MC focused on keeping things moving.  I know that I need to get better at doing it.