The Principles of Scene Framing

What is a scene?

All progress in a game unfolds in an ordered series of events or scenes.  A scene can be more formerly defined as a closely connected sequence of actions in which one or more characters (PCs in this case) work towards an important goal, encounter obstacles, struggle against those obstacles, achieve some sort of result (whether it’s failure, success, or something in between), and end up with a new problem or obstacle. This new problem then leads to the PCs further efforts to achieve their goals, which are dramatized in subsequent scenes, and so on until the climax.

This is very similar to how you write a book or story, and is also very similar to how a movie or TV show is set up.  In fact, I would encourage GMs to run their games in a fashion similar to way a TV show is paced: Plenty of  meaningful, action/story oriented scenes with short bridges in between to maintain continuity. This is especially true where one aggressively frames scnes: Life is too short to waste a lot of time buying rations, paying the guards to enter the city gates, or talking about the weather. Similarly, plodding square by square through a dungeon is boring to 90% of players and in fact is often frustrating to GMs as well since games run in this style quickly teach the players to search every square, open every door, and pick through every pile of rubble or corpse in sight.

Let me be clear: Using discrete, aggressively framed scenes does not mean you have to cut out all the free roleplaying or party interaction; sometimes sitting around the bar talking is fun. However, in most cases I like to pace my sessions like a good TV show or movie, transitioning logically between meaningful scenes rather than bogging down in the minutiae. It also doesn’t mean that every scene has to involve kicking in the door and jumping right into hostile conflict. Sometimes scenes involve more subtle obstacles and conflicts.

The point though is to cut to the chase and not waste time going step-by-step through things like setting up camp, cooking dinner, setting watches, going to sleep…. you get the idea.  I once played in a Play by Post game in which the GM went step by step through that exact “scene.” It took three weeks for us to move on. I dropped out of the game soon afterward, bored to tears.

So how do scenes work?  As explained above, every scene entails the same five steps:

  1. Goal(s) – often the scene has a specific goal, as well as one or more overall goals for the “adventure.” Each goal, whether short-term or long-term should involve moving the story forward.  An important ramification of this is the fact that there is no place for random encounters. Random encounters serve no purpose at all in a story, because they don’t move the storyline forward or have any real goal. In other words, throw them out the window: They are eating up your real game time and ruining the pace.
  2. Obstacle – Something that opposes the PCs. This can be an enemy, a door, a trap, or an awkward social situation. It’s got to be meaningful. Obstacles presented simply for the sake of being an obstacle are a waste of time at best and at worst are just filler for a GM who is disinterested in the game or has run out of ideas.
  3. Conflict – How the PCs deal with the obstacle. Conflict does not mean “combat.” Unfortunately, many traditional RPGs emphasize combat conflicts and often minimize or altogether ignore other forms of conflict (especially social ones). Again, conflict needs to be meaningful. If it isn’t, “make it a gimme” as Robyn Laws says. Forget pulling out the dice and just have the players succeed.
  4. Resolution – the results of the conflict. Win or lose, something happens. This raises the principle that any conflict introduced in to a game should be interesting and meaningful whether the PCs succeed or fail. If a conflict’s results must turn out a certain way to move the story forward or be interesting, then the conflict is worthless to the game. Classic examples of this is the “search” roll that’s required to find the secret door leading to the next section of the dungeon or the “open locks” roll that’s needed to get open the princess’s cell door. If you find yourself fudging dice rolls, you’re likely guilty of introducing pointless conflicts.
  5. New Obstacle – the new obstacle or problem the PCs must deal with in the upcoming scene.

Scenes  perform several functions in the overall story:

  • They establish, develop, or change the setting and tone of the story.
  • They move the storyline forward.
  • They introduce new characters (usually NPCs) and locations.
  • They expand and complicate the PCs’ situation and further develop existing NPCs.
  • They introduce and/or develop subplots, clues, red herrings, and new hooks.

Scenes dramatize events that are motivated – accidents, coincidence, and luck don’t move the story forward in a believable way. They function under the Law of Stimulus-Response: In short, everything that happens must be for a reason. Players look for information to help them understand and explain the “stimuli” they’re presented and then come up with responses. If the explanations never appear or if the only explanation is luck or coincidence then they feel cheated.

Scene Framing

Scene framing is simply deciding when a scene starts and ends, what the surrounds lookaround, what will happen, and who is involved. Think of yourself as a film director, setting up the situations and dropping the PCs into them.

Scene framing is also the GM’s primary way of pacing the game, establishing tension, and driving the story forward.

Start scenes just before important events or action sequences: You do not want a huge amount of real time to elapse between the introduction of the scene and the conflict because it tends to make the pace drag and the conflict itself anti-climactic. That said, it’s often advisable to have enough time between the start of the scene and the conflict to actually build the tension: Picture a rollercoaster where you want a certain amount of lead up to the drop (the conflict).

Finish scenes after the point of the purpose of the scene is over and your new obstacle has been introduced. Avoid “dead air” or periods of inactivity. This does not mean you need to jump from scene to scene as soon as the conflict is over or not allow the PCs time to talk – the fact is this sort of “after resolution reflection” is really what good role-playing is all about.  Aggressive, fast paced scene presentation and framing often leads to much more meaningful “in between” scenes since it helps heighten the emotional tension of the whole game. Learn to spot when the energy and/or tension is starting to trail off and make your cuts there.

Often, if you want a fast paced, tense game, you need to aggressively frame scenes: This isn’t really any different than normal scene framing except that you’re actively pushing the pace and building tension by cutting scenes like a movie director. Sometimes this means cutting between scenes, creating miniature cliffhangers in the middle of the action. Other times it means dropping the players right into the action with almost no build up. At its heart it is essentiallycutting out the fat and focusing on the action. Think of yourself as creating an exciting, action-oriented movie, and keep pushing the scenes to keep up the pressure on the players.  Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t have “down time” between scenes: It only means that you include them only when they’re meaningful. In fact, often with this sort of pace, the down time (aka bridges) between scenes are much richer because of the pace: Characters reflect on their experiences and discoveries rather than pick through corpses and buy new boots.

Warning: If you’re going to aggressive frame scenes you have to throw out preconceived notions of how they’re going to turn out: Not doing so really lends itself to a pure railroading situation where you’re just pushing players from one scene to another with little to no consideration about what they want, need, or think. Instead you have to be much more flexible, seeing where the story goes.

Here is an example of how Judd Karlman has used aggressive scene framing:

The orcs had killed a few of the elves that had found them but were looking to get past Orcwatch, an elven keep that watches over the Broken Mountains. The area between them and the Dragon Mountains was regularly patrolled by elven riders.
 
They had their wolf mounts make stealth tests, giving them helping dice.Bam, they’re past Orcwatch. We have a scene in the hills just north of the Broken Mountains, where they torture the bejiminey out of an elf they had captured and then the next scene is them approaching the Dragon’s Mountain.

I didn’t go day to day, have them set up camp, break camp down, set up watches and all of that hooey. It didn’t interest any of us to do so and none of their Beliefs led me to think that it was important.

 

Bridges (or what happens in between scenes)

Bridges are the short summaries or events that occur between scenes, serving as transitions between scenes. They can take several forms:

  • They can simply be a summary of intervening events: Summarize the down time in a couple of sentences, let players state what they’re doing during that time, and move on. This also allows you to move the game forward in time (i.e., “the night passes and after breakfast you break camp and head down the trail.”
  • They can be situations in which the players reflect on the ramifications and meaning of the proceeding scene. PCs might also consider their future actions and path.  In other words, the PCs discuss what just happened and how they’re going to proceed.

Thus, bridges are the in between action where you summarize what’s gone on and move on to the next important scene. A couple of sentences and you get back to the fun.

Conclusion

So that’s it. Scene framing is something every GM does but unfortunately a significatn number of them run their games as a single continuous scene. Aggressive scene framing can work in any setting or game, even the classic dungeon crawl: Just skip past the “you move 20′ down the hall and then come to a junction” and move the characters straight to the specific encounters that are important for their quest. Cover the rest of the crawl via bridges. Drop all the buying a new cloak, mixing potions, or renting a room at the inn and move straight to the action. If you’re doubtful that it can work, try watching your favorite movie or a couple of episodes of a good TV show – you’ll see that they all use aggressive scene framing, cutting out all the fat and tedious stuff, and instead focusing on the scenes that move the story forward. Give it a try… I’m sure you’ll find it opens up a whole new set of possibilities in your games.