h1

Pointer Scenes

September 19, 2018

I’ve been running a D&D game, but doing something very different than anything I’ve done in the past.  Each session, I try to include a scene completely untied to the current situation – a flashback, or a meanwhile scene that points to NPCs or situations tied to the characters, but not in any way that will affect them in the moment.

This might be a flashback to how you first learned swordfighting, or perhaps why you left your noble house.   It might be something happening back in the safety of town – an ally talks about how you once helped them out, or perhaps a helper NPC is struggling to get to where you are to deliver an important item.

I call these “Pointer Scenes” because they point to the player character and/or the setting even if the core situation for the PCs is relatively straightforward.  That said, it does have more to it than just “throw in random flashbacks and cut scenes”.

Be a fan of the PCs

This first rule is lifted straight from Apocalypse World.  But basically, think of these scenes as a chance to learn about a player character and see why everyone should care about them.

Did your player say they had a Fighter who grew up as a Gladiator in their youth?  What was that like? How did they feel about it?  Did the Bard say they’re on the run? Who did they anger?  What was their closest call like so far?  

Aside from getting to know them, also consider if you can set scenes which will show positive sides to the character and admirable qualities, especially early in a campaign.  (We need to care about characters in order to accept their flaws, whereas characters who start off jerks tend to have a much harder time winning empathy or interest).

Spread the spotlight

Try to spread these out among all the PCs.  This may not be possible every session, but do try to give everyone a little space to shine.  If a character doesn’t seem to have a lot going on, consider what backstory or distant events might make their situation more interesting or immediately relevant.

The snobby noble character hasn’t gotten much going on.  Maybe something like a Meanwhile scene where their uncle is trying to pressure the PC’s parents into setting up an arranged marriage for politics.  Maybe a political group like a church or temple is seeking to set up the PC to be made example of.  Because the situation isn’t immediately in the player’s face, they have time to start thinking about how they want to handle it and it’s not a complete surprise when the problems start coming in.

If the scene has little or no choices/interaction from the player, make it shorter

A few of the scenes have no player interaction or choice – such as a meanwhile scene happening, or a flashback/montage.   When you use these, make them short.  They can add context, give info, quickly hammer out something you’d label exposition, but they’re not as interesting as actually playing.

I like to try to also give these scenes ties to what is currently happening to the player character.

In my current game, the elven paladin had a flashback scene to his homeland where people are slowly dying from the heavy poisonous pollen which floats in the air… I tell the player the character is a bit shaken up when one of their companions starts coughing as they go through the forest. 

This both ties into why the character might be remembering this, but also gives the player a chance to roleplay based on the prompt… and mind you – stoically keeping it to themselves, revealing a little concern, or having a very hard time are all equally valid and interesting ways it could go.

Include likable NPCs in many of them

No one wants to be a hero if the world is full of assholes.

Give players lots of people to like – decent folks, brave folks, clever folks, fun witty characters, caring mentors, siblings or best friends, etc.

My basic rule when coming up with these characters is that they want to do right by the PCs (and presumably other NPCs in general) and they may have certain values or ways they go about it.  If you show that off, players will get into them on their own… and the players will choose on their own they need to protect a given NPC or that they want to go track down a character from their past or be very excited to finally meet the character from the meanwhile pointer scene you made.

One of my players has a character who escaped an arranged marriage.  I introduced her aunt who taught her martial arts, then eventually helped her escape the marriage and fake her death while fighting monsters.  ALL of the players love this NPC.  So now there’s a character I know to bring back at some point that will be fun that everyone’s invested in, and I’m pretty sure if I just drop a hint, the players will go looking on their own.

NPCs also allow you to point back to the player characters as well.  You can have scenes where NPCs are talking about what they admire in one of the player characters, what they feel about the risks and choices they’ve made… or, if the situation warrants, if they feel disappointed or betrayed.   First the players have to care about the NPC to even care what the NPC thinks.

Flesh out your setting

Settings are fun.  Worlds of magic and fantasy, sci-fi and alien cultures.  The thing is, the giant setting no one knows about (other than you) isn’t in play.  The setting that is in your notes but not in gameplay, is also not in play.

However, with the power of Pointer scenes, you can flashback or do a meanwhile to events happening long ago in a very far away place.  In other words, you can highlight a lot more of your setting in play.  And teasing these elements gets players eager to start seeing other places and poking around.

The flashbacks to the elven homeland have got the players very curious about what’s going on over there, but they’re some time away from getting there… but it sets up excitement, all without me having to draw a huge map or do a lot of exposition.

This also allows you to drop in bits of setting in snippets rather than one whole infodump.  This is how most forms of media actually do build up their settings – you see bits as needed and then you learn about the fictional world as you enjoy the immediate story with the principal characters involved.

Up the Stakes / Why this matters

Along with telling us who the characters are and what’s going on in this world, make sure at least some of the scenes also point back to the current thing the player characers are doing in the moment.  What’s at stake?  What can be gained if they succeed?  What can be lost?

The players are currently on a quest to get to an abandoned observatory to make a current, accurate, map to help the army deal with an invading force.  One of the scenes was a meanwhile scene showing one of the characters’ mentors having a strategy discussion with a leader and it boiling down to “We don’t have many odds in our favor and this is going to be ugly.”  So… the players feel a bit more pressure to succeed, but it’s not like the characters know this is what’s happening.

Also notice that as the players become more invested in having their characters resolve past issues, meet with NPCs and so on, part of the stakes become how the characters do things, lines and values they won’t cross, and what the NPCs think of them, as well.

Extra Notes

My games are currently about 2 hours long, with each player (4) getting one of these scenes, which usually last 5-ish maybe up to 10 minutes.  While these don’t make up the majority of play, they do add a lot to the party’s interactions with each other, to the roleplaying in general, and to the excitement about each other’s characters.

My game podcasts are on Soundcloud.  Terrible audio quality, but we’re having fun.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

%d bloggers like this: