Running the Game
What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?
That’s your guiding principle. That’s pretty much the whole process in a one-sentence nutshell. It’s very easy. Everything you’ve done as prep in the previous article? Those are tools to make this question easy to answer.
I really want to emphasize how easy this is – I’m about to throw a lot of words of advice and people assume that means it’s difficult, but it really boils down to answering that question, over and over, during play.
Many roleplaying games talk about using scenes, but few really give good advice about how to actually run them. In the end, a lot of people end up with the classic “What do you do next?” cycle that ends up dragging play along.
If you’ve ever tried to write a story, draw a comic, or do a film, you know that scenes and pacing are what make or break things and they’re also a giant pain in the ass.
So here’s my rules for scene framing:
1. Opening Scenes
Start the scene just before something interesting is likely to happen.
Look to the question at the top of the post here – “What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?” – that’s your guideline.
Don’t make the players work to get TO an interesting situation, don’t make them guess what might be interesting about it, and don’t put it far away so they don’t see it.
A lot of RPG time is wasted in what I call “Traffic and Introductions” – the characters are wandering around or going back and forth (“Where do you go next?”) and then when they meet NPCs, there’s a long awkward conversation period of trying to figure out what the NPC’s angle is and so on.
Movies & TV don’t do that. They skip it – travel is a short cutshot of the characters racing across town, or just a cut to them walking in the door, initial introductions are snappy conversations where introductions are quick and personality is dripping from the NPCs from the moment you see them.
That said, the moments before something interesting is about to happen gives it the space in play to see what might come of it – maybe it’ll go more or less like you expect it to (“Yep, it’s going to be a fight”) or maybe it goes very different (“You’re going to cut a deal? Well… it makes sense!”). Those surprises are fun for everyone involved.
Sometimes you might start a scene and a player will go “Wait, wait, I wanted to do X before!”. As much as you can, assume the characters are competent, and if it seems at all reasonable, “Sure, you went and got the evidence before you showed up, that’s fine”.
Once in a while X should get it’s own scene, but most of the time it’s just a logistics thing the player wants to establish and isn’t actually that interesting to play out, even if the implications for this scene, or a future scene, might be big (“Wait, you switched it with poison?!? Oh boy…”)
Regularly assuming competence of the player characters will get the players to trust that you’re putting them into interesting conflicts and not just putting them into “gotcha” moments to screw them over. It’s an important shift for players used to deathtrap dungeons or railroading GMs to understand as well.
The first scene of any session for any given player character is a bit special – this is the only time you will have time in advance to consider, in depth, what kind of opening conflict or scenario would best hit their Flags and set up further problems. It sets a tone and if it’s a good situation, no matter which way it goes, it will set up further complications that you can improvise scenes out of from the consequences.
I find two types of scenes work great for First Scenes:
- “What is the best course of action?” – a discussion/argument between characters, usually with important stakes involved
- Revealed information/event that shifts your situation significantly (“So… one of us here is a spy.”)
In both cases, these have no specific direction or “right answer” but they do let the players show you what they’re interested in and the way their characters think or operate. Their choices in these First Scenes tell you directions to consider following in.
2. Closing Scenes
End the scene just after something interesting has happened, or just after NOTHING interesting has happened.
Closing scenes is the hardest skill out of all of these, but it improves your game experience by a great deal – closing scenes quickly and on time creates a momentum. Everyone will find themselves amazed at how much you can get done and how much energy the group gets to push forward in play when you can do this right.
If it looks like nothing interesting is going to happen (and none of your NPCs are going to push it forward) close it right away. Sometimes players will want to stretch it further, mostly because they feel like they’re missing an opportunity or something, but you should simply ask them, “Was there a thing you were going to do? If not, we can assume you spend the time doing X and go to the next scene.”
Once something interesting happens, it’s a good time to cut the scene. Cutting the scene quickly after that allows the players to take the energy and excitement into the next scene and gives a real flow to play. If it drags out, then things slow down and it gets harder to pick up again.
Aiming at Player Flags
The players have told you what kinds of things they find interesting and want the game to revolve around – so that’s what you aim your scenes around. Again: What would be interesting to see the player characters face in challenges and complications right now?
You can ask these questions and get good ideas of how to make a scene on various Flags they give you:
- What makes a (relationship) /achieving (a Goal) complicated?
- Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if it costs you? (choose between goals and personal costs)
- Will you do (Goal) /fulfill (relationship) even if you have to wrong? (choose between goal/relationship & ideals)
- Is this still the right thing to do? (things that make you doubt your cause or relationship)
These are the interesting things that make a character’s journey worth following. Finding out how far a character will go, where their lines are, and what they will, or won’t do… and along the way finding out what ideals they hold and who they care about and how deeply.
Twisting the Knife
Game designer Paul Czege once told me that the trick to this is that the issues that the Flags are based on are like a knife, and you basically keep twisting it – “Do you still believe in this? How about now? How about NOW?” etc.
Obviously, how these Flags get tested and pushed on depends on the genre and style of story you’re trying to tell. Golden Sky Stories, The Friendship Game, Breaking the Ice or Clover all are games that can be rather light hearted and fun, but still hit emotional points without being grimdark or brutally intense.
Self Complicating Flags
Sometimes the players give you great issues and Flags to deal with from the start.
A player might set up their own goals, ideals or relationships at cross odds within their own character (“I love my brother the drunkard king” “My patriotism means I have to stop him from running our nation into the ground”).
Some groups might set up Flags that are complicated between characters – two people want things that are at cross odds, or suffer from a key misunderstanding between characters. This makes it very easy to set up scenes around this stuff.
Let the NPCs take dramatic actions
I find the easiest way during play to answer the question “What would be interesting…” is to simply look at the motivations of the non-player characters and how they intersect with player characters’ Flags.
Since I set up the scenario and the NPCs in such a way that they’re already going to complicate the player character’s goals, ideals and relationships, all I have to do is follow the logical actions and reactions of the NPCs.
“Of course your sister doubts whether you are telling the truth…” “He thinks you tried to murder him. He’s going to go all out at this point…” and so on.
Look to the motivations for your NPCs, and simply play your NPCs – they pursue their goals according to their personalities.
The players improvise by simply playing their characters – all I do is do the same thing, through the filter of “What would be most interesting right now?” and scenes become very easy to create.
Some possible dramatic actions for NPCs to take:
- Make an attack (physical, social, political)
- Make a public challenge, or talk trash
- Make a demand or a threat
- Offer a deal, ask for help
- Reveal how they feel about a character or event
- Ask how you feel about a character or event
- Steal/Take/Break something
- Reveal how they’ve changed how they feel about a character or event
Extreme Complications (use sparingly)
Extreme complications are things which change the situation drastically, but they’re not necessarily pushed for by any of the characters – a sudden sandstorm trapping everyone inside a building, the king dies from a sudden illness, etc.
Extreme complications shake up the situation for EVERYONE, which makes them both exciting and hard to handle (look at your list of NPCs, now consider that each of them might have to drastically reconsider how they’re going about things… yeah…).
When you do these right, the players become more invested – they’re either scrambling to protect what they’ve got or they’re saying “YES! This is the chance I’ve been waiting for!”
When you do it wrong, it feels cheap and unfair, and much like any other story media, like the writers are looking for a cheap bit of excitement and a dodge from the story threads they don’t know how to handle.
It has to feel reasonable for the setting and genre you’re playing in, and it has to basically impact everyone. It can’t just be there to block the player characters from gaining influence, power, or success.
Escalating to a Climax
So you’re going scene to scene, asking “What would be interesting to see the player characters face right now?” where does this all go?
There’s an easy, natural tendency in how stories, work, which you’ll know because we’ve all grown up listening, watching, reading stories our whole lives – the situation will escalate. The non-player characters will become more active, and the player characters will, too, and things will come to a head.
For the non-player characters, look at the list of motivations and decide as you go along:
- Get more aggressive, escalate in how far they’ll go
- Change tactics, try a different way to get their goals
- Cut a deal, demand action from others, compromise
- Find help, make new alliances with other characters
- Bail out, give up, surrender, come clean
- If they normally follow rules, they start breaking them
- If they normally break rules, they try following them
At some point between the player characters taking action, and the non-player characters taking action, the situation resolves in a way that seems stable or answered for the near, foreseeable future. That’s where you end the story arc.
The sooner you want things to end, the faster you have the NPCs put more and more on the line, upping the ante and risking more, until the whole matter gets decided.
Between sessions, your prep time is very low, anywhere from a few minutes of reviewing your notes of Flags & NPC motivations to an hour if you have to push together crunchy stats for NPCs and so on. The less a game depends on you prepping mechanical stuff for conflicts, the easier this is.
At the end of each session, consider if any of the NPCs may change their motivations, escalate, and so on. These notes are worth jotting down for your next session. Pay attention if the players have made changes to their Flags – that’s important! Mull these things over before your next session and consider a First Scene or two to kick off the drama for your next session.
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