Category Archives: narrative

Expertimentation

failure

This last session of 7th Sea was marked by two experiments I wanted to try out.  I had no idea how well either of them would work.  Turns out neither of them worked out nearly as well as I’d hoped, but both provided a learning opportunity for me.  Post-game/post-morning shower reflections revealed a lot (as they are want to do).  So rather than share the usual episode recap with you this week, I thought I’d share the results of these experiments instead.

Run Riot!

The opening scene involved the Heroes at the heart of a massive riot in La Bucca.  But how do you create that sort of epic narrative in a way that doesn’t turn into just a big melee encounter?

I ran a few of the ideas past one of my co-conspirators, Kevin Krupp, how provided some excellent feedback – only some of which I could really grasp.  You see, Kevin is very well versed in narrative RPGs.  So when I told him what I was trying to do, he immediately took it to 11 where I was really only comfortable taking it to..seven, maybe.  In the end, it was only kinda successful.

Here’s how it played out:

The scene opened in the Yellow Fin Tavern with Captain Kenway sitting in Allende’s office.  Among the stacks of papers, scrolls, and charts on her desk was a local broadsheet, the Albatross, with a headline about grift and corruption in the Scale (one of the city’s government chapters).

I asked Chris, Kenway’s player, who was in the office with him.  Naturally, he named both of the two other players at the table.  Good.  We don’t have to split the party.

Behind the closed office door, they hear a door slam.  Heavy footsteps, followed by shouting in another room.  Two women.  The voices grow louder as they approach the office door.  Allende throws open the door, her fury evident even with her mask.  She throws a fresh copy of the Albatross at Captain Ed and demands, “Can you explain this?” The headline reads: Presidential reelection festivities spark riot!.

The scene then jumps back hours earlier, to mid morning, with Kenway and the other Heroes among a small crowd in front of the Betting Barnacle.  The new owner, an old rival of Kenway’s named Matthew Hague, is preparing a pre-election victory party for Allende and rechristening the place the Fancy Lad (much to the chagrin of its old patrons who no longer feel welcome).  Hague sees Kenway in the crowd and makes some mocking overtures to his “friend,” which immediately puts the Captain in a bad light among the other old patrons.  Couple that with a gang of bravos from a local duelist academy sizing up Carmena and Sebastian (both duelists) and a bunch of Allende supporters who know Kenway to be supporting the other team, and you have a powder keg primed and lit.

The scene snaps back to Allende’s office.

“So what happened then?” she asks.

So here’s where things get experimental.  I had each of the players state and roll an Approach for what they would be doing in the riot.  Beyond that, I gave them carte blanche with the only instruction being: make things awesome.  In my mind, my goal was to reach the heights of the riot scene in Police Academy.  We never quite hit that mark.

I had each of them go one at a time and allowed them to spend all their raises, which in hindsight was a mistake.  Each player did better than the one before, but the whole thing lacked any real cohesive skeleton.  At the end of each turn, I asked them to “stage a challenge” for the next Hero, but that never really happened.  And so, despite feeling cool and different, it didn’t quite reach the heights I was hoping it would.

Reflection

In hindsight, I should have treated the Riot as a Hazard (see 7th Sea: The New World sourcebook), along with a threat rating and raises to spend.  Then play it out more as a traditional action sequence.

Instead of asking each player to “stage a challenge” for the next Hero at the end of their turn, I believe I should have led with that, asking each to “stage a challenge” right off the bat with the reward being a Hero Point.  The challenged player could have turned down the challenge, at the risk of adding a Danger Point to the pool.

Meanwhile, the Hazard would have been able to push its own agenda with its own raises, allowing me a more participatory roll in the melee.  This would have allowed me to help create a more cohesive structure for the Heroes stunts, making the whole thing hang together better.

Schemes

Schemes, schemes, villainous schemes!  So simple and yet, when you start overthinking them they can cause problems.

At the beginning of the game session, I laid out three “schemes” that the players could discover and disrupt this game session.  I used the Captain Wheel method outlined by Rob Donoghue on his Walking Mind blog.  So the players could see the number of steps involved, but not the nature of the scheme.

And that, dear readers, is where I failed.

The biggest problem is I set up a “Door 1, Door 2, or Door 3” scenario where none of the choices had any real weight.  They were simply these detached curiosities the players could pick up and examine before putting them back down.  So while the schemes themselves were the active operations of villains the group knows about, there was no real urgency in the choice or any real tension even once the scheme was revealed.

In our chase, Kenway’s player choice to examine scheme #3 (or the Embassy Row Riots as I was calling it behind the scene).  I set it up as a Dramatic Sequence, but since he was acting alone, it played out more like a Risk (which it should have just been dammit!).  A gang of thugs discussing plans to stage a riot on Embassy Row within a few days – paid under the table by the Magnus Skaar for President campaign – led to a quick scene where Kenway appealed to their better angels.  Decent, but not great.  And that still left 2 schemes on the table untouched and untended.

Reflections

Again, I feel the problem here is that none of these choices were ever properly grounded or created any real sense of urgency.  It occurs to me in hindsight that I may well have approached them entirely backwards.

The next time I do this, I’m going to instead lead with single detail: either the target or the tool.  This sort of follows the philosophy that Robin Law’s espouses in Gumshoe RPG: the first clue is free.  The first clue in this case is THE HOOK.  Who cares about the number of steps at this stage anyway.

So in the case of the Embassy Row Riots, a card reading Embassy Row (the target), Embassy Row Riots (target+tool), or simply Riots (tool) should have been presented.  At least that creates a sense of curiosity and urgency that “Scheme 3” decidedly does not.  Once the players have investigated the scheme and decided to do something about it, THEN reveal the clock to them.

As for whether it is a Risk or a Dramatic Sequence, that’s a numbers game.  For one player, a Risk seems to be the way to go.  It keeps the pacing fast and lets you play things out without worrying about structure.  If the investigation involves 3 or more players though, the scene will probably benefit from structure (kinda like the riots earlier) and so a Dramatic Sequence should be used.

And there you have it!

I hope you’ll forgive this article of naval gazing, experimentation, and failing forward.  I polled my players afterwards, and they all enjoyed the session.  So maybe it was just me who felt it was lacking.  But I try to learn from these things and put those new ideas into practice and make the next game closer to that special experience every GM chases.

Have you failed at some grand experiment as a GM only to realize on reflection why things didn’t work and what you should have done differently?  If so, please share your experience in the comments so we can all learn from your mistakes.

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Scene Framing and THREATening the Heroes

So file this under I didn’t realize this was a thing.  Jared Rascher (of Gnome Stew and Google+ fame, along with his blog) did an…extensive video interview with Kevin Madison (Live from the Sword Coast) last week.

In addition to some very complimentary words about your’s truly’s Cut to the Chase: Dramatic Chase Sequences PDF, he also brought up an interesting point I had never considered before.  Jared believes that “scene framing” is poorly explained in the 7th Sea rulebook, which is one of the things difficult to grasp for new GMs.

No, I have no idea where in the interview they talked about this.  The damn thing is 2 and a half plus hours long.  But its good stuff, so listen to the whole thing.  They get to it eventually.

So I nodded along.  Right, scene framing.  Wait.  What the hell is “scene framing?”  Don’t I just describe the scene and run with it?  Why is that so difficult?  So I asked Jared, because he’s cool and he’s one of the few 7th Sea guys who is ONLY on Google+ (really Jared, we gotta get you over to the Explorer’s FB group – it’s jumpin’).  He gave me some places to start.  So I started looking.

Oh my poor virgin narrative GMing eyes.

If you’ve been playing FATE, FIASCO, In a Wicked Age, or any one of the dozens/scores/hundreds of indie narrative RPGs that have rolled out over the past decade, you may want to keep some Visine handy.  You’re going to be doing some serious eyerolling for a bit.

So…scene framing is a real thing.  It’s mostly limited to games with a serious amount of player agency, where the GM mainly exists to host the players, tell everyone when the game starts and stops, and keeps the Cheetos and Mountain Dews coming.  Because players need boundaries, these RPG bake in some procedures to scene framing.  Let’s use Primetime Adventures (where there is some agreement that “scene framing” was first really codified) as an example.  Where in OD&D you would determine surprise, distance, and reaction at the onset of an encounter, a scene in PTA begins by determining focus (the who or what), agenda (the why), and location (the where).  FATE does much the same thing without the fancy terminology.

7th Sea doesn’t really work like this – despite a fair share of narrative underpinnings, the GM still has a very prominent role in the game.  The GM is expected to drive the opposition and make things difficult for the Heroes, regardless of their own actions.  And while the game gives players resources they can use to exert different degrees of agency in play (stories, hero points, and raises), the GM is the ultimate gatekeeper to all of this.  I can allow as much or as little player agency as I’m comfortable with in play – the mechanics works just fine either way.

So what can we take from all this scene framing discussion?

In Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, these scene framing components show up as part of the Scene Template, with particular focus on Purpose (the why) and the Closing (because knowing when the scene ends is important).

I’m a sucker for organization templates (even though I almost never use them), but this is an area that I really have never considered necessary.  While I’ve written adventures in terms of scenes for years, the idea of a codified scene framing seems somewhat redundant to me.  But then, I’m not especially familiar with games like this (obviously).  In my experience, scenes simply flow into one another, organically.  The only reason you would need to know when a scene begins or ends is if you are employing cinematic tricks (“The camera zooms in on Steve as he prepares to disarm the trap!”) or if you have resources that recharge between scenes.  Likewise, I’ve never run D&D in terms of turns – though it makes sense why someone would.

7th Sea does have resources that recharge between scenes (like wounds), but more importantly I’ve found that mechanics like Dramatic Sequences do benefit from a bit more structure than the freeform flow than I’m used to employing.  Not a great deal, mind you.  But it helps to keep the players a bit more focused on their goals (the agenda or why) than I would in other games.  So after more experience with Dramatic Sequences in play, I’ve started adding a new element to my notes: THREAT.

THREAT is sort of a catch-all reminder for me.  It could be the stakes of the scene, or what the heroes stand to lose.  But more often, its a reminder of the Villain or NPC’s GOAL in the scene, that may be counter productive to the heroes.  This is what the Villain is going to be spending his Raises to accomplish and, one would assume, the players spending Raises to counter.  This has been a helpful addition in play, when sometimes Dramatic Sequences can start to meander.  I’ve heard some complaints from GMs about Dramatic Sequences, how they simply run out of juice because the players either run out of raises or run out of ideas.  THREAT helps that immensely.  It helps me keep the players on their toes, gives my bad guys something to do, and one more thing to soak up the players’ raises.

But most importantly, this lets me relax and not worry about all the scene framing procedures and jargon.  With one sentence of notes, I can continue on with my go with the flow style while still keeping the scene engaging.  I was already starting to do this prior to reading up on scene framing, but now that I have a better grasp of the concept I’m more confident that adding this is a solid move.

Eventually, I’ll get back to TRIGGERS as well, but that’s going to be a discussion for another time.

For more information on scene framing in RPGs, here are a few links:

What about the rest of you?  How do you handle scene framing in 7th Sea (or other games for that matter)?  Are there any special procedures or GM short hand you’ve baked into the mix to make your scenes more effective and exciting?  Let us know in the comments!