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!

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Running 7th Sea on Roll20

File this under This Should Be Interesting…

roll20-280px-tall

On Sunday, February 11th @ 8:30 pm CST, I will be hosting an open tutorial for running 7th Sea over the Roll20 VTT system. Anyone who is interested in checking out Roll20 or specifically running 7th Sea on it are welcome to attend. If you are a seasoned 7th Sea GM with experience with Roll20, I would love to have you join the discussion. If you are interested in attending, you can leave a message here, or send me a private message on Roll20.

You will need at least a basic Roll20 profile to attend.

Voice chat will be handled on Discord using the Explorers of Théah FB Group’s servers. So yes, you’ll need to be running both Roll20 and Discord to get the most out of the workshop.

I’m planning to quickly cover the Basics of Roll20, but then move on to how to set up the VTT to really get the most (in my experience) out of it with the 7th Sea 2nd edition ruleset.  This will include discussion of character sheets, macro design, and other topics.  I know.  You’re thinking, sexy!  But even with all that technical voodoo, I’ll try my best to keep it light and fun.

So put the kids to bed early and spend Sunday night with us!

The (Actual) Play is the Thing

So today we are going to talk about 7th Sea Actual Plays, both video and podcast.  APs are suddenly big news, and no surprise why.  They let you get a taste of a new RPG without ever leaving the comfort of your home.  Critical Role alone is being credited with a surge in DnD’s popularity lately.  I can’t say I’ve watched more than a few minutes of it, but I can certainly understand the appeal and recognize the potential both as a gateway into the RPG hobby and as a teaching vehicle for fledgling GMs.

WARNING: This is going to be something of a rant.  If you just want some links, you can skip to the bottom and come back and read later.

The other day, after a friend and I had browsed Twitch’s catalog of Roll20 and DnD programming, I browsed youtube for new 7th Sea APs.  When I stumbled across Die Party: Dead Man’s Crest, I hoped I’d finally stumbled across something worth my time.  Alas, I discovered pretty quickly thereafter that that group had given up on 7th Sea in frustration and converted the whole storyline over to Savage Worlds.  More on that some other time, but suffice to say it left me feeling very irritated and frustrated.  Because despite quite a few 7th Sea APs out there, very few of them have given me much worth listening to.

When I ran my Teen Library program, I’d often get wallflowers who were hesitant to jump in and play.  I’d tell them that WATCHING people play a roleplaying game is probably among the most boring exercises I can imagine.  I’d always try to give them some role to play in the game, whether it was granting bennies or rolling for the monsters.  Now, part of that is because I wanted to motivate people to get some skin in the game, but I do truly believe that watching other people roleplay is damn tedious and dull.  Unless you have a stake in it (like watching people play an adventure you’ve written or playtest your game) its about as sleep inducing as NyQuil.  So personally, I really don’t get people who watch these things for recreation.  No biggie, I don’t get people who play MMOs solely to craft, either.  You be you!  But when I picked up 7th Sea, I did start seeking out APs.  This time I had a stake in it – the 7th Sea 2nd ed system is way outside my comfort zone as a GM, so I wanted to see what people were doing with it to wrap my brain around it.

But that’s the thing: I don’t give a rip about your story.  I don’t care about your witty banter or your Monty Python jokes.  I’m here for one thing: to see how your GM runs the game.  When I was a kid watching baseball with my dad, he would tell me to always watch the catcher, because he is the heart of the game.  (My dad was a catcher in the minor leagues and even auditioned for the majors before he settled on becoming a doctor, so you can understand his biases).  That’s sort of how I approach APs – it doesn’t matter what the players are doing, I’m here to watch/listen to the GM.  I’m here to learn and I’m taking notes.  It’s okay if you get it wrong – I’m still learning from you.

But more often than not, I come up against two big issues: either the show desperately needs an editor to cut the useless chatter and dead air (Happy Jacks AP, I’m looking at you here!) or the GM can’t really be bothered to learn the system and just phones it in, counting on the interplay between the players (and all those things I listed above that I just could care less about) to carry the show.

Man, listening to that Die Party episode epitomized the worst of all of these.  Not only was the GM guilty of some of the worst practices out there (the players begin marooned on a deserted, featureless island with an unreachable destination lingering in the background – tell me if you’ve heard that one before), but also other than recognizing aspects of the system, it didn’t even seem like they were using the game setting (at least, not that I could recognize).  So about 30 minutes into it, I turned it off in disgust and jumped to the episode where they announced the switch.

Yeah, not surprised about that.

In the least.

Maybe it was a bad turn.  I don’t know.  I’m not going to waste time sifting through the back catalog to find out.

AVAST YE!

So having bitched about a handful of APs that could just a haircut and a case of JOLT COLA, let’s talk about a couple of 7th Sea APs that deliver the goods from this GM’s perspective.  That is, they are not only enjoyable to listen to, but you actually learn something from them.

Essential NPCs (7th Sea Episodes) – this is a relatively new series (though not a new podcast), that is really delivers.  The GM, Addie Gia, proves she has chops and a good grasp of what makes the system work.  Each episode begins with GM reflections on the previous episode, which is just delicious gravy for someone like me.

Tabletop Potluck (7th Sea, episode 1) – a new AP podcast, interesting as much for the makeup of the cast (a majority of the players are women) as it is the gimmick.  Even inexperience with 7th Sea, they made a good faith effort to put it through its paces.

Tabletop Radio Hour (Flash, Bash, and Panache, Episode 1)  – honorable mention because they were the first to devote a long series of episodes to the game.  However, they are often guilty of just leaning on player interaction to carry the day and often use the game system as an occasional prop.  But there are some gems in the mix, so they get points for that.  Plus, very little dead air or prattling on.

HEAVE TO!

Geek and Sundry Starter Kit Season 2 on Geek and Sundry’s Project Alpha deserves special mention here.  Despite the fact that it’s locked behind a paywall, it’s 6 episodes of 7th Sea 2nd edition.  Run by John Wick.  If you check the time, this amounts to watching John Wick, the guy who wrote the damn game, run a 4 hour demo session.  Great production value, great editing (again, no dead air or useless witty banter – it moves, FAST!), and know what? John Wick is a damn fine GM.  But in this case, he plays fast and loose with the rules.  A lot!  So while this show is required viewing for 7th Sea GMs of any experience level and worth navigating the paywall (thirty day free trial, baby!), from this GM’s perspective, it’s more a master class in GMing than a master class in running 7th Sea.  Should you watch?  Hell yeah!  And you’ll learn a lot, too.  But at some point, you’re gonna start to wonder why villains cause a Dramatic Wound each time they spend a Raise.  Word to the wise.

WALK THE PLANK!

Because I’m a completist, and because I realize that not everyone has my sense of taste (for whatever that’s worth), here’s the part where I list a bunch of links to various 7th Sea APs that I’ve devoted time to listening or watching.

Play Better Podcast (7th Sea, Episode 1)

Tabletop Radio Hour (Glory and Fame, Episode 1)

Fumbling and Mumbling (7th Sea Quick Start, Episode 1)

The Drunk and the Ugly (The Ballad of the Fantoma Reine, Episode 1)

Talking Table Top (Interviews, not Actual Plays) These interviews were done around the time the 7th Sea 2nd edition kickstarter was going on and reveal a lot about the aspects of the system, though not a lot of how those mechanics really work in play.

7th Sea: Let’s Play (Episode #0: Prologue/Story Building) This one has a pretty long run, 25 episodes though most range from 15-20 minutes in length.  I haven’t listened to enough of it to really speak for how good it is.

7th Sea – Swashbuckling RPG with GM David Crennen (Episode 1?Crennen did an interview with John Wick that was released prior to this AP.  Based on that, I was disappointed with the scope of this AP.

7th Sea: The Search for La Liberteria (Episode 1: Blind-Shot)

Epilogue: Witch Hunter: The Invisible World

Yeah, I wish I could supply a list of WH actual plays.  But unless you speak Polish, you’re SOL.  Sorry.  But hey, if you have one, let me know!  I’ll shout it from the rooftops.

Pirates of the Levant: A Book Review

Pirates of the Levant is a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and one of the many tales of Captain Alatriste.  I feel the need to preface this review by saying of the Captain Alatriste novels, I’ve only read the first one before and didn’t care for it.  Pirates of the Levant is the sixth book in the series, so it’s possible I missed some background context skipping from book 1 to 6, but I don’t feel it affected my ability to follow the story.

Like Captain Alatriste, Pirates of the Levant is told (largely) from the perspective of the Captain’s ward and protégé, Ínigo who, aside from the fact that he is older, seems little different than he was in book 1: naive, hot-headed, and eager for adventure.  Older now, there are several scenes where he and the Captain are at odds.  Ínigo doesn’t simply differ to the captain on every occassion, so I guess that counts for character development.

I won’t mince words, this novel felt like as much of a slog as Captain Alatriste before it.  There is a lot of love for these novels, but I don’t share it.  Pérez-Reverte certainly has a unique voice: the narrative often breaks for poetry, short jumps of perspective, and frequent glimpses of the future.  The characters are fairly 2 dimensional and end pretty much the way they start – there’s not much in the way of character development.  In fact, like Captain Alatriste, Pirates of the Levant feels like a string of vinettes with scarcely a narrative thread to connect anything.  You could have made this an anthology of short stories and it wouldn’t have lost a step.

But what really struck me was the ugliness of the world Pérez-Reverte portrays.  He doesn’t sugar coat the deep seated racism that exists between the Europeans/Christians and the Ottomans/Muslims.  I don’t attribute this to the author but as a sign of the times the book is set in.

If you like your swashbuckling adventure light and fluffy, this is not the book for you.  If you like your swashbuckling adventure fun and dashed with humor, this is not the book for you.  If you like your swashbuckling adventure full of viceral Robert E Howard-esque action, this is not the book for you.  Oh, there’s plenty of blood and guts – bucket loads, in fact – but it’s hard earned.  The novel makes you work for every moment of light, humor, or excitement.  And frankly, I really could care less about any of the primary characters, which blunts from the climax for me considerably.  I lay the blame at the lack of any narrative line through the book.  You could read the first 2 chapters and skip to the last 2 chapters and, other than a handful of characters (who are little more than set dressing), you don’t really miss a beat.

Now all this said, I can’t say the book is terrible or not worth reading.  As I said previously, Pérez-Reverte has a unique voice that, from a writer’s perspective, showcases some interesting tricks.  Likewise, it gives the reader a good sense of conflicts in the 17th century Mediterranean and Spain.  But unfortunately, nothing to change my opinion of the Captain Alatriste books.  Were I not running a seagoing 7th Sea game and looking for source material, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.  And I can’t imagine why I would read any of the other books in the series after this.  Two trips to the well is enough to convince me that these aren’t the books for me.

Random Boxer Tables

When we started our 7th Sea game, one of the players created an Inish boxer.  His main story goal?  Become a fighter renowned throughout Théah and to box the O’Bannon!  The whole vibe of the character always reminded me of the South Park Russel Crowe spoof: Makin’ movies, singin’ songs, and FIGHTIN’ ROUND THE WORLD!

Unfortunately, life interviened and after only a few game sessions, this player had to take a indefinite sabbatical from the game.  Before he left, to prepare for a string of title boughts in various ports-o-call, I created a series of tables to randomly generate boxing opponents of various skill.  I think I finished them the day before he resigned the game.

Well I guess this work won’t be seeing much play in my game now, so I’m posting it here!

Random Boxer Tables

d10 In the Other Corner…
1 The Kid (Green Fighter)
2 The Ham/Palooka
3 The Up and Comer
4 The Seasoned Fighter
5 The (Current) Champ
6 The Has-Been
7 The Grizzled Veteran
8 The Exotic Foreigner
9 The Prodigal Son
0 The Augmented Fighter
d10 Style
1 Pressure Fighter
2 Swarmer
3 In-Fighter
4 Slugger
5 Boxer-Puncher
6 Switch Hitter
7 Out-Boxer
8 Unorthodox/Unconventional Form
9-0 Roll Twice; ignore this
result again.
d10 Descriptor and Trait
1-2 The Mountain (Brawn)
3-4 Quick and Nimble (Finesse)
5-6 Head in the Game (Wits)
7-8 Tenacious and Unshakable (Resolve)
9-0 The Showboat (Panache)
d10 Quirk
1 Best Defense
2 Southpaw
3 Achilles Heel
4 Drunk
5 Cocky
6 Grudge
7 Distracted
8 Dirty Fighter
9 Secret Enchantment
0 All Heart
d10     The Match
1 Organized Crime is involved.
2 Your opponent throws the Match
3 Your opponent is the crowd Favorite
4 Rough Crowd
5 Your opponent is Altruistic (Man of the People); has vowed to donate all winnings to a popular cause
6 Crooked Promoter
7 Your opponent dies at the End
8 Fat Purse (+1 wealth point to the winner)
9 A Fate Witch is secretly manipulating the fight
0 Showcase Match; your opponent is completely mismatched

Boxing Moves/Terms

  • Jab: Jab is a short straight punch
  • Cross: Cross is a straight punch delivered from the side
  • Uppercut: Uppercut is an upward punch that comes from underneath the opponent’s guard
  • Hook: Hook is a swinging blow with the elbow bent
  • Body Blow: Body blow is a punch to the body
  • Block: Blocking is the use of the shoulders, arms, or hands to prevent an opponent’s punch from landing cleanly
  • Bob and Weave: To bob and weave is to make quick bodily movements up and down and from side to side in order to dodge punches. In boxing bobbing moves the head laterally and beneath an incoming punch. As the opponent’s punch arrives, the fighter bends the legs quickly and simultaneously shifts the body either slightly right or left. Fighters generally begin the bob and weave to the left, as most opponents strike with their left hand, or jab hand first.
  • Stance: Stance is the position adopted by a boxer in readiness to land or receive punches
  • Clinch: To clinch is to hold one’s opponent in such a way that he cannot throw punches
  • Corkscrew: Corkscrew is a punch thrown with the elbow out and a twisting motion of the wrist
  • Counter: Counter is an attack made immediately after an opponent throws a punch
  • Feint: To feint means to fake a punch with the intention of disorientating one’s opponent
  • Guard: Guard is a defensive stance, with the gloves raised to protect the face
  • Haymaker: Haymaker is colloquial term for a wild swinging punch
  • Hold: Hold is a grip of the opponent that prevents him from throwing punches
  • Infighting: Infighting is engaging at very close quarters, so that it is impossible to throw full-length punches
  • Reach: Reach is the distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms of a boxer; (cricket) the extent to which a batsman can play forward without moving his back foot
  • Rally: Rally is a sustained exchange of blows
  • Roundhouse: Roundhouse is a wild swinging punch
  • Sidewinder: Sidewinder is a blow struck from the side

John Wick on Running 7th Sea

The Spirit of the 7th Sea podcast gave us a not so surprising Halloween surprise: an interview with John Wick on running 7th Sea!

I say it wasn’t much of a surprise because Hannah Shaffer (JWP marketing director) had asked for questions for the interview weeks ago.  The surprise was that the interview was far more about style and less about form, so most of the mechanical questions never made it into the interview.  A wasted opportunity that, but I’m not going to complain since two of my questions made it into the interview.  And the answers were interesting.  I’m not going to give it all away here, but I would encourage other 7th Sea GMs (and players!) to give the interview a listen.  There is some good stuff in there that really needs to be distilled into the GM section of 7th Sea: Khitai or the inevitable 7th Sea revised edition.

If you are not a fan of the new edition, if the revised mechanics and setting make your teeth itch, if the mere mention of John Wick triggers you, pass this one by.  There is nothing in here that’s going to change your mind on any one of these points.  If you love the setting, but the mechanics read like Greek (sorry, Numenari) to you, there aren’t any revelations to be had.  He does discuss creating Consequences and Opportunities for a scene, but I’m not sure how helpful the answer really is as the context feels…weird.

In fact, if I have a complaint about the interview, its the perspective offered.  I get the impression that John Wick’s experience running 7th Sea is that of a series a highly episodic sessions and one-shot, not as a long-running serial that us old timers aspire to run.  Now part of that is probably the nature of the biz: when most of your play comes from demos and con-hopping, that’s what your experience is going to be.  Or if you are used to switching RPGs often or troupe-style GM play.  But for those of who dig in for long haul campaigns, there is something of a disconnect in the advice given.  (I hold all RPG developers to the unrealistic expectation that they, like Gary Gygax, run a weekly open table game for migrating groups of players for years to test out ideas and new rules – which the man did for both D&D and Lejendary Adventure.  So keep that in perspective.  And yes, I know almost none of them actually do that.)

My dream a big 7th Sea GM roundtable where everyone gets deep in the weeds Angry GM style on how to make the game sing like a siren is still unfulfilled.  So if you’re listening JWP, put that on your list for 2018.

Whisper on a Black Wind

Back in 2001 or 2002, I honestly can’t remember which, we were in the thick of our 7th Sea (1st edition) campaign.  It was October and I proposed a Halloween themed “one-shot” for the group.  Unfortunately, this “one-shot” took all of about 4 or 5 sessions to actually complete, something I’ve become a bit notorious for since then.

This year, over on the Facebook Explorer’s of Théah group, I proposed everyone submit a scenario for Halloween as a community project.  While this wasn’t the first of my old adventures that came to mind — that one involved a murderous redcap stalking the students of a Castillain university (“Remember the tooth!”) — I settled on this one because of the 2015 film, the Witch.

After having seen that movie, I think I would run this one completely differently than I did before.  In fact, I think this would have made a great adventure for Witch Hunter: the Invisible World, All for One: Regime Diabolique, or the Savage World of Solomon Kane with only a bit of tweaking.

So if you and your group are getting together to roll some dice for Halloween fun, I offer this short adventure scenario for your consideration: Whisper on a Black Wind.  See if you can make it the horrific one night affair it was intended to be.

Addendum

A quick shout out and thank you to Dyson Logos for his amazing work and making some of it available to use.  If anyone wants a copy of the unaltered version of the map used in the adventure, you can find it here.