RPG’s, unlike sex, are better off with less foreplay. The faster a session gets to the action, the more interesting it is for everyone involved. Games which have a lot of lead-in may make for a realistic narrative, but can suffer from not grabbing the table’s attention. By using some more aggressive scene framing, with an eye for getting to the action, you can create a more intense session.
Where To Start?
In my latest Elhal campaign, I was working on the plot for the first session. The goal of the adventure was for the players to be hired by an NPC to steal two items from the home of a Demon Lord. My initial thought was to have the players search the city in order to find the NPC, negotiate the deal with the NPC, and then to go and steal the items.
After giving it some thought I decided that all the time spent tracking down the NPC and negotiating the deal was superfluous, since the players were going to take the deal anyway. So I cut all of that, and started the session with the heroes outside the gates of the Demon Lord’s home, and told them through narration of the deal they made with the NPC off-screen. The session started with the players figuring out how to break in, and we were into the action shortly after that.
Cozy Up to the Interesting Parts
In order to understand what scenes you can cut, be it at the start, middle, or end, it’s important to know the goal of your session. Unless you are running a total free-form, player-driven game, you are coming to the table with some agenda of what you would like to see happen for the evening – your goal for the session.
I like to write the goal right at the top of my documentation when I write out my prep. This helps me focus what the entire session should be about. Now, lets be clear, what I prep and what actually happens when the session starts are two totally different things. The only thing I can control is what I prep.
With the goal of the session as a guide, you can then ask if a scene you are working on supports the goal directly or is tangential. You want to keep scenes that directly support the goal of the session so that the time at the table is moving the group towards the goal. Is the scene going to have an interesting consequence if it’s both successful or not? If the outcome for a scene is not interesting in the event of failure, or if the scene really can’t fail without the rest of the adventure being in jeopardy, then consider cutting this scene.
Looking back on the Elhal example, the scenes finding and negotiating with the NPC really could not fail, otherwise the heroes would not be stealing the objects, which were crucial for getting the campaign started. Because they could not fail, it was easy to cut these scenes away and just move the start of the game closer the Demon Lord’s house.
Making Holes When You Cut
When you cut a scene you need to determine if the scene was extraneous. If it was, then you do not need to plug up any potential plot holes with additional narrative. If the scene is important to the overall plot, but able to be cut, then you will need to add some narrative to close the plot hole that was just created. This narrative patch is often an explanation of what happened to bring the characters to the current scene.
In the Elhal game, I placed the heroes outside of the Demon Lords house while telling them that several days ago they had met an NPC from a neighboring town who offered them a job to steal two objects from the Demon Lord. With that bit of information, the players knew why they were here and what their purpose was, and play began.
GM Responsibility and Player Trust
The crux of using the narrative patch is trust between the GM and players. The players must believe that you are not going to narrate them into an impossible situation or into some kind of action that their characters would never take. Likewise, the GM has to trust that the players will go with the GM’s lead, and not try to derail or reverse the situation which has been presented.
If this is the first time you are going to do this with a group, its best to lead into it with some explanation of this technique. This will help to set expectations and it won’t surprise your players, putting them on the defensive. After your session, check in with the players to see how the technique went, by explaining what you cut and see their reaction.
In the Elhal game, I knew the players well enough to know that I could use this technique without having to ask first. After the game, I told them what I had cut and asked them how they felt about the game. They were in full support of my decision to cut; I had made the right call.
No Time For Love, Dr. Jones
Cutting scenes from your prep is a way to tighten up the story which will unfold during the session, keep the session focused, and make it more exciting for both you and your players. Cutting scenes sometimes requires some narrative patching which works best when there is mutual trust between the players and the GM.
How aggressively do you cut scenes when you prep? Have you ever run into a situation where your players were put off by a dropped scene? When have you used this technique to your advantage?
I recently did something like this.
I had a plot planned that involved the players losing a combat scene, by walking into a trap. This is something that had happened to them before. The particular villain has a pattern for how they secure their cases however they were not expecting the location to be one of the particular enemies.
However rather than spending the hour or more of them walking into this trap and then trying to escape this trap, which had previously been shown to be inescapable. I skipped this combat scene and started the session with them waking up disoriented, slight short term memory loss, and powerless.
A couple of Short Flashbacks allowed to work out who had them, and then they could begin the process to escape from where they were been kept.
Of course this is something i would only do once! It is railroading of the worst sort, but allowed me to skip the PC’s been beaten, and allows some mystery about where some of the other PC’s are. The players were missing, and they were the combat monsters of the group, so it made sense that they were been kept in a more secure place.
I half-way like the example above. It makes sense to skip the “tracking down the NPC” part, especially if it’s the beginning of the scenario – it’s a waste of time unless it’s important to the players for some reason. But I would start it with “Someone has summoned you and asked you to steal something from the Demon Lord”. It still gets the players into the action quickly (I think most players would find this interesting enough) and at least gives you a pretense of player agency. Everyone knows the PCs are going to accept the mission, but actually allowing them to do so is going to give the players a better sense of control over their characters than just telling them what their characters did. To me letting the players get invested in the mission (“the king wants us to do this” instead of “the GM wants us to this”) is definitely worth the ten minutes or so that it takes.
I rarely cut scenes this aggressively, to the game’s detriment. I have attempted this, and it occasionally works–but sometimes the players skip back or want to litigate how the skipped scene turned out.
Revisiting skipped scenes can turn the narrative into a tangled mess; even when it works well, you’ve saved a lot less time than you expected. I’ll have to try pre-discussing such skips forward to see if I can head off the negative consequences and preserve the improved pace promised by this technique.
First off, I’d love to hear more about Pacing from the Gnomes, its the area where I feel I could most improve as a GM.
Second, I love the idea of cutting to the chase, getting to the action and skipping the mundane. However I worry that when skipping to the good-stuff, if the Players end up failing or in a tough spot because of it, there is a temptation to blame GM forcing on the situation, even if it would have been the same outcome (+20 minutes of mundane table-time). Player trust is important here, clearly…