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?