And he does: A GM since 1994, Aluion started using a version of this technique for cutscenes and cutaways 10 years ago, and has refined and expanded it over the course of eight different campaigns. Thanks for sharing this with us, Aluion!
– – – – –
My technique is more of a “cutaway” than a “cutscene,” where the focus leaves the adventure for awhile and comes back later, and where all actions that take place in the cutaway are determined by the players. Done correctly, and with the right type of players, a cutaway can be a handy GM tool in its own right.
It may be useful to know that I use a custom system that is not too different from D&D, but has been modified to go with the feel of my homebrewed fantasy campaign world. Most of my campaigns take place there, but I do run other systems and one-shots from time to time.
It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t overuse this technique. I only use it once every other session, if that. Any more than that with my group, and it stops being a tool and ends up being a cliché, to the point where my players no longer remember who their characters are. When a player forgets that her sorceror isn’t an ogre archer and declares that she fires a bow that she doesn’t possess, then you know you’ve used it a bit too much…
For preparing the actual scene, I like to use index cards. They can be strewn across the table or passed around without too much hassle, and they are fairly easy to find. I create one “scene” card and as many “actor” cards as I need. The scene card will be used to describe the scene, and the actor cards will detail the characters involved. (I call all of the characters in my cutscenes “actors.”)
For better organization (and if you are feeling particularly geeky), you might even color-code them, so that the scene card can be easily picked out of the stack later on. Then you can just stack them with the scene card on top of the actor cards and it stays nice and organized — provided your tower of index cards doesn’t fall over. You may want to place them in a smallish container, or at least number them.
Scene Card: First, detail out the scene card. It should tell where the cutaway is taking place, in a descriptive paragraph. It should also describe the goal of the players involved in the cutscene. This card will later be read by you (the GM) when it comes time to use them. Here’s an example, drawn from the earlier TT post on cutscenes:
You are standing just at the gates of Townshire, hidden partially by the forest that defines the edges of the human village. Your shaman is a stone’s-toss to your left, the rest of you are directly in front of your gate with your chief. All eyes are on him.
He lifts his club with a bloodthirsty yell and flings his arm in the direction of the village. At this command, you all rush towards the village, brandishing your weapons and shouting battle cries. Your band charges right into the wooden gate, knocking it clear off the hinges.
“Ogres at the west gate! Sound the alarm!” you hear the humans shout, trying to rally a meager defense against you. You can hear your chief chuckle as he begins humming an ancient battle tune. They don’t stand a chance.
Of course, you don’t have to limit your use of cutscenes to fantasy campaigns. Replace “ogres” with “imperial ships” and “village” with “rebel base,” and the example above could be used in a Star Wars campaign. The actual scene is where you make the idea your own.
Actor Cards: For the actor cards, just detail out the characters you introduced in the scene. For this cutscene, you would make cards for the Chief, the Shaman, perhaps an archer or two, and a few other ogre grunts depending on the amount of players you have, although you can certainly create more and play the rest of the actors as NPCs. You can even have your entire party play just one actor, with group discussion deciding the actor’s movement.
On the front of the cards, stat the characters out and provide some basic equipment. There’s no need to stat them out fully: only put in stats and equipment that will come up in the scene. For our battle scene, the ogres probably aren’t going to find any use for their ranks in Persuasion or Use Rope. On the other hand, if you don’t want your players to enter battle in the cutscene, simply don’t include battle stats on the card.
On the back of the cards, I like to put a brief description of what the character is like, so that the player can get into the role more easily. Also, even though I’ve left mapmaking details out, you should have a map of the area in which the cutscene will take place.
After using this technique for some time, you’ll be able to write an entire scene during a lunch break, or right before the session begins while you’re waiting for your players to show up.
If you keep your cutscene cards generic enough, you can throw a cutscene in at any time and make it look like you planned it all along. In fact, you may want to make cards with several blank spots for this purpose.
When you’re ready to use them, take the scene card off the top, put the actor cards in the middle of the table, and have your players choose characters. The unused characters become NPCs. If two players fight over a particular character, then let a high roll or a quick round of Rock-Paper-Scissors decide. I’m lucky enough to have not had this problem, but it could crop up.
Why let the players choose their actors in the first place? Well, this way if the wizard’s player wants to, she can choose the shaman and play a role she feels comfortable in…or choose an ogre grunt for a different experience. If your players argue too much over the actors, though, it may be better to just assign roles yourself.
Then all you have to decide is when to use them. In our example, I’d likely use them when the Captain of the Guard is meeting with the PCs for the first time, and complaining about the ogre threat. (There are lots of other ways you could use this cutscene, though.)
You can bring out a cutscene for both in-character and OOC reasons. If you used our ogre attack cutscene as described, right after the Captain’s speech, that would be an example of an in-character reason; if you brought it out when your players seemed bored, that would be an OOC reason.
A Few In-character Examples
- A merchant is telling the PCs how she barely escaped with her life after a kobold war party attacked her caravan.
- A bard in the local tavern sings about a legendary band of heroes.
- A noble tells you of how he managed to persuade a Dragon to spare him.
- A peasant tells the party a chilling story of how her town was reduced to ruins.
- One of the members of your party receives a dream or vision.
- The PCs find the remains of a skeleton or corpse, and then in a cutscene they learn exactly how that person met with their fate.
Some OOC Examples
- A player is sick, and can’t make it to the session.
- You notice that your players are running out of dice to make stacks with, or that they seem distracted or unmotivated.
- Your players are joking around (or quoting Monty Python) a bit too much, and you want to reinforce the seriousness of the situation…without killing one of the PCs off.
- You want to get a hack-and-slash player interested in the lore of your game world without thrusting it on them.
- You are burned out, or need to stall for time while you think of something.
- One of your players (or even your entire group) is metagaming a bit too much, and you want to throw some false information at them.
- You want to balance out your politics with a bit of hack-and-slash, or your hack-and-slash with a bit of politics.
- Your players aren’t taking your warnings and threats seriously as the party walks through the Forbidden Forest of Eternal Pain, Doom, Death, and Endless Suffering unprotected, and you want to show them exactly how dangerous this will be…preferably without killing them. (Inspired by Corrosive Rabbit’s comment on this topic.)
Dealing with the Aftermath
When I use this technique, I usually have a few rules and goals for my players:
1. The scene ends whenever the GM, or the majority of the group, declares that it ends, or if the actors ever run into the PCs during the scene.
2. You can only use the stats provided on the character card. (This can be a sort of puzzle, too. How do you escape a dragon with Use Rope, a 10-foot pole, a needle and thread, a container of ink, and 5 ranks in Profession (Tailor)? Just make sure it’s easy enough to figure out that your players won’t lose interest. If your group doesn’t like this rule, just roll a die for any stat that isn’t placed on the card.)
3. Whatever happens, happens. Both the players and GM must keep true to the consequences.
4. Actors (and their equipment) cannot have any interaction with the PCs (and their equipment).
Depending on your social contract, you may need more, or fewer, rules than my group does.
Here are some potential problems and what-ifs that you might face:
Why don’t the players, upon gaining control of the ogres, just run back into the forest? Since I use a goal-based method of leveling up, I would just give them a goal such as “You must destroy at least four buildings.” If they succeed, then they are one step closer to their next level. (You may want to use brownie points or XP rewards instead.) Also, it helps to make the reward for destroying the ogres proportional to the amount of destruction they caused.
An important NPC was killed in their rampage. What do I do now? How do the ogres know that they killed that particular NPC? You shouldn’t give out NPC names when describing the humans they are fighting. In fact, does an ogre really know the difference between an elf and a human, or a halfling and a child? You can have loads of fun with that one. If something went wrong and they did manage to kill off a character whose death will cause problems for your campaign, you can always just say it was actually someone else and move on.
One of the actors was my BBEG, and the party just purposely killed him off! All characters included as actors should be as expendable as possible. If you must include the BBEG in a scene, have her played as an NPC. Don’t put your characters into a scene that they shouldn’t be able to fully change, tear apart, and rearrange entirely.
The players just leveled that town! I had a lot of things planned there! …then why did you attack the town with ogres powerful enough to reduce it to ruins? Better yet, why let the players take the role of the ogres in that cutscene? If you want to manipulate them without railroading them, put them in the role of the town guards instead and have them fight off the ogres.
It’s usually best to let them play as the group that you want to succeed, the exception being if you want to strike some fear into them. In a horror campaign, it works well to have them play characters that try to fight the threat, and lose instead. Then when they succeed (as the player characters), the victory is that much sweeter.
Metagaming and Metagaming Prevention
Scenes can give out metagame information to your players if poorly written, but they can also be used to subtly manipulate your players (or even as a sort of punishment) if they metagame too much. There’s no real reason why metagame information needs to be given out at all. If you don’t want your players to know something, don’t write it into this type of scene.
For instance, suppose that a gang of shapeshifters wants to get rid of a specific noble, and cast the blame on a tribe of nearby ogres. The shapeshifters polymorph into ogres and attack the city, and then you begin the cutscene. There’s no reason for you to start the cutscene as the shapeshifters, and no reason that the players would suspect the ogres of being shapeshifters disguised as ogres, because you didn’t include that information.
The shapeshifters are acting out the parts of ogres with their battle cries, and are careful to not show huge displays of intelligence and tactics (so the Int score of the ogres as shown on the actor cards is low).
Later on, the players will cast the blame on the ogres, exactly as you (and the shapeshifters) wanted. After all, they were there, playing as the ogres. They know the ogres did it, right?
This is a rather radical way of interpreting cutscenes, and it certainly won’t be a perfect fit for every group (or every GM). You know your players (and yourself) better than I do. If you really don’t think your players will like this technique, talk it over with them before introducing it.
If you think your players will go for it, try it out during a session, and see how they react after the session ends. Make sure you’re wearing your pink shirt that day — it gives you a circumstance bonus.