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Short Sessions: Cutaway Scene

A few years ago, I found myself with a quandry. I was running a game of 7th Sea [1] on a week night with four players in what we futily hoped would be a three hour session (I’d soon be happy with two hours). I knew that everyone would be coming from work or school and want dinner, so I needed a technique to make every moment count. What I came up with was the cutaway scene.

I used my cutaway scene as an adventure prologue. I would type 1-4 pages (most ended up being a page or two in 12-point font). It would begin with a catchy title in a fancy font and involve a quick scene that usually didn’t involve the player characters. If it did involve them, it was usually a flashback to some past event. Sometimes the cutaway scene would directly lead into the main plot, while other times it simply focused on a particular NPC that was crucial to the main plot.

Writing the cutaway enabled me to be descriptive and evocative, as well as keeping me from talking to myself or describing everything in the third person. This was especially useful in the heavy-roleplay style of 7th Sea, where atmosphere was important.

Once my players read the cutaway, they were more focused on what they should be doing in the session. A little minor metagaming and spoilers paid off big dividends, as the players were engaged from the get-go and understood what the focus of the adventure would be about.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when using a cutaway:

Make enough copies for all of your players. In the beginning, I felt that one or two copies were enough for four (later six) players. Unfortunately, people read at different rates and one of my friends turned out to be a painfully slow reader. Spending 20 minutes to read a cutaway is not an effective use of time.

Keep it short. Again, this is another lesson learned from the slow reader. You want to give your players enough to work with, but you don’t want them trying to digest a short story. Set the scene and mood and establish your main NPCs and/or plot thread.

Make it visual. Most of us aren’t exactly Shakespeare or Rowling. If you have trouble with flowery descriptions, scour the internet and add a few pictures. In many cases, a picture of Jessica Alba or Heath Ledger (R.I.P.) works better than a description of her. In one glance, you’ve established the NPC in the minds of the players. A shot of a creepy castle or isolated space station can establish the setting for you, allowing you to launch into dialogue. Watch your visuals, though. Sometimes they could make for unintentional comedy or offend some players.

Make it personal. Most players love it when you tie their characters into the background. An old flame that has now become a ruthless mercenary or an old enemy that now needs the PC’s help are great ways to get the player’s juices flowing before you even start actual play.

Don’t make it too personal. While players love it when their characters are involved, they don’t want you messing with their personalities or shooting sacred cows. Maybe your player enjoys being a rat-bastard for the sake of being a rat-bastard and doesn’t want you establishing a tragic reason for it that she must now confront (such as an abusive parent or first love). When in doubt, don’t write it without discussing it with the affected player first.

Don’t give away too much. Minor spoilers and metagaming are okay, but don’t spoil interesting plot twists or the resolution of a mystery. For example, it’s okay to establish a murder scene (peppered with possible clues in the description) and have the local authorities arrest an innocent friend of the PCs with what seems like incontrovertible evidence. It’s not okay to establish the murder scene by telling the players who actually did the killing, or have a police inspector point out all the clues at the scene.

I usually only use cutaways as prologues (beginning each adventure), but its entirely possible to use a cutaway at the beginning of each session as an effective recap. I’ve used this if we’ve had to skip a session or two.

What say you? Have you tried this technique? How well has it worked for you?

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Short Sessions: Cutaway Scene"

#1 Comment By tman On June 11, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

I do this a lot, but I always do it through email. My group games every other week, so I have a good amount of time between games (unless life intrudes – which it always does).

This allows me to break one of your suggestions – length. I have sent out stuff as short as 5 paragraphs and as long as 5 dense pages. But since it comes days in advance, that’s not a problem.

One of the best ways to use this is when the party is about to receive a lengthy audience with the King or something. The King gets to say his piece at length without the Monty Python jokes flying about, then when we sit down, the players can ask all the questions they have and get down to business. They have the whole speech in writing to refer to later. It really speeds up play at the table.

It really jazzes our mega-roleplay guys while leaving the combat heavy guys their time to shine while we’re at the table for combats. I heartily recommend it for groups where everyone communicates by email regularly.

#2 Comment By itliaf On June 11, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

My gaming group communicates over yahoo groups between sessions. I have always tried to cover some material between sessions, with varying levels of success. Introductions to a new city or setting tend to work pretty well. Recaps of sessions with treasure and XP tacked on work too. I am always wary about doing anything more with my webspace. Whenever I try there is invariably a player or two who just plain didn’t read what was posted, Or tried to absorb it while on the way out the door to the weekly game.
I never considered using cutaways, but this certainly looks worth a try, as anyone who doesn’t read it is only missing out on information their character wouldn’t know anyway.

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 11, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

Thanks for the comments.

I should have mentioned early emailing, Tman, thanks!

The one issue I have with emailing between sessions is something Itliaf touched on. The focus of this series of articles is on gamers that don’t have a lot of time. Most of them can’t give much attention outside the game, and emails are likely to be buried or forgotten. If your players can’t remember what happened in session last Wednesday, they probably won’t remember your email from Friday.

That said, however, your suggestion is still a good one as at least some players will be up to speed and able to guide the others along (or you can get cracking with those players while the others catch up).


#4 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 12, 2008 @ 11:11 am

This is a lot like the interludes I’ve been using in my game, which I post to my blog and the campaign wiki. The players can read them whenever, or not at all – they mostly cover what happens when the PCs aren’t around, and shed some light on the NPCs’ personalities.

For those who do read them, though, they provide foreshadowing, as well as minor spoilers. This was a technique that my previous DM used in her game.

I also prefer to e-mail illustrations and big blocks of description to the players, but it’s a chat-based game, so they get those right away.

#5 Comment By freyja3120 On June 12, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

I use very short stories at the beginning of every session in much the same way you use cutaways. They are usually only a few paragraphs, and as such I read them to the group.

Sometimes I just use the story to establish something about the setting or world around them (I run a homebrew setting), and other times I tell them a scene between known or soon to be met NPC’s. I often foreshadow future events or tell them the consequences of what they’ve done, but they often don’t realize this, as many times they don’t know the name of the story’s main character, or the story is told from a different point of view than what they would expect.

I do find that this often helps to focus their attention on me in order to start the game, as well as getting them into the gaming mindset.

#6 Comment By Lee Hanna On June 12, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

I did something like this on 2 of my last 3 D&D games, and it’s worked pretty well. I started in a game when everyone was literate, and in a society with good postal service, so I wrote “letters from home,” with each one personalized to the character. I dealt with some in-game stuff out of game time (“your banker says you now have $10000 to spend,” etc.) or inserted foreshadowing or background info. Once I did a flashback for a PC, before inserting an NPC from her past.
In the second game, I shoveled entire sections from the campaign sourcebook into the bard’s letters, since she would be the one to know all of the world’s stories. For that one, I wrote them about 50% common information to remind them where we were in the game, and 50% individual stuff.
Since then, I’ve used emails to our yahoogroup a day or 3 ahead, to remind them what’s going on, and what they need to do when we get started. I think I prefer the physical pieces of paper, as the handing out of that signals that we are “dice on the table” and getting started.

#7 Comment By karsten On June 15, 2008 @ 6:12 am

I would find it very helpful if you guys would be able to give us access to some of these texts. I have difficulties to imagine how you did it and what you wrote. Maybe its because for my GM-Style its very restricting, but it’s intriguing…

#8 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 15, 2008 @ 8:07 pm


Anything entry that says “Interlude” and “written by Darth Krzysztof” is the kind of thing I’m talking about. One of my players writes the episode summaries and the occasional interlude, but mine focus on the NPCs, as you’ll see.

Of course, in some cases, someone will come along and tell the PCs what they missed, which makes the interlude more an exercise in me figuring out exactly what it was they missed in the first place. : P

#9 Comment By tman On June 17, 2008 @ 9:29 am

An example for Karsten!
Here’s the first (and shortest) one I’ve done. The party had just killed a Cleric of Shar who was creating undead and terrorizing the countryside. In the Forgotten Realms setting, Shar has groups of monks who act as assassins for her. So here’s what the players got in the mail one morning:

Elsewhere in the realms….
The cleric strode purposefully into the small house. He entered the dining room without fanfare or greetings. No one looked up as he pulled out a chair and sat down.

“You have a new mission.”

Now they looked up.

“The necromancer has been assassinated. You and your team are to find those responsible and demonstrate Shar’s displeasure.”

From under his cloak, he produced a map and unfolded it on the table.

“There are seven targets. Here, to the east is where they last gathered. Two live in this small town – both dwarves, both clerics. Kerrilla Gemstar is the leader of a dwarven hospital outside the town and Durregar is one of her healers. The leader has power equal to the necromancer. There are about 40 other lesser dwarves in residence there – clerics, friars and guards.”

“The other five are wandering hire-swords and they are headed north to Citadel Adbar. They may be carrying something of value or import back there. It isn’t known if they are from Adbar in the first place and came to this dungheap looking for the item or were lured there by stories of a recent discovery of gold. The five are thus: Mellissa – a human fighter who worships Tempus, Bayla – elven ranger, Brannor – dwarven fighter, Aevos – elf half-breed sorcerer and Jehlarin – an elven monk who worships Ilmater.”

He dropped a list of the names on the table. “Any questions?” he asked.

One of the others picked up the list, glanced at it. He looked around the table to see shaking heads, then looked at the cleric and shook his own.

The cleric rose and quickly left. The group finished dinner before starting their preparations. At dawn the next day, they rode forth.