Today’s guest article is by Christopher M. Sniezak, the producer and host of The Misdirected Mark Podcast , one of the movers behind the Queen City Conquest  gaming convention, who is slowly building up writing credits in the gaming and fiction industry. He believes you should try every game you can so you can figure out what you actually enjoy. Thanks, Chris!
I think presentation is king, be it at the table or in the rulebook you’re reading. When it comes to playing at the table I think framing is the best way to think about presenting the game. When I say framing this is what I mean:
The parameters you lay down to create within X, “X” being the individual game, the scene, the campaign, or any variable you want to throw in there.
Now to the details.
When you’re setting up your campaign I think it’s important to have a frame, especially if you, as a GM, have some ideas you want to put forth. To give those ideas a chance you need to place the players in a creative box while still having a big idea, theme, or genre to build inside of. That means you give them some choices but keep the choices constrained.
For example if you’re running a game in a city and you have an idea for a conspiracy/Noir detective story it makes sense to create the parameter “You’re all connected to a Private Detective Agency.” Now all the players can create something within the parameter you’ve described. If you think the “box” you’ve created is too small here’s a list of character archetypes you could have just off the top of my head: the hard-nosed private eye, the female detective who uses all the tools at her disposal and won’t take anyone’s guff, the underworld guy who knows everyone but isn’t always trustworthy, the muscle you call in for hard jobs, the kid who just likes to hang around the PIs, the tough nurse girlfriend of one of the PIs, the former client who owes a private dick a favor or two, the cop who sort of likes the PIs and works with them because they can go places the cop can’t and vice versa. All of these could be PCs in a campaign.
Story Arc Framing
Story arc frames I feel are very dependent on the first session of, or the opening act. When you watch a TV show, read a novel, a comic book, or consume any kind of storytelling media pay attention to the first episode or first act. You’ll get introductions to the characters. The themes will be introduced. The opening conflict or hook, which should be related to the themes of the story, will be presented. An overall tone will permeate this part of the story.
As GMs we have some options with which to push forth our themes and feel. First off we get to frame the first scene. In this frame we can set the tone with videos, pictures, music, props, or whatever we decide to use, but our most important tool for this frame is the words we use and how we use them.
This is your first impression: the opening of the movie, the first three minutes of a TV show, the prologue of a book. This is your chance to hook them in and push your players to take a similar mindset as you. If I was trying to get the feel of the conspiracy/Noir campaign frame from above I would start by describing a camera shot of the office door with the name of the agency on it and then I would turn to one of the private eyes and ask them, “How are you sitting at your desk?”
Once they described that I would have there be a knock at the door and have a beautiful woman in expensive clothing walk in. Next I would say to one of the other players, “You’re sitting on the couch reading the paper when she walks in. What is your first impression of the beautiful woman? Describe her in first person.”
This reinforces the genre and tone I’m going for since Noir detective stories tend to get inside the head of the characters. Plus I’m getting the players to give some insight into their characters and keeping them involved in the storytelling instead of just talking to them. At this point whatever conflict I wanted to present to the PCs I do using the femme fatale as my vehicle for doing so. She offers them a job which they take since they’re PIs and need the money (since PIs are almost always broke). Tone presented, hook set, characters involved, job done. From here it’s all fallout and keeping the tone, themes, and characters in mind when you frame future scenes. Which leads to…
The framing of a scene is similar to the framing of your story arc except all scenes you frame from here on build upon the first scene and the scenes which came before the current one. These scenes exist to allow the PCs to make choices to push the story forward and create conflicts for them to overcome, whether it’s shooting bad guys, infiltrating criminal organizations, or hitting at the blackjack table instead of standing on that 20 — because while you both have 20 you need to win this hand and get out of here with the cash or you won’t make it to the exchange in time and your friend is going to die.
Framing these scenes by keeping to the ideas you’ve established in your campaign frame and story arc frame will reinforce the kinds of choices your players will want to make and keep them thinking along the established ideas. The words and props you use will spark the imagination of the people you’re gaming with, inciting them to make decisions which will prompt your imagination in return. Here’s an example of a framing a scene:
“You find yourself in Terry’s Place, a diner you frequent. Where do you sit and what are you eating?”
The players give their answers and you continue.
“The food tastes great as you’ve once again barely escaped a death defying situation.”
This is a great place to remind them of the death defying situation they’ve just escaped from, but if you’re starting a session cold then you can ask “What death defying situation have you just escaped from?” In this example the question is “How did you escape from a death defying situation the Villi mob put you in?”
“I guess the Villi mob didn’t appreciate your interference in their most recent plans. That’s when a chair is pulled up to your booth and a man sits down wearing a black coat and a fedora. His eyes take you in mid-bite as you hear the click of a gun cocking from below the table. Neither of the man’s hands are visible as he gives you small smirk.”
“Hi, boys. Sorry about this, but Mr. Villi wants a word with you.”
You can ask the players who the gunman is or insert your own NPC.
“You recognize the man as Bobby the Hat, a Villi mob trouble shooter — and that means he sometimes shoots the trouble.”
Now we play the game of act and react.
So that’s how I think about framing. I’m curious as to how you start campaigns, story arcs, and scenes — please let me know. I’m also interested in how you promote a tone or theme during your gaming sessions? Thanks for reading.