Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Making a Big Scene

About a year ago I GMed a session of Spirit of the Century in the Monday-evening group hosted by Alex. The highlight of the evening was a crazy little airplane chase. It felt pretty much like what the cover of SotC looks like. I don't remember all the details but I think it included the following:
  • One character ripping the board gun from its mounting and throwing it out to reduce weight.
  • Another character abseiling down to the other plane in full flight and getting into a kung-fu fight in the cockpit.
  • A zeppelin launching two mini airplanes to harass the group.
  • One player trying to combat the mini airplanes by attempting to throw dynamite in their cockpit (in full flight)
  • Another player absailing to the other plane, this time to tear out its machine gun and fire it at the mini airplanes.
  • Both airplanes eventually crash-landing on a tropic volcano island...
Ever since this awesome scene I am trying to find GM-techniques for reliably making sessions this exciting. In fact I think I started toying with some ideas in that direction even before that session was played but I cannot remember whether any of my previous ideas influenced my GMing on that evening.

Many players and GMs, when they envision a conflict scene, they think of one of three types of challenges:
  1. Kill or otherwise fight against something or somebody
  2. Convince a guy to help you, to give you the macguffin, to release a smurf...
  3. Survive/disable a trap
There are other types of challenges but I think those three cover about 90% or more of the challenged scenes played in classic D&D-style games. I also think it's important to note that most of the PCs will be good at one type and suck at another. So they will play an important part in one scene while being less important or even irrelevant in the next. This is often accepted as long as each player gets a scene every once in a while where he can shine.

Sometimes you have combinations of challenge types, e.g if you cannot convince the mad wizard, you will have to fight him. But those are designed as serial combinations: you try once and then - afterwards - maybe you try another approach. Only that the really great action scenes are those where a lot of stuff happens simultaneously: Do you remember that one time, when the thief jumped under that mean X while the paladin distracted it and then the cleric threw him the Y and he killed the monster just in time to save the elf? Well, if you don't then you probably remember a similar scene - just as exciting - where all PCs were engaged, each one in a different way - to separately but in the end in symphony save the day. Those scenes are awesome and I believe we all deserve to have one such scene at least once or twice per session.

The following is a technique intended to make you reach such scenes deliberately, reliably and more often. The trick is to have all PCs engage in different challenges during the scene, such that everybody can contribute to the action and that the simultaneous nature of the events causes further complications.

I am considering only scenes containing some sort of conflict here. And of those, only those scenes in which the GM controls the opposition to the PCs are of interest here, since this is supposed to be a GM technique. So say that the PCs want to reach a monastery and that the GM decided that whether or not they reach it and in what state they arrive could be an interesting conflict.

Start with coming up with the main challenge. This is the one obstacle that the scene revolves around and that the PCs must overcome to "win". Conversely, failing to overcome the main challenge means "losing". Here is a list of challenge types, for inspiration:
  1. Combat: Kill or otherwise defeat opponents
  2. Physical: Climb, sneak, do the laundry....
  3. Social: Convince somebody, sing and dance for your life, entertain the princess...
  4. Psychological: Overcome your fear, learn to trust your friends...
  5. Skill: Compose a poem, haggle, forge a great weapon, write an AI, heal the injured...
  6. Secretive: Follow somebody unseen, transmit the secret coordinates without being caught...
  7. Temporal: Hold out until the cavalry comes, wait for the tide, survive the night...
  8. Perceptive: Find that one clue, learn a spell, decipher the hidden message...
(That's eight choices! You could roll that up if you like!)

When you have chosen the main challenge, decide on the actual setting of the scene. In the example above where the group is heading to a monastery, lets say I selected a physical main challenge: there is a cliff that must be climbed. Its important that the main challenge cannot be overcome in just one round in one throw of dice. To climb the cliff, each member of the group will have to successfully make three climbing tests.

Now write down as many escalations as possible. Each time a player fails a test for the main challenge, bring an escalation to some of the characters. An escalation is not just "not advancing" nor is it just damage. It is further complication. Choose the complications from the same list as the challenges. Prepping the scene at the cliff I could list the following escalations:
  • A character looses balance for a second and in the effort of regaining his footing something important falls out of his bags and lands on a ledge. Extra tests for getting it back. (A physical challenge)
  • There is a ravens nest right next to where one of the characters is climbing. The ravens turn aggressive and harass the PCs. (Combat or psychological challenge)
  • The rock under a character's feet gives and the character falls down, just barely clinging to the rope. Somebody will have to come and help him out really fast (A physical challenge)
  • One character falls on another and is injured. He will have to be treated right there and then and will then need help to climb up or down the cliff. (An escalation of medical skill)
  • The wind picks up and clouds show up on the horizon. Soon a storm will form and rain and wind will make climbing much more difficult and dangerous. (A temporal escalation)
Each of the escalations must take longer than one round to overcome and they should each affect several PCs in some way. Each escalation adds to the previous complications and before long everybody will be in over their heads in trouble. It is also important that the escalations are a reaction of players failing their tests and not introduced arbitrarily by the GM. Otherwise the scene will quickly become frustrating for the players.

When prepping a scenes with multiple challenges you should be able to quickly come up with possible escalations and possible moves the PCs can do to overcome those. If the ideas do not come up right away then you will probably not be able to improvise well enough during play and you should consider a different, more evocative setup for your scene.

I haven't consciously applied this method yet. If you should try it out, let me know how that went!

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Blogger Alex Schroeder said...

Interesting because this looks like a well-defined procedure on how to design a challenge.

One thing that didn't work for me in previous situations is repetitive conflict resolution. Assume we have a FATE game, players attacking a building, trying to hold of monsters, trying to retrieve spare parts, trying to extract a target person, all at the same time. The setup seems very similar, I think. The problem was that no matter what the players did, they always rolled 4dF plus something where the "something" was almost always the same value for every roll since players picked their actions in order to maximize their chances.

Thus, for me personally, the notes should not only contain multiple challenges and escalations, but every item on this list should also have a little mechanical note in order to encourage variations in conflict resolutions. Write down the skill required such that players don't get to pick and choose. Write down bonuses and penalties. Have some scripted action-reaction sequences where players basically pick from a list you prepared. Without having to roll anything, the action picked is immediately followed by the consequence. Consider effects across challenges. If the pilot fails a test to avoid the gun fire, let the plane take damage AND increase the difficulty for all the brawlers inside the plane (those players are part of a different challenge and still get affected).

Saturday, July 16, 2011 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger lior said...

You are right in that it's no fun when all those different challenges with different in-fiction explanations ask for essentially the same dice-throw. Or when a challenge asks for a special dice combination but the player has to roll that combination several times without possibility to decide on tactics or to negotiate bonuses.

In a typical fight scene you often repeatedly throw the same dice with the same boni when you try to inflict damage to an opponent. Why is this more fun? I think it's because the opponent is hitting back, so it matters how fast you do your damage.

Also in a fight, the GM is authorized to explicitly act against the PCs through the agency of the opponent. But when the PCs are climbing a cliff, what authorizes the GM to choose and pro-actively introduce further complications? This can easily degenerate into a situation where the players feel like their PCs are at the mercy of the GM. No fun there.

This merits further development. I will think about this some more and write another post.

Sunday, July 17, 2011 4:34:00 PM  

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