Scenes: The Best Worst Idea Ever
Urban Shadows

One of my favorite and most vexing concepts to have ever been introduced to roleplaying is the “Scene.” 

I can’t even remember the first time I saw the term, but it was a literal paradigm shift from How Things Were Done back in the time of your ancestors. Rather than asking how many minutes an effect lasted or how far your character could move, we had these effects and structures that lasted for a scene.

Has anyone ever actually defined just what a “scene” even entails? I feel like the concept is so deeply ingrained into a certain family of roleplaying that it now goes unexamined.

One notable time “scene” cropped up in a way that completely mangled a game was, I think, Spirit of the Century. My players were new to story-focused roleplay and had no idea what to do with scene-long effects. I remember one player having a scene-long aspect put on him and him asking after literally everything I said: Is the scene over yet? How about now? Now? When? Now? Ugh! I don’t recall Spirit of the Century ever providing a rigorous definition, either. Frustration all around. 

For me, a scene is both dependent on the game — some are structured entirely on “let’s have a scene where X”, so that’s easy because the scene has a clear start and stop — and is kind of like porn; I know it when I see it. This came up big-time in our Urban Shadows game last week and it got me thinking again. Mostly it got me thinking that nobody thinks about them. They’re the most important undefined procedure.

In US, the Wizard playbook has a fundamental move called “Channel,” which is how the character generates hold to later spend on spells. And there’s this tiny little throwaway limiter to it: you can’t Channel more than once per scene. Well! So of course my Wizard player wants to know just how this works: Can he have a second prep scene after the previous scene? Is that cheesy, and so what if it’s cheesy is it legal? Can I Channel now during a scene in my sanctum, then have a scene, then Channel again wherever (say while driving to the next scene, whateva), then Channel again right as the Big Conflict Scene is about to take place?

I mean, yeah. Some of that thinking is clearly rooted in a mechanically/legalistically minded approach to play. But that approach is what it is; I’m not going to tell that player he’s doing it wrong — starting the creative process from the procedures is just as legit as having the procedures emerge organically from the fiction. 

My instinct is to rule that a scene where all you do is Channel (or any other prep-type thing that “lasts a scene” or can only be done “once a scene”) is the prep. You don’t have back-to-back training montages; you just have a longer montage. I could see an argument for a Channel happening in its own scene, getting some hold, then sliding the Channeling in before or possibly during the showdown. We haven’t actually hammered out what the character’s Channeling looks like in the fiction, either, which for PbtA purposes is important as well.

Which brings me to this little infographic I ran into. I think it’s kind of interesting and asks interesting questions. Not all the questions apply and they don’t always apply the same way to every game that refers to a “scene.” 

Scenes in RPGs, as a unit of play, are pretty unique in creative work — I’m not aware of scene-type structures in improv (other than the frame of the complete work). I wish there was a different name for it. It’s somewhere between a movie scene (which is where August’s infographic applies) and novel scenes (which sometimes also pull waaaay back from the characters) and improv scenes (which seek to actually answer the questions en route).

My favorite part of “scenes” becoming an important unit of play is that all the implications come along for a ride. Scenes have beginnings and endings. Having a camera just walk along with the characters is now an avant-garde technique and not the assumed approach to play. Scenes are inherently authorial and, one might argue, anti-“immersive.” (I know, I know.) By couching our play in the language of storytelling, we get more story-like structures out of them. Yay! Except when it’s not yay. 

Anyway, have an awesome weekend. Catch y’all later.

Urban Shadows

First session went pretty well. It was my feared format: two players, and only two players, can make the game regularly so that’s what we’re running with for now. That said, the moves that trigger off and/or create connections with characters are so ridiculously juiced up in Urban Shadows that I’m quite satisfied.

We’re going with a Wizard and an Aware. The Wizard is ancient, a couple hundred years old, and freshly arrived in Phoenix (Dark Phoenix, GAF, unlike Actual Phoenix). She has no idea who runs the place and so that’s kind of her play angle. The Aware is a Navajo who has had a spirit encounter with a spirit calling itself Coyote, and is now paranoid that ancient gods are getting ready to wipe the world clean. The Aware ends up covering for the Wizard an awful lot; he has three debts on her.

The Debt economy feels good and very fluid. They used and earned probably three or four debts each tonight, through moves and actual doing-of-favors. 

Corruption is cool; the Wizard’s player is chasing that down while the Aware is kind of avoiding it. They were great about setting up their characters with nicely vulnerable setups, NPCs to threaten and have intimacy moves with.

The Moves seem to all work well. No objections, just a few little hiccups while folks try to mold the fiction to the things they’re best at and occasionally finding themselves backed into corners where they’re terrible — the Wizard trying to convince people to do things, for example. 

There are two wide-open moves, Unleash and Let It Out, that I think the players felt slightly awkward using. They’re basically “shit happens that isn’t covered by other moves” moves. Happily Let It Out, especially, has a nice, explicit list of what you can accomplish, so Letting It Out really does come down to skinning the move with your playbook’s milieu. 

Standard AW-style thing where you follow the PCs around and ask hard questions works just fine to get the game rolling. I think I’m pretty good at drawing connections and building little triangles as well, so I really don’t ever worry much about setting these things up. We also made the “Start of Session” rolls and god DAMN it was hard for me to parse how they worked — very awkwardly worded, where one player chooses a faction for another player to highlight, and (I think) that player then explains something going on relative to that faction. I’m 90% sure that’s how it works.

Anyway, we had plenty to run with. The details aren’t important. I don’t think we stumbled too badly over bad racial stereotypes. Setting the game in a city we know is good, too, and tbh it also let us know where we could confidently gloss over a boring part of the city and make it GAF.

What I’m going to be curious about is setting up the fronts, storms, whatever they are. The campaign materials. I’m just not super sure how they’re going to interact with the start-of-session moves. I guess they’re skippable, but they’re also free Faction marks and the fruit of advancement is so very sweet.

One thing that is nearly impossible to avoid is the do-gooder Hero on a Mission quality of the Aware. It’s baked right into how it works, which means it’ll be interesting to try and subvert that later on. 

Sorry I don’t have a better structured debrief here. First sessions of games like these feel wiiide open and pretty loose.

Surburban Shadows

I’m way too domesticated to handle the rough streets of a real city, so tonight’s game is going to be a modest hack of Urban Shadows.

The factions are:

HOA: power-hungry control freaks who must be immortal because they have way more time than you do. They’re always on the streets. Watching. Judging. Playbooks are The Retiree, The Fundie, and The Yuppie.

Grownups: An uneasy alliance of ostensibly responsible adults. Playbooks are The Teacher, The Parent, and The Childless.

Kids: They’re everywhere but invisible, darting through your property and staking out their territories. Playbooks are The Preschooler, The Teen, and The Prolonged Adolescent. 

Work: All-encompassing and omnipresent, this nightmare faction seeks to crush the dreams and efforts of all the other factions. There is no live-and-let-live; either you give your life to Work, or Work does its level best to make sure your life isn’t worth living. Playbooks are The Manager, The Drone, and The MLMer.

A sample of common moves:

When you leave the recycling bin out, roll +Responsible. On a hit, you remember to get it back in before Wednesday at noon. On a 7-9, any HOA faction member can submit a trouble ticket to the association management office anyway. On a miss, you done fucked up and left it out after noon. The MC will tell you what happens next.

When you are fundraising, roll +Breeder. On a hit, you raise the funds. On a 7-9, pick two: you don’t alienate everyone around you, you don’t make your child hate you for some reason, you don’t have to spend your own money on crap you don’t want. 

When you discover someone you know from work lives in your neighborhood, roll +Networking the first time it happens. On a 10+ hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 1. Spend holds to: discover something weird and uncomfortable about your coworker; hide something weird and uncomfortable from your coworker; obligate your coworker to a social or fundraising event; escape from a social or fundraising obligation.

And so on.

Don’t know about Corruption moves yet, but they’re definitely part of the game.

Empires: Age of Discovery

Finally got through a complete game of this last night. Just three players and I think the game suffered for it, but it’s still quite nice.

I think my favorite aspect of the game is that the ratio of rules:tension is off the charts. That is to say, you get a lot of tough choices out of a very lightweight game. As elaborate and, frankly, overwrought as this edition is (this is the ultra blinged Kickstarter edition), you can teach it in five minutes.

Probably the game’s greatest sin is that it isn’t very dramatic. There are no sudden reversals or surprise plays. Everyone sees every choice, there’s no hidden information, no randomizers, no big gambles. Honestly I think this is all to the good: go the other direction and you end up with a total luck fest. It’s a fine balance.

That said, one place I’ll bet the drama steps up is with more players. The only way the game scales is that there are more spots available to send colonists to discovered territories. Otherwise it’s ever more players competing for ever fewer spots. Probably at six you end up with some really ugly AP, especially on the last round.

I think I’ll put Empires on my “step up from Catan” list. It’s also so very large and beautiful that it’s super inviting to less committed gamers.

Indie Game Reading Club

I feel compelled to say a few things about this Collection I set up. 

As much fun as it is to write long posts and as gratifying as it is to hear that people enjoy them, I have to say the best part of this Collection is the threads. Holy cow do I have smart, thoughtful, well spoken people who participate. Amazing. 

I mean, did you see that Montsegur 1244 thread? If you didn’t, or if you think freeform-y hippie shit is not your bag, I strongly encourage you to go back to it (it was just yesterday) and read that thread. My word. Amazing. Thank you Rachel E.S. Walton, Brand Robins and Adam D for your amazing thoughts there.

Every week. Every week there’s at least one absolutely amazing thread. That thread about morality and race in Urban Shadows just last week, another great one. Crunch talk about Cartel, those overwrought postmortem roundtables, appropriation… Every week.

I have no idea what constellation of prompting (me) and community (you) and gestalt (the world) is coming together, but it’s better than anything. 

Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who jumps in and shares. I feel exceedingly lucky to have stumbled into you all.

Board games I miss playing, and would be playing right now if people suddenly showed up at my doorstep:

* Fief. Next time we play we’re adding the other expansions.

* Eclipse. There’s an expansion coming out SQUEE!

* Android (the original, not Netrunner)

* Fleet. Why do we not play Fleet any more? Oh right, because the expansion is great to play but terrible to integrate. 

* Clash of Cultures. Whenever I think of 3 people sitting down to play something, it’s Clash. Dunno why.

* Historia, although it may only have another play or two left in it. It’s nice but a little disappointing. I feel like it needs more than just the one play, though.

Montsegur 1244

Paul B is more fun when he’s talking about fun things! So let’s talk about being burned at the stake.

Had a chance to read through the rulebook last night, and as Adam Day mentioned, there’s definitely some Durance like stuff happening. Or rather, Montsegur 1244 sets up an early template that games like Durance fit into as well. 

You’ve got a dozen little character sheets (plus four ‘optional’ characters, more exotic characters for when you’ve already experienced your baseline sads) with some leading questions you should try to answer before the siege is over, and a little historical context about who they are and who they relate to. No matter how many players you have (never outright stated, but it’s between 3 and 6), every character gets dealt. Players then choose one “main” character, but will also be playing their backup characters when called upon.

There’s no resolution system; it really is a freeform in the most general sense (that is, you don’t need to subscribe to any particular definition). So as story-gaming goes, great, the tension definitely lies in watching creative people improvise around their questions and and other scene-framing details the game provides. The unknown outcomes lie in what comes out of each player’s mouth rather than what comes out of dice.

There is some randomization happening, though, and I think it’s a really interesting way to ensure the game is replayable — which I was concerned about. There are always three Scene cards on display; they have little scene-setting elements to be worked into each Act’s scenes. A player sets a scene within an Act — there’s an intro, three Acts, then a wrapup where you decide who lives, dies or escapes. They use one of the Scene cards and then hold the card for when they’re done. Then I think they also pull a Story card, which is another fictional element that’ll be dropped in (second and third Acts only, since you don’t start with any and need to run a scene to get one).

So you’ve got the Act (background provided by the siege timeline), a scene card and probably a Story card to work with. That’s practically a pretty good bit of framing, as long as you’ve done this kind of game. It’s more than you get in Durance and I’ve had no problems, personally, running that one either. I’m sure it works great, and I love that there’s so much variability in setup. Kind of boardgame-y that way truth be told.

By the end of the game you’ve had a slow introduction to the history and situation (certain key characters are attached to background sheets, which those players are responsible for conveying at certain points), everyone’s had a chance to invest in their characters’ situation, and I’m sure after 3-4 hours of watching events unfold, the “do you live or die” moment is pretty tasty.

There’s an admonition to “make the choice as painful and difficult as possible,” which made me chuckle because man, right there is the Great Dividing Line, isn’t it? Adventurous Escapism | Misery Tourism and/or Human Drama | Infantile Empowerment Fantasy. Either you buy the notion or you don’t.

Super Sekret Project

I’m diddling with Scrivener and it’s pretty freaking awesome, especially on a laptop. I think the tool is probably optimized for laptopping, actually, since it shows you so much so fast in such a compact way.

Next up will be building up links between sections, which at least is in the same zip code as plain old hyperlinking. Kind of boggling, I’m sure this gets easier the more I use the tool.

Joe Beason I told you I was working on it. 😉