Scenes: The Best Worst Idea Ever
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.