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.

0 thoughts on “Scenes: The Best Worst Idea Ever

  1. I’d define a scene as something like “The unique combination of location, time and the focus of action which dominates the attention of the playgroup or some subset thereof for a period of time.”  Any one of those things changes, you’re probably in a different scene.

  2. That limiter only kicks in when he misses though…

    “Channelling: When you channel and collect your magics, roll with Spirit. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 3 and choose 1 from the list below. On a miss, hold 1, but you cannot Channel again this scene.”

  3. Not bad. But who decides if one of those things has changed? 

    It’s also an incomplete definition for games built on scenes, like say Fiasco or any of the other GM-less storygame things out there. Some of them have much more rigorous definitions, requirements, procedures.

    I mean it all works out obviously. Scenes work! But I think they work because there’s this cloud of unexamined assumptions that have built up in our cultures of play.

  4. Paul Beakley – I tend to make my PbtA players read aloud the move to everyone. It sets up the stakes more clearly and I catch them making all kinds of little mistakes. 😀

    We basically made the decision not to get into “what a scene is” because it didn’t seem to come up for our playtesters. I imagine it may become an issue if US gets a bit of a wider reach.

  5. You can tack on “unless more rigorously defined by the specific game system” someplace, sure.

    Who decides?  Well, again, it all depends on the specific system.  US has a gamemaster and I’d bet dollars to donuts that that GM gets that authority, either explicitly in the text or by convention because “that’s what the GM does”.

    Beyond that, we’ve got all manner of tested solutions.  I think the best one that works without explicit authority is “the most discerning player” decides.

  6. I haven’t searched the PDF for the phrase “scene” but I’m betting it will, yeah. The “framing scenes” chapter is okay, not rigorous (MC decides!) but I think it gets the point across. 

    What interesting to me, and maybe nobody else, is how many different conversations about scenes we need, depending on our job in the game. Like, I know “hard framing” as a scene-setting technique is a huge bugbear but it’s on the MC to embrace that (and I guess for the players to accept that shit just happens sometimes).

    Meanwhile, I think it’s entirely reasonable for players to wonder just what they’re getting when (say) they “mislead, distract, or trick” and want the effect to last for some time. “They are misled for 2d6 minutes” is super terrible, too.

  7. In D&D Mentzer calls them “turns”, which RAW is ten minutes but it’s mostly used as an abstract scene unit. To the point that each combat takes 1 turn, and so on. The concept is about 30 years old at least.

  8. I agree the word “Scene” can be fuzzy.  But it has secondary connotations regarding “surroundings” and “what’s happening” which make it more useful and evocative than alternative words like “Page”, “Panel” or “Chapter”.  I use the word “Scene”, and when things start moving fast I switch to the word “Frame” or “Shot”.  Tres Cinematique!

  9. Alex Fradera disclaimer: I know nearly nothing about improv, formally speaking. But I’ve been to improv theater a few times. And it seems to me, thinking back, that in improv the unit of performance is a single scene. I can’t recall any improv that stretches beyond a single “scene”, where there’s a clear break in characters, setting, or situation.

  10. As If I’m betting as this thread proceeds, we’ll see a million techniques and adaptations.

    I guess I would point out that the presence of techniques and adaptations is my strongest indicator that “scene” is their air we breathe, it’s so ubiquitous, and yet it’s mostly not discussed. 

    Maybe not discussing scenes (except where they take on specific procedural importance, like Burning Empires) is a feature and not a bug? A huge fruitful void that demands new techniques and adaptations?

  11. Scenes are…  scenes NEED to be defined differently in different games, even if only implicitly (the important thing is to be able tu understand how to play them from the rules)

    For example some games require a following scene to be in a different place, others not. Some games give a specific player (usually called GM) the right to close and frame scenes, others give this responsibility in rotation or randomply or by request or by biidding or to everybody or in any other way)

    So, even if you could show a game where “scenes” are explained perfectly… it would not mean that the same explanation would be good for any other game.

    Most of these game mechanics are based on a general concept, though: the “scene” in a movia or a novel. That knowledge should be shared by people who play the game. THEN you can explain that in game A the GM close the scene, in game B the scene end when you leave the room, in game C the first conflict end the scene, etc., but if you have players that say that they don’t know what a scene is, and they are talking about the concept, not the specific game mechanic…  they are shitting you, or they are so foreigh to the though to seeing a movie or reading a book, to be literally too illitterate to play a rpg and not a wargame.

  12. Paul Beakley ah, cool. It varies from place to place and style to style, but in case it’s useful I’ll unpack the Harold (hoary classic structure) in terms of its relationship to scenes:

    – 3 scenes A,B,C, each an unrelated situation/story.
    – Soon after we return to A,B,C in the ‘second beat.’ The second beat may have to include different settings for the characters (initially at home, now at a party) and may activate scene Custom Moves such as allowing flashbacks or montages.
    – In the ultimate third beat, characters are allowed to intersect and enter each other’s environments.

    I don’t know if this is speaking interesting stuff or not.

  13. In case it’s not clear from my OP:

    I’m not challenging “scenes” as good or bad or anything. I like ’em, I use ’em, I play games that refer to them.

    Mostly I’m just observing that for such a hugely important concept, many — maybe most — games that use them don’t actually talk about what they are.

  14. The best game I know in the clarity of the explanation of “Scenes”:
    – Trollbabe (2nd edition) devote a lot of pages to it
    – Spione ha very clear mechanical rules about them
    – Primetime Adventures assumes a lot of previous knowledge about the way scenes works in TV, but the mechanical rules are very clear.
    – Bacchanal/Bacchanalia has a very clear “leave a scene / enter a scene” mechanic.
    (caveat: I stress “that I know”. This is more a “among the games that use scenes in a clear way, these are the ones I know better”, so there are probably a lot of other games around that are better than these, but I don’t know them)

  15. Yeah, Scenes do  need to be a fruitful void.  Think of all the different types of scenes you have seen.  A scene is “finished” when the writer or director feels it has done its job (whatever that may be!)

  16. Good list! I guess I’m not surprised that Ron Edwards has put some brain sweat into this very question.

    PTA, certainly and necessarily. Same with BE; both games emulate existing media. IIRC With Great Power as well, for similar reasons.

  17. I always think back to when I worked sound at a live improv comedy theater. The director would be on stage, subtly guiding the flow, and then occasionally call “Scene!” when the flow hit a good stopping point. That’s become how I do it, too.

  18. After posting that list I am adding mentally game after game that I could have put into it (Annalise, Dirty Secrets, Kagematsu… someone stop me please before I list every rpg i play…).   I am realizing that probably this aspect is one of the things I search for in games, ergo is well treated in most of the games I usually play

  19. Paul Beakley – I mean it all works out obviously. Scenes work! But I think they work because there’s this cloud of unexamined assumptions that have built up in our cultures of play.

    I think that’s true. I also think that watching as much TV and movies as we do has ingrained a sense of what a scene is in most people. Your comment above reminds me of Emily Care Boss’s thing that genre is this huge, unexamined mess of assumed understanding that nonetheless does a great job of bringing people together to play RPGs. They don’t work without some level of shared culture a lot of the times.

  20. I’m actually kind of ok with the I know it when I see it approach.  I can say that in games I’ve played that use scenes like White Wolf and Feng Shui there hasn’t ever been a question.  The loose definition, which I think came from the first time I encountered it in an RPG in Vampire 1e, was based on a change of environment or narrative.

    Scene 1: You show up at the warehouse to follow up on a rumor.
    Scene 2:  You are still at the Warehouse when the fight breaks.
    Scene 3: You leave the warehouse, head back to your base to lick your wounds and figure out what to do next.

  21. I’m sorry I’m writing so much on this but I keep having thoughts.

    One of the real strong values of scene thinking in RPGs is it tends to avoid the “ok so we’re traveling, what happens?” thing. You know what I mean? That D&D thing where you’re like, “Ok, you’re sleeping and….” then we wait for what’s next. Maybe I was alone in experiencing this stuff, but I suspect not.

    Basically scenes push you toward ignoring the boring stuff.

  22. Robert Bohl Such mixed feelings on that, and I agree with you. But lordy. 

    This gets back to my megapost about genre tropes way back when. But I get this kind of… sick feeling in my stomach when I think about a big swath of RPGs and RPG play culture as settling on being derivative of other fiction. That’s judgy! And I haven’t fully unpacked my feelings about that. It’ll show up at some point, and then I can have a bunch of uncircles again.

  23. Think of pretty much any show but I’ll single out Friends this time.  The show stages the important scenes where the story happens.  It doesn’t worry about the logistics of how are these people always in an apartment or the coffee house.  They work, they have to get to work/home/coffee house, eat sleep and it’s implied they have stuff going on outside of what’s shown.. But unless there is some relevance to the story those aspects aren’t shown.   In RPG terms actions that last a scene last as long as the current situation is relevant to the story.  As soon as that changes the scene ends.   

    Now one player may argue why does this power last 5 minutes this time, like during a fight and last an hour next time during a travelling/investigation scene.  My answer to that question is that it’s relative to your attention, stamina, stress whatever you want to call it.  Fights burn through your reserves while travelling and talking to people not so much.

    I think in terms of breaking down how long something lasts then a very specific thing like 1 action is fine.  As are it lasts a day, that’s pretty good too.  It’s when you have weird middle grounds like 10 rounds or 8 hours because 10 rounds could be all but the last round of combat and you have to track it.  8 hrs means I have to actually worry about how long did it take to get from A to B, how long did you actually spend searching for something before the fight broke out and if it’s on the cusp do you just let it go to cover the fight, maybe it ends before the fight and god help the argument if you suggest 8 hrs is up half way into the fight.

  24. Paul Beakley I do agree with your point that RPG writing is starting to get sloppy with making assumptions that people understand a term like scene, that isn’t self defined in an RPG.    However thinking of my most recent read through of Feng Shui 2, I’ll have to go and see if they actually define what a scene is.  

    There are lots of notes around it in terms of think of a movie etc and I understand the term so when I read it I didn’t have to think of it.  But now I’m curious if they do actually define it.

  25. I may be too late to the game, and this may be simply an aside, BUT!

    I was thinking recently about some contemporary authors I’ve read whose work shows the notable influence of visual media, as opposed to other written media. That is, their pacing, the beats hit by their dialogue, and their section/chapter breaks feel like a movie or TV show. You know, you get to the end of a chapter and you can picture the “cut” being made. I feel like they are documenting the “movie in their head”, as opposed to documenting a story, they way earlier authors not impacted by film or television might have.

    And so it makes me wonder, prompted by this post; what was the first RPG to use “scene” as a distinct unit of measurement?

    And prior to that, assuming that RPG designers based their conceptions of play on their respective “Appendix N”s — which were generally “old style” novels and historical texts — how did they envision at-the-table division of in-game units of time? Sure, early RPGs used rounds, turns, minutes, hours, etc., and you have Uncle Gary admonishing us all that no campaign can function without accurate timekeeping, but even then you couldn’t track every single second of every day in-game.

    And (and!) even if we get to the point of using “scenes” as a common unit, what kind of scenes are we using? (Which I guess is the fruitful void being talked about, right?) Scenes in original Star Trek have a different feel and pacing than scenes in Killjoys. And if a game’s source material is not visual media (say, The One Ring) then what does a “scene” appropriate to that material look like?

    I dunno that I’m contributing at all, but there you go.

  26. Just searched through the Feng Shui 2 pdf and the word scene comes up several times on every page.  It’s never really defined other then in terms of Fight scene, Chase Scene, Dialogue scene etc…  I think it’s used enough that you can understand what it means in context of the action movie style game.  So it’s certainly an example of your initial point of a game making assumptions based on other media.

  27. If a game mentions scenes but doesn’t set up rules for how to frame them, I get pissy. The only way I know when a scene ends is how the next one begins. 

    Except for the one rule in Marvel where the GM can spend doom points or whatever to end a scene. I love that. Cut it short!

  28. Whew, tons of replies!

    My own two cents: I really like how Fate Core defined it–a scene starts with one question and ends when that question is answered. Primetime Adventures does something similar. It’s nice, it’s clean, and it ties directly to moving the narrative forward. A scene exists to answer a question about the plot or about a character.

    And, improv kinda has a similar idea: you call “scene!” when it feels like the main premise of the scene has played out. (Improv scenes are framed under very specific constraints, generally. This only really happens in improv games where you’ve got a small group doing a scene around a prompt. Usually two people.)

  29. And yet — especially if we’re eager to emulate other story media — that is such a very narrow definition of a “scene.” 

    This is part of why I think the Burning Empires scene rules/economy is so sharp: not only does it model the look/vibe of Moeller’s work (and comics in general), it also forces different kinds of scenes into the fiction. And some of those don’t ask questions at all. 

    I used to think “color” scenes were either terrible or tactical, and now I think they’re maybe the best part of the game. It’s the “…and time passes” move that lets everyone reframe the fiction to a new space where new questions can be asked. 

    I’m sure, if I sat here a few minutes, I could come up with other totally playable and interesting scene-type intervals of play that don’t have anything to do with questions/bangs.

  30. Sometimes a scene is a physical transition through a place. Direct player action may not even be the primary focus.  For example, there’s a level of play that falls between hexcrawling and navigation between two points, this happens most often in sandboxes but can also happen in any fairly broad setting.  In such situations a large chunk of movement that passes without encounter can be described in a brief sentence, as often happens in literature.  And yet the manner in which it is described, taking into account not only the tone and mood of the terrain as befits the narrative atmosphere, but also the players’ approach to it and feelings about it, can be rendered as a “video montage”.  This allows the GM to paint backdrops and drop exposition and describe the region and spew ephemera – this is a “scene” with a beginning and an end, but it serves immersion more than plot.

  31. Right, yes. So that is part of a larger discussion about whether story-focused gaming necessarily leverages story tools from other media, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to think of the tools in any way other than as story emulation. Which brings me full circle to the unease I feel about how much of the story-focused gaming scene has settled on genre/trope emulation.

    I wish there was an entirely different word for the different kinds of play intervals that occur during play that are distinct from the other story media.

  32. It always takes a while for new media to let go of the interfaces and assumptions regarding content and form that they inherited from old media.  To this day many digital media players still resemble audio cassette decks, and it took a couple decades for filmmakers to stop thinking about movies as stageplays with a camera for an audience.

    Yes, there is a certain sense in which a movie is a bit like a filmed play, but nowadays that sense is no longer sought in the proscenium arch and the positioning of the camera as an ersatz audience member.

    What makes matters even more difficult in this particular media shift is that a whole new dimension of complexity is introduced by direct interactivity, and another by the blurring of the line between participant and audience.  This is a paradigmatic shift that cannot be semiotically mapped to other forms of media.

    Inspiration, and emulation, by all means.  I do a lot of genre sim.  But I also know that a new medium doesn’t really come into its own until it does things that other media cannot do.

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