Vignettes

We’re a couple actual-play sessions into Shattered City, UFO Press’ latest Legacyderived game, and it’s delivering an interesting experience. Rather than blow-by-blow whaddaydo whaddayado play, each session is a vignette. There’s a clear opening with an explicit situation, a nice little arc with miss-generated complications, and closure at the end of the session. They feel like very satisfying little one-shots happening within the much (!) larger context of the world-building bits.

Playing Shattered City kind of feels like watching a series like Tales From The Loop. There are small interactions between major characters, but big situational jumps between episodes. I gotta say, that’s doing a lot to keep me from feeling itchy and burned out! Rather than having to constantly shovel coal into the engine of The Campaign, we can just play a vignette and have it be satisfying.

Story Time!

Our first session was about an agent of the Crystal Crowned (the ageless vampire/elf/alien faction that had ruled the city and now holes up in The Last Redoubt, their goth nightclub spooky haunted castle) tasked with taking out a big titan stomping around the countryside terrorizing a crossroads community. I was worried that our first play session took us directly out of the city setting, but it turned out great. There was some travel and exploration, hungry soldiers who had deserted and were terrorizing the inn at the crossroads, and a non-violent resolution to the titan problem — the Agent is a Warlock, and one of their main deals is being able to negotiate with giant monsters. Cool! It was also our kick-the-tires session and we went out of our way to try all the basic moves. Normally that’d mean kind of a bad/dull session but honestly, it was nice. Because it was a vignette.

Totally normal plant people, not at all upsetting.

Our second session jumped to a prophet of the Verdant Priesthood, a society of tree people, who had foreseen the fruits of a great alliance between the city’s rebel underground and a cult of scumbag foreign occultists. The PC attached to the rebels is also a sibling of the prophet (the tree people are made, not born, and the process is intensely alienating in a city overrun by human-only bigots), so there was some terrific family drama baked in. And again, the vignette thing worked great: get into some trouble with the bigots, stumble into a crisis with the leader of the foreign occultists, have a heartfelt negotiation, done and done.

A Different Facilitator Mode

The vignette thing is a nice change of pace, I gotta say. It feels good to aim for a satisfying ending, if not actual closure. It feels good to not have to hustle for hooks and leads and ooh what if?! bits as I facilitate. In fact I hadn’t really realized how different my GMing headspace is when I’m in spool-out mode versus wrap-up mode. Rather than looking for ever-escalating snowballs (you know, typical PbtA), I’m on the lookout for smaller close-able loops. And sure enough, the sessions don’t end with everything on fire and everyone screaming.

Documentary footage of me GMing Apocalypse World

I think vignette play also leads to overall lower intensity. Which, you know, it’s a trade-off. I loved the big payoffs at the end of our Impulse Drive campaign. They were hard-earned. But the campaign ended when it needed to end, too, because I just couldn’t maintain that level of heat. The interest in Shattered City, I think, is in moving back and forth between the game’s big-picture tools  — practically speaking, it’s a nearly-GMless game, but that fact is hidden behind the players’ faction moves — and these closed moments. It’s less intense but maybe more sustainable. Guess we’ll see!

Vignette as a Distinct Play Mode

Settling into our game’s tempo has me thinking vignette play is distinct enough to deserve further investigation. I think the demands and expectations of a vignette are their own mode, like how dungeon delves and hex-crawls are their own modes. A vignette to my mind is also distinct from a conventional one-shot because a vignette, by definition, is part of something bigger than itself. Practically speaking, a vignette might be similar to mission-based play, but only if the mission is clearly part of a larger, evolving arc.

Off the top of my head, a good vignette needs:

  • A concise, well understood kickoff situation. Unless you just want to have the characters riff Clerks-style, you need to nail down why the characters are together and what they’re facing. But depending on the players and the game, maybe you could just riff. I think it would be hard to nail my last point in this list: making the vignette matter to the larger work.
  • A clear shift in focus and setting from previous sessions. I feel like the shift is an important element to the vignette, because it illustrates how this moment stands apart.
  • A good shared understanding of the overall game/setting/arc so that players have several choices of vignette. Sure, the GM can just frame one up. But I feel like players making that choice gives them more vision and buy-in for how it’s going to play out. They can go into the vignette with a better intuitive sense of the underlying pattern that will be completed.
  • A facilitator emphasis on small, closeable loops rather than constant escalation. (PbtA games, in particular, can easily fall prey to ever-wilder outcomes through to the end of the session.)
  • Accepting that the vignette may be a lower-intensity experience. The payoff is in character revelations and closure, not the cliffhanger.
  • Ways to tie the events of the vignette into the big picture. The vignette needs to matter in some way, even if it’s just to build out the setting.

And a few things I think a vignette is not:

  • It isn’t a play-the-day type thing, where every session covers every moment of everyone’s life. Hitting a satisfying conclusion means being disciplined and intentional about framing scenes. I think you can do this quietly but it may require a firmer facilitator hand on the tiller than you’re accustomed to.
  • The players can’t wait for the GM to hand them shit to solve. Players need to be proactive within the session for a vignette to come together.
  • Tightly integrated into, and contingent upon, outside events. If you’ve got some way to convey a big picture – the faction turn in Stars Without Number or the Family Phase in Legacy – then you set your vignette within that big picture and have it be meaningful and resonant. This is distinct from a session kickoff that picks up hot on the heels of the previous session, or is otherwise part of a continuous whole. It can be discontinuous.
  • A cliffhanger. The session needs to stand on its own and feel conclusive.
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