A lot of the most recent wave of "new school" games - as opposed to the old school variety of games like D&D and Dark Heresy - try to help with making the game feel more narrative/cinematic by encouraging the GM to frame their scenes in such a way that it helps the players bring out the story and adventure that is inherently there. Basically, to get something happening rather than watching the party spend 5 minutes deciding who is going shopping and who is watching over the party's equipment. For some DMs, especially those who don't have any interest in writing or the art of story telling beyond their games, this can be harder than it first appears. For those who do write and practice story telling, there are some big pitfalls and blunders you can easily fall into. Today, I want to talk about framing scenes, some pitfalls to avoid, and some tricks to use when you're just getting started.
Start As Late As Possible
Scenes, like stories, work out in eerily similar ways. When not done right you can actually lose people right at the beginning because you don't hook them in enough to make them care about what is going on. To try and solve this problem you want to start your scene as late as possible. For example, if your idea for a scene is to have some guys rob a grocery store that the character regularly goes to then you are better of beginning the scene when the guns come out than you are when the PC enters the grocery store to begin their week's food shopping.
Starting the scene as late as possible - and I mean as LATE as possible - does a couple of things for you. For one, it lets you set the stage the way you want it. Do you want the grocery store crowded? You can make it crowded. Do you want one of the gunmen to be right next to the PC? You can do that. All of those details that you want in place before the Player gets a chance to jump into the fray are all part of framing the scene, which is exactly what you are doing here. The second thing? It lets you get right into the action - which means you are getting the player involved in a meaningful way - right from the beginning.
To show it in action, which do you think the player will be more interested in?
GM: You wake up and find that you're dangerously low on food. It's either another week of delivery, or you need to hit the grocery store.
Player 1: Guess I should go to the grocery store.
GM: There's a small crowd in the grocery store, it being a Sunday. Where do you begin your shopping?
Player 1: I dunno...bread?
Player 2: *fiddles with dice, gets up to get water. Begins side conversation with other player about recently released movie*
*ten minutes later*
GM: There's a man in front of you in line for the cashier, also behind the old man regaling the clerk with stories of his youth. He seems nervous, but that could just be the feminine hygiene products he is buying.
Player 1: ok
GM: ...As he gets to the register he pulls out a gun and calls out "Nobody move! This is a stick up!"
Granted there is a bit of bias in me towards this (note player 2) but it is also not uncommon to see at the game table. However, compare it to this potential beginning.
GM: You're in the grocery store with a cart full of food. The place has the usual sunday crowd, but you managed to get in early enough to beat the real rush. As you get in line to purchase your food for the next week you notice that the man in front of you looks nervous. Before you can get a better look he pulls a shotgun out from under his trench coat, fires a shot into the ceiling, and calls out for everyone to stay still while he robs the place. What do you do?
In both situations the PC ends up at the grocery store and dealing with this situation. Only, in the second version we cut right to the action. We are beginning the scene as late as we can - the gun is out, people are in a panic, etc, etc - and the player is immediately being prompted for an immediate action that is relevant to the scene. This also keeps things more interesting for the other players who now don't have to sit through 5-10 minutes of a grocery store trip, and instead get to immediately watch their friend play through how he handles the armed robbery.
With Details: Less = More
Another bit of advice from writing: the audience - in this case the players - want to be doing some of the work. We/they want to create the world in their head, so you as the GM should let them. I've been in many games where the GM has started to lose interested players because descriptions went on for too long. The GM wasn't doing anything wrong here either, their intent was pure. They had information that was important to convey either to establish mood, setting, or just to point out some key feature about where the players currently were. However, that doesn't change the fact that it ends up with one person talking at 4-5 other people for lengthy periods of time, and that even the most rapt of us will start to lose focus on what is actually being said. Especially when the GM is describing something mundane like a wall and they tend towards monotones. I'd be lying if I didn't say I know people who can keep your attention for those lengthy pieces of time, but even they occasionally falter and it is best to just avoid being the only person talking for those prolonged pieces.
Case in point, look at that paragraph above? How many ways do I have to say that? Especially when it boils down to this: don't be the only one talking.
When it comes to description there is a concept that you can do a lot of work with very few words. A lot of this comes down to word choice, but it also means you need to paint with broad strokes and leave the finer details to your players' imaginations. Again, compare:
She's wearing laced up combat boots, grey and black urban camo pants, and a full set of tactical webbing over an athletic top. Black fingerless gloves and a backwards baseball cap finish the look. She's holding an M16-A assault rifle in her hands with a few extra magazines poking out of one of the cargo pockets on her pants.
Armed with an assault rifle and with her black baseball cap backwards on her head, she's wearing the latest in urban commando chic.
Both present a very similar image (admittedly especially since you read the detailed description first) but one of them is less than half the length of the other. A lot of the details that we just don't need to know don't come up, and while that means we lose some of the finer distinctions (read: two players may have slightly different mental images for this character) we keep the main theme of the character and can go forward.
The fast and hard rule for this is to only focus your details on the things that are important. For example, is it really important that we know our urban commando here has an M16-A (is that even a real model designation?) or are we ok with assault rifle? If it is important - as in very important to the character in some way - then give the detail. Otherwise, gloss it over. The same holds true for environment descriptions "busy city street bustling with traffic of all kinds" serves much the same purpose as a one to two minute description of an urban street with cars, buses, and people milling around on it. Less is more, let your players do the work and use your details to point out what is important to be noted.
One trick I've heard to help with doing this is to budget your exposition. Maybe a certain amount of time, maybe a certain amount of words, but you only have so much time to exposit during the game session so if you go overboard describing that bus, are you going to have enough to describe the big bad guy during the reveal?
Get Player Feedback/Information
This is a small topic, but while we are starting our scene as late as possible, and focusing only on the key details, we want to get some feedback from the player. If you can, ask why the player is in a certain area. Or, better yet, if you put them in a situation starting off, ask them how they ended up in that situation. The second one there is a bit more advanced - do it with a trusted group/player only - but can pay off huge dividends, especially when the player plays into it.
For example, in one of my L5R sessions recently I started the scene with one of the bushi PCs facing off against three people with swords drawn. I then turned to the player and asked them "where are you, and how did you get into this situation?" In other words, I set the situation but gave the player the chance to frame the scene. The player turned it into a political issue where he had overheard some courtiers being rude and decided to do something about it. The fall out was magnificently fun for everyone to play through because of it.
Now, you don't have to get that much input from your players. But you can do simple things to get them involved. For example "It's the middle of the day on Sunday, you're hungry and your kitchen is completely devoid of food. Where would you go?" The player then answers, and you can use that to frame a scene for them where-ever they choose to go. Who doesn't love shoot outs at Chuck-E-Cheese, right?
Pitfall: Not Enough Information
I promised we'd go into some pitfalls, and I have 2 for this article. The first is what can happen when you try the "less is more" approach but accidentally give too little information. Sometimes a picture that is very clear to us, or even clear to other people at the table, just doesn't take shape in the focus player's head the same way. Maybe you thought you were clear that the player was about to be in a fight, but the player didn't pick up on the subtle/not-so-subtle clues that that was the case. The player is now disadvantaged because you didn't give them enough information to go forward with the situation that they're in.
If your player asks for more information you should give it to them. you may want to put a limit on how often you'll repeat yourself, but try not to force the player into a situation where they feel like they have to leap blind. Yes, sometimes information is denied in character for a reason (i.e. "you don't know who these guys are with, just that they're armed and pointing guns at you") but other information is easily picked up. Try to give the player some more information, maybe even more than you initially gave, and then prompt them again.
Pitfall: My Character Wouldn't Be There
One of the problems that more narrative focused people - such as myself - can fall into when framing scenes is we put players into situations that their character would never be in in the first place. Maybe this is as innocuous as someone who doesn't need to eat being at a grocery store, but it can also be a bigger deal too. For example, in a test game I ran I framed a character into the crowd during a "pro metahuman rights" rally that was being protested by an "anti-metahuman" group. The player played along, but there was an awkward pause when the initial prompt came up because the player's default reaction was "my character wouldn't be caught dead at one of these events...."
You can imagine how easy it would be to do in more serious matters as well. Such as a GM wanting to challenge a player and framing the PC into a fight where they don't have their trusty and beloved sword on them for no good reason.
To solve this you need two things. One, you need to know the PCs in your game and try to avoid any of the moves that they "definitely wouldn't do." The second is to abuse the notion of getting player feed back and working around that. The example in that topic is a great one that can go many ways. The GM presents the player with the inciting action that launches the scene ("you're hungry and have no food, what do you do?") and the player tells them where they go ("I go grocery shopping." or "I go to Chuck-E-Cheese for a pizza.") The GM can then work with that response to frame the scene around the situation the player has put themself into. Everyone comes out much happier in the end.
Have you framed scenes in your game particularly well? If so, what tricks did you use to do it? Any other advice to share?
I may revisit this topic at a later date and time, but for now this should be a good starting off point.