Friday, December 5, 2014

At the Table: Edit Your RPG


Today, I'm going to come down with some pragmatic thoughts on roleplaying games. It's a topic that might seem odd to some RPG players: editing. Normally, that's a word you only see in the contexts of filmmaking or the great American novel, but I think it has a place when you're playing at the table. I also think that most groups engage in editing anyway, but they might not realize it. Read on, and you can learn how to use it better!

The Flow of Play
The traditional roleplaying games I've played have a very linear flow. The story has a very particular direction, and each scene generally follows on the tail end of the next, to the point where there aren't really "scenes" per se. It's like somebody just rigged up a camera and is following the characters through the dungeon or the adventure continuously. You open in media res, and then rarely cut away from the characters until the session wraps up.

This isn't universally true, and it's not always completely true for any given group, either. Most groups do institute some sort of "cut" mechanism to get rid of certain events. Sleeping, for instance, or eating, or relieving oneself out in the woods. The "fade to black" approach to romance is also a time-honored way to handle content that some members of the group aren't comfortable playing through. These are just minor alterations to the usually continuous flow of an RPG, though. Even when the party's split, the story generally crosscuts between the groups, picking up where last we left them.

Framing a Scene
Though it wasn't the first game to explore more aggressive editing, Tenra Bansho Zero was the game which got me thinking the hardest about how I treated the flow of play. In TBZ, the GM is outright told to cut the game into distinct scenes. One scene doesn't necessarily follow the next, but instead gives a new perspective on the story. This is a big paradigm shift, and it does two big things.

First, it focuses the action and energy of a scene. If you start a scene knowing that you're going to end it after a short(ish) time, it's easier to define it with concrete goals and to push for those goals. It's more immediate. Second, it gives everything in the scene more dramatic meaning. Each scene crystallizes the plot around a focus, and then you can tie that into the focuses of future scenes. Short and focused scenes highlight the important parts of the scene.

Fiasco is a much more widely-known game that uses tight scene-framing, and it also encourages players to experiment with nonlinear formats. You don't just cut from one scene to the next; you can move back and forth in time, jumping ahead after some major thing has happened, and then moving back to explore what happened before it...or even jumping back to change the context of a scene! It encourages you to keep scenes short (and to one particular point), and also uses scene ends as a "scoring" metric for characters.

It's also a good idea to discuss Microscope in this context. You aren't usually playing through scenes in Microscope, but when you play a scene, you need to choose a question that forms the focus of the scene. When you find an answer to the question, you end the scene! Having a clear-cut scene end condition like that helps the players to keep scenes economical and to-the-point.

An Easy Way to Edit
Using a scene question is actually an easy practice that you can port into any game. Fate Core even uses this directly; when you start a scene, ask yourself what the purpose of the scene is, and write it down somewhere. Remind everyone else of it. If the scene starts drifting, suggest that it might be time to cut. It'll feel awkward at first, but the more you try it out and work to improve it, the better it'll feel.

Transitioning from flowing play to editing comes with advantages and disadvantages. You'll lose a certain immersive connection to the game, because you're skipping over parts of play. However, you'll have a stronger sense of where the story is headed. A good compromise between the two extremes is to use segments of play to abridge lengthy actions like journeys or training. Think of it as the "montage" method.

No matter what you do, thinking about how the story flows in an RPG is a very important step towards improving how everyone makes that story flow!