Monday, January 01, 1990

Narrating the Game--Scene Manipulation

“Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.”—The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland

One of the Narrator’s most important functions, once game play has actually begun, is scene manipulation. This includes scene framing and cutting.

Scene framing is the more fundamental skill of the two. When the Narrator is framing a scene, he is opening it by determining the participants in the scene and setting the stage for the scene. He must then determine when the meaningful part of the scene has finished, so that game play can move to the next scene.

This is where the Mad Hatter’s quote is so useful. Within it is everything that you need to know about scene framing.

Start at the beginning. Skip straight to the important material. If Thomas is going to confront his nemesis in the marketplace, there may be no need to play out the search for his nemesis from stall to stall if this is of no interest to the gaming group. Does playing through the stall-to-stall search develop Thomas’s character at all? Does it establish the mood of the scene? Does it do anything useful? If not, then start the scene at the point where Thomas discovers his nemesis by one of the fruit stands. Start at the beginning of the action, not before the action begins.

When you get to the end, stop. Every scene has a purpose. Once that purpose is fulfilled, the scene needs to end. Let’s say that Thomas confronts his nemesis, who taunts him briefly and then leaves, turning his back on Thomas. Thomas yells impotent insults at his back, but it is obvious to everyone which person got the better of the exchange. Is there a need to drag on the scene? Is Thomas going to do anything further? If not, then it is time to close the scene and move on to the next part of the story.

Sometimes a Narrator needs to run two scenes at the same time. Usually this happens because the two scenes are occurring at the same time, and the Narrator wants to build dramatic suspense. In order to do this, the Narrator must cut from scene to scene. First, he frames both scenes as described earlier in this section. Then the players in the first scene begin to play through the scene. At an appropriate moment, the Narrator pauses the action in the first scene and switches to the second scene, where the action advances until the Narrator switches back to the first scene. If the Narrator makes his cuts at high tension points in the scenes, he can magnify the tension of both scenes greatly.

Here is how cutting works. Once again, Thomas is seeking out his nemesis, who is named Random. What Thomas doesn’t know is that Random has acquired an ancient Progenitor weapon and will kill Thomas as soon as he confronts Random. However, his lover Mystaria, who is one of the Blessed, had a vision of Thomas’s death at Random’s hands. So, in one scene Thomas is seeking out Random in the marketplace again, and in the second scene Mystaria is hurrying through the streets of the Citadel, risking exposure to be able to warn her love. The Narrator opens Thomas’s scene, and they briefly play through his search through the market. Then Thomas spots Random, again at the fruit seller’s stall. Then the Narrator makes his first cut, switching to Mystaria. She is hurrying down from the Web, trying to move as quickly as possible without drawing too much attention to herself. But in her carelessness, she bowls over a Noble-born soldier who was not watching where he was going. He pulls himself to his feet, eyes blazing. Now the tension is high. Mystaria is at risk, both of being delayed and of being harmed or even killed by the soldier. Time to cut. The Narrator switches back to Thomas, who has called out to Random, demanding satisfaction in a duel. Random agrees, but Thomas demands immediate satisfaction and requires that the duel be fought immediately. Random agrees. The street begins to clear. Cut back to Mystaria. She is groveling before the Noble-born, apologizing profusely. The Noble-born kicks her once, knocking her down. Satisfied, he turns to leave, but the hood of her cloak has fallen back, revealing her eye-studded face. He turns back, unsure if he saw correctly. Mystaria cowers further. The tension is rising even more. Time to cut.

And so it goes. Back and forth, back and forth, escalating as it goes. It is a simple technique to master, but its effects are profound.

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