I’ve noticed that gamers spend a lot of time planning characters for a game, but when the game starts, planning often ceases. The game goes from scene to scene, and players simply go along, trying to force “what they do best” to fit the story.
What if this could be different? Today, I’m going to explore the concept of the “scene template,” a series of three questions that help players figure out what they’d like to get out of a scene, and make a quick plan from it. I’ll illustrate how this could have been used in a recent Fate (DFRPG) game I played, and finally, outline how the scene template could be used to give mechanical benefit in Fate.
Setting the Scene
Chase says no one wants to hear gamer stories, but bear with me. I’m going to tell one for the purpose of illustrating a mistake.
Imagine the Victorian London countryside as seen through a Dresden Files lens. The wizard Victor, fay-bear changeling Hugh, gallivanting soldier Jon, and spiritualist Providence are trying to put a stop to murders being perpetrated by were-tigers. They are investigating at a farm and are attacked by some thralls of the tigers; during the fight, they see the mastermind of these crimes along with some of her cronies and a hostage escaping to London proper. The characters fall into action. They end the fight quickly, and begin a pursuit.
Here’s where things break down.
It’s clear that the characters won’t be able to catch up with the villains until they get to London, and the players disagree on where in London the villains might go. In this game, I am playing the wizard Victor, and unilaterally make a decision to form a pact with the Winter Court to allow us to catch up with our prey. The pact is made, the Winter Queen delivers the villains to us, and we fight to the death.
And, because I acted unilaterally and without consulting the group, we were kinda screwed. I’d forgotten an element of the plan where we’d have weapons that bypassed our foes’ strengths. Also, while I’d always secretly planned to have my character have a difficult relationship with the Winter Court, none of the other players got to experience this potentially fun story arc as anything but a spectator.
Imagining It Differently
Let’s start from the “break down” point of the story, but take it a little differently.
Imagine the first scene is done, and our heroes are pursuing their foes on a horse-drawn carriage through the London countryside. At this point, the GM starts a five minute timer, stops the game, and asks the players, “What are your goals for the coming scene?”
Three of the players say “To stop the were-tigers.” I go a slightly different angle and say, “I also want to catch up with and stop the bad guys, but I’d like to take advantage of this scene to exacerbate my relationship with the Winter Court,” and explain a bit of my plan for the pact. At least one other player will likely object, but that objection clears up to a degree when I state that it is me as a player who wants this thing to happen for character development.
The GM listens to this and says, “OK, then, it sounds like Victor will be the star of the scene.” The players agree, and the GM says, “Take your remaining time to brainstorm a plan, and tell me three elements of that plan.” The players brainstorm for a while (the GM stays out of the discussion, except when asked to clarify something). Key in this brainstorming is that simply delivering our foes to us (my original plan) doesn’t get us the weapons we need. So we come up with these three points:
- Victor summons a winter fay and makes a pact to deliver the characters and our weapons to our enemies’ destination (ahead of our enemies).
- Our characters set up an ambush with the primary goal of separating the hostage from the foes and getting her to safety.
- Our characters put a stop to the rest of the enemies.
The Scene Template
The GM got the players to do 3 things in 5 minutes above:
- Identify the main goal of a scene
- Identify the “star” of the scene
- Identify up to three elements of a plan
In the spirit of Fear The Boot’s “Group Template,” I’m going to call these three things the elements of a “scene template.” It is useful in and of itself because it quickly helps get everyone on the same page for a scene. Even though everything’s almost certainly going to go sideways, the scene template at least establishes a common context for what people are trying to do.
Furthermore, since a portion of this scene focuses on one character rather than the party, it allows the players to have input in and a context for that one character’s plans, and lets the player who is “primary” in that scene see past some of his blind spots.
Why are These Important?
The “main goal” question is pretty obvious; it defines why the action will take place. Notice, however, that the question doesn’t differentiate between player and character goals. This is because the player’s goals for a character sometimes run contrary to the character’s best interest. So, valid answers to these questions could include, “To have our party save the day,” “to have time for our magic user to rest and regain spells,” or “to complicate this character’s life and earn him lots of Fate points.”
The second question-that of the “star” of the scene- is probably going to be the most controversial to some gamers. It isn’t an original idea; I lifted it from Primetime Adventures. For me, this is a zen thing; every scene has a star, and when players do not intentionally identify this, the star is the person who is best equipped to exert her will. Naming a “star” for a scene allows people to imagine things differently and say “What would it look like if our diplomacy scene “starred” the barbarian instead of the bard?” This is also an elegant way to make sure everyone gets a chance to shine.
Finally, the three elements of the plan (done in whatever time remains) force people to start thinking together quickly and create a baseline for what might happen. It might be totally off the mark; for instance, in the example above, the summoning could have gone wrong and the scene would have become about battling an angry Winter Court faerie, in which case the plans would have gone entirely out the window. If I were GMing a game that used the scene template, and that happened, I’d probably give the players another 5 minutes to generate a new template for the unexpected scene.
There are many questions that could be asked about scenes. I’ve chosen these three because they really cut to the chase in terms of figuring out the why, who, and what of a scene. The GM generally supplies the where, and the players supply the “how” as they move forward.
Scene Templates in Fate
For some gamers, having common understanding of a scene isn’t enough. They can make a plan, but will eagerly throw it out the window when something else shiny comes along.
So, let’s explore some mechanics for the scene template in a Fate game.
Turn answers into aspects: Take the answers to the scene template questions, and make aspects out of them. The “main goal” becomes something of the high concept for the scene. In our example, this might be “Stop the Baddies by Any Means Necessary.” The “star” aspect, which should explicitly name the “star,” might become “Victor Trades Promises for Power.” Finally, the three consecutive plan aspects could be “Step 1: Deal with the Devil,” “Step 2: Strategically Save the Girl,” and “Step 3: Fight to Win.”
The first two aspects (the goal and star) become scene aspects that the players get one free tag on. They can also be used for compels; imagine that our marksman Jon has a killshot lined up, but the GM wants the baddie alive for a few more rounds. The GM can compel the “star” aspect, giving Jon a Fate point and the GM another round of mayhem.
The “plan” aspects work a bit differently. The first of these aspects becomes a sticky scene aspect when the GM declares that it has happened. At this point, the players get a free tag on it, and it can be used for invokes (“I’m sticking to the plan, so I get a benefit”) or compels (“If you want to go against the plan, you’ll have to buy off this compel.”)
The second and third aspects similarly do not “activate” until the GM agrees that they have been completed. Furthermore, if they happen out of sequence (for instance, the second part of the plan is completed before the first part is), they become a fragile scene aspect which goes away when tagged. A maneuver can turn the fragile aspect into a sticky one as usual.
Note that the GM should use logic when determining what “completed” means. In the case of “save the girl,” it probably shouldn’t be “complete” until the players agree that the hostage is reasonably secured. In the case of “fight to win,” however, it doesn’t make sense to give the benefit once the fight is done, because at that point the scene is likely over. In this case, I’d rule that this aspect “activates” when all the players who are going to participate in the fight have completed some combat action.
Using the “plan” aspects in this way gives mechanical encouragement for players to stick to the plan; as soon as an element of the plan is “complete,” they get benefits. This also allows significant room for compels on other aspects to encourage players to go against the plan and play to their character, which is also fun. In short, the scene template in Fate provides ways for players to talk to one another, earn Fate points, get benefits, and engage in deeper interpersonal tensions between the individual and the group.