Sense and Sensibility: Scene Creation in the 21st Century



With a wink and a smile at Ms. Austen, from whom I cleverly clipped part of today’s title, we delve into scene creation. We’ve talked about them in broad strokes, but a number of folks often have issues putting them together, so let’s deconstruct a scene and see if we can poke its tiny, little nuclear heart, and find out what makes it tick.

A scene is the basic building block of a story, but what is it? You can say the same things about cells as well, however, it doesn’t help you understand anatomy.

There are as many definitions of scenes as there are writers. This, too, is useless. Everyone needs to learn the basics, before expanding and exploring their repertoire. Structurally all scenes share some basic things. Remember, we’re talking about scenes in how they relate to gaming which is slightly different than in fiction. We’ll do a quick, compare and contrast for your illumination.

Fiction: A scene is comprised of a unit of prose with a ┬ábeginning, middle, and end focused on a central conflict, issue, or theme. Such examples include “meeting the client” or “the car negotiation” or “the set up/run down” you’ll see in shows such as Leverage, Psych, or The X-Files.

RPGs: Adventures and scenarios are comprised of scenes, though they may not explicitly state as such. The scene can be broad such as “dungeon crawl” where the scene is locked to a particular setting or far more narrower as in multiple scenes of a dinner party taking place within a few rooms over the course of a few hours.

The important element to note regarding RPGs is the adventure designer must take into account the possibility for multiple permutations of end results attributed to the variables beyond his narrative control (i.e. players’ choices for their characters). Thus, depending upon the type of adventure, the designer crafts scenes as modularly as possible and addresses what happens in the main, but includes sidebars with suggestions of possible variants which can occur during play.

The number of scenes necessary for an adventure or plot point varies radically. We’ve also refined their structure over the years.

Currently, how I break down each scene is as follows–

Overview, Setting the Scene, Notes for the GM, Character Objectives, and Details.

Overview: As the name might suggest, this is a run-through of how the scene typically plays out from beginning to end. It’s a general road map.

Setting the Scene: A few lines of prose used to frame out the scene. This is written to be read aloud or paraphrased by the GM.

Notes for the GM: These are call outs and important things for the GM to know and often includes specific hints, tips, and reminders.

Character Objectives: Things the characters want/should accomplish. Having them clearly defined can help the GM point, navigate, or judge the characters’ progress.

Details: All the bits and pieces fleshing out the remainder of the scene, quite often the particulars of the environment, as NPCs are broken out separately.

Writing in this style is a bit of a shift, but having discrete information for each scene, more than makes up for any time sink on the front end. If you’re just running a home game or something, not for publication, you can really shorthand these elements, and find the intrinsic value they offer.

Currently, I’ve been playtesting Echo of Dead Leaves using this structure, and my writing has far outstripped the characters’ progress, so I’m leaning heavily on what is written, just like anyone else would, and this structure removes any headaches. If I need to refresh myself on something, it only takes a moment, and we’re off and running.

Tomorrow, we’ll delve a little deeper, and we’ll run through the construction of a scene, using the parameters outlined above.

With a belly full of pumpkin pie and one hand on the remote control, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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