I’m lead by to understand that people who don’t have the Queen on their money might be reading this. Well, if that’s the case, you probably don’t know much about one of the world’s greatest sports. Cricket. Cricket’s one of those weird games that’s in the category of what I call “static play” sports. All I mean by this is that the rules enforce a distinct break in between successive manoeuvres in the game. This isn’t a new thing to any Americans that might happen to read this: you guys just love sports that don’t go anywhere for more than a few seconds at a time. You’ve even changed Rugby so that it’s played that way! What you might not realize is that the current trend in roleplaying game design is the same. It is the transformation of a free flowing imaginative environment into something a little more manageable: the scene.
I’m not sure when “the scene” burst onto the… er… stage. Thinking back, it seems like it’s always been with us. Take a Shadowrun game for example. Its mission-based style positively screams a scene-based story construction: there’s the meeting with Mr Johnson, the entry into the MegaCorp or exclusive arcology, each bullet from your automatic weapon, then dealing with your fence and/or DocWagon. All nicely encapsulated within discrete “runs”. What that absolutely didn’t seem like though, was a modern “scene” approach: it felt like segments from a continuum, and you only didn’t roleplay the month-long recovery time between “adventures” because that was a bit tedious.
I’ve had a hunt around a bit for an actual play quote that succinctly explains the difference, and isn’t too dull, but instead I’m just going to have to bore you first-hand. A scene in modern parlance is something set up by either the GM or players to enact a specific moment of plot interchange and development. Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will recognise that what I’m talking about dominated Luke’s thinking for his Game of Thrones mini-campaign. Games like Prime Time Adventures specifically and explicitly build themselves around this operating principle. After all, nobody wants to watch the episode in Friends where Joey walks down the street for half an hour: we want to see his crazy shenanigans, and how badly his friends interfere with them.
Part of the Grand Experiment driving Luke is therefore arguably… the same thing we’ve had built into a certain play style from ye aulde times. After all, viewed in a macroscopic way, an entire dungeon is one scene. Or of course, you have the aimless wandering through the dungeon until the GM initiates a scene by saying “you stand before a door.”
Wait, I’m confused… is this an old thing, or a new thing like I said? Well, hang on a minute, isn’t this really a post about sport? You know, in American football, you crazy Americans spell out extremely detailed run/pass/run strategies so that when the quarterback throws the first pass, your guys will take that pig-skin all the way to the touchdown line. These are called “plays”, and we have them in rugby too. The difference is that we only get to use ours if the ball bounces just right, and everyone happens to be in the right place. Players don’t get a coach at the start of the play saying “now fellas, take a #22, then pass a #54”, they jut have to recognise that they’re in the right place to do those things. So: there are few uber specialists in Rugby, because even a front-line juggernaut might occasionally find themselves in a run/pass play.
Now, I don’t have to tell anyone that this kind of change make the games totally different to watch and play. Every “play” in American Football counts for something, while there’s a lot of pointless kicking and tackling in Rugby. But the trade-off here is that we can play a game of Rugby in 90-odd minutes, compared to 90 minutes per play in Gridiron.
So what are the implications here for roleplaying games? Well, basically that if you’ve got a coach in your ear, and a team setting up an interconnected set-piece play, you’re more likely to score a touchdown, but it’s going to take longer to set-up that particular bit of play. Which brings me back to Cricket, which despite its statistics-based “static play” style is not popular in the New World. The reason? It takes too damned long. A point I think even people who grew up playing it are beginning to conceded with the successive introduction of shorter forms of the game over my lifetime. The other reason is the same thing that’s killing baseball: individual plays are too similar, there’s not enough spicy variety compared to the quick thrill of a 3-pointer at the line in Basketball.
You see, what I think is happening is that game designers are sitting down more and more and asking themselves how they can change the games so that each play takes only moments to set up, and every play is a tough touchdown. A lot of IPR games are marketed on the basis of being pick-up-and-play games, and their structure frankly doesn’t support the kinds of long-term runs that an Old Skewl DnDer might just assume as the norm. And the way they’re doing that is by focusing on the basic unit we’ve always had: the scene and not on, as something like D&D does even today, the long-term development of the characters involved.
Now the Old Skewl is alive and well. Pick up a copy of new Mage and figure out the minimum number of sessions for a good player to raise their Gnosis from the maximum starting value of 3 to 4 and it’s longer than a decent number of indie games on the market are designed to run in total. Reading something like Reign of the Exarchs, it advises staging different scenes in the adventure months apart in game time. At the same time though, I’m noticing that the word “scene” has crept in a few places where it didn’t appear in the old game.
What I wonder about though, is the long-term effect of this short-term focus. When you read an Actual Play report like Luke’s Game of Thrones mini-campaign with its high drama, high action, intensity and strong player buy-in, doesn’t it make you wonder why you’d spend years honing a character’s rivalry for that one pay-off scene at the campaign’s conclusion?
Nope, it certainly doesn’t. And I’ll explain why later.