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Scripted Pivotal Moments: The Reason Why Movies Often Make Bad Adventures

Posted By Martin Ralya On August 5, 2010 @ 1:02 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences between movies and adventures, as well as the ways movies can be used to inspire games, and a striking difference between them hit me recently: Pivotal moments in movies are often difficult to translate into adventures.

I’m a spoiler nazi, so I won’t reveal the movie I was watching when this popped into my head, but here’s the pivotal incident: A firefight breaks out, and one of the main characters is shot. In many ways, his wound defines the way that the rest of the movie unfolds, and that’s the problem from a GMing standpoint: In the movie, it works because while his wounding is presented as random in the context of the world of the film, of course it’s not actually random — and that just doesn’t work in games.

The movie unfolds the way that the writer and director want it to, because they scripted the firefight, the injury, and everything else that happens in the film. It may not be obvious to the viewer at the time, but it is in hindsight.

In a tabletop RPG adventure, scripting a moment like that would generally feel like the bad kind of railroading. If you must have one of the PCs wounded in a specific way for the story to continue, that’s hard to pull off without leaving a sour taste in your players’ mouths.

Just saying “You get shot” is lame, because the game has rules to determine that and you’re obviously ignoring them. Fudging a die roll so that the “right” PC gets shot is a bit better, but can become problematic if your players figure it out. And then there’s the basic rule of all adventures:

No plan will survive contact with your players.

What if the PCs avoid the fight entirely? Or have a few amazing rolls and wipe out all the baddies in round one? You’re screwed.

That’s because while RPGs are full of these kinds of adventure- and even campaign-defining moments, any such moment that hinges on the outcome of a die roll is inherently difficult to script. I’m willing to bet that you can remember lots of moments like this — moments that changed the game forever — from your own games, but I’m also willing to bet that you didn’t script most, or even any, of them.

So how can you replicate this type of defining, pivotal moment in a game? You have three options:

  1. Don’t do it. Instead, script a scene that can’t fail to define how the game progresses, rather than a micro-event within that scene. It’s a lot easier to get the PCs involved in a scripted scene than a scripted moment, and you can deftly exert control over the scenes that make it into the game in a way that’s fun for everyone.
  2. Do it, but try to make it either feel so awesome that no one cares that it’s scripted, or feel natural. Depending on the style of game you’re running, you might be able to pull off a blatantly scripted moment that, briefly, robs one of your players of control over her PC without pissing everyone off. Alternately, if you’re skilled enough you may be able to work it in without anyone noticing. Both are risky.
  3. Recognize those pivot points in your own adventures as they unfold, and learn to improvise around them in such a way that it feels like that pivot was intentional. In other words, instead of scripting the moment, recognize a moment that occurs naturally/randomly as being potentially pivotal and alter the rest of the adventure in dramatic ways because of it. This also requires some skill, but it has the added benefit of really working your improv muscles.

Overall, sticking to #1 is the safest choice. #2 is the riskiest, and both relies the most on your own skills as a GM and depends the most on the style of game you run.

#3 is the coolest option, I think, because it stretches your skills, makes you take notice of in-game events in a different way (recognizing pivotal moments is a great skill to develop as a GM), and is likely the approach you’re already taking. On top of that, these kinds of moments often change the game in cool ways even if you don’t recognize them.

Have you used any of these approaches in your own campaigns? What’s missing from my list of options? How much of your game do you script?

(I’m at GenCon, so I may not respond to comments until I get back. See you then!)

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Scripted Pivotal Moments: The Reason Why Movies Often Make Bad Adventures"

#1 Comment By Kikatink On August 5, 2010 @ 6:48 am

I would add another option.

4. Let a player in on the moment. If the scene pivots on a moment there may be a specific player you can trust to go along with the action to make the scene work. Pull the player aside seperately and have a discussion. Tell them, “at some point in our session we’ll get into a gunfight. It would really help the scene and the plot if you let me have your character get wounded.”
Sometimes you might reward them with extra “roleplay experience points”. Other times they will go along with it for the fun of it. Ironically I’m doing this EXACT thing with my gaming session tonight. I’ve asked a player to do something which will complete change the scene. They’ve agreed to it because they thought the idea would be fun to try out.

Sometimes you can use a player as a prop if you ask nicely. (that may be a poor choice of words)

#2 Comment By Jagyr Ebonwood On August 5, 2010 @ 7:40 am

I came here from the RSS feed to say the same thing that Kikatink just did.

In fact, one of my favorite systems (Cortex System RPG) is designed to model movies and TV shows. They have a built in mechanism called Plot Points, which can be used to reward (or compensate, as it were) a player for going along with the plot or having something bad happen to them.

An example in the rulebook presents a private detective attempting to pick a lock. He wants to get into the room to hide from the goons who are about to come around the corner. However, the GM needs the detective to be captured by the goons temporarily in order to further the overall plot, so he announces that the sleuth’s lock pick snaps off in the lock, and throws him some extra Plot Points for his troubles.

If this happened in a D&D game, people would be screaming about railroading. Cortex has a slightly different set of assumptions about the social contract around the game.

#3 Comment By raistlin50201 On August 5, 2010 @ 7:48 am

I think the big problem is when whatever you need to happen is related to a die roll. Most of the pivotal moments I make are world changing, not player changing. This leads to very little that the party can do (though I never disallow the possibility of some genius idea stopping my plans).

Example: Sure you can kill the high priest and stop him from making the last sacrifice, but then he is the last sacrifice. The ritual will be complete no matter what, it just changes how it feels.

If you leave it up to a roll of any flavor, you have to discuss it with the players in my opinion. This just boils down to a pivotal moment HAS to happen. Any randomness can’t be allowed, otherwise it might not happen.

I think talking to the player is great since most players like having cool stories to tell, and anything pivotal will in some ways be memorable (or should be). So long as the character will no be reduced greatly if their abilities, I bet most players will jump at being in the spotlight for a while.

#4 Comment By Sewicked On August 5, 2010 @ 9:52 am

Early in my GM’ing career, I was running a published adventure that relied on the PCs running from a firefight on a dock, and into a nearby warehouse. What did my players do? One dived off the dock & into the water, one started killing the attackers, etc. NONE of them headed for the convenient warehouse.

I had a tizzy. Luckily, one of the players was an experienced GM and talked me down. It became a situation like Kikatink said; just applied to the whole group.

“Okay, guys, it would be really helpful for the plot if you would do ‘this’.” However, this is a solution that is best in tiny, tiny doses.

When #3 works, it absolutely rocks. The players enjoy the game more and so do you.

#5 Comment By Toldain On August 5, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

I’ve definitely had a GM lobby me (out of game) to let things go a certain way before. With an explanation in general terms of where that would lead the plot, I went along, it sounded fun.

On another occasion, the entire party collaborated, because it was cool. It was a mythical Japan setting (we were playing Bushido, years ago). And we were doing a back-in-time adventure. We were carried back in time by a boat leaving the shore. As we were leaving, we saw ghostly figures of us returning, one-by-one. First to return was the NPC. As it turned out, once we got to the adventure, that NPC was the first to die. Heroically, I might add.

And so, one by one, without further prompting from the DM, we stepped up to give ourselves nobly to save history. The mission was a success, we all died, and we returned to the campaign present time. It was truly remarkable. More along the lines of “voluntary TPK” than the topic of this post, but I think it’s instructive.

#6 Comment By Toldain On August 5, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

Oh, gosh, I just remembered a #3 that shaped an entire campaign. We were starting an L5R campaign. We were at a tournament. One of the NPC’s was supposed to commit seppuku if she didn’t get into the finals.

She wasn’t supposed to be that good, but because of some tactics that I discovered, and that she used as well, she not only made the finals, but won the tournament outright.

She became the magistrate that the rest of us assisted throughout most of the rest of the multi-year campaign.

#7 Comment By Diceman On August 6, 2010 @ 5:53 am

Two more options:

1. Very often, you don’t really HAVE to have that moment right now. Also, since these moments tend to be very symbolic, the exact details of the moment also usually don’t REALLY matter. You need that guy to be “deadly wounded with something related to that place”.

So You plan the outline of the moment you need, and then you wait. in the few next sessions you create circumstances that can help to create the moment you need, but you don’t force it. Within 2-4 weeks the opportunity will present itself. Then you just take the naturally-occurred thing that just happened, dress it in the right fluff – and you have your moment.

2. My favorite – take a real chance. You need something that’s depending on the dice, and you just let the dice do their job. You get it all to a single die roll, roll it in front of the players (or better yet – if it’s a roll one of them makes) and hope.

In every game system you can do some things so the chances are a bit to your favor. If it didn’t roll right – oh well, it’s just a game after all. but if they did – you can have your moment with all the legitimacy in the world.

#8 Comment By GiacomoArt On August 9, 2010 @ 11:04 am

I employ scripted moments by kicking off most of my adventures with a 1- to 3-page introductory script, designed to start things off with a bang. Because I always base the script on previous player-made decisions (even when it’s only what type of characters they wanted to play), and keep the focus on them doing cool things and making amusing quips, I’ve never had a complaint about it.

When a character/campaign defining moment shows up, it’s usually in direct response to the players’ own concepts. I just cool them up with some cinematic narrative and tension-building close calls that showcase those concepts and embed them in everyone’s minds.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On August 11, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

I agree that it’s best to not rely on specific moments or decisions– as every GM will agree, players never go where you expect. That said, as Kikatink and Jagyr Ebonwood mention, sometimes the system assists you in getting your moment.

In a Dresden game I played this weekend, one of the PCs (a Pooka in wolf form) was caught by a pack of harpies. After they caught him, the GM offered a fate point to compel the PC to get carried away. The next scene had him chained in iron on the roof top– but it worked out great. He broke out and made a huge contribution at the right moment.

I strongly suspect the situation was #3– taking an opportunity and making it sing. It was great to watch– and a skill I’d love to improve.

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 12, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

@Kikatink – Good suggestion! That can definitely work out well with the right moment and the right player.

@Jagyr Ebonwood – I’ve never played any Cortex RPGs, but that sounds like a nifty mechanic — thanks for pointing it out! The “bennie for doing something bad” idea is also found in FATE, I believe.

@Toldain – Hehe — I love it!

@Diceman – OK, your “take a real chance” suggestion is ballsy gold. Definitely dig it.

#11 Comment By scruffylad On August 22, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

Just some added thoughts, as someone who’s had “gonna be so awesome” scenes work out well, and also really really poorly… These observations are probably a bit broader than the original question, but they’re what popped into my head:

1. Stay flexible. If the big baddie goes down way too soon, let it happen. You can still hint at what might have been. (“Searching Lord Evil’s lifeless corpse, you see what he was reaching for – a gewgag of naughtiness. You can only imagine what he might have done with it, had he gotten it out a moment sooner.”)

2. Focus on chokepoints or objectives. I try to put the awesome scene someplace that the party will have to go. If the mission is to steal the orb of forb, then the chamber holding the orb is a natural place for a cool scene.

3. Kick off the adventure with one. The GM is in greatest control at the very beginning, before the party has a chance to wreck everything. :P If the awesome scene is your lead-in to the adventure, it’s hard to derail. (Similar to the chokepoint bit, above.)

4. Save for later. Sometimes, the amazing scene is just not going to happen. You thought it was a chokepoint, but your clever/frustrating players have decided to take the long way round, through the forest, etc., and your clever tavern scene, with the maps and npcs and all the rest, is just not going to happen. Save it for the next adventure. The party might pass by the tavern then, or you could even adapt it, for a different location entirely.


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