A few years ago, I found myself with a quandry. I was running a game of 7th Sea  on a week night with four players in what we futily hoped would be a three hour session (I’d soon be happy with two hours). I knew that everyone would be coming from work or school and want dinner, so I needed a technique to make every moment count. What I came up with was the cutaway scene.
I used my cutaway scene as an adventure prologue. I would type 1-4 pages (most ended up being a page or two in 12-point font). It would begin with a catchy title in a fancy font and involve a quick scene that usually didn’t involve the player characters. If it did involve them, it was usually a flashback to some past event. Sometimes the cutaway scene would directly lead into the main plot, while other times it simply focused on a particular NPC that was crucial to the main plot.
Writing the cutaway enabled me to be descriptive and evocative, as well as keeping me from talking to myself or describing everything in the third person. This was especially useful in the heavy-roleplay style of 7th Sea, where atmosphere was important.
Once my players read the cutaway, they were more focused on what they should be doing in the session. A little minor metagaming and spoilers paid off big dividends, as the players were engaged from the get-go and understood what the focus of the adventure would be about.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when using a cutaway:
Make enough copies for all of your players. In the beginning, I felt that one or two copies were enough for four (later six) players. Unfortunately, people read at different rates and one of my friends turned out to be a painfully slow reader. Spending 20 minutes to read a cutaway is not an effective use of time.
Keep it short. Again, this is another lesson learned from the slow reader. You want to give your players enough to work with, but you don’t want them trying to digest a short story. Set the scene and mood and establish your main NPCs and/or plot thread.
Make it visual. Most of us aren’t exactly Shakespeare or Rowling. If you have trouble with flowery descriptions, scour the internet and add a few pictures. In many cases, a picture of Jessica Alba or Heath Ledger (R.I.P.) works better than a description of her. In one glance, you’ve established the NPC in the minds of the players. A shot of a creepy castle or isolated space station can establish the setting for you, allowing you to launch into dialogue. Watch your visuals, though. Sometimes they could make for unintentional comedy or offend some players.
Make it personal. Most players love it when you tie their characters into the background. An old flame that has now become a ruthless mercenary or an old enemy that now needs the PC’s help are great ways to get the player’s juices flowing before you even start actual play.
Don’t make it too personal. While players love it when their characters are involved, they don’t want you messing with their personalities or shooting sacred cows. Maybe your player enjoys being a rat-bastard for the sake of being a rat-bastard and doesn’t want you establishing a tragic reason for it that she must now confront (such as an abusive parent or first love). When in doubt, don’t write it without discussing it with the affected player first.
Don’t give away too much. Minor spoilers and metagaming are okay, but don’t spoil interesting plot twists or the resolution of a mystery. For example, it’s okay to establish a murder scene (peppered with possible clues in the description) and have the local authorities arrest an innocent friend of the PCs with what seems like incontrovertible evidence. It’s not okay to establish the murder scene by telling the players who actually did the killing, or have a police inspector point out all the clues at the scene.
I usually only use cutaways as prologues (beginning each adventure), but its entirely possible to use a cutaway at the beginning of each session as an effective recap. I’ve used this if we’ve had to skip a session or two.
What say you? Have you tried this technique? How well has it worked for you?