Ask the gamemasters

Campaign Mastery was asked,

I just got done reading Mike’s Flavours Of Neutral article, and something within got my attention. The PCs were going to be present at a gathering of the druidic orders and would see the (probably quite heated) debate.

How do you guys pull off “PCs as spectators” events like that? I ask because I too am coming up on a similar situation, where the PCs will be witness to a debate among the nobility and royalty of a country that is on the brink of civil war.

- Robert

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer:

Thanks for the question, Robert. First, be clear on what the PCs are spectating.

There are three possibilities in any game:

  • PCs are watching NPCs
  • PCs are watching each other
  • Players are watching the GM

It’s the last item that trips most game masters up, especially GMs with a theatre background, lol.

PCs watching NPCs

Here you have a couple of options: cut-scene or interactive.

Cut-Scenes

With a cut-scene, you have everything prepared in advance, the game is meant to be watched by the players without interaction, and you describe or roleplay what takes place.

Keep these scenes short and infrequent. If you can carry off compelling, story-hour type of entertainment and your players enjoy it, then feel free to do such scenes more often. Picture a librarian enthralling a group of children, or an engaging storyteller pleasing the crowd with his performance.

In these scenes, you would either describe the action or say the words the NPCs are saying. Be sure to use a story format, though, else you have fallen into the dreaded players-watching-GM trap.

A good way to create a story format is to describe the action and summarize conversation. Keep things happening and active. Describe NPCs doing things. “Roghan then interrupts the Speaker of the House. He makes a quip about crumbs in Bruno’s beard and says that policy should be to use stealth. Bruno jumps out of his seat at that and lunges at Roghan, who dances out of the way laughing. You can tell these are old enemies. A sudden loud pounding of the Speaker’s gavel restores order, but he has to pound several times and yell for order before Bruno takes his seat.”

Be sure to make the scene important in at least one way for the PCs. Use to it advance the plot by revealing clues, for example. Another is to provide excellent intelligence about people, places or things so the characters are well informed and have more tactical options in future encounters.

More subtle benefits to PCs could include revealing NPC weaknesses, motives or personality traits that give characters more game options moving forward. For example, in a recent session I mentioned an NPC had a weakness for women. A specific type, actually, but it’s up to the PCs now to learn that and figure out if and how they want to leverage that intel. Either way, this one revealed trait gives the game more options, and cut-scenes are great ways to reveal this type of information.

If you opt to roleplay out the scene, then make it an enthusiastic performance. Get out of your chair and mimic the body language of speakers. Use accents. Use props. Walk around the table. Do everything you can to help players figure out instantly who is talking at any given moment.

If your group is comfortable with this, have players stand up and help be props for your narrative. Make one player pretend to be a curtain so you can stand behind him and have a disembodied voice speak from time to time. Another player could be a door. And another is a jester who has no role or words to say in the scene, but it adds great fun to the game for him.

Prepare a cheat sheet in advance if you do not expect players to record all names, clues and other important information in real time. Nothing is worse than giving the performance of your GMing career and then have all the energy leave the room and game as players start to clarify what was said in the roleplay. Worse are players who interrupt. “How do you spell that name?”

With a cheat sheet prepared, you can assure everyone they can just sit back and listen and enjoy.

Interactive

I feel this option is better gaming than pure cut-scenes. Interactive scenes are just like cut-scenes as outlined above, but you allow the PCs to do things while the scene is taking place.

I use initiative to ensure everyone is getting spotlight time, and to ensure I do not forget the presence of the PC in the scene in case it’s important. For example, some characters have always-on keen senses, and they’d be able to detect things that take place during a cut-scene. If I forget about these PCs and their powers, then I create logical flaws, and players will get frustrated.

For initiative, I usually start with the player on my left and go around the table. Reflexes and reaction time is not important, and it saves a bit of game time, so any player turn order will do.

Isn’t this just playing the game? Why yes it is! Good catch. Interactive scenes where the PCs are mingling in a crowd of spectators is just a standard encounter, which is why I prefer it to GMing cut-scenes.

To make these encounters fun and interactive, try this:

  • Have several mini-encounters prepared, at least one for each PC. A mini-encounter could last the whole encounter as a sideline thing, or be over in one or two turns. For example, pick pockets working the crowd – they attempt to rob a PC or a PC witnesses a robbery. Another example would be two NPCs quietly arguing over something – a PC hears and will want to listen or intervene because the argument is over something relevant.
  • Vendors offer interesting things for sale. Let PCs who wish do some shopping while listening to the NPCs.
  • Quick roleplays. Introduce interesting NPCs in the crowd. This is an awesome way to bring future important NPCs into games – during unrelated events. Perhaps someone leans over and comments to a PC about the goings on. Or perhaps a PC stands beside a heckler – how does the PC react?
  • Skill use. Make a list of each PC’s top three skills. Look for ways those skills could be brought to bear. Stealth and Diplomacy provide lots of options. But even Rope Use could let a PC save the day with an emergency tie or preventing a simple hazard. Perhaps a PC has difficulty seeing what’s going on, so a great jump might let him get to a higher vantage point.
  • Start a fight. The action is supposed to be centred on the NPCs giving the performance – a debate, a play, an exchange of insults, or what have you. However, some players get bored quick. Give them something to fight and let the other players continue to pay attention to the NPCs and report back on what the brawling PC(s) missed.
  • Gambling. Side bets offer a way for players to roleplay and earn a little treasure. Even something mundane like a debate can attract NPCs who want to bet on who will win, or how long it takes for a certain NPC to nod off, or an RPG version of meeting bingo.
  • A volunteer from the crowd. The NPCs need someone from the crowd for some reason. Perhaps it’s to keep the lanterns lit during a breezy night. Perhaps they are asked questions as a random representative of The Average Joe to prove an NPC’s point. Maybe it’s a magic act, lol.

A caveat to interactive NPC scenes is to not follow a rigid script. The PCs are guaranteed to derail such a script – the format is interactive, after all. Instead, create a list of key messages, key actions or situations you hope to play out. Turn this into a checklist and do your best to have NPCs accomplish them, but always be factoring in the actions of PCs and intelligently causing NPCs to react.

When making your checklist, do not put mission-critical items last in the timeline. Avoid a timeline altogether, if you can help it.

I know you want to build up the drama, create a rising sequence of escalating actions or emotions, or establish a logical sequence of an argument, but if this is essential then consider doing a cut-scene instead.

If possible though, get the key items done early or mid-encounter so you have a good chance of triggering them before things go haywire (and they will go haywire).

PCs watching each other

This is great gameplay and not an issue in this discussion. I only include it here to complete the list of interaction types. If PCs want to get up and make speeches, let them. If they make long speeches, then turn the scene into an interactive encounter, go around the table taking turns, and let the PCs run interference on each other. :)

Players watching the DM

This category kills games. Short bursts of attention are fine. But if you stage your own lengthy plays before the players, they’ll get bored and frustrated. RPGs are meant to be interactive.

However, as mentioned, you probably have visions in your head of a specific scene, a series of events, and a grand finale. Perhaps your debate is to end in a declaration of war, or enemy knights burst in at the peak drama point and start slaying the debaters.

Unless your players expect such type of gameplay, they will regard your scene as a normal encounter and expect to be able to take actions. They will want to talk to other NPCs, or intervene in the main scene taking place, or start trouble.

Players watching the DM is a great way to start a new campaign, or end one. But everything in between should be interactive. Expect players to want to get involved in your debate, and plan accordingly.

If you absolutely must have PCs be passive witnesses, then tell them up front what you want. “Guys, this is a short scene and an important one. Normally you’d be able to interact and do things, but in this case I’d like to you just soak it all in. I won’t do this often, but think of it like a scene out of a movie or book where you do not have the spotlight for a few moments. I’ll try to be quick.”

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer:

Johnn’s advice is excellent, and has given me a lot to work with. I knew when I read the question what it was that I wanted to say in reply, but was struggling to find the terminology to express what it is that I do. Johnn has very helpfully solved that for me and so it’s full speed ahead.

I use “players watching the GM” a lot in the situation described by Robert’s question. Why don’t my campaigns crash-and-burn as a result? Because I integrate the other types of interaction into the gameplay.

Here’s how I do it:

  • I start by preparing a script, more-or-less in bullet form, although I may compose specific passages in full if a particularly evocative or important phrasing comes to me – this is purely a matter of inspiration; mostly it’s a summary of what subjects the NPC with the spotlight is going to talk about and any key notes on style, revelations to be included, and admissions to be avoided. I make sure to note what each of the key participants’ objectives are during the dialogue and to have prepared notes to myself on “what is really going on” in the scene.
  • I make sure that there is a dead spot, with nothing important being revealed, following each revelation – so I can keep going when the players start buzzing with conversations amongst themselves. These are presumed to be private and whispered unless I have told the players in advance that they are separated and can’t communicate with each other – something that I prefer to avoid. I make sure that if there’s information to which the players are going to react, there is also a subgroup within the audience that will react noisily and disrupt the speech long enough for the players to get their own reactions off their chests.
  • I make sure that the information being presented matters to the PCs and that the players know it through deduction or through prior insights on the part of their characters, in play.
  • I build in pauses which permit me to step into interactive mode to get PC reactions from the players, and permit them to ask me questions.
  • And finally, most important of all, I make sure that the players always have the feeling that they can choose to act, switching the encounter from passive observation to PC-NPC interaction, at any time. The knowledge that they can do so (with consequences) takes all the sting out of what is usually a bad position for the game to be in, because it means that staying quiet and passively watching events unfold IS a choice of action by the players.

That last point is so important, let me restate it: Let the choice of modes be the PLAYERS’ choice, not the GM’s.

Something that I tried in the Druidic encounter that Robert referred to in his question, and that worked very well, was ensuring that the PCs each had a different faction to keep an eye on, different things to look for, and so on – one was watching the speech, another was watching the crowd in general, and another was monitoring a specific faction for reactions. By integrating a description of the perceptions of the different PCs into the narrative, and describing these observations from the perspective of the relevant hidden PC, I naturally jump from a passive-player mode into interactive mode and then back again. While this is not always possible, it worked so well that I will definitely be on the lookout for opportunities to incorporate this refinement to the technique in the future.

Hope this helps, Robert!

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