To begin this article, I need to share a story and a recent insight relating to it. Bear with me, and it will all become relevant in the end…
An excerpt from my musical history
When I was growing up, the family lived first 38 miles (61 km) out of, and then within, a small country town in rural New South Wales (as I described in Location, Location, Location: Nyngan). Music was something that was played on the radio, or very occasionally on the TV (two channels), or that came on Vinyl, my aunt Lyn’s 45 rpm collection in particular, and later another Aunt’s 8-track. Live music? No such thing.
This foundation forever colored my expectations and experience of music. Recorded music was all about the LP, the best parts of which (in the opinion of the artist [in my more naive period] / record company [from about 12 years old]) were excerpted to be singles, choices I didn’t always agree with. I was 4 or 5 years old when I got a wind-up record player for Christmas (from memory, it broke fairly quickly) and a couple of LPs – I remember a Ray Brown And The Whispers, though I am no longer sure which – I suspect it may have been their 1968 compilation album “hits & more 1965-1968” but I’m not sure.
Growth in interest
The family had a more substantial record player from about when I was 11, and it was about then that Countdown started on TV and I became more seriously aware of music. For birthdays and Christmas and occasionally from saved pocket money (though most of mine went on Comics), the occasional K-Tel compilation album entered my collection, mostly with lurid names like “Explosive Hits ’73” and “Ripper ’76”. I still have almost all of these!
At about the age of 15 or 16, I got a high-quality cassette player (separate bass and tone controls!) through Reader’s Digest (thanks to my Grandmother), and joined a record club, beginning to buy LPs of my own. But by this point, my conceptual foundation of music was fairly strongly established.
Perceptions Of Music
I viewed albums as a collection of songs from which I was quite happy to cherry-pick the ones that I liked while ignoring those that did not interest me. The rawness of live albums was a turn-off (and still is), not a vehicle for capturing the excitement of a live performance.
The songs on an album were not like the chapters in a book, which needed to be read in sequence to understand the story; they were an anthology of short stories which could individually be taken or left. I even evolved a rating system to guide me in what albums were worth buying, given my limited income – one out of 5 for each previous album by the artist containing at least 3 songs that I liked, and one out of five for every song from the album that I heard and liked; the pass-mark started at 4, and moved either up or down depending on my financial state at the time.
Reactions & Alternate Perceptions
This attitude totally horrified some people that I met online in the late 90s, who insisted that albums needed to be thought of as a conceptual whole with a defined beginning, middle, and end, and could not be properly appreciated in the sort of piecemeal fashion that was my habit. While I was prepared to concede the point in terms of some exceptions, notably concept albums that told a deliberate story in sequential fashion like “The Wall”, for the most part an album simply happened to be the best songs available to the artist at the time, and what I liked was simply what I liked.
It was certainly a very different perspective than that of my more urban contemporaries who grew up in one of the major cities. To many of them, live music was what mattered, and LPs were simply distillations of performances polished a bit for radio consumption. It was only when I began attending university in 1981 that I saw a rock band, live – from memory, it was a free concert on the grounds in front of the university Library, and I’m not even 100% sure of the name of the act. It would be many years before I became even an irregular concert-goer.
The benefits Of Shuffle-Mode
This was an attitude to music that was to yield unexpected benefits at times. I was an inveterate maker of compilations of my personal favorites, and became hyper-aware that some songs worked at the start of an album, some worked at the end, and some could not be paired with each other successfully, no matter how strong they might be on their own.
There have been albums that sounded totally rubbish to me the first time I listened to them. Toto’s “Fahrenheit” and Def Leppard’s “Slang” come immediately to mind as examples. Each contained one song that I thought was OK, and a lot of absolute rubbish. In both cases, it was only when I engaged shuffle mode on my CD player that I was able to listen to the songs on the album without each coloring my perceptions of the song that followed – and discovered (much to my surprise) that each contained 6 or 7 songs that were really enjoyable and interesting. If I had followed the maxim of “the whole album”, these would have been relegated to an undeserved fate on the scrap-heap.
This also mirrors my first experience with The Lord Of The Rings. Someone had checked “The Fellowship Of The Ring” out of the local Library and not returned it, so my first reading of the trilogy started with “The Two Towers”. One of my long-time friends has never read the books; he started with “Fellowship” and found it moving too slowly to retain his interest. Certainly, if I had started in that fashion, I might not have read the whole trilogy either. But, because I picked up the action mid-way through as it were, the relative slowness of “Fellowship” did not have a chance to contaminate my enjoyment, and when I finally read the first book, it was in the knowledge that it was leading to the books that I had already read and enjoyed.
The same thing happened with David Eddings’ pair of trilogies, The Elenium and The Tamuli. I had read and enjoyed The Belgariad and The Mallorean (each a five-book series), but the cover art and blurb for The Diamond Throne gave me the impression that it was a fantasy-oriented romance novel – which held zero interest for me. It was only when I was given a copy of The Shining Ones (fifth book in the double-trilogy) and quite enjoyed it that I became motivated to search out the earlier parts.
There’s a lesson in those experiences that’s worth remembering – if you start reading a book series or watching a TV show that has been very highly-rated and you can’t see what all the fuss was about, skip ahead a few chapters, or to the next book in the series. If you find what you read more enjoyable that what you were initially reading, you will then be motivated to go back and fill in the blanks.
In summary – three Perceptions
So there are three different ways of looking at an album of recorded music. The first is holistically; the whole, indivisible, and an album is only as strong as it’s weakest link; the second is as a polished representation of a dynamic process (live music), which exists only to further that dynamic process; and the third is the cherry-picking approach, where each piece of content stands or falls on its own.
The RPG Parallel – 1
I look at a lot of things from a similar cherry-picking perspective. The rules of an RPG, for example.
There is, in my view, a hierarchical structure to RPG rules: The whole body of rules that are in effect is divided into Mechanics Systems, which may be sub-subdivided into Mechanics Subsystems, both of which are sub-sub-subdivided into Textual Information, Mechanics Operations and Tabulated Data Points, the latter of which may reflect some function of a defined variable.
That might not be all that clear, so let me offer a real-life example from 3.x / Pathfinder:
- The whole body of rules = (for simplicity) the Core Rulebooks
- One Mechanics System would be the combat resolution system. Another would be the magic system.
- The combat resolution system is divided into mechanics subsystems for initiative & surprise, for attack resolution, for damage resolution, for hit point (i.e. damage capacity) and for damage recovery (amongst others).
- The attack resolution subsystem is sub-subdivided into mechanical operations for calculating Armor Class and another for calculating attack bonus, plus a table of tactical effects and modifiers, plus textual information in the form of feats which, if in operation, can modify the rules and/or their application.
I am perfectly happy to cherry-pick alternatives to any of these, with the scope of the rules layer defining the consequences in terms of affected game mechanics. I might:
- Change the way a feat works, or add an additional feat; and/or
- Change one or more of the tactical modifiers, or add some new ones; and/or
- Replace the armor table with a different one;
- Change one or more of the mechanical operations, for example changing the way Armor Class is calculated; and/or
- Change the way dice rolls are interpreted to resolve attacks, incorporating a more lenient critical hit/fumble system for example; and/or
- Change the way hit points are calculated to make characters more or less vulnerable to a successful attack; or even,
- Replace the entire combat system with one adapted from some other RPG, for example Rolemaster.
Of course, I probably wouldn’t do all these things; priority would be given to those parts of the system that don’t work very well, in terms of in-play efficiency, such as the rules for grappling. Second priority goes to anything that brings about a desired change in game balance or flavor; and so on.
The rules are a jigsaw puzzle of pieces made of putty, all with the same shape but with different images on them, and by changing the content of some (and, if necessary, stretching it out of shape to make it fit) I can change part or all of the “image” that results.
In other words, I cherry-pick the rules that I dislike or that get in the way of the campaign that I want to run, and cut them out – replacing them with something else if necessary.
And, just as with music, there are are people out there who are horrified by this approach, believing that the rules are sacrosanct, and that making any of these changes means that the game is not D&D / Pathfinder any more; and there are those who go even further than I do, sacrificing the “purity” of the game for a far simpler system that may be less precise but which operates far more quickly, increasing the excitement of a combat by discarding some of the nuance, polish, and detail. Heck, I do that myself on a case-by-case basis, going into “cinematic mode” when the excitement of a situation is worth compromising the reality-simulation of detail for.
Arguing about rules is like arguing over what style of music is best. It’s impossible for anyone to say “this system is the best” because we all use different standards and have different criteria by which we render an absolutely subjective and often instinctive judgment; which means, of course, that as soon as such an opinion is disagreed with, we automatically become defensive and try to justify and rationalize those judgments. What’s more, because this response is so primal, it can lead to people becoming wedded to their positions against all logic and discounting the opinions of anyone who disagrees with them. That’s the ugly psychological truth at the bottom of every edition war that there has ever been.
The RPG Parallel – 2
The adventures in a campaign are full of cherry-picking when you write them the way I do. Readers should have noted the way I synopsized scenes into one-line summaries in the course of Character Incapability: The distant side of the coin last week; but when it comes to a finished adventure, there is a lot of cherry-picking that goes on.
In particular, cherry-picking occurs in three major respects:
- The sequence in which a series of scenes occurs;
- The entry point into a scene;
- The exit point from a scene.
To demonstrate my point, and talk about how and why I cherry-pick events in these respects, I’m going to revisit the plot of the Adventurer’s Club adventure that is currently underway, focusing on the part of the adventure that has just been played. Once again, I’m going to synopsize it, but into less generic and abstract terminology than I did in the “Character Incapability” article. In effect, this is reverse-engineering the adventure as written and as played, because these one-line summaries are essentially the outlines that were used to write each scene in detail. I’m going to annotate the one-line scene summaries with notations like (PC) and (NPC) (so that readers know who’s who) and from time to time interject commentary about the events described, which I will place in a box.
All set? Then let’s begin:
Annotated Synopsis & Analysis of “Boom Town” session 1
- Adventure prelude – show growth of Manhattan over 50 years through illustrations. Reputation of New York City is world-wide as “The Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, the financial capital of the world, the economic powerhouse of America, the place where something is ALWAYS happening.”
- Intro adventure. Note that it is set in early January.
The Prelude highlights one possible interpretation of the title.
- Scene 1a: The 54th Street Mission (Picture):
- Remind Father O’malley (PC) he shares the rectory with Father Brian Donnelly (NPC) (Picture).
- Father O’malley (PC) reading the newspaper. Loud crash from the kitchen, breakables break.
- Dialogue from Father Donnelly (NPC, Irish Accent) – “I’m OK”, “it was a huge rat”.
- Briefly roleplay interaction and decision of action by Father O’Malley (PC).
- Scene 1b: At The Adventurer’s Club:
- Stefan (PC) is having breakfast in the Dining Room (Picture)
- …is interrupted by loud yelling from Trish’s (NPC, Picture) Office, demanding Exterminators act immediately. Mention of American Heart Association’s Tenth Anniversary Dinner which she is organizing.
- Briefly roleplay interaction between them.
A couple of notes:
- While each of these scenes only has one PC present, they are “public” and conducted within the hearing of all the other players. This enables me to cherry-pick scenes on the assumption that the other players have heard what is going on.
- Because the scenes all share the one narrative purpose, they are “1a”,”1b” and so on, and not “1”,”2″, etc.
- The American Heart Association’s 10th Anniversary Dinner will be a connecting point to other, later scenes.
- And these are all considered part of the one larger Scene 1 in that each establishes where the PCs are and what they are doing at the start of the adventure.
- Scene 1c: At The Adventurer’s Club:
- Dr Hawke (PC, show picture for the 1st time) is in his room (picture), reading the newspaper.
- A knock on his door; it’s Roger Deitz (NPC, Picture), the official administrator of the club. Asks to consult.
- Roger wants advice on an effective rat poison that is safe for humans to be around, especially in food preparation areas.
- Briefly roleplay interaction between them.
This reminds the players (especially the player of Dr Hawke) of the PC’s levels of forensic expertise and again mentions rats, forming a recurring theme common to each of the PCs.
- Scene 1d: At the Docks that afternoon:
- Captain Ferguson (PC) watching arrival of Antares (his ship); what the Antares has been doing.
- Ferguson starts up the gangplank to board the ship. “Grey explosion of fur” erupts from sewer drainpipes and swarm of rats runs up the mooring line toward the ship. Overload the Vermin Shield, rats get aboard.
- Briefly roleplay his actions/dialogue with ships’ crew (NPCs).
By now it’s obvious to the players that there’s a rat problem being established within the city at this point in time. This scene acknowledges this and suggests that the problem may be larger than anyone expects. It also progresses the timeline.
- Scene 1e: At The Adventurer’s Club
- Eliza (PC, picture) is in her room (picture) preparing to bathe.
- Encounter with a large rat standing on the side of the tub.
Intros the last of the PCs and develops the theme established so far.
- Scene 2, narrative introduction:
- Newspapers that evening are full of reports of the rat plague. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia promises swift action, makes light of the problem.
- That night, a winter storm dumps 3 feet of snow overnight. Snowploughs clear the streets by piling the snow into drifts 5-8′ tall alongside the footpaths, reducing most streets to single-lane traffic.
- The next day is unseasonably warmth. Storm drains flood.
- A number of churches hold special services to thank God for the snowfall-and-sunshine combination, which seems sure to have drowned the rats plaguing the city.
- Scene 2a: Father O’Malley (PC) is asked to preside over 3 of these services, the heaviest ecclesiastic workload he’s had in years. Briefly roleplay.
- Scene 2b: Captain Ferguson (PC) is inclined to refuel Antares and go elsewhere, but can’t because many other boat owners have the same idea, over-stretching capacity. (interact with player) That afternoon, as the storm-water drains empty into the harbor, the outflow is accompanied by wave after wave of dead rats (action decision by player).
- Scene 2c: Stefan (PC) is approached by Roger Deitz (NPC) and asked to inspect the drainage in the underground car park which is flooded. Roleplay until he agrees, then cut to:
- Scene 2d: Eliza (PC) is asked to see Trish (NPC) and asked to run an errand and check on preparations at the Algonquin Hotel (about 1 block from the club) where The American Heart Associations Tenth Anniversary Dinner is to be held. Mention effects on travel arrangements because of the snowfall. Roleplay until she agrees.
Scene 2 advances the timeline still further.
The narrative introduction was deliberately designed to segue naturally into the first PC sub-scene.
There are two NPCs who have a second appearance.
Again, each of these serves the same narrative function within the plot so they are all considered part of the one scene: Establishing each of the PCs being affected by the situation (bar Dr Hawke). We could have done a little sub-scene for him, too, but that sequence was cherry-picked out of the adventure because Dr Hawke gets a big chunk of spotlight time shortly in the adventure and it didn’t add anything new to the plot.
Instead, we seamlessly continue following Eliza.
- Scene 3a: Eliza (PC) at the Algonquin Hotel: Show hotel (exterior & interior) to establish that it is top-quality. Intro head waiter, Thomas Mitchell (NPC, Picture). He reports that the stored linen has been eaten by rats and the usual linen, while washed, might not dry in time. And he’s a bit concerned over the unusual state of some of the rat corpses. CUT TO:
- Scene 3b: Father O’Malley (PC) is between services. Father Donnelly (NPC) congratulates him for choosing such a successful poison for the rats. There’s only one problem: Father O’Malley has not yet done anything about the rats. Roleplay, let Fr O’malley confirm with his own eyes. CUT TO:
- Scene 3c: Captain Ferguson (PC) in the New York Harbor-master’s Office (Picture) negotiating with the Harbor-master (NPC, picture) when he notices a dead rat on the floor. It seems to be in an unusual state of advanced decomposition (picture). Ferguson knows the Harbor-master to be fussy about the office being thoroughly cleaned, daily – the rat could not possibly have been there long enough to decompose in this fashion. Something *else* is going on. CUT TO
- Scene 3d: Stefan (PC) at the Adventurer’s Club: In the club basement (picture). Stefan’s professional assessment is that it’s flooded, and needs pumping out before a professional could look at improving the drainage. Mention Dr Tesla (who has a lab in the Club) just for the color. He spots a rat floating past, quite dead, but something about it seems strange – he can’t quite put his finger on what it is. A medical inspection might provide answers. Roleplay, let him “capture” the floating rat to get it inspected by Dr Hawke.
A deliberate acceleration of pace, quickly interchanging between the different PCs, raises the intensity of the situation and connects each sub-scene to the one that follows it.
We also chose to start the Harbor-master scene mid-way through the encounter between Captain Ferguson and the Harbor-master for pacing reasons – in effect, cherry-picking just the second half of that scene, which is the only part that is relevant to the adventure. This further quickens the pace.
Similarly, we didn’t pay attention to any preparations Stefan might have made for his inspection (though the player mentioned them) and did not require any engineering check to get his assessment of the situation, joining the character after the inspection had taken place.
Dr Hawke is again name-checked but not featured. By now the players can tell that we’ve just about finished establishing the particulars of the situation and are gradually loosening the reigns and permitting them greater freedom of action; once that process is complete, the players will have total control over what their characters say and do about the situation. Nor do we tell the player of Stefan
Observe that the narrative in each scene extends the overall plot just a little – something strange is reported without specifics in 3a, a strangeness about the circumstances is indicated in 3b and reinforced in 3c, which also contains a description of the strangeness, which leads to the obvious course of action in 3d. Having established the beginning of the adventure, with the PCs apart living their normal daily lives, the next step is to gather them all together to tackle the problem as a group.
- Scene 4a: Eliza (PC) at the Algonquin Hotel: being shown a rat that seems to have died quite some time ago – days, if not weeks. And that seems very unlikely given the state of cleanliness of the rest of the hotel. There’s something *wrong* about it. It might be a good idea to have Dr Hawke take a look at what’s left of the rat. Roleplay briefly.
- Scene 4b: Captain Ferguson (PC) is thinking along similar lines. Roleplay briefly.
- Scene 4c: Father O’Malley (PC), you also are contemplating the professional services of the good Doctor. Roleplay briefly.
- Narrative intro to scene 5: The order they are most likely to arrive in is: Stefan, Eliza, Captain Ferguson, and lastly Fr O’Malley; Stefan is in the same building, Eliza has two blocks’ walk, Captain Ferguson is at the Turtle Bay Docks, about 8 city blocks away, and Fr O’Malley is almost exactly a mile from the club premises. Show them where these locations are, relative to the Club.
While these sequences are short, they help establish the game world and give the players travel times to the club (under normal conditions), information that they can use to base future decisions on. Many of these details had been left vague through the 23 adventures that had preceded this one.
- Scene 5a: Dr Hawke (PC) in the Adventurer’s Club Dining Room is just finishing lunch (Spaghetti Bolognese). Stefan arrives with his captured rat corpse in a toolbox. Roleplay – they decide to take the remains to the Zoology lab (next to Taxidermy) on the 6th floor.
- Scene 5b: Intro the Lab Assistant, Winston “Gus” Osgood (NPC). Roleplay.
- Scene 5c: At first glance, Dr Hawke can ascertain that the rat appeared to have died about a week ago, give or take – rodents aren’t his specialty.
- Scene 5d: Closer inspection (and a successful Forensics roll at penalties) shows that the rat died from drowning in fresh water. Problem: there wasn’t enough fresh water to drown the rat until this morning, yet it’s been dead a week or so.
- Scene 5e: Eliza arrives with her rat (on a silver platter covered by a closh). It appears to have died a week or so ago. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it died of a broken back after someone with big feet stepped on it. Problem: Week-dead rats don’t normally appear in the middle of cleaned rooms a week after being trodden on.
- Scene 5f: Captain Ferguson arrives (with rat in an old shoe wrapped in newspaper). It appears to have died a week or so ago. It’s fur is still wet with Salt Water. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it also drowned in fresh water. Problem: week-dead rats don’t normally appear in the middle of cleaned rooms, and they certainly don’t do so recently enough that their fur is still damp.
- Scene 5g: Father O’Malley arrives (with rat in an old shoe-box). It appears to have died a week or so ago. Examination (Forensic Medicine roll) shows that it died from poisoning of some sort that Dr Hawke has never seen before. Problem: Father O’Malley can state with certainty that nothing of the sort has been present in the Mission’s Basement.
- Scene 5h: Roleplay the PCs discussing the issue.
Captain Ferguson was one of the key drivers of this discussion; his visits to various backwater pacific ports had left him acquainted with the problems that dead rats could cause, and the player asked a couple of critical questions about the drainage in Manhattan (from the middle outward in all directions, rather than predominantly from one side).
- Scene 5i: Taking a closer look (with a magnifying glass or microscope) reveals that each rat is decaying at a far faster rate than normal, for reasons unknown, from the inside out – it has evidently been exposed to something unusual, probably through consumption. Furthermore, there is no strong odor of decomposition, suggestive of a chemical process and not a biological one. This was further indicated when Dr Hawke examined one of the dead rats further and found that flies had in fact lain eggs in the body, but whatever had killed the rats had also killed the unhatched larvae, and found that fleas on the hotel and Mission rats had died before having a chance to leave the corpses. Plague was not going to be a problem.
- Scene 5j: Roleplay discussion of this finding.
- Scene 5k: Prompt further discussion by pointing out that the same substance X has appeared in three distinctly separated parts of the city. Even if the PCs discount the docks because the rats have come from elsewhere through the sewer, that still leaves a large area affected by whatever is happening – and if it can affect people, it puts a lot of people at risk.
- *** Using what they know of where storm water drains empty, the PC with the highest City Knowledge: New York City (this turns out to be Father O’Malley) can assess the absolute minimum area affected by whatever caused the rats to decay on a successful roll – show map of the minimum affected area. Prompt concerns that should affect each PC while leaving it up to the players whether they do or not, and how they are going to react:
- Dr Hawke, there are a lot of people who live in that area, which should worry you.
- Captain Ferguson, there are even more who work in that area. Including your crew.
- Stefan, the area affected is just a block or two away from the Hospital in which your daughter is going to be treated when she arrives, and where Dr Hawke is scheduled to perform surgery on her in just a few days – and you don’t know the full extent of the problem yet.
- Father O’malley, many of the people residing in the affected area are amongst the poorest in the city, including the congregation that you and Father Donnelly minister to. They can cope least well with an additional burden, and are less likely to report a problem and receive medical attention. And that doesn’t even count Father Donnelly himself.
- Eliza, if things are as bad as they look, the US economy might well tank again, and spill effects would devastate *your* homeland’s economy (a reference to a potential recurrence of The Great Depression).
- Roleplay further discussion until the players decide what to do. Answer questions and provide context and background as requested.
There was recurring discussion of Zombie Rats, but that was dismissed – for now, I’m still not sure the players are 100% ruling it out. Discussion of the worst-case scenario involved the need to evacuate and quarantine a band 8 or so blocks deep and right across Manhattan indefinitely, but even doing so temporarily as a precaution would be catastrophic. There was discussion of whether or not the American Heart Association Dinner was being targeted, but the problem was too widespread and indiscriminate for that.
As expected and anticipated, the immediate problems came down to three:
- Immediate Problem #1: Does whatever did this affect humans the same way? How were they going to find out?
- Immediate Problem #2: How much bigger is the affected area than the minimum? How were they going to find out?
- Immediate Problem #3: Who are they notifying and what do they want them to do about it? Who were they going to call?
Discussion of these issues led to a plan to deal with each of them, and of assignments for each member.
Stefan was to get the staff of the Adventurer’s Club library searching for records of anything similar that had ever occurred, anywhere. Leaving them to the task, he was then to gain access to the sewers and attempt to locate a cause. Dr Hawke was to go to the city Morgue and examine bodies from as many different parts of the city as he could manage, looking especially at those cases with no obvious cause of death and any bodies that exhibited unusually rapid decay. Father O’Malley and Captain Ferguson were to bring Mayor LaGuadia into the picture and secure his assistance; police and emergency services needed to be warned, and plans made to implement the worst-case scenario. Eliza (who originally wanted to be on the ‘Mayor’ detail, but who would have been counterproductive as a Canadian) was to go to the hospitals and look for anything strange in their recent cases; the team knew that hospitals would not release medical information unless it was an emergency, and that only pressure from the Mayor’s Office would bring them to accept the urgency. The team were to meet back at the Adventurer’s Club in four hours for an update and to make new plans.
En route to these assignments, the team stopped in Trish’s office to tell her what was happening and get her to use her social connections to smooth their entry into the Mayor’s Office; at best, they would be told to ‘make an appointment’ otherwise, and knew it. Just as she hung up the phone after calling the Mayor’s office, “Gus” Osgood burst into the office with an urgent update: on a hunch, he had re-examined the body of the first rat, which Dr Hawke had preserved in Formaldehyde, and discovered that the process did nothing to halt the accelerated decay of the corpse; what was occurring was clearly a chemical process of some sort – and that posed a threat to the entire city if whatever it was got into the drinking water. With that news, and with a slightly clearer idea of what they were up against, the PCs split up and play concluded for the day.
Sidebar: You may be thinking that this sounds most unlike a Pulp plotline, and so far, you would be somewhat correct. But neither the readers nor the players yet know what is causing the problem, nor how big it really is. They are still grappling with effect and have not yet got any clues as to cause.
As you can see, there have been times where pacing and emotional intensity were enhanced by starting scenes part-way through, and times where the encounter was seen to develop naturally as a result of two characters being in the same place at the same time. There were times when we chose to leave an encounter before it was concluded in order to “check in” with another character. There have even been occasions where we were able to take a scene’s occurrence for granted, and skip over it completely because nothing interesting happened, joining the story later.
These techniques were especially useful when we had multiple PCs all discovering essentially the same information in multiple locations, more or less simultaniously – a situation that could have been incredibly tedious and repetitious if handled any other way.
Quite often, based on information on their daily routines obtained in the course of earlier adventures, we were able to tell the players what their character was doing before anything prior to any event of interest, letting those routines feed the PCs into the adventure in a seamless way until, at the end of the day’s play, the players are calling the shots for the PCs completely.
The sequence in which characters got their slice of spotlight exposure was no accident at any point, but was deliberately designed to share attention out equally, keep the plot developing, and segue naturally from one scene to another.
Each of the PCs made key contributions to the group’s understanding of the situation and its scope either by virtue of who they were and where they were based or through having skills that the others either lacked or did not have as much expertise in.
This is a recipe that we will continue to employ throughout the adventure – cherry-picking the scenes that give the players a chance to play their characters and to progress the plotline. No scene was wasted; they all set something up for later in the day’s play if not contributing directly to the story.
That’s what Cherry-picking really is: selecting what matters from what doesn’t. And that’s why it’s a vital skill for the GM to master.