montage

I was recently re-reading Eisenstein’s Film Form: Essays in Film Theory because this is one of the first times anyone thought really hard about what makes cinema distinct. There are a lot of obvious things (pictures that move) but what Eisenstein dug into was how you use this medium to tell stories, and how that’s unique.

Central to his discussion is the idea of montage, but not in the sense that we mean it today. Rather the idea that film storytelling is best (and now pretty much exclusively) accomplished by cutting together short (often very short) scenes. You’re probably thinking that all media does that.

Nope.

In film these scenes can be tremendously short. We watch so much film (even though it’s not film any more) that we don’t generally notice how short scenes are. In the theatre we might run one continuous scene on stage for minutes or even hours. The story unfolds in real time. Count the cuts in your favourite movie sometime: they last seconds. Parts of it we perceive as one scene, but in fact the camera cuts from face to face to two-shot to establishing shot (yes that sometimes happens in the middle) to flashback to closeup. Very quickly. This whole idea, or at least the formalization of it, is Eisenstein’s. Since writing down the idea, this is pretty much the only way we make movies. The film-maker shoots hours and hours of footage related to the story and then someone — arguably the real genius — grabs fragments from the pile and edits them together to tell a story.

The only things remotely like a sequential story are the script, the storyboard, and the final product. Everything in the middle is chaos and miles and miles of film.

We sometimes use montage in role-playing games in order to collapse a sequence of events into a flashback or to fast-forward through an important, but not important in detail, scene. Like a training montage, which we stole from film.

So in our play theatre, because role-playing games are more like theatre than film, montage has a special effect: it collapses time. It also does something else: it expands experience. That is, it expands “we train for a week” into a set of short mechanical elements you can engage with systematically. This makes the training downtime bigger in our heads. The more often you engage the system the bigger that period of play is. There’s probably a better word for it, but to me it is embiggened.

This last realization, that montage expands, is what led me to the large scale conflict system in Sand Dogs. We want a large scale conflict to be big! One roll is not going to be enough because there’s just not enough narration around a single roll to give the impression of size, of time, and of the complexity of unfolding events. But we (or me anyway) also don’t want to turn the session into a tactical wargame because the details of how the whole conflict unfolds and resolves are just not part of the scope of this game.

IMG_0554
Yes, this example is from actual play and also triggered the creation of this image, which I talked about before.

So, montage. Here’s the rule and an example:

Large scale conflict

Sometimes a conflict is bigger than one player solving something, like a battle. In this case each character should supply their own scene–entirely local to them–in the larger conflict and roll for that. This establishes scenes in a montage for the larger scale conflict.

Once the montage is done you’ll have a set of events that have succeeded or failed, with and without risks being realized. From that, stage a resolving scene taking into account what happened in the montage. If things went badly, stage a desperate escape scene perhaps. If things went well, maybe the conflict is how to mop up or who to save. In any case, the resolving scene is a normal scene with one player as primary and it completes the conflict. Set the risk accordingly.

Example

A group of plucky defenders entrenched with help from the players is under attack by aircraft, armoured cars, and infantry. Montage!

Jesus crews the machinegun and tries to shoot down the aircraft. Risk is cost (planning to destroy the players’ vehicle) but a roll of 8 on their Violence and one of the aircraft goes down trailing smoke. The other breaks off.

Hoberman stands up shouting orders leveraging their tactical knowledge — they have Know at d10 and a specialization of Violence. They know their stuff! Risk is harm and they roll a pair of 1s and get wounded. Also that fail indicates that this montage will fail!

Duarte triggers the explosives they set up while preparing defenses using Mischief with risk waste. They roll a fail as well and the explosives go off too close and too early. Many are wounded and the players’ half-track is flipped over destroying all their stores of fuel and water.

Now things are bad so the ref stages the resolution scene: the enemy overruns the outer position at great cost and the fighting is now hand to hand. Hoberman needs assistance and the half-track is not accessible. What do you do?

Jesus takes the lead, stealing a friendly motorcycle and sidecar to escape the battlefield, rolling Chase. Duarte helps with their Locate skill, identifying a vehicle with the keys still in it. The ref chooses the risk to be delay: if they fail then they are captured. If they succeed but realize the risk then they are forced to flee in the direction of open desert without any supplies. If they succeed without realizing the risk then they escape and find their way to town.

What we find is that expanding the one roll to three individual rolls, focused on individual experience and each with its own resolution, is sufficient to expand the action in scale. And then an interpretation on the part of the ref (what do those rolls mean happens next) leads to one roll that wraps up the conflict. That’s a montage in both the folk sense and the film theory sense. We make a bigger thing seem big enough by stitching together some short things. And we engage those short things mechanically which expands their time-on-screen in play because mechanism takes more time to operate for the amount of narration it generates. And we somewhere in our brains decode time in play as a satisfying amount of time in scene.

3 thoughts on “montage

  1. I really dig this idea at a general level – in a large scale scene, we spotlight each player doing something, and their overall performance informs the resolution of the scene.

    You could almost mechanize it if you have an odd number of players.

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    1. Yeah right now I leave the resolution to the ref for interpretation but you could easily mechanize it. My first draft was “if there’s one or more failures, the large scale endeavour fails” but I found that large scale conflicts have much richer possible outcomes. Maybe just “outcome will generally be sort of negative” though.

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      1. It feels like the Mouseguard/Torchbearer compromise styles could work: if you succeed with no failures, you get what you want and they don’t; otherwise, each side gets some of their goal based on successes or failures.

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