Let’s say you’re playing a game in which the ref is framing a scene. Not a huge stretch here since this is basically all of traditional RPG gaming and a lot of the rest of it. I think what follows will apply to other patterns of play as well, but let’s stick to what we know here. So you (the ref) are framing a scene.
What do you want? You want the players to engage with something, make choices, and consequently cause the wheels of the system to turn and have that machine generate whatever it generates. That’s the reason we buy games, right? We are buying a machine and it’s up to use to get it started and keep it moving. The beginning of a scene is how the engine gets started.
How do you do that? Usually you want to get to an event. Now you might start with casual discussion between characters and NPCs but this will usually stall in banalities unless something external HAPPENS. And event. As ref, probably your most useful input to the game is to craft events. Ad libbing based on the results of events is maybe the next bit. But it’s up to you to push the starter on this engine. The rest of the players shoulder a substantial burden as well: to engage with it. And, in the best of all possible games, to start stirring up their own shit, their own events, to feed the engine. But as ref even if you don’t see it as your responsibility to start shit (as in, say, a pure sandbox where you are mostly reacting) it is still a tool in your kit.
In my games I expect the ref to kick things off.
In thinking about this, about events that define scenes, I find three “scopes of engagement” for the players and their characters. Each is very different, has different results, and different values at different times. I think that recognizing these three scopes and understanding them lets us use them deliberately rather than instinctively or accidentally and that has to be a good thing.
This is an event in which the players have no initial investment. It happens to a place or person or thing that we haven’t discussed yet and so the players cannot have invented an investment in it. That’s not to say it won’t be affecting, in fact we hope it will! But since nothing about the event has any relevance to the player (not the character! We may find that the character is incredibly invested, but that’s super important: we are going to find this out) it does not require (and does not benefit from) any kind of decision tree.
The event happens and the players react. The event is a done deal, a fait accomplis. It is an instigator.
Since we’re all big fucking nerds, let’s use Star Wars for an example.
Han Solo jumps into Alderaan system and it’s nothing but rubble. That’s the event. The Empire has destroyed an entire planet. Before this event Han’s player knew nothing about Alderaan — we hadn’t discussed it, it’s not on their character sheet. Their introduction to Alderaan is its destruction. Consequently the player cannot be invested in it yet. Consequently we don’t need a big decision tree leading up to it. We present it.
What happens next in the scene is the reaction to the event. Facts have been established about the Empire’s ruthlessness, their evil. Players will want to investigate, maybe find survivors, maybe punish the wicked. At this scope of engagement, the uninvested event, we generate investment. All of the scene is about reaction. This is a self-guided missile, a fire-and-forget tool for the ref. Kick it off and ad lib against the player reactions.
Here we have an event that will affect something the players are invested in though not, critically, their character. We have already somehow established investment through backstory, prior play, mechanical elements, or some other method. We know about the thing that will be threatened by the event and we already care about it.
As referee you have carefully chosen this event to threaten something players are invested in. You have deliberately selected this scope for the scene.
When the players are invested we want them to be able to change the apparent course of events and consequently there must be decision points built into the scene: when you threaten something players are invested in, they must be able to act to affect the outcome. That’s the whole reason you chose this scope. So as ref, don’t get too invested in a particular outcome. You kicked the hornet’s nest and your plans get what they deserve: player agency.
Star Wars again suits me for illustration.
Princess Leia is threatened by assorted villains on the Death Star: cough up the rebel info or we destroy your homeworld! Well, shit, Leia’s extensive backstory notes are full of info about Alderaan! Her first girlfriend is there, her prized record collection, her family, her friends. It’s all in the backstory. Of course you read it, that’s why you’re threatening to blow it up!
Leia’s character is invested. They are motivated to stop this. As ref, this is the hinge of your scene! Betray everything you believe in and we’ll keep your planet safe otherwise it’s plasma. A moral dilemma (and this is the scope in which they thrive) — betray your most earnestly held beliefs or save your family, your friends, and people you don’t even know? A decision point. Not a chain of them, this isn’t suddenly positional combat on a grid, but at least one.
Leia decides to give the information but lie. The baddies destroy Alderaan anyway. I guess she should have put more points in SOCIAL but maybe when she levels up the player can think about that. In the meantime, angst, betrayal, and further investment in something that matters (the course of the narrative) at the expense of something that matters less (backstory). I use expense deliberately: backstory is a currency. We use it to buy things. If we don’t spend it, it’s not useful. Spend backstory.
At this scope characters are directly threatened. We don’t care about investment because we are going to be in a situation where they have to act because the bad thing is happening to them now. This is the easiest way to engage the system but none of these scopes are “best”! They do totally different things. This one is the easiest, most mechanical, but does not always provide the most (or even a lot) of change within the story.
This is because it is defined by multiple, perhaps many, decision points that are focused solely on the event and not the story arc. We are zooming in, blow by blow, making choices that are critical in the moment (I draw my knife!) but irrelevant from a larger scale. Ultimately there is still only one hinge here — what is the end state when the smoke clears — and a lot of decisions. It’s a lot of system engagement for comparatively little story change.
But! But we’re here to engage the system. Not better. Not worse. Different. We play the game at a minor expense to story (per unit time).
Star Wars fails us here, at least in the Alderaan scene, so let’s look at a character that never got mentioned: Planetary Defense Captain Olberad Pinch! While everyone else is wringing their hands or waiting for fireworks, Olberad Pinch has a problem with multiple decision points! Now we all know they failed utterly, but look at the expenditure in table time to get there. And it was very important and interesting for Pinch’s player.
Detection. A moon-sized warship enters the Alderaan system! What do Planetary Defenses do? That’s in Pinch’s capable tentacles. They investigate, gather information, determine the next course of action. Maybe send ships — maybe Pinch is on one and their story ends in a lopsided dogfight! Maybe they escape!
Action. The Death Star is determined to have planet destroying weapons and is powering up! Did you get spies aboard? Was Pinch one of them? What about the planetary railguns? The local fighter swarm? Sure, all of these things obviously failed, but there are one or more detailed, system-engaging scenes here. In game time, this space which is largely unseen in the movie, could be multiple sessions, maybe the bulk of a months play. This is the nature of the Affected scope! It’s about your character, not just something you like! You care this much!
Climax! The Death Star is powering up! If you’re not in a position to stop it maybe you can escape? Evade TIE fighters in your shuttle just in time? With who? Which eight people did you select? And where are you going now? Again detail, lots of table time, all to save your ass.
Those are the three scopes of engagement I can think of for a scene. Each requires a different level of planning or ad libbing from the ref. Each has different expectations about the players and uses their character sheets differently. Each has a place, makes different things happen. If you over-use one habitually, think about the others. Think about ways you can fabricate investment with uninvested scenes. Think about ways you can engage the system by explicitly threatening characters.Think about ways you can make a scene-staging event interesting by picking on investments the player has declared right there on the character sheet (and incidentally this is why the lonely loner backstory will always be the most useless — if the character cares about nothing then a third of the tools are obviated — if you take anything away from this as a player it should be that the more your character clearly cares about things the more interesting things can happen to them).