Anarchy Primer: The Scene
In this Surprise Threat! we will talk about The Scene.
The Scene can be thought of as the sum of all related Narrations. The Scene is also the smallest unit of storytelling that can stand on its own, in that it has a Beginning, Middle, and an End. You could potentially tell a whole story within one Scene. The true value of a Scene, however, is in building an engaging, challenging, and consequential Contract Brief. To talk about The Scene, we will break it down into its Beginning, Middle, and End (in that order), and into components of Engagement, Challenge, and Consequence (not in that order).
By Engagement, I mean grabbing and holding a player’s attention with interaction and purpose. It’s not enough to just grab their attention; you can do that by yelling at them. It’s not always enough to interact with them; you can do that by attacking them. To be fulfilling for the players, the engagement must have purpose as well. The players need to be needed for something.
By Challenge, I mean putting a variety of skills and resources to the test. It’s not enough to test only the skills at which the character excels; you should test the character’s weak points as well. Put characters into difficult situations where they must use a variety of resources (Contacts/Gear, Edge, Plot Points, Karma, Street Cred) to figure out how to prevail. The players need to overcome something.
By Consequence, I mean that the player’s actions have lasting and meaningful effects, both on the success of the run and on the campaign world at large. Don’t make the players overcome the same set of obstacles regardless of what path the runners take. The players should also be shown, over the course of the Scene, Contract Brief, or Campaign Arc, that their actions come back to them, sometimes to bite, sometimes to reward. The players need to change something.
THE SET UP
You may want to consider the following tools for running a Scene:
Tokens: Aside from Plot Point Tokens you might want a few more tokens. If you use the optional rules for Target Tokens (p. 54), you will want some tokens to represent them. You could also just jot down marks and erase them when used. If you use my house rules for Chase Scenes, you may also want Chase Tokens. If you use my house rules for Influence Resolution, you may want Influence/Resolve Tokens. I use colored plastic beads for all of these.
Trackers: You might find a Scene Tracker useful for remembering Hard Points (see below) and recording important Narration events. If you are using my house rules for Crawl Montages, a Location Tracker is helpful. If you are running a whole Campaign Arc, then a Plot Tracker can be useful for tracking factions and enemies. I use the linked documents.
Obviously, there are lots of ways to build a Scene. These are the considerations that I make when designing and running a Scene. Hopefully they can help those new to Shadowrun: Anarchy.
The beginning of the Scene is what gives the whole Scene its momentum. Aside from the recommendations I discussed in Anarchy Primer: The Narration for the First GM Narration, you should consider the following:
Reiterate Objectives and Motivations of the PCs: Before the First GM Narration, take the time to remind your players why they are here, in this particular Scene, and what they are here to accomplish. They should have clear Objectives (even if there are also undisclosed Objectives) and some clear Motivations. Your players are building this story with you and they need something to build toward and a reason to do so. Without clear Objectives and Motivations, the players can flounder and the Scene will begin with little momentum. How the players come to and handle their Objectives (known and undisclosed) will determine if the run will succeed or fail. (Consequence)
Review Objectives and Motivations of the NPCs: Take a bit more time before the First GM Narration to review (to yourself) the Objectives and Motivations of NPCs in the Scene. When your NPCs have clear Motivations, you can narrate realistic and dynamic Conflict (as discussed in The Narration). When your NPCs have competing or alternate Objectives, you can add Challenge by forcing your players to thwart those Objectives rather than simply complete their own. Perhaps, in addition to winning a shoot-out, the NPCs can also succeed by calling in reinforcements or locking down a section of a facility. Now your players have to contend with the immediate physical conflict and stop a competing Objective. (Challenge)
Start at the First Interesting Engagement: Do not start the Narrations with the planning stage of a run. Have the players suss out the plan in Talk Time, roleplay any communication with Contacts, etc., but THAT is not the first Scene. You can even skip travel Narrations as the team gets into place because THAT is not the first Scene either (unless getting to the location IS the first Scene, such as in a Crawl Montage or a Chase Scene). The first Scene should start at the first interesting engagement – the first time a player’s skills or resources can be tested with purpose. Skip the trivial engagements. For instance, if the team could easily get over the security fence, start on the other side of the fence, already hidden, and waiting in the shadows for the CorpSec patrol to pass by. (Engagement)
Once you have prepared the Objectives/Motivations and have begun the Scene with some momentum by starting with players already engaged, you will get to the meat of the Scene. The middle part is when you need to focus most on rewarding Plot Points for good Narrations and good role-playing. This middle part can go in a lot of unexpected directions and that is okay and even desired. But for the Contract Brief to follow any kind of satisfying story arc, there are a few things that you should consider:
Hard Points Events: When writing up a Scene (as part of a Contract Brief, discussed later), there are certain beats and events that really must happen for the Scene to have purpose and pose a challenge. I call these beats Hard Points. Hard Points can be static (“The door is mag-locked.”) or conditional (“An HTR Team is on site and can be dispatched quickly.”). Having Hard Points, as opposed to improvising every beat, allows you to distribute proper challenge to each player throughout the Scene or Contract Brief. I find that limiting Hard Points to three per Scene, maintains a good balance between freedom of story and an evenly-spread challenge. (Challenge)
Re-Evaluate Spotlight Time: Spotlight Time is about the moments in a Scene where an individual player can shine, when a player is fully engaged and can show off their strengths (perhaps a Skill or a particular Cue or Disposition). Players likes to show off what they can do. Keep an eye out for player engagement throughout the Scene. Players who have a hard time deciding what to do might be directionless because they feel they have no current purpose. Give them purpose by imposing obstacles with the intention of inclusion (i.e. if the mage is bored, bring on a magical obstacle or threat). If you know a Hard Point is coming up which will let them shine, consider speeding the Scene along to that point. (Engagement)
Plot Point Events: Most of the time, you can use your GM Narration to trigger Hard Points onto the Scene when the time comes. You simply narrate the players coming to the mag-locked door or you narrate the HTR team breaching the wall and filling the room with thermal smoke and bullets, etc. Sometimes the player Narrations will cause a beat to be skipped or bypass your Hard Point altogether. If that is the case, do not invalidate or rewind the player’s Narration. Just use a Plot Point to make it happen when needed (if it really needs to happen). The Surprise Threat! Plot Point can be an unseen threat or an unseen obstacle or a plot twist. You should also use Plot Points to introduce unplanned events caused by the players’ actions. Like those gangers they pissed off in an earlier Scene coming for payback. (Consequence)
Even if you think of the Scene as just a small part of a larger story, individual Scenes are more fulfilling to players when they follow some sort of arc. Pick any narrative structure you want from any storytelling technique you want, but most of them, one way or another, move from Discovery to Conflict to Climax to Denouement (or winding down). No matter how you look at it, a story arc always has a Climax with a short winding down afterwards.
It is important for the Climax of the Scene to: A) come toward the end of the Scene, B) come toward the end of the game session, if possible, C) be a focal point of the Scene’s central conflict, and D) be the most difficult challenge of the Scene. Some considerations:
Press the Climax: When you get to the Climax of the Scene, even if it ends up being a different Climax that you had planned, press the Climax. The Climax does not have to be a physical fight; it could be an intense mental or social conflict, an interpersonal moral conflict, or a combination. Throw as much as you can at it to increase the stakes (Plot Points, NPC Edge, dynamic scenery, psychological tricks, etc.). Trust your players to find a way to win. They can always resort to Fall Back! rules (p. 60) and nothing gets a player’s blood pumping like a stinging defeat and an overdeveloped sense of vengeance. (Challenge)
End at the Last Interesting Consequence: Be on the look-out for the Climax because they do not always happen where you intend them. Sometimes it is near the end of the game session and your players are still several beats away from the Hard Point Climax you planned. Push it up, speed it along, change it, or convert the conflict they are currently experiencing into the new Climax (and then press it). Few things are more disappointing than failing to reach the end of a Scene by the end of the game session. You may think of it like a cliff-hanger, but really you are just stealing from the story arc of the next session. Your plot isn't precious, but the Engagement and Challenge of your players and the Scene's story arc are.
Just like you started the Scene with the first interesting engagement, end the Scene with the last interesting consequence. Don’t make the players narrate how they got home, changed their pants, and waited for Mr. Johnson to contact them. That is weak and boring. Narrate that yourself; sum it up for them. That is Denouement and that should be your purview. Make it quick and don’t drag out the moments that follow the Climax. If I may borrow a non-cyberpunk metaphor: don’t Scour the Shire. (Engagement)
Record Important Events: The last thing to do after a Scene (or during a Scene so you don’t forget) is to record important events. Record Objectives met, challenges overcome, new discoveries, new friends or foes earned, cool or cinematic player Narrations, and anything else that stands out. This will not only help you in the next session (“Last time, on Shadowrun…”), but it will also help you put together interesting Consequences for later in the Contract Brief or the Campaign Arc. It helps immensely with world building, especially in a shared-storytelling game where you cannot plan so far in advance. (Consequence)
So, that is what goes into a Scene. You have a Beginning with momentum, an open Middle, and a climactic End. It probably feels familiar or even obvious because that is how all stories are told. But it is easy to lose track of those beats when you are sharing a story with your players and everybody has different motivations. If you, as the GM, keep the three concepts of Engagement, Challenge, and Consequence as your personal motivations, your stories can end up being more rewarding and memorable.
If you are a player and you are feeling unengaged or unchallenged, remember that you are creating this story too and the world is what you make of it (and it is chock full of Plot Points)! Challenge yourself, give your friends Consequences they didn’t expect. Your GM will thank you (or hate you, but that is fun too).