December 8, 2015

How to Cut Between Scenes

When you're running a game with multiple simultaneous scenes -- when the party has split up -- there are a few guidelines:

  1. Give proportional time:  If one player has split from the other three, give them three times as much time as the individual.  However, if you can resolve a split party situation in five minutes or less, don't worry about cutting between scenes (e.g for a quick combat scouting run).
  2. Match stakes:   When running simultaneous scenes, make sure they all match in stakes, otherwise the players in the low-stakes scene will feel left out, and they might try to end their scene early to get into the other scene and contribute.
  3. Match cuts to pace:  Stakes are part of pacing.  As the stakes rise, the pace of action increases.  You should match your cuts to the pace of action.  When the stakes are low and the pace is slow, you can take fifteen minutes before cutting to the other group.  When the stakes are high and the pace is fast, switch more often.  This is another good reason to match stakes.
  4. Make it easy to recombine:  If things are lopsided and one side scene is going to resolve before the other, let it; and let the PCs in it rejoin the other scene in progress without much hassle.
  5. Resolve everything at once:  If you can, it's best to bring all the scenes to their climax at the same time.


In the running example I've been using for the Sandbox series of articles, the GM controls the pacing in three separate scenes. 

Dogfinger is trying to get information out of the Ravens at the Mug and Cutlass.  Bear and Alphrydd are trying to communicate with an imprisoned druid.  And Cara and Erebus are trying to get Erebus reinstated or at least get a favor at the Wizard's Council tower.  Each scene has about the same level of tension to its dramatic question:

  • Will Dogfinger get information without getting in more trouble than she can handle?
  • Will Bear and Alphrydd be able to secretly communicate with the imprisoned druid without being caught?
  • Will Erebus get closer to reinstatement, or at least get a favor from the council so he and Cara can use the library?


The conflict in each scene is "will the stakes increase or will the PC or PCs get their information?"  The highest stakes is the Erebus scene:  Erebus wants to become a Council Wizard again, but knows that the best outcome today is a step toward reinstatement, no more.  The lowest stakes is the druid scene:  The PCs have a plan that's not likely to get them in trouble, and they have a Plan B in case it fails.  But the three scenes are close in stakes.  The consequences for failure in each scene are also fairly mild and pretty well matched.  The worst is Dogfinger's scene: A bar fight might get her beat up and robbed, but death is not really on the table for a bar fight.  The mildest is the Wizard's Council scene:  The worst case scenario is Erebus offending more wizards, and Cara looking for other ways to learn about the King's genealogy.

If the stakes change in one scene, they can change in others, though.  Let's say Fancis finds himself approaching the end of the session, and looking for ways to buildtoward an eleventh hour climax.  

Here we see the interplay between session pacing and split-party pace matching.

Our GM, Francis, starts with Alfred and Barry.

Francis:  "After the rat relays the message -- as well as a rat is really able -- three men in dark studded leather armor round the corner into the walled garden the two of you are skulking in, behind the castle.  Alphrydd's keen eyes notice a small black rope-and-candle tattoo on one of them.  Black Chandler agents!  'More woodsfolk trying to break their friend out of prison, I gather.  The governor is going to want to have a long talk with you.  Come quietly, now.  Don't make us use force..."

Suddenly a villain's henchmen have shifted the stakes.  Alphrydd and Bear are now in a new scene, with a dramatic question "Can the woodsfolk escape the Black Chandlers, or will the be captured?"

First of all, that dramatic question is a Threat, whereas the former scene was an Opportunity.  Now the pace is accelerating, the stakes are higher, and we're moving toward a climax.

After handling Alphrydd and Bear's initial actions (Run!), Francis ends on a cliffhanger.

Francis:  "You crack the lock and slip inside.  The squat stone building appears to be a shrine of some sort.  You can't hear anyone inside.  But then, the walls are so thick, you can't hear footsteps outside either.  Have you got away?  Alphrydd, with his keen sight, notices a strange altar with a rearing goat idol.  Is it any safer here than out there?"

Then he turns to Denise.

Francis:  "Fifty gold was worth it for what you learned.  Leaving the Mug and Cutlass, however, once you're alone in the streets at night, you notice a shadowy shape following you.  Suddenly, you see another up ahead. When the shape ahead steps from the darkness into the dim moonlight of the unlit street, you expect it to coalesce into a thug or soldier, but it doesn't.  It remains an ephemeral shadow oozing malice and evil.  You realize they've followed you from the bar.  'Foolissssh halfling..." the creature hisses, "You know never to walk alone at night on the docksssss...."  Roll initiative.

After a round of combat leaves Dogfinger drained and panicking, Francis leaves on a cliffhanger.  "They drained your strength, but you've gotten around the corner.  Ahead, you see a lamplighter with his oil and candle pole.  The candle...  Symbol of the chandlers...  Is it foolish to hope you've found some oil and fire to keep the shadows off you?  Or is it paranoid to think you've been driven into a Black Chandler trap?" 

This is a clear threat scene, with the dramatic question "Can Dogfinger escape the Shadows sent to kill her?"

Then he turns to Charlotte and Erica. 

"You did well with the Council, and Erebus is full of hope for his reinstatement.  But as you two enter the library, a sight of horror confronts you.  The librarian lies dying on the ground in the middle of the circular room.  Amid the tightly-spaced stacks nearby -- the genealogy and heraldry tomes, I might add -- you see a woman in studded leather armor.  Three empty oil barrels lie at her feet, and when you come in the room, she drops a lit, black candle into the pool of oil and runs for the wall, where a narrow window stands open.  Do you give chase, save the librarian, or put out the fire?  Roll initiative."

Suddenly, Erebus' reputation with the council is back in jeopardy.  The Black Chandlers are covering up King Pasquale's secrets, and willing even to risk the Council's enmity to do it.  This scene has high stakes as well, with the dramatic question of "What is the best course of action when lives, reputations, escaping foes, and important clues are all at risk?"  Francis adjudicates their two actions, but leaves on a cliffhanger.

Francis:  "Erebus pours the healing potion in the librarian's mouth - was it already too late?  She listens for a breath, a gasp, a heartbeat...  Meanwhile Cara jumped over the flame to try to catch the escaping enemy agent.  Locked in melee, she hears a 'whoosh!' sound, and realizes the flames have spread rapidly over oil-soaked paper.  You can feel the heat on your back, and smoke is suddenly filling the library and pouring out the nearby window.  Cara is trapped against the wall here with the spy."

Fast Pace, Quick Cuts

When you do have to run fast-paced, high-stakes scenes, throw more and more threats at each group of players, and then use rapid "duel of the fates" style cuts to speed up the pace and keep the players interested.   

Cutting quickly between scenes gives the players a moment to think about the situation and plan their next action, but they're also paying attention to the exciting events in other scenes.  Quick cuts also feel rushed and urgent. When you cut, the players are always left wanting more.

When you cut away from a scene, leave it on a cliffhanger or twist if you can.  That leaves you free to adjust the scene when you come back to it.  If you cut on a decision packed with uncertainty, it's almost the same as a cliffhanger.  But if you leave it on a strategic decision, it becomes the player's option to adjust where the scene goes next when you cut back to it.  Plus, the player has lots of time to think, which their character does not.  That makes the pace feel slower for that player.  Better you hear their strategy before cutting, let the strategy start, drop a mysterious twist, and then cut (buying yourself time to think about it!).

In the example, Francis sets up lots of cliffhangers:

Since the woodsfolk can't hear outside, they don't know if they've lost their pursuers.  And the idol in this small temple is something they've never seen before.  Is this an evil shrine?

Dogfinger has just run into a street with a lamplighter.  Is the lamplighter a resource -- oil and fire to fend off shadows -- or a trap -- a Black Chandler agent in disguise?

Erebus doesn't know if he got the healing potion to the librarian in time.  And Cara is now trapped with the enemy agent, with the window being the only escape!

When Francis cuts back to Bear and Alphrydd, they're waiting to hear if the Chandlers bust in the door after them, or if some darkness awakens in the shrine.  When it gets back to Dogfinger, she has to make a hard choice - trust or flee.  Erebus is waiting with baited breatk to see if he was in time to save the librarian.  And Cara is in a tight spot.

Resolve Everything At Once

When you start wrapping up these scenes, you don't want one lingering on and on for hours while the others wrap up, leaving most of the table bored.  That's pretty anticlimactic.  But GMing is more art than science.  It's hard to wrap everything at exactly the same time.  Still, try your best.  Once one scene resolves, stop introducing complications in the others, and start responding to player actions more generously.

Here's how Francis might cut:

Alphrydd and Bear know little about religion, but they know not to offend a god - even an evil one.  They leave offerings of gold before the altar, hoping the Chandlers don't have them trapped.  Francis ends this cut on a cliffhanger, with the door creaking open.

Dogfinger chooses to trust the lamplighter.  She grabs the oil, with an apology and starts a fire.  She (and the lamplighter) see the shadows cowering in an alley across the street, and choose to flee along the road, illuminated by all the lanterns that the lamplighter lit so far.

Erebus learns that the librarian was saved, so he runs back to the hall and calls for help putting out the fire.  Cara lets the agent get out the window, because fighting in choking smoke and isn't her idea of a good time; but she successfully tackles her on a rooftop in the artisans' quarter.

...Now here's why cliffhangers are GMs' best friends:

When Francis gets back around to Alphrydd and Bear, he can decide what's behind the door when it opens. 

  • If Francis wants to keep the scene going, it's a Chandler agent, checking doors.  This is a Threat.  They have to respond to the Chandler agent finding them.  Maybe they can silence him before he cries out to the other searchers.
  • If Francis needs things to wrap up, it's a monk of the shrine, investigating the sound of the door breaking in.  When he sees the offering of gold -- more than enough to cover the damaged door -- he is bemused but not hostile.   This is an Opportunity.  If Bear and Alphrydd play their cards right, they can get the monk to help them avoid the Chandlers.


Because the other two scenes are nearly resolved, Francis chooses to go with the monk. 

Cara captures the agent, Erebus gets help, but the books they needed were destroyed.  Dogfinger gets to safety.  And the monk gives Alphrydd and Bear sanctuary until the Chandlers give up their search. 

Francis can conclude the session, now, without anyone sitting around bored with nothing to do!