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November 14, 2012

Cut to the Chase

The players finally all get settled and focused on the game.  They've got their sheets out and dice ready.

"So last week we ended with you going back to the town of Landing.  You stayed in the inn.  What do you want to do?"

Five faces glance around in confusion.  You wait expectantly.  Then impatiently.  Then you start to get concerned.  They're on a quest to slay the Resurrected Witch King, whose mountain is in the North.  All they need to do is get a map of the Northern Territories (and that's even optional!), set off on the High Road, take the abandoned Ore Road at the fork that goes through the Diamond Pass, and it leads to the Valley of the Departed.  They know this!

"I guess we should sell some of these items we don't need."

"Yeah, and maybe look for rumors about the Witch King."

"Oh, I wonder if the Priest of the Lost God knows anything he's not telling us."

"Yeah, he seemed shady.  Maybe after we sell the loot, we can buy a scroll of clairvoyance and spy on him."

"Yeah, but how do we know when he'll be talking about Witch King stuff?"

"I can use a disguise spell..."

You sigh in frustration.  They know what to do, where the adventure lies.  Yet they decided to go off on this pointless side quest?  Sure, you made the Priest of the Lost God shifty, but that was a long time ago.  Any information the Priest knows the players know by now.  This is going to be a wasted session...

Has this ever happened to you?

It has, hasn't it?  Basically something like this has.  You've got a strong hook, but the players don't so much revolt as slide off the rails.  It always starts with that hesitant "I dunno" look they give each other.  Then they start just brainstorming.  After an hour of going around in circles, they've developed what would potentially be an interesting plot, if it weren't totally superfluous.

Here's what's going on.  The players know what they need to do, but they see a lack of urgency from the GM as a suggestion that there is more they need to do to prepare, more that can be done here and now.  In the example, the players were left in Landing with total freedom to do whatever they wanted.

When you give protagonists a tool, it's implied that they need to use it -- and use it well.  Total freedom of action is a major resource.  It implies that there's something the protagonists need to figure out to do -- some unexplored opportunity.  Asking "what should we do?" or "what are we supposed to do next?" is not something the players of any RPG are going to do.

Here's an alternative scenario.

"Where we last left our heroes, they were returning to Landing before setting off into the Northern Mountains in search of the Resurrected Witch King.  We rejoin the heroes as they travel an abandoned Ore Road they discovered branching North off the High road.  Now they're on the approach to Diamond Pass, the gateway to the Valley of the Departed.  As they approach the foreboding cleft in the mountain range that marks the entry to the pass, an ominous howling freezes them in their tracks.  A winterwolf!  Soon the lone howling voice it is joined by another, and another, and another..."

That's called cutting to the chase.  It's a film technique where we skip all the boring stuff and go straight to the action.  In RPGs as in film, you don't want to skip over any dramatic conflicts or valuable exposition.

...or do you..?

Remember in The Dukes of Hazard how scenes opened or ended with voice-over narration?  The show would often open with an over-the-top car chase while the narrator explained how Bo and Luke got themselves into this here mess.  So yes, you can cut to the chase, even if it means skipping valuable drama and exposition.  It's a little technique older than dirt called in media res.  It's Greek for starting in the middle of the story.

I want to clarify one thing before I close out here and start watching YouTube videos of old Dukes of Hazard car chases:  I'm not advocating for taking away all the freedom of choice and agency your players have.  Any time the players have a real choice where the consequences will have a marked influence on the story or strategic value before a battle, you should let the players choose.  Any time where the players will have real narrative authority to tell the story the way they want, including writing their own agenda with its own challenges, twists and turns; let them.

But be clear that's what you're doing:  Cut to the choice or cut to the chase.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  There are styles of RPG campaigns where bumbling around and getting into trouble, or setting your own agenda and challenges is the whole point. That sort of beer & pretzels, Seinfeld-with-swords kind of game is actually a lot of fun.  As is a more narrative-focused game where the players have a lot of control over the world and NPCs, where they get to decide what the important plot challenges are.  But bumbling around games or games with high degrees of player control of the narrative can clash with a lot of genres -- epic fantasy (used in my example) being one of them.  That style of "rambling campaign" is great for cyberpunk games, modern fantasy, or sword and sorcery fantasy.  

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