Editing in Roleplaying Game Play

The planB blog goes international. Today’s contribution comes from Jason Morningstar.

Whether explicitly demarcated in the rules or not, roleplaying games are divided into scenes, and those scenes eventually need to end. Where and how they are ended – how they are edited – is an important part of the experience of play. Edit well and you can maintain a breathless pace full of excitement and pathos. Edit poorly and you can slowly kill your game without knowing exactly why.

Editing in roleplaying borrows a lot from editing in improvisation. An improv actor is always aware of a scene’s pacing and always seeks to correctly identify a satisfying end-point. Scenes cut too short are incoherent, and scenes that run too long lose their energy and humor. In contrast, scenes that are perfectly edited seem almost magical in their perfection. They encapsulate a moment, a joke, a feeling, and evoke it with style and grace before fading to black. The perfect moment to edit is called the “button” of the scene. As a performer, when you find the button and act on your discovery, it is sublime.

In tabletop roleplaying games finding the button can’t rely entirely on the same set of skills an improviser would use, because a tabletop session isn’t pure improvisation. There are game mechanics, sometimes intrusive ones, and a social dynamic layered over actual play that can add complexity. Pacing is not just a factor of performance, but also of system in the broadest sense – rules, the interaction of players at the table, and many other factors. So how do you find the button?

As a rule of thumb, the button of a scene occurs at or immediately after the point of highest tension or when a scene’s question is answered.

In structured freeform games it is often easier to spot, because game mechanics tend to either flag a scene’s logical end point or get out of the way entirely. When playing Archipelago, for example, the invocation of “I Don’t Think That Will Be Quite So Easy” is a sign that conflict has arisen and a scene will soon reach a point of dramatic tension. Resolving this tension – or leaving it at the height of uncertainty – means that a good opportunity to edit is coming up.

In more traditional games, you may look for places to edit when tension is similarly resolved. in Dungeons and Dragons, for example, forward momentum is usually predicated on fights, which have elaborate rules structures. Editing as the final sword blow falls may be a good choice, rather than continuing into a post-battle scene. Editing earlier – when the course of the battle is decided but there’s still fighting left to do – is a more unorthodox but perhaps more satisfying (and time-saving) choice. Playing with time is key to pacing traditional games, and judicious editing is a helpful tool.

As a general rule it is much better to edit too soon rather than too late. If you find yourself adrift in a scene, looking for an exit, just end it. You may have missed the perfect moment, but any decision is better than none. I encourage people to edit ruthlessly, confident that we can work with whatever we are given in terms of scene time.

When looking for the button, think about the question the scene was crafted to answer. Some games make this crystal clear and others do not, but knowing what the question is is very helpful. It may be very small and trivial, or it may be monumental, but when it is answered you need to edit right away.

Strive to build a local culture of play that embraces and encourages editing by anyone at the table. When you are involved in a scene it can be difficult to see the button, but an otherwise-unengaged fellow player may spot it easily. If they have social permission to end the scene, so much the better. Strive to build a table full of eager editors! This has the added benefit of keeping everyone involved at all times.

Jason Morningstar is a game designer and co-founder of Bully Pulpit  Games LLC. His designs, including The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, Grey Ranks,  and Fiasco, have garnered both popular and critical acclaim, earning him two Diana Jones Awards for Excellence in Gaming, an ENnie Judges  Spotlight Award, and numerous Indie RPG Awards, including Indie RPG of  the Year. Jason also serves as a consultant on using games for teaching and learning for clients that include Kaiser-Permanente  Health Care Systems, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Innovation Learning Network.

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~ af pfallesen på 21. september 2012.

7 kommentarer to “Editing in Roleplaying Game Play”

  1. Morningstar! d10! I get it now! Nice job landing Mr. Fiasco himself and good advice Jason. The rule of thumb there is probably the most clear advice I’ve read on the topic.

  2. I think this is some very sensible advice, at least for games that revolve around dramatic tension.

    However I think that apart from spotting the right moment – the button – there is another obstacle to editing which I think is worth mentioning. And that is the fairly simple problem that to feel confident in cutting I generally need something to cut _to_. Not that it is imperative to switch focus immediately after a cut, but if I’m supposed to cut right as the conflict has been resolved to avoid that the whole scene fades out, then I feel the need for something else to focus on. Like another subgroub of the players or some scene later/elsewhere.

    This can make it harder to delegate cutting in playstyles where the ability to set scenes is not also delegated. Not because it absolutely has to be the cutter that sets the next scene, but just because it is harder to know if there is a new scene ready if you don’t at least have the potential to set one.

  3. Spot on. Big ups for nailing something that our (danish/swedish) scene take for granted.

  4. Good points here. In scriptwriting for movies, one of the golden rules is that one should enter a scene as late as possible, and get out as early as possible. The button sounds much like that to me.

  5. […] Lots more advice on cutting here and here. […]

  6. […] Lots more advice on cutting here and here. […]

  7. […] Lots more advice on cutting here and here. […]

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