A scene is a unit of game time lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour or more, during which the players try to achieve a goal or otherwise accomplish something significant in a scenario. Taken together, the collection of scenes you play through make up a whole session of play, and by extension, also make up your scenarios, arcs, and campaigns.
So you can look at it as the foundational unit of game time, and you probably already have a good idea of what one looks like. It’s not all that different from a scene in a movie, a television show, or a novel—the main characters are doing stuff in continuous time, usually all in the same space. Once the action shifts to a new goal, moves to a new place related to that goal, or jumps in time, you’re in the next scene.
As a GM, one of your most important jobs is to manage the starting and ending of scenes. The best way to control the pacing of what happens in your session is to keep a tight rein on when scenes start and end—let things continue as long as the players are all invested and enjoying themselves, but as soon as the momentum starts to flag, move on to the next thing. In that sense, you can look at it as being similar to what a good film editor does—you “cut” a scene and start a new one to make sure the story continues to flow smoothly.
When you’re starting a scene, establish the following two things as clearly as you can:
- What’s the purpose of the scene?
- What interesting thing is just about to happen?
Answering the first question is super-important, because the more specific your scene’s purpose, the easier it is to know when the scene’s over. A good scene revolves around resolving a specific conflict or achieving a specific goal—once the PCs have succeeded or failed at doing whatever they are trying to do, the scene’s over. If your scene doesn’t have a clear purpose, you run the risk of letting it drag on longer than you intended and slow the pace of your session down.
Most of the time, the players are going to tell you what the purpose of the scene is, because they’re always going to be telling you what they want to do next as a matter of course. So if they say, “Well, we’re going to the thief’s safehouse to see if we can get some dirt on him,” then you know the purpose of the scene—it’s over when the PCs either get the dirt, or get into a situation where it’s impossible to get the dirt.
Sometimes, though, they’re going to be pretty vague about it. If you don’t have an intuitive understanding of their goals in context, ask questions until they state things directly. So if a player says, “Okay, I’m going to the tavern to meet with my contact,” that might be a little vague—you know there’s a meeting, but you don’t know what it’s for. You might ask, “What are you interested in finding out? Have you negotiated a price for the information yet?” or another question that’ll help get the player to nail down what he’s after.
Also, sometimes you’ll have to come up with a scene’s purpose all on your own, such as the beginning of a new scenario, or the next scene following a cliffhanger. Whenever you have to do that, try going back to the story questions you came up with earlier and introducing a situation that’s going to directly contribute to answering them. That way, whenever it’s your job to start a scene, you’re always moving the story along.
Amanda ended the previous session of the group’s story with a cliffhanger: the revelation that Cynere’s mysterious employer is an agent of the Cult of Tranquility, and that the Jewel is an important component in a mysterious ritual. On top of that, Zird’s in the middle of the most important trial of his life, and the Collegia’s discovered that the Jewel is missing
Now Amanda’s thinking about how to start things off next time. The whole situation seems to have really freaked the players out, so she definitely wants to capitalize on that. She figures Anna should return, initially confused about Cynere’s role in the theft and ready to fight. The scene will be about coming to an accord with Anna and realizing that they’re both on the same side, as it were.
The second question is just as important—you want to start a scene just beforesomething interesting is going to take place. TV and movies are especially good at this—usually, you’re not watching a particular scene for more than thirty seconds before something happens to change the situation or shake things up.
“Cutting in” just before some new action starts helps keep the pace of your session brisk and helps hold the players’ attention. You don’t want to chronicle every moment of the PCs leaving their room at the inn to take a twenty-minute walk across town to the thief’s safehouse—that’s a lot of play time where nothing interesting happens. Instead, you want to start the scene when they’re at the safehouse and staring at the horrifically intricate series of locks he’s set up on his door, cursing their luck.
If you get stumped by this question, just think of something that might complicate whatever the purpose is or make it problematic. You can also use the ninja trick mentioned earlier and ask the players leading questions to help you figure out the interesting thing that’s about to happen.
Amanda starts the scene with Cynere and Landon walking back to their lodgings late at night, engrossed in conversation about recent events. Lenny suggests they’re not staying at an inn anymore—not after the theft. He figures everyone from the Collegia wizards to the Cult of Tranquility will be looking for Cynere, so they’re holed up somewhere safe.
So they’re understandably surprised by the three armed strangers who ambush them as soon as they walk in the door.
“Whoa!” Lily says. “How’d they know we were going to be here?”
“Tough to say,” Amanda counters, and tosses her and Lenny each a fate point. “But this is a Hub of Trade, Hive of Villainy.”
“Fair enough,” Lenny says, and they both accept the compel.
“Cynere, no sooner have you entered your safehouse than a hooded figure has a sword at your throat. The hood comes off—it’s Anna! And she’s pissed. ‘Where’s the Jewel, you cultist scum?’”
If you have a clear purpose going into every scene and you start just before some significant piece of action, it’s hard to go wrong.
You can end scenes the way you start them, but in reverse: as soon as you’ve wrapped up whatever your scene’s purpose was, move on, and shoot for ending the scene immediately after the interesting action concludes.
This is an effective approach mainly because it helps you sustain interest for the nextscene. Again, you see this all the time in good movies—a scene will usually end with a certain piece of action resolved, but also with a lingering bit of business that’s left unresolved, and that’s where they cut to next.
A lot of your scenes are going to end up the same way. The PCs might win a conflict or achieve a goal, but there’s likely something else they’re going to want to do after—talk about the outcome, figure out what they’re going to do next, etc.
Instead of lingering at that scene, though, suggest that they move on to a new one, which helps answer one of the unresolved questions from the current scene. Try to get them to state what they want to do next, and then go back to the two questions for starting scenes above—what’s the purpose of the next scene, and what’s the next bit of interesting action to come? Then dive right into that.
The one time you should exhibit restraint is if it’s clear that the players are really, really enjoying their interactions. Sometimes people just want to yammer and jaw in character, and that’s okay as long as they’re really into it. If you see interest starting to flag, though, take that opportunity to insert yourself and ask about the next scene.
Using the Pillars (Competence, Proactivity, Drama)
Whenever you’re trying to come up with ideas for what should happen in a scene, you should think about the basic ideas of Fate that were talked about in The Basics—competence, proactivity, and drama.
In other words, ask yourself if your scene is doing at least one of the following things:
- Giving your PCs the chance to show off what they’re good at, whether by going up against people who don’t hold a candle to them or by holding their own against worthy opponents.
- Giving your PCs the chance to do something you can describe with a simple action verb. “Trying to find out information” is too muddy, for example. “Breaking into the mayor’s office” is actionable and specific. Not that it has to be physical—“convince the snitch to talk” is also a clear action.
- Creating some kind of difficult choice or complication for the PCs. Your best tool to do this with is a compel, but if the situation is problematic enough, you might not need one.
Cynere’s first impulse is to find out what Anna’s talking about—but Amanda knows Landon’s impulses are... a little more violent.
“Enough talk!” Lenny shouts.
“But... we just started talking,” Lily says.
“Even still! Why talk when Smashing Is Always an Option?” Lenny holds out his hand, and Amanda hands him a fate point for the compel.
Hit Their Aspects
Another good way to figure out the interesting action for a scene is to turn to the PCs’ aspects, and create a complication or an event-based compel based on them. This is especially good to do for those PCs whose aspects did not come into play when you made up your scenario problem, because it allows them to have some of the spotlight despite the fact that the overall story does not focus on them as much.
The scene opens on the big trial. Zird stands before a panel of wizards in the Great Hall of the Collegia Arcana. While they pepper him with questions, every now and then a wizard in the gallery throws out a follow-up, an insult, or a word of discouragement. The whole thing’s like a lively session of the British Parliament. Cynere and Landon stand in the gallery, following the proceedings as best they can.
Amanda turns to Lily. “You going to let them get away with treating your friend that?”
“You’re right! I can’t take it anymore!” Lily says. “I’ve Got Zird’s Back!”
Cynere stands up and shouts at the Arbiter, “Hey, you want to put someone on trial for crimes against creation? How about we start with your mom, ugly!”
Amanda tosses Lily a fate point. “Nice.”