Jessy on hiatus, musing about scene writing

As session 8 concludes, we find Jessy unconscious and facing an uncertain fate. Well… not entirely uncertain. She will return at the start of next year, facing new challenges and getting further involved in the madness that seems to surround her. This campaign is an undertaking. It’s bigger than I first anticipated when I started writing and certainly bigger than anything else I’ve done in this style. I come from a D&D background, so my concept of campaign writing was largely limited to building dungeons with more rooms and cooler monsters. More narrative-driven games, such as Kult or Tales from the Loop (another favorite of mine), are newcomers to my game arsenal, and so Jessy’s Story has been an opportunity for me to learn. A lot.

For instance: I think I have finally figured out how I like to write scenes! In the past, I’ve always written my own scenarios and campaigns in terms of locations and events, but Kult: Divinity Lost and many other narrative-heavy RPGs ask you to think in terms of scenes. This was a huge change for me, and I’ve stumbled quite a lot with it. I expect myself to stumble for several more years before it becomes easy for me. Even so, I’ve now come up with a way for me to write scenes that I enjoy and think works for me.

Step 1: Decision Points

The most important thing when playing a scene, I think, is what decisions the player(s) can make during it. I try to center scenes around the most important decisions that might get made. How will Jessy deal with the girl knocking on her door? What will her reaction be to Tan’s intimidating sexual advances? If I know what the scene is supposed to center around, what the big thing is going to be, then I’ll know what the pace for the scene should be. I’ll look for ways to guide the scene towards the interesting decisions.

Step 2: Endings

Since I know what the big decisions for the scene are, musing about endings becomes much easier. What happens if Jessy attacks Wilma? What if she instead succeeds in bargaining with her? Or if Wilma’s thugs just attack her outright? The scene has a direction, but that direction is ultimately in the hands of the player(s). I often have several potential end points for scenes. Some scenes might end early, or they might go on for a long time, and having a lot of bases covered lets all of that feel meaningful and smooth. You obviously can’t control everything the players might get up to, of course, since…

Step 3: Nothing ever works out

Plans fail all the time. All the time. You cannot write a scene and expect it to play out the way you wrote it. Decision points might have to get reframed because of player action, what you thought was the ending of a scene ends up giving a creative player more drive to continue it, and sometimes players decide to do something you simply had never even considered. All my notes are garbage, all the writing for naught. You just have to wing it, and it’s not always going to be the clean, pretty thing you had in your head.

And isn’t that wonderful? No plan survives contact with the real world, and that definitely applies to writing roleplaying games. You might splice two of your planned scenes together in some cool new way (Jessy meeting Honey), entirely new plotlines get created because of your players (Jessy becoming obsessed with Artyom), and strange die roll outcomes give you an opportunity to expand the world and the story in ways you’d never thought of (This one’s secret). I find it hella scary to GM sometimes, because I know I can never be ready for everything that might happen no matter how much I try. That’s when I try to remind myself that it’ll be fine. Playing the game will always be satisfying enough.

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