Lately I’ve been thinking about how we put games together. I think most things come down to the frame. When I say frame this is what I mean:
The Frame is how you present or set up X. X being the individual game, the scene, the campaign, or any variable you want to throw in there. Yeah, I know it’s just a basic algebra equation and a pretty simple one at that. Still, it’s something GM’s should think about.
When you’re setting up your campaign I think it’s important to have a frame, especially if you, as a GM, have some idea’s you want to put forth. To give your idea’s a chance you need to place the players in a creative box. That means you give them some choices but keep the choices constrained. For example if you’re running a game in a city and you have an idea for a conspiracy/noir detective story it makes sense to create the constraint of “You’re all connected to a Private Detective Agency.” Now all the players can create something within that frame and you haven’t made the box so small it’s unworkable. If you think the box is too small here’s a list of character archetypes you could have just off the top of my head. A private detective or two, an informant who’s a little on the shady side, the muscle you call in for hard jobs, the kid who just likes to hang around the PI’s, the tough nurse girl friend of one of the PI’s, the former client who owes one of the PIs a favor or two, the cop who sort of likes the PIs and works with them because they can go places the cop can’t and vice versa.
Story Arc Framing
Story Arc Frames I feel are very dependent on the first session of them or the opening act. If you ever watch a TV show, read a novel or comic book, or consume any kind of storytelling media pay attention to the first act. You will usually get introductions to the characters but a tone will permeate this part of the story. The themes will be introduced along with the opening conflict or hook, which should be related to the themes of the story. As GM’s we have some options with which to push forth our themes and feel. First off we get to frame the first scene. In this frame we can set the tone with videos, pictures, music, props or whatever you decide to use but our most important tool for this frame is the words we use and how we use them. This is your first impression, the opening of the movie, the first 3 minutes of a TV show, the prologue of a book. This is your chance to hook them in and push your players to take the same mind-set as you. If I was trying to get the feel of the conspiracy / noir campaign frame from above I would start with describing a camera shot of the office door with the name of the agency on it and then I would turn to one of the private eyes and ask them “How are you sitting at your desk?” Once they described that I would have a knock at the door occur followed by a beautiful woman in expensive clothing walk in. Next I would ask one of the other players “You’re sitting on the couch reading the paper when she walks in? What is your first impression of the beautiful woman? Describe her in first person.” I would do this because it reinforces the genre and tone I’m going for since noir detective stories tend to get inside the head of the characters. Plus I’m also letting the players give some insight into their characters and keeping them involved instead of just talking at them. Now I’ll present the conflict to the PCs using the Fem Fatal as my vehicle for doing so. She offers them a job which they take since they’re PI’s and need the money. PI’s are almost always broke. Tone presented, hook set, and characters involved. Now the game can truly begin and I’ll keep pushing forth the tone and setting as the scenario evolves. As Vincent Baker once said about running Apocalypse World, Barf forth Apocolyptica.
The framing of a scene is similar to the ideas of framing your story arc. This is only different as the scenes you frame from here on build upon the beginning scene and exist to allow your PCs to make choices to push the story forward and create conflicts for them to overcome, whether it’s shooting bad guys, infiltrating criminal organizations, or hitting instead of standing on that 20, because you know an Ace is coming up as the next card which would give the dealer, showing a face card, a black jack. Your frame in this instance will give the players ideas for the choices they will make so once again the presentation of the scene is important. The words and props you use will spark the imagination of the people you’re gaming with, inciting them to make decisions. Let’s go back to the example of the Noir detective story.
The PI’s find themselves in Terry’s Place at the back corner booth with their usual order in front of them. They’re enjoying the taste of the food having once again barely escaped a death-defying situation. (The third one this week.) I guess the Villi Mob didn’t appreciate them busting up the Villi smuggling operation down on the docks. That’s when a chair is pulled up to the booth and a man sits down wearing a black coat with a fedora. His eyes take in the PI’s as one of them is mid bite. The click of a gun cocking is heard from below the table and neither of the man’s hands are visible. He gives them small smirk.
“Hi boys. Sorry about this but Mr. Villi wants a word with you.”
They recognize the man as Bobby the Hat. A Villi mob trouble-shooter and that means he sometimes shoots the trouble.
Now the scene starts and we play the game of what happens next or act and react.
So that’s how I think about framing and I hope it will get you to think about how we start campaigns, story arc’s, and scenes. If anyone has any other suggestions feel free to comment because I’m always open to new idea’s to expand my gaming horizons.
Chris “The Light” Sniezak