Day 17: Structure and Time


Time is so sacred in roleplaying games that for significant portions of our games we apportion it out into 3-to-6 second segments. Yet other times we flash forward weeks at time, taking for granted considerable “off-screen” activities that don’t directly contribute to the story we want to tell. Today I’m going to talk about use of time other than your usual “structured” vs “narrative” time and how I’ve used it to help tell the stories I want at the table, including flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives.


In order to start in media res (as is so common in one-shots), that occasionally means skipping over potentially plot-relevant setup and introduction. Flashbacks are the perfect way to establish information from the past without necessarily bogging down your players with a five minute-long infodump read-aloud section. It’s the in-game equivalent of hitting rewind and playing through a scene from the past.

They’re not just a GM tool either—I’ve seen players request them as well, especially when they want to have the chance to try and put themselves in a better bargaining position with a certain NPC. In Star Wars, I’ve seen Game Masters allow PCs to go back and roleplay flashbacks by flipping a light side Destiny Point, but I could see the expenditure of FATE points working just as well.

During my convention sessions of WFRP3 The Enemy Within, I need to skip over three of the four days in part one of chapter one and then condense the remaining four into a four hour session. While the first three days are good setup in terms of they really set the scene and begin to lay the foundation work, the only truly plot-relevant event from them was the discovery of the first body with foul wounds. I opened the scenario with an appointment at the Red Arrow coaching inn, but inquisitive PCs being who they are, were always drawn to investigate the crowd gathered outside their dockside flophouse.

There they met the first of the three important NPCs from the adventure, crouched over a second body with foul wounds. At that point, I flashed back to the PCs’ discovery of the first body in a deserted alley a few days prior and allowed them to roll Medicine and Perception checks to gather clues. At the end, I asked what they would have done from there: informed the city guard of the body, or left it alone? With that information in hand, I was ready to roleplay their interaction with Konrad and the second body.

For me, at least, the key difference between flashbacks and cut scenes is whether or not the players have a chance to interact with the scene or not.

Cut scenes

Cut scenes can be extremely potent when used well, but they are also much easier to do poorly. Primarily they are used to show action off-screen—they are tantalizing tidbids of metagame knowledge that the PCs themselves are not privy to, but their players are, which helps heighten the drama of the overall narrative. This is commonly done in movies by showing the villain’s actions when he isn’t directly confronted by the protagonists. The audience knows that something bad is going to happen to the heroes, wondering how they will overcome the bad guys this time, and the tension is raised.

The bad cut scene reads like a too-long read-aloud text (generally more than fifty words), and the players’ eyes glaze over from the GM’s monotonous voice, the overuse of descriptors that obscure the poignant details, and the lack of immediate involvement in what’s going on. The good cut scene is full of intonation and as short as possible, using the scarcity of details to its advantage in order to tease and tantalize the players, and directly contributes to the narrative conflict in a meaningful—though not necessarily overt—way.

To mitigate the inherent risk involved, I would offer the following advice to Game Masters:

  • Write down bullet points for the important details you want to be sure to convey, but otherwise paraphrase and narrate the scene off-the-cuff. Even good actors always seem to sound stiffer when they’re reading from a script, so try to avoid that if you can.
  • After you’ve figured out exactly what the bare-bones minimum information is that you want to convey, take a page from writers and figure out how to show the action, as opposed to telling it. Instead of saying “she looked nervous,” explain that “she bites her lip while messing with her hair, eyes averted.” Let your players make their own conclusions.
  • Don’t be afraid to break up large chunks of information over multiple cut-scenes and sprinkle them in amid the action.

During Origins I got to play in two Spark Force 7 “Living” WEG Star Wars sessions, which both used cut scenes extensively. Sparks games are distinctive by the fact that they usually have a hand-out script, assigning different character templates to different roles, and let the players read it aloud like at a play. These are fun (always including the requisite “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”), and work well for convention games, though personally I would encourage much more organic party interaction, since many of the players have established characters that they’ve been using for years. One of the scenarios suffered from extremely long cut scenes, like the bad ones I described above, but the other did the cut scenes just right.

The premise is that the Rebel Alliance has discovered an abandoned Star Destroyer in a part of dead space, and need their operatives to recover the vessel at all costs. Unbeknownst to the Player Characters, the Imperials have intercepted the intelligence and are closing in on the capital ship as well. Every fifteen-to-twenty minutes the GM would describe the actions of the Imperial Starfleet and its evil Admiral without spelling out the fact that they were getting closer, and closer, and finally, they were closing in, and we no longer saw the cut scenes from their POV.

As players, we knew our time was running short, but as PCs, we only knew that the Imperial threat existed, not that it was imminent. It created a healthy amount of tension and build up until we finally came face to face with the Navy officers, and the scene was all the more dramatic for the cut scenes that had led up to it.

Although most cut scenes are assumed to occurring simultaneously as the action experienced “on-screen” by the players, a devious GM can potentially use this assumption to her advantage and reveal only too late that the cut scenes occurred in the past—or even the future.

Parallel Narratives

The cut scenes described above almost, but not quite, fall into the parallel narrative category: they were occurring simultaneously but were being told from the NPCs’ point of view and excluded any PC agency. Parallel narratives are when you “split the party,” so to speak, and run two or more concurrent scenes where the Player Characters are able to affect the narrative by means of skill checks and roleplaying and the like. It’s like playing split screen co-op on your console.

Splitting the party can be dangerous in some games, but can also be a potent narrative tool. If the GM plans for this possibility in advance or adjusts the threats faced to account for the smaller groups, splitting the party need not be as foolish as it is often portrayed.

I find that parallel narratives work best during climactic or epic-scaled scenes. Because so much is going on and PCs tend to specialize in one career or another, it behooves the players to split up to tackle multiple objectives at once. The Battle of Hoth is a perfect example, with some pilots in snowspeeders and other soldiers on the ground and still more scrambling in the base itself.

If movement or specific time increments are important, I would suggest dropping into structured time (though not necessarily initiative) to allow for each group to take turns in a round. Otherwise, the GM can run the parallel narrative with a little more leniency, centering the attention of each group long enough to accomplish something or hit a good cliffhanger point, and then switch to the next. The GM need only be mindful of potentially losing the focus or interest of the group waiting their turn, and also to be relatives balanced with how much action each group gets to see.

My gut instinct would be that the longest you would want to split the party like this would be an hour’s worth of play time, but if all the groups are invested in it and are having fun, you could certainly continue. Otherwise, it’s best to bring the party back together in time to face off against the final threat.

How do you use structure and time creatively in your games? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on rewards. Thanks again for reading!

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