Scene it already!

It’s easy to forget the world around us, but can you imagine if we didn’t have a background? Difficult, isn’t it?  We’d notice the absence of the background in the real world–and though it isn’t quite as obvious in a story or a game, not being able to see the scenery around the characters can still leave quiet disruptions in the suspension of disbelief.

This means that scening is a very important skill, for stories and games alike. In games, it presents a difficulty, due to the limitations of both formats and the attention spans of the players. It’s worst face to face, since players can be rather prone to distraction; there’s nothing quite as bad as realizing that your people zoned out halfway through the explanation of their surroundings. In play by chat, it’s not quite as bad, since they can read over whatever they zoned out on. The catch is that most chat programs have a text limit per post, so you have to break up the description, and it’s hard for your players to tell when you’re finished, so they might either interrupt or sit there waiting a while after you’re done. In play-by-post it’s most straightforward; all text, no interruptions. But the problem with play-by-post is that it doesn’t allow one of the most unique scene-setting tools of the game session: Music.

What this means, for the formats in which you can be interrupted or lose player focus, is that it’s a good idea to account for the possibilities of interruption, and focus on the important parts first. Avoid the story of the D&D DM who began with the treasure in the room, and was interrupted before he was able to tell the players about the ticked-off dragon on the other side. So you’ll want to start with the big things, then go into the small details.

The first thing to think about when scening is what the place is, and what sort of mood you want to get across. These can often feed into each other.

When I describe a scene, I usually start with the light levels. It’s the primary visual cue, and it colors most of the rest of the background. After that, I start in on the big stuff; that’s what people are going to notice most. It doesn’t have to be the largest objects in the room, or even visual things; sometimes it’s a pervasive aroma of some sort, or that odd whistling noise from the other side of the hall, or the way the energy in the room makes people’s hair stand on end when they walk in. Then you toss in the little or the not immediately noticeable details, like the bric-a-brac on the cabinets, or the sound of breathing from the next room over. The big things to remember is that everything you put in should do one of three things: help establish mood, help establish what the setting is, or have some effect (be it usefulness, danger, or something else) on the people in the scene.

Different media allow for different ways to add extra punch to the scene. In a face to face game, or in a chat game if you have a way of sharing music (I recommend pumping it through Ventrilo, though that can get awkward if you haven’t planned ahead), you can use some sort of musical background to add extra atmosphere. It’s an imprecise science, though; I’ll have more on soundtracking in a later post. In any format you can provide pictures, though by face to face it requires using a link rather than being able to just brandish the picture in question.

For instance, the other day I had occasion to introduce a new setting and a new character in my chat-game. Now, this was particularly convenient; there was an aura about the character that allowed her to on her own contribute to the feel of mystery and lost grandeur that I had wanted to give. So what I ended up with was this:

It’s dark out, and a moonless night, but the stars on their own are almost bright enough to light your path. From a distance, the place to which you are going seems to be built like a relatively normal party complex, the walls vaguely shimmering in the starlight and almost amplifying it, but as you move closer you realize that not all of it is whole. In one place, a pagoda-roof is missing one corner; in another, an empty but otherwise beautiful room lacks an entire wall. Some buildings are still functionally intact, but for the teeth of empty windowsills; others have enormous gashes up the sides of which ivy and morning glories thread their way, softening the jagged edges. And there is something else, you realize as you work your way into the complex. Somewhere in this place, so soft as to almost be part of its atmosphere, someone is playing. At this point I kicked in the Ventrilo-music: Duo En’s “Moonlight Over the Castle Ruins.”

Here the point was to get across the feel of what was and is no longer. The combination of the starlit night and the buildings’ own reflection—for various setting reasons, they were made to practically glow in starlight—softened all the rough edges of the place, allowing me to establish it as closer to the memory of what it had been before the damage to it took place, and gave it an air of the mystical that added to this effect. Focusing the description on the damage—the changes to the buildings—allowed me to add to the over-and-gone feeling. And then there was the fact that for once, instead of the soundtrack just being the theme for the place, it was actually being performed there; that allowed me to bring the group into the location in a way that I hadn’t been able to manage in quite a while. (It also let me play a few games with the timing; usually I begin my music right before I start copy-pasting my text into the chat window, rather than waiting until the end.)

So start with the big details, then focus inward. Writing ahead of time is both good practice and excellent for getting all the little fiddly bits just right; all it takes is a few ideas and a little bit of inspiration. Have fun!

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