Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.22: Scenes and Set Pieces

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Cassandra Khaw, Dan Wells, James L. Sutter, and Howard Tayler

Let’s have a discussion about scenes and set pieces, and let’s lead with this: prose writers often create longer pieces using scenes as building blocks, and in this thing writing for game design is very, very similar.

Scenes and set pieces are some of the most critical components in game design, and each of them must deliver several different things to the players in order to work well.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Design an encounter for a game you’ve enjoyed, hitting each of the following factors: setting, challenge, adversaries, rewards, and story development.

Thing of the week: Shadow Point.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Scenes and set pieces? Start with setting, challenge, adversaries, rewards, and story development. Setting? Wow factor and tactical implications. Environments let players get creative. Challenge? Variety, and catering to different players. Sneak, battle, talk? Unique elements. Make your challenges hinge on character abilities, not player abilities. Adversaries. Introduce bad guys early, and make things personal. Give them distinct abilities. What’s their motivation? In prose, we often challenge characters outside their area of expertise, but in games, we usually challenge players in their skill sets. Rewards, or consequences, and story development. Rewards, gear, show the reader they are making progress. Story development. Make sure characters have incentives to do the encounters, and that there are stakes. Think about how a scene pushes things forward. What are the ramification, what are the potential callbacks?

[Season 16, Episode 22]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[Cassandra] Scenes and Set Pieces.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[James] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Cassandra] I’m Cassandra.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[James] I’m James.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We are talking about scenes and set pieces today. We’ve got a lot to cover, so were just going to jump right into it. James? Get us started.

[James] Yeah. So when I’m designing an encounter or a scene or whatever you want to call it, I like to break it up into several different categories. So I like to think about the setting, the challenge, the adversaries, the rewards, and also story development. So we’re going to hit each of those in turn. I just want to start off with, so, for setting, Cass… Oh, Mary Robinette?

[Mary Robinette] I just want to say… I just want to jump in real fast and say all of the prose writers have been riding along with this because they’re interested and curious about it. This episode in particular has stuff that directly applies to what you do. Because every point that we’re about to hit is something that you should be thinking about in your prose scenes as well.


[James] Yeah. I mean, I definitely think, Cass and I both write fiction as well and I’m sure we probably bring everything we’ve said in this class to those as well. But, so I want to just right now with Cass, when you’re designing the setting for a scene or an encounter, what do you think about?

[Cassandra] Well, there are two things, primarily. The wow factor and the tactical implications of your environment. The wow factor can be a whole bunch of things. With video games, in particular, it’s all about the visuals, it is all about the audio, and it’s also about cinematography. You can have the best graphics in the world, you can have the best music, but if it’s a very static kind of thing, or it’s just a character walking in, it’s not going to work out for everyone. It’s also about individual imaginative [garbled]. In prose, for example, it could be things like how things smell, how things taste, texture. But in games, it can also be about emotional beats. My favorite example of that is Persona 5. When you start the game, you are midway through a heist. There are people with shadow faces leading you on through it. You’re running through it. It’s great and everything, but it’s not terribly impactful because it’s weird. However, at the climax of the game, after you have everything explained to you, you actually revisit that first place with the exact same parameters. It’s suddenly so much more powerful, because you just had 40 hours of context drilled into your head. Well, we’ve come to the tactical side, since most of my design goes through actual designers. I’m curious about how you develop them into the RPGs, James?

[James] Yeah. So, in a game like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons or Starfinder that’s all about more or less killing things and taking their stuff, or occasionally other variations on that, environments can be really important to the design of scenes, especially combats, because it allows the characters to get really creative. It allows… And it makes, frankly, things seem more interesting than just fighting skeletons in a blank room over and over again. When you add an environment, suddenly the players have a lot more things they can work with. So, for instance, you get the players coming up with all these interesting ideas where they’ll go, “Okay, if I tie the badminton net to the goat, and then I scare the goat with the airhorn, then they’ll run up the end.” Like, players are really creative. You want to give them props to do stuff  with. So that’s where I feel like the environment can really be handy. Which… Oh, Dan, did you want to jump in?

[Dan] Yeah, I was just going to say that this is a lesson that I learned watching Star Wars movies, actually. Because the first time I played a tabletop wargame about spaceships, I very quickly realized that it’s super boring. Because there’s no terrain in space. So there isn’t really an environment to interact with. It’s the absolute epitome of an empty room. Then you watch the Star Wars movies and realize, “Oh, this space battle, they’re running through a trench. This one, they’re dodging asteroids. This one, they’re flying through debris. This one, there’s the big giant shield and it’s all about which side of the shield are you on, and is it going to be brought down in time.” There’s always some kind of dynamic interactive element to make those encounters more interesting.

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things about the setting that I just wanted to get in here for prose writers, is that the same thing is true. Like, when you’re thinking about the setting, how is your character going to use that setting? How is it going to play into the overall arc of the story?


[James] That brings us right into the second one, which is talking about the type of challenge. I really like variety, like you were saying. I really want to mixup the enemy types with the types of challenges. So it just doesn’t become wave after wave. Thinking about challenges that cater to the different character types and player types. Because some people are going to want to sneak, some people are going to want to battle their way through. Mary Robinette’s probably going to want to make friends with them if they’re giant apple trolls, like from last episode.


[James] So, you want to make sure that there’s sort of something for everybody. But, Cass, what do you think about?

[Cassandra] Well, the balance is definitely one of the most necessary things. But I think it’s also important to focus on the elements that make your game unique. If your game is all about a character with an energy whip, create challenges that explore every possible use of that whip. Let her swing across chasms, electrocuting things, retrieving objects… I remember Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I picked up this weird Taser-like ability, and my favorite thing to do would be to knock out people and just very gently, like, fill the water full of electricity to watch them very gently buzz to death.


[Cassandra] In an RPG, you should always…

[Mary Robinette] Very gentle.

[Cassandra] Be sure that your challenges hinge on character abilities and not just player abilities. The players who spent points building a detective should have an easier time solving mysteries. Even if the player playing the barbarian is naturally better at puzzles.

[James] That’s so important. I feel like I’ve absolutely been in that game where I’m the wizard with the 18 intelligence, but I’m naturally just terrible at most puzzles compared to the people I play with. So it’ll be the barbarian being like, “No, it’s this and this and this.”


[James] I’m like, “Dude. You shouldn’t know that, and I should.”

[Dan] Yeah. The first time that I wrote, it was actually an adventure for Starfinder, typically the game writing that I have done has been in much more narrative systems. Starfinder is much more of a crunchy numbers-based thing. So, the main comment that the editor sent back after I submitted the first draft was, “Dan. Players like to roll dice.”

[Yeah. Laughter]

[Dan] I realized that I had not really given them any skill checks. It was all based on just kind of interaction. You can ask these questions and learn this information and then you know where to go. He’s like, “No. There’s like 20 skills in this game. You haven’t used any of them. They put points into those skills and they like to roll dice. Give them a chance to do what they’re good at.”

[Cassandra] That sort of reminds me, I think, of my favorite tabletop RPG story that is in [garbled]. There was a comment going around a few years ago, of this group of Avengers trying to fight, I think, this Orc Lord. Everyone was kind of dropping over dead and it was just terrible and they were all going to lose. There was this one dude left. He was like, “Okay. What? Screw it. My character has like really high charm. I am going to try to seduce the Orc Lord.” He rolled a natural 20.


[Cassandra] There was just this long pause. He was like, “You know what, I am going to go for it. I am going to declare my love and just stop the war.” He kept rolling natural 20s. By the end of the game, his character was leading this Orc Warlord home and going like, “Mom, this is my new husband.”

[James] See, that’s what I love about tabletop role-playing games. Because in a videogame, maybe you spend the resources to build out that possibility, even though it’s a very, very faint possibility. But in a tabletop role-playing game, you can just change on the fly and go with that. I think that’s really one of the things that has kept games like Dungeons & Dragons alive in the era of video games.

[Mary Robinette]. If you been listening to all of these things, the variety of challenges that your character faces in prose is as important as it is in a game. You don’t want a character who’s constantly just fighting things. You want a character who’s having to solve the things in different ways. Often in ways that do not play to their skill sets. That’s what often will make an interesting challenge in prose.


[James] Actually, that’s a great segue into talking about adversaries. So, I think it’s really important when you’re thinking about the adversaries in your encounter, you want to introduce any big bad guys early and give players a reason to care. You want to make things personal. So, yeah, what do you folks do in terms of trying to establish a good adversary?

[Cassandra] You want to give them a few distinct abilities that strongly point towards who they are and what they are, and possibly, at least for me, have at least one encounter that completely cements their personality. I think a good example of this is Borderlands and Handsome Jack. Very early on, you meet him and you kind of get a sense of exactly who he is and why you should absolutely hate him. These things need to be done quickly. I think if you’re designing a tabletop role-playing game, these parameters have to be set very clearly as well. Because players have the whole game to learn how to use a complex character effectively. A game master who is looking at your notes, he only has minutes. I’m curious about what people have done in regards to that [garbled]

[Howard] Yeah.

[Cassandra] Adversaries.

[Howard] For my own part, the word adversary is hugely informative here. If you run across something, somebody, some animal, whatever, and it just wants to kill you, that’s not an adversary. That’s just obstacle, it’s an enemy. An adversary that I’m going to care about? Well, look, the party and I, we are trying to build a bridge across the street. But the Otter King has decided that there shall be no bridge across the stream, and he takes issue with our entire project, sabotaging us at every turn. But if we don’t build the bridge, our eventual plan to unify the clans on both sides of… You see where I’m going?

[James] I romance the Otter King.


[Howard] Yes. Please. Romance the Otter King, because everybody loves otters. Ultimately, if… For the adversary to feel real, and for us to feel invested, they have to be working logically and passionately and investedly in something that runs counter to what we’re trying to do.

[James] I just want to throw out that in my current Starfinder game, I have a player who is literally playing an otter marriage counselor. That’s her whole deal. She’s incredibly effective. It’s… We’ve talked our way through half the encounters.

[Mary Robinette] So, the thing with adversaries, we been talking about and around, comes back to a thing that I bring from theater for you prose writers. What’s my motivation? The Otter King? Like, sure, the Otter King wants to stop you from building the bridge, but why do they want to stop you from building the bridge? That why can make your adversary often significantly more interesting. So think about what that motivation is.

[James] One other thing I want to throw out before we go to our game of the week is that something Cass had said about keeping abilities narrow. This is especially important in tabletop role-playing games, and which I always tell people who are designing new monsters or new adversaries is that really, you’re only… If you’re not going to use an ability in the first couple rounds of combat, that’s often all that an enemy is on stage for. So you don’t want to build an enemy with a dozen different abilities if they’re only ever going to use three of them. Because that just makes it harder for the game master to process quickly. So pick a couple of things and that’ll both let the GM know how to run them and let the PCs know how to fight them.

[James] But, let’s pause for our book of the week.

[Mary Robinette] So, book of the week, or game of the week, is Shadow Point Observatory. Which is a game for Oculus Quest 2. It’s a puzzle game. But I picked it up because it’s beautiful. It’s about observatories, which are totally my jam. You’re trying to solve this thing where this young girl has been ripped out of time. It’s the character that you’re going in and you’re trying to figure out how to restore her to her time. But because she’s been ripped out of time, every time you encounter her, each layer of the puzzle, she gets older and older. It takes decades in her… For her for you to figure this out. There’s this one point… It’s a spoiler, but this is also like… The kind of excruciating thing that they’re doing. Because you’re in this beautiful environment, and she begs you not to leave. You’re like, “But I have to go, because I have to finish solving these puzzles in order to bring you back.” It’s so painful to walk away from her. It’s just… It’s really nicely done. I liked it a lot. My dad likes it too. So. Shadow Point Observatory. Highly recommended.

[Dan] Super cool. Before we move on to the next thing, I cannot get this thing out of my head that Mary Robinette said earlier, when we were talking about challenges. She said that for prose, it is often, and I would say usually, really important to challenge the character in something that is not their area of expertise. Which is the exact opposite of what we were saying about game writing. Where often you want to let people do what they are good at. I think that that’s a really key thing to bring out, that in games, the players want to excel. They want to have a chance to use their powers. They want to show how awesome they are. In fiction, we often kind of… We want to let our characters demonstrate their awesomeness, but we also want to force them to be weak and to overcome those weaknesses. Which, I think, is a really interesting dichotomy.

[James] Well, it’s important to remember that when you’re doing a game, you’re designing for a range of characters, often in a role-playing game. You don’t necessarily know which one you’re getting. So you want to make sure that the challenge you design is hard enough to challenge the person who specializes in that particular type of challenge, so that it’s a satisfying thing, but they can succeed. But it still needs to be beatable by characters who aren’t specialized in that. So you want to make sure that you are accommodating for all of the above.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Even… In both cases, I think, the thing that will happen is the thing that happens in real life, which is that whatever tools you bring to the table, whether it’s your characters bringing it to the table in prose or in games, they’re going to solve it with the tools that they have on hand. So, just because the challenges and set up for them to be like this is the… The character who in prose who walks into the room and is like, “Oh, there’s a lot of people here that I’m supposed to shoot at and I can’t… I don’t actually know how to use a gun. But I’m very good at sneaking.” So they do this… They use the skills, even though the challenge in front of them is set up for them to fail.

[Howard] I want to do a quick call back to something Cassandra said two or three episodes ago about choices yielding consequences. The reward being consequences. I don’t mind failing a challenge in a role-playing game, provided the failure isn’t, “Oop. Wawawawawa. Game over. Start again.” If the challenge going back to the Otter King… I failed to talk to the Otter King, now we have to fight the entire otter tribe. Well, that’s a sad failure, because I don’t want to fight the otters, I want to befriend the otters. If you build the challenges in such a way that the failures alter the choices we can make, then failure isn’t catastrophic. I feel like in role-playing games, failure should be fun.

[James] Yeah.


[Mary Robinette] I feel like that is a natural segue to talking about rewards as part of the consequences.

[James] Yeah. Absolutely. Rewards, and even putting rewards and story development together. Because in many ways, like you were just saying, there kinds of the same thing. The rewards, the consequences, and the development, all fall into the same category. So how do you all handle that?

[Cassandra] Very carefully. Because I feel like…


[Cassandra] The entire feel of a player’s experience can be ruined, honestly, if they end up with, let’s say equipment that is meant for them in the end dungeon. Now, for some players, again, I am a power player, I am happiest when I can just bulldoze through things. It makes me laugh. But for other players, it just takes away the enjoyment, because all the challenges are gone. The environment, the varieties you build in the consequences, they no longer matter if one strike of the sword is enough to stop an adversary cold. So you do not want to end up with a character that is overpowered. Similarly, it’s important to track the rewards, because an underpowered character is just going to be miserable. The grind isn’t fun when you’re dedicating a few hours of your life to fun.

[Mary Robinette] The thing that I think about in prose is that the rewards are part of the way of letting the reader know that you’re making progress. It’s not just about the gear that you pick up, but that yes, this slog is worth it. Because it’s really easy in prose, we talk a lot about yes-but, no-and, and making things worse for the character, and it’s really easy to forget the importance of the yes, which is the reward. Even if there is a consequence for that reward. It’s still that forward momentum, that forward progress, is still important to think about.

[Howard] One of the mechanics we built into Planet Mercenary, if players embrace in character their failures, they get role-play points. You can spend the role-play points to boost die rolls, to reroll dies, to reroll dice, to… There’s all kinds of uses for them we didn’t put limitations per game around on how you spent these. One of the players in one of the play tests I ran, to my great joy, figured this out, so that when we got to the point where it’s time to defuse the nuclear weapon, he has accrued all of his role played failures and plays this stuff and Bam! The weapon is defused. Nothing about that felt steamroll-y. Everything felt earned. Because he had done such a good job of owning all of the earlier failures.

[Dan] That’s great. One thing about rewards, when we’re talking about gear, I keep talking about Star Wars and I apologize for that. I don’t know why that’s the example that leaps to my mind. But when you’re talking about giving overpowered gear to a character too early, Luke Skywalker gets his lightsaber like 20 minutes into the first movie. That’s the best weapon in the game, so to speak. But what’s fascinating about it is that he… The reward is not the gear. It’s his own skill with it. We have to get into the middle section of the second movie before he really learns how to use it. It’s not until the end of the third movie that he gets it into a full-blown lightsaber battle where he gets to show off all his skills. So sometimes rewards are… It can be really valuable to give someone the crazy equipment early on, and then just let them learn how to use it.

[Story Development]

[Cassandra] Last of all, one you really do need to consider is how story development ties in with encounters they are creating. Make sure that your characters are incentivized to actually do the encounters. Make sure there are stakes. They don’t need to be big stakes, however. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had this one [cat] that you could find and [stick, take] to your boat. It was a completely separate, quiet quest. Mechanically, it did nothing. It’s just a decorative item. But, good Lord, it’s also a kitty that you can have on your Viking boat for the rest of the game. James, do you have anything to add on that point before we run away [garbled]?

[James] Yeah. You want to think about how does a given scene push things forward. What are the ramifications? What elements do you want to tag for future reference, so that, as we said before, you can call back to something? What can the outcomes of this scene lead to later so that when, three scenes down the road, somebody calls back to a thing you just did, you’ve laid the groundwork for that?

[Mary Robinette] You all had homework for us, I think?

[Cassandra] We did. We would like you to design an encounter for a game that you’ve enjoyed, getting all of the factors that we mentioned. Setting, challenge, adversaries, rewards, and story development.

[Dan] Wonderful. Well, thank you very much. This is been a long, but I think, really fantastic episode. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.