What's the middle ground between Scene and Session?

edited November 2011 in Game Design Help
[Typically, when we say Session, we mean an entire "sitting" of play, an evening (or other part of the day) of gaming.

I've been thinking/advocating shorter sessions for a while. Instead of the monstertruck 4 hour session of play, play for two hours, take a break, then play for two more hours. Apocalypse World (I'm tired of referencing this game!) with its end of session moves is useful as a test subject for these kinds of things. When you're playing online (PbP) you need to arbitrarily decide when a "session" has ended, so people can adjust their Hx. When I played with Vincent at Lucca, we took a 10min break in the con game for similar purposes. Breaks can be good. They let you clear your head, think about the game, go to the toiled, smoke a cigarete whatever. You can refresh your gaming energies and then jump right back in. They can build suspense (cut at an important point). They can give space to out-of-character, person-to-person feedback that's sometimes hard to get in the middle of actual play.]


This game I'm working on requires some mechanical dice fiddling and stat adjusting that is not directly related to the fiction but will influence the fiction from there on (broadly speaking: it's like getting XP/leveling up in D&D). Initially I placed this procedure at the end of play, or more accurately, end of the session. But I think that might be too slow, because you don't get to see how your character changed until next week (or whenever you're going to play next).

So I want it to happen in the middle of the game. But it definitely shouldn't happen too often, so not at the end of every scene. So Middle of the Session is a good place for it. But I don't know how to measure that time (if you don't know how long exactly you'll be playing) or what to call it (chapter? act?).

Let's say that a session contains two or three Acts, what's a good, hard rule for when to close an act? Something like "An Act lasts X number of scenes" might do, but my game doesn't use Scenes as a resource strictly speaking. D&D 4E has "milestones" which is every two Encounters or something like that if I remember correctly. Any other ideas?


  • For the games I play, I find an "act" takes up more than one session. Like...if I'm playing a 4 hour session of Burning Wheel, I'll probably have 4 to 6 scenes. Two or three of them might be in the same setting and a related situation, which in movie/lit/drama terms one might call a "set piece."

    So my structure might look like this:

    Act 1
    Session 1
    Set Piece: The Wilderness (orc hunting parties by day, ghosts by night)
    Scene: Party disagrees about where to go. Duel of Wits
    Scene: Scout tries to find a safe pathway. Consequence of failure: Attracts the attention of an orc hunting party ohnoes
    Scene: Party gets in a fight with the orcs, disagreement about whether to take a prisoner or kill 'em all
    Set Piece: On the road to the castle (prisoner in tow, other travelers come and go)
    Scene: Come upon a stranded tinker, who offers a reward for helping him right his wagon.
    Scene: Jumped by bandits
    Set Piece: Arrive at the Castle
    Scene: Negotiating their way into the castle. Consequence of failure: Taken in under close guard and questioned.
    Scene: Meet with the King
    Session 2
    Set Piece: Inner chambers of the castle
    Scene: Secret meeting with the suzerain, conspiring against the king. Which way will the players go?
    Scene: Assassination attempt against a character! Capture or kill the assassin?
    Set Piece: Escaping the castle!
    Scene: Bypassing the guards. Failure: characters spotted, guards give chase!
    Scene: Evading their followers
    Scene: Dealing with the wilderness when they're unprepared
    Scene: Party discusses what to do next. Who was the assassin? Was he in the employ of the king or the suzerain?

    Act 2
    Session 1
    Set Piece: Ocean voyage eastward toward the desert shore
    Scene: Making friends/foes aboard the ship
    Scene: Dealing with a kraken attack
    ...etc etc

    The entire BW framework of course facilitates, maybe even requires, this sort of setup. I don't know that I can necessarily say the same of my AW games! In that case, the game works really hard at not having "scenes" with important plot things "at stake". It's all very reactive and in-the-moment. I'm not even sure I can point at an "act" arching over the whole thing.

    What if your game was simply, and this is weird but hear me out, "After 60 minutes of play, REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE FICTION, take a break and do your mechanical stuff."

    Or, if you're going to have some flavor of stake-setting: After a major stake has been resolved, do your mechanical stuff. And then you'll have to define precisely what "major" and "minor" entail, i.e. they're not "scenes". That could be totally mechanized I think: "Major" stakes when two characters are in opposition, "minor" when it's the player(s) versus a neutral third party (NPCs, environmental whatevers). You could even force the players to earn the right for a major scene by earning some currency via resolving minor scenes. Mouse Guard does this in an indirect way, through earning checks and then letting players buy spotlight time later.
  • Mouse Guard has some pretty good guidelines for turns. The GM has X number of obstacles, once the PCs have dealt with them, the turn is over. Then the PCs have Y number of scenes based on their actions in the GM's turn.

    Or you can limit each player to a set number of scenes per episode, maneuver, act, or whatever you want to call the segment, much like Burning Empires does. This could also help see that everybody gets a similar amount of screen time.
  • I'm in two weekly groups that each play for two hours, full stop, so that's warped my design sensibilities. But it really does seem like a healthy chunk of time. It has the built-in time pressure motivator - if you want to have fun you need to show up ready to play and you need to go after what you want, because in two hours you will be done.

    My rule of thumb is that sixteen scenes is an optimally awesome amount for a discrete instance of play. That's perfect for a punchy two-hour session of a game with unobtrusive rules, like a PTA episode, Apocalypse World or Fiasco. More than 16 and they are too rushed to carry any weight and less than 16 is over-indulgent spotlight hogging. Each scene is about five minutes long and you still have room for a bathroom break in the middle.
  • Jason: What are you calling a "Scene"? Two or more characters in a discrete conversation? Or is this a term of art in your games?

    (We haven't busted out Fiasco yet, but it's on our playlist. Sorry. We suck. :-( )
  • This discussion from the True20 boards might be of interest. In particular, Chapters and Fades might be of use to you.
  • Posted By: Paul BJason: What are you calling a "Scene"?
    It does have a specific meaning in Fiasco but generally a discrete moment between two or more characters, or a fight, or a conversation. In AW probably the time between a cluster of moves getting rolled, I guess?
  • I have no idea other than intuitively how to describe a "scene" in AW. Everything is so reactive and strung together.

    Actually, the fact that I can't really control scene-level pacing while MCing AW is one of my primary beefs with running it.
  • It feels like pulses to me, where you talk a little until something bumps up against something else and engages the move mechanism. I bet how this is handled is highly group-specific.
  • Chapter seems a good fit.

    I often frown at per-session mechanics because sometimes my sessions are 4 hours long and sometimes they're 2, because we're tired or we want to all talk about the latest hilarious thing we saw on Youtube for a while, or whatever. It seems like a bad deal a lot of times.
  • Sixteen!? Back when I ran games that counted scenes, we'd get through, like, 4-6 in a 3 hour session.
  • edited November 2011
    Sounds like you enjoy a different pace than I do, Jeph! No bigs. I talked to a guy once who said "we really like Fiasco, it is the most immersive game we've ever played and we love the eight hour sessions." I thanked him, but what I was thinking was that if I had eight hours I could play three games of Fiasco and have lunch.
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