GM Techniques: important events off-screen - how do you do it?

I've been thinking about preparing for our next session of Monsterhearts, and I'm facing a fairly typical GM challenge. It occurred to me that the clever people of Story Games Land may have some good tips, practices, caveats, or experiences to share.

The short version is:

Some important things happened in the last session, and the PCs fled the scene. Now, the NPCs have some very important conversations to have with each other off-screen.

In our case, it's a very suspicious situation, a fight, and a car crash. The police are undoubtedly going to be trying to find out what's going on and talking to the NPCs involved.

The problem:

Going into the next session, trying to figure out what happened "behind the scenes" is a heavy mental load for the GM. Who said what? Lots of people have stakes involved in lying about what happened, but it's a complex situation and lots of NPCs have different stakes in play.

The question:

Going into the next session, I should really have some sense of what went down, who said what, and where things are heading.

Do you have any shorthand, tips, tricks, or other methods for dealing with a complex situation off-screen?

Think of any situation (maybe mine, maybe one from your own game) where a lot is at stake, and just skipping over all the details would be unsatisfying.

What's your process for resolving it and getting back to play? What are your favourite tricks?



  • Some important things happened in the last session, and the PCs fled the scene. Now, the NPCs have some very important conversations to have with each other off-screen.
    Are the conversations actually important? I mean, these are NPCs. Who cares what they say to each other.

    I think what players really care about is what happens to their characters as a result.

    So first option: Just jump into the consequences of the actions to the PCs.

    But, accepting the premise that the players care what the NPCs are saying to each other, here are some ideas:

    1. Hand players NPC sheets with brief motivations and have them play out the conversation. This sounds fun!
    2. Sum it up in a "love letter" to each PC. Of course, these come with choices.
    3. Write a script of the conversation and read it to the group. Yawn.
    4. Summarize what happened. Probably yawn.

  • Good tips, Adam!

    Aside from your #1, though, they don't help me *decide* what happens, right?

    These are important because - for instance - what so-and-so says about the car crash impacts who the police are coming after next.

    With one person in play, I find it fairly easy. When there are many, though, it becomes mentally challenging to keep it straight in my head and make sure the whole thing is consistent.

    An example:

    One PC is going to be hanging out with a police officer. I know that this officer almost arrested her (the PC's) mother two days earlier, and that the mother probably lied about a variety of details. (It was heavily implied in the scene we played out "on screen" earlier.)

    When the PC meets up with the police officer, I'd like to have his reaction and knowledge of events believably synch up with whatever the mother told him two days ago. It might mean he suspects the PC, or it might mean he suspects the PC's friend... for instance.

  • Oh, maybe I emphasized the wrong bits.

    How to decide? I usually go with what will create the most drama.

    If you want something more systematized, stat up these NPCs quickly in FATE with their motivations as aspects, and play out a few "rounds" of them trying to get what they want.
  • Adam,

    Your comments have actually got me thinking some really terrible ideas about, say, playing out those conversations with the players as little mini-games... (there's probably some evil laughter which should go here).

    The challenge, though, is not in deciding at all. Like, this is Monsterhearts: of course we go to the drama.

    The challenge, rather, is about doing it somewhat systematically or at least economically.

    We had a couple of rather major events in play, and some important off-screen conversations, so there should be a good deal of fallout. However, there are many, many NPCs involved, and they should all influence each other believably - just like my example with the police officer above, except I've got maybe four-five of those situations suddenly happening at once and they're all interrelated.

    Hence the "mental load": sure, I could sit down and think through every each one and try to find the most dramatic possibility, but that will take me a long time, and then I may have to rethink earlier conversations to make them consistent with new ideas I've had in later conversations. It's a lot!

    I know it comes in games frequently, so I'm hoping to hear more about peoples' tips and tricks.
  • I don't know that I have an answer. I usually just decide based on what is interesting and that's pretty economical.

    Also economical: Ask players. "What do you think Bob does to you?"

    Barring that, to reduce the load, maybe draw some relationship diagrams and roll spicy dice on each one to figure out which way it's headed, and then pick one thing you want to happen as a next scene. Use that as an anchor to figure out what the other NPCs do as a result.
  • Yeah, I'm thinking about diagramming and randomization quite a lot.

    I also like your "love letters" suggestion. I could just write out the most important turning points of each conversation ("Does she snitch on the drug dealer?"), and then leave it to a dice roll at the beginning of the session. Lots to ponder here!
  • edited June 2017
    Here is a possible plan: For illustrative purposes there are 3 NPCs involved, NPC A, B, & C.
    A is canvassing witnesses
    B is inspecting the crime scene
    C is scrubbing through security footage.

    List out 6 awesome high drama potentials for each NPC. roll 3d6, use the results to decide how the investigation played out.

    Sure, it's not as rich as playing it out (which categorically is better). But, it is quick and effective. Using your example above, if the policeman is NPC A, three of the six possibilities might be: NPC suspects the PCs involvement. NPC suspects the PCs friend's involvement. NPC knows the mother is holding back and is getting a warrant to bring her in for more official questioning. etc etc.

    Edit: To be clear, this is kind of a half-measure between playing it out and handwaving it all. The idea being, you generate the investigation outcome. Then, go back and mine your NPCs for who would most likely contribute to said investigation outcome. If the policeman determines it was the PC who was involved, you might decide the mother is a good liar so someone else/something else tipped him off. Similarly, if the policeman is hot on the trail of the PCs friend, it could be because the mother did a great job of deflecting him onto that path.
  • I suspect that the game's procedures can't handle it if one were to attempt to revise the GMing role so as to eliminate the dramatic coordination task altogether. I suppose a one-time thing couldn't hurt, of course, but then you're probably just best off rolling the dice a few times to decide between alternatives, and that's that.

    In general, though, these types of games pretty much assume that the GM takes the artistic responsibility of recognizing what the dramatic issues are, and putting them in a pleasing order for the players to deal with. If there is a way to do this that doesn't involve what essentially amounts to handcrafting by the GM, then I don't know what it is.

    As a general suggestion I'd recommend dealing with the NPCs as emblematic and simple personalities, and developing these personalities as literary themes throughout play. This means, essentially, that you repeat the message at the players any time you have the chance. "NPC A is a coward", for example, or whatever. So when deciding how NPCs act off-screen, you basically look at their themes and have them do their thematic thing. This approach keeps the NPC complexity manageable and helps the story cohere. As a bonus, if a NPC learns something and grows as a person it becomes a big deal.

    (When does that NPC theme come to the attention of the players? Why, when the NPC explains themselves later, of course. "You're asking me how I knew to be here, now? Well, of course it was because I was such a coward, and therefore this happened, and then that..." It'll come out more or less explicitly, no worries.)

    If the thematic premises of the various PCs genuinely don't suggest to you what scenes you might prefer over some others (and thus, what must have happened in between), then you probably should just let the most obvious things happen that illustrate what those NPCs are like. If they're dumb, then you take the dumbness storyline, and if they're brave, you take the bravery storyline. I can't remember ever having been in the situation myself, though, where I wouldn't prefer one off-screen series of actions over another in the interest of bringing the drama to the PCs. Usually some pretty Aristotelian plot direction suggests itself to me, and that's what I go with.
  • I'd totally go for Adam's #1 option. I've tried it before and it went really great. Another trick to help you decide could be making a random table of emotional reactions and roll for each NPC, then use that emotion to try to connect the dots. Like, the police officer is really angry now. Why? Against who? which thing could make more sense and be the most dramatic twist?
  • Have you thought about making the offscreen events into a bit of a mystery? The players will have to investigate if they want to find out the truth about what happened.

    This keeps the agency in the players' hands, as the story becomes the investigation not what happened per se, and has the further advantage of meaning you don't have to decide in advance what happened--you can decide each piece as they discover it.
  • empowermint,

    As much as I like that idea, it's not helpful here. You see, I tend to leave "off-screen" information out, focusing on the PCs. But here, enough has happened "off-screen" that without having some sense of what it is, I don't have enough information to play the NPCs in the next scene or two. (It may help to realize that the game in question is a relationship drama, not an investigation drama.)

    Eero and WarriorMonk,

    Determining "themes" or "emotions" for each NPC is exactly the type of shorthand I'm looking for, thank you!

    I could leave it as simple as that, or I could determine an emotional approach and then occasionally use the *opposite* of that implication to decide what actually happened.

    For instance:

    * I choose or roll that the mother is in tears, desperately happy to see her daughter again, clinging to her and doesn't want to let her go ever again.

    * In contrast, I use that to inspire me with the idea that, in fact, the mother has thrown the daughter to the police to cover up for her own misdeeds... which means that her tears and so forth or not from relief, but, rather, from a sense of guilt.

    I'll ponder this further. Any other ideas?

    Anecdotes and examples from actual games are also welcome! Have you run into this kind of thing in your own games? If so, how did you handle it?
  • I haven’t run Monsterhearts, only played it, but in normal AW, don’t you have clocks & fronts & stuff for this? For a more sim ethos, we’re discussing this over at Autarch.

  • You're right! Monsterhearts doesn't have clocks and Fronts, though. I'll check out the link!
  • Sandra,

    I read through the link, and it's interesting stuff. I should perhaps clarify that my interest here is not one of *simulation* - it's a character drama, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with me just choosing things willy-nilly (in a way I wouldn't want to do in a sandbox game, for the reasons you describe very well in that thread).

    I suppose the challenges here lie in the sheer complexity of the situation and a lack of prep time.

    I'd like to be able to narrow down the possibilities, choose between them, while keeping them consistent with each other, so that I can easily play my NPCs in future scenes instead of freezing up while I try to figure out how someone reacts to something because I have no idea what happened "off-screen" to them on the previous day.

    I'm good at doing that sort of thing in a) simpler situations, and b) when I have lots of time to devote to thinking it through.

    I figure I can't be the only one to have been in this pickle, so I'm collecting people's tricks and experiences here!

    (I suppose simply simulating the events, as you describe there, is definitely a valid tactic. However, it would be too time-consuming for this game, while not necessarily guaranteeing sufficiently dramatic or interesting outcomes. I could see using it for simpler situations where any given outcome is equally interesting, however! It's not a bad reminder to keep tools on hand, even if they seem not to match the medium being used - sometimes they can be just the right thing. For instance, I could see rolling randomly to see which classmate ends up with a missing/stolen item if none of the choices are obviously best or obviously terrible.)

  • I also like your "love letters" suggestion. I could just write out the most important turning points of each conversation ("Does she snitch on the drug dealer?"), and then leave it to a dice roll at the beginning of the session. Lots to ponder here!
    Distill everything down to one crucial issue per PC. It's hard to manage more than one issue per PC anyway. Sum it up in the form of a love letter. Then figure out how each issue is resolved by some aspect of the character, not the NPC.

    At the start of the game, have the player roll for their character's representation in their issue. Everyone will have deeper investment in how these NPCs react, as a result, I think.
  • I guess what I'm saying is you can either sim it out, or, simply make it up. The latter is something AW (again, I know you're doing MH, but maybe some things are similar) has a lot of tools for. Announce future badness for example.
  • Sandra,

    Absolutely, of course! I'm just looking for clever and/or economical ways of doing that.


    That sounds interesting! I'm not sure I follow entirely, though. Can you illustrate with an example?

    Also, how does that help me resolve the issue of, "What the heck happened off-screen with these two?"

    In this case, I have a PC whose mother disappeared and was then briefly detained by the police. I need to know enough about what kind of conversation was had to be able to play both the mother and the police officer consistently and believably in the next session.

    I like where you're going with this, so please do continue!
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