Play Before Play, the Scripted Experience

Over in another thread, we've been discussing how having a clear sense of what is about to happen, what will happen, or where the story is headed can be an advantage to a group that wants their story and their scenes to be as coherent, powerful, aesthetically pleasing, or well-acted as possible.

In some ways, knowing what's coming and why can help us to do that better. If I know that your character will ultimately betray me, I can highlight that by making my character as pure, innocent, gullible, or well-meaning and self-sacrificing as possible, for instance, adding weight and drama to the eventual betrayal.

For you, dear reader (and I really hope to hear from @EmmatheExcrucian on this, in particular):

What's the furthest you've ever gone in terms of "pre-writing" game scenes and events before actually playing through them? For instance, have you ever established lines of dialogue, particular "stage choreography" (a kiss, a slap, a touch, an entrance or an exit), or other details before actually playing through that moment?

Has anyone ever gone so far as to write a whole script and then to perform it?

If so, what was your experience with doing so? Did you ever "cross a line", and decide to never do so again? What parts of the experience added to your game and which parts detracted from your enjoyment?

(I should clarify that I'm talking about *shared* knowledge/preparation/brainstorming - something the group does together, in the open - not the kind of thing where one player has a plan they want to spring on the others, like a railroading GM.)


  • We take this so far as to sometimes rehearse scenes before play, as a way of drafting. When there's a moment we're having trouble conceptualizing, we do casual "practice" versions of it sometimes, to work out our thoughts on it.
    This is especially common for us with particularly sensitive scenes, where we want to make sure we portray things with the appropriate level of nuance.

    For instance:
    There's a plot thread we've thought out for the sequel campaign to our current campaign. To explain the context, Sora rescued a girl named Daria from an abusive household in the early parts of Looking Glass Heart. They became best friends. Daria clearly had a crush on Sora, but Sora didn't know how to handle that (despite having feelings for her), because she was especially socially awkward at the time and was afraid of weird power dynamics in their relationship because of Sora's role as her savior. So she starts calling Daria her little sister, in a found family kind of way. A bunch of time passes, and Daria becomes a badass super-powered delinquent like Sora, basically destroying any risk of that weird power dynamic, putting them on even footing socially. Throughout all of this, Daria kind of hesitantly accepts Sora casting her as her sister, because she feels like if Sora isn't interested in her romantically, at least they can be really close in a different way, even though it's not quite the way she wants. During a storyline where Sora has been out of Town for 6 months, Daria really hit a point of not being okay with the weird space their relationship is in, not being okay with just forever being stuck as Sora's sister, and she's been planning to confess her love to Sora next time she sees her (which is going to be early on in the sequel campaign, since Looking Glass Heart has always ended with Sora getting back to Town and seeing Sadako (my character, who is one of Sora's girlfriends) for the first time since they were separated at the end of the previous storyline.
    With the scene where Daria confesses to Sora, we've discussed for a long time that we want them to end up together, but Sora's going to have a lot to unpack and a lot to deal with as far as feeling really guilty and weird because of the radical change in their relationship, and Sora being worried that it's unethical. We've been workshopping the scene a lot, testing out different ways of handling it to make sure we handle it with the needed level of nuance - basically, the question of how to handle it in a way that addresses what we want to address, and that also doesn't make it seem like either character views actual incest as acceptable. We've played out versions of this scene probably 20-30 times away from the table, trying out different things, working to get it just right. We're also still quite a while out from when that plotline actually happens, so we'll probably end up playing out more versions, finetuning it more thoroughly before writing the canonical version of it into play.

    It should definitely be noted that it's rare that we play out a scene as many times as we've played out that one, but it's not uncommon for us to play out a difficult scene 3-5 times before writing the definitive canon version of the scene into play.
    A few examples of situations where we've done this:
    - a plotline involving a relationship that starts out abusive, and then over time the abuse stops happening as the abusive partner unlearns abusive behaviors she learned from being stuck in a cycle of abuse for hundreds of years
    - a plotline involving an abusive relationship that in-character was viewed as romantic, but that we wanted it to be very clear OOC that it wasn't at all romantic and was actually awful
    - some workshopping on a romance that were really attached to, but felt we hadn't done enough to establish it strongly in play yet, so we were effectively working out how to step it up and add in a lot more romantic tension moving forward
    - some light workshopping on an extremely important monologue that a character's arc had been building up to for 39 sessions, that was essentially the climax of her story
    - workshopping a reunion scene between two characters where we hadn't worked out yet how we wanted their friendship/relationship to develop, and we used the workshopping to work out what the characters's feelings for each other are (This one was for a scene we still haven't played the canon version of yet, but will be playing the canon version soon).

    We workshop pretty regularly. Those were just a few examples I thought of that didn't require explaining too much context.
  • Fascinating, Emma! Thank you for that, and the incredible detail.

    What does "workshopping" mean, in practice? Are you just idly talking about what might happen and how (like how two people might idly discuss the possibilities for "fun things to do next weekend"), or are you actually "in character", speaking lines and playing out the scene? (Or, more likely, somewhere in-between, perhaps.)
  • Of course! I'm glad I could help! ^_^
    In practice, "workshopping" is playing out versions of the scene. We do a lot of discussing things that might happen and how, but that's not a part of what I'm referring to as "workshopping". It's playing out versions of the scene without using the game mechanics.
    My group and I live together, so we have lots of time to do this. We do it a lot when we're bored and lying in bed at night before going to sleep, for instance.
    "I'm not sleep yet, let's work on that scene."
    "I had some new ideas for that scene, and I want to see how it would work in practice."
    Sometimes it even just starts as "I want to play out a scene with these characters because it's been a while since they interacted in canon and I miss playing their dynamic", and then it evolves into workshopping a scene we've been kind of stuck on, or that we think needs more work before we play out the canon version of the scene in play.
    Does that clarify? :)
  • Definitely! Do people ever get confused between different versions of a scene (when trying to remember who said what, let's say)?

    How different or how similar might two versions of a scene being "played out" be, when you're doing it several times before going to the "canon version"?

    Does anyone ever go "off script", and, if so, is it always a sin or is it sometimes welcome or exciting?
  • Definitely! Do people ever get confused between different versions of a scene (when trying to remember who said what, let's say)?
    We're not ever confused about different versions. We're always really clear about what is the canon version, and we keep really copious records of what happened canonically. We also record our sessions, so if there was confusion about whether or not something was canon, we could look it up.
    How different or how similar might two versions of a scene being "played out" be, when you're doing it several times before going to the "canon version"?
    It really depends on the scene. Sometimes it's really similar in between variations, with the difference just being exactly what's said, but the general structure being the same. Sometimes in workshopping it becomes a completely different scene that retains the same purpose and emotional core, but otherwise is completely different from how it started.
    Does anyone ever go "off script", and, if so, is it always a sin or is it sometimes welcome or exciting?
    Going "off script" isn't something we do, and if it happened, it wouldn't at all be welcome or exciting. If we decide that we're not happy with something that we planned, we stop and discuss it, work out how to change it (and if it really needs to be changed, or if the desire to change was just a passing whim) and then we work on setting up the new version of things before moving into playing out that section.
    Basically, there's not reason why we'd want to go "off script", because we put the script there. It's our story, and we're telling it the way we decided would be best. Why would we suddenly want to change that, you know?
  • Very cool, Emma. Your responses are generous and absolutely fascinating.

    What kind of detail goes into a typical "script" for a scene? Or is that really hard to say, because most of it is just verbal negotiation until you all get on the same page?

    For example, would you get to the point of knowing particular lines of dialogue before the scene gets played?
  • It's hard to say because it's verbal negotiation til we're on the same page. Sometimes we'll just play out a version of the scene that makes us all say "Okay, so that's pretty much what the canon version is going to look like."

    We typically don't know exact lines of dialogue, but every now and then there's a line that's just so resonant or funny or meaningful or appropriate or whatever that we end up using it in the final version of the scene.
    For instance, a line I stumbled onto for Sadako in a workshop once was "You can't take this from me. My emptiness is mine and mine alone," in response to someone offering to magically heal her disability. That line just resonated so strongly with us all as far as Sadako's character arc, specifically the parts of the story that were happening at the time, that I ended up using it in the canon version (although it ended up being a different scene that I used it in than the one I originally found it in while workshopping). I'd just kind of told myself that I was going to use that line at some point, because it was so perfectly fitting for the character.
  • I'll write out NPC dialogue lines so as not to forget to use them if opportunity arises.
    I'll write out a whole scene if I a) expect PCs to be spying on it and b) know what's going to happen if they do.
    For some larps, I will preplan as a player. Mike Young's Lullaby of Broadway larps expect metagaming because they're drawing on musicals for plot, character, and so on. We have "Open when" contingency envelopes, and in most games, I won't jump the gun. Here, it's best if I do open them so I know what beats to aim for.
    I have some sealed notes for a couple of players in Our Ladies of Sorrow that may or may not come up. In one case, I've three notes, but these are mutually exclusive with each other, so at most, the player will get one of these. But if I've written the possibilities down, I'm less likely to screw up and forget them. I'd consider giving players an idea of what's in them if they'd indicated they wanted to play that way, but I'm getting very much the opposite signals.
  • Lisa,

    Those are all cases of individual prep, though, right? Not some kind of shared pre-planning the group does, which predetermines decisions and events for the players at the table?

    Just curious if I'm reading you right.
  • With the exception of the Lullaby larps, yes. Those larps are a little fuzzier. E.g., in the first one, Josh opened a contingency envelope, and the contents were what he expected -- he was supposed to "discover" his daughter was going to do a thing and loudly forbid it, thus opening the way for another character to do the thing.

    He got together with me, the woman playing his daughter, and the man playing the man courting his daughter, and we figured out how to choreograph a bit of the upcoming couples dance so that all the "You! Here?!" discoveries could be made on schedule.
  • Nice! Thanks.
  • Oh, then there was Lullaby 2, which had, among other musicals, Jekyll and Hyde and Sweeney Todd. The rule is that characters with the same name are the same character, so Lucy in J&H was the same Lucy as in ST (and also as in Avenue Q, and the scary thing is how well it fit).

    Now, we were all used to Romance Tracks -- I have a list of tasks I can give prospective suitors, rules for giving them out, and first person to reach a set total wins my character's heart. Totally gameable, which is kind of the point. This game introduced Death Tracks. A given PC could not be killed until they'd crossed off all the stuff that had to happen first.

    Lucy's player had a family emergency, but wanted to avoid breaking the game, so filled up her Death Track in record time. Hyde killed her (and asked me to please come over to the body and scream so everyone would know the death had happened), and player could leave with a clear conscience.

    This left Sweeney in a tricky position. The player was fine with Hyde having killed Lucy, or at least could deal with it, but needed then to kill Hyde. Hyde's Death Track included an event -- Jekyll's Wedding -- that would not happen till Sunday afternoon of the weekend long larp.

    Hyde's player: Okay, we can work this out.

    They came up with a two part solution. Part One: Right before the wedding, Sweeney sang a new verse to "A Barber and His Wife" which the player had written, accurately summarizing the in-game situation, saying that Lucy's murderer still roamed free -- for now.

    During the wedding, when Jekyll because Hyde, he drew his sword and asked the lawyer to kill him (this was also the lawyer from Chicago) (Yes, I know -- time and space are broken in these larps, and we just accept that).

    Lawyer: I cannot!
    Sweeney Todd (stepping onto the stage): I can.
    Audience (aka the rest of the game): Wild applause.

    And they had a very minimally choreographed razor vs swordcane fight ending in both men dying.
  • Fascinating examples!

    I like the idea of those public "tracks". That's good technology!
  • Generally, quite a few Freeform games have pre-scripted scenes.
    My experience is that having a fixed outer story structure helps you focus on the inner emotional play of the characters.
    You are not pre-occupied with what will happen in the scenes. But how will the characters react emotionally? How will things that happen change them?

    I enjoy playing pre-scripted story games with this premise a lot. I understand also that for some player this does not work and they miss the emergent (outer) story.
  • The thing of really focusing in on the "how" is a big part of my (wholly scripted) play. The "how" is what interests me and my fellow participants, but in order for there to be a "how", there needs to be a "what", so then the "what" is preset so that we can focus in wholly on the "what".
    We're super interested in craftsmanship as far as writing, and in order for there to be fancy craftsmanship to appreciate, there has to be a material with which to craft with.
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