Plot first vs Scene first

DeReel's picture

I need conceptual tools to distinguish Plot and Scene in the context of TTRPGs.
I mean, yes, drama, story, narrativism, etc. it needs both. But what about a game where the focus is on the scene and anything goes regarding plot (1) vs a game where the focus is on the plot and the scenes follow (2) Sort of painting vs drawing, only in RPG techniques.

1: we are in a dramatic conflict and to escalate the stakes, we add that the characters are blood tied. AW

2 : we know that the Red Paws are linked to the murder, but they won't talk without help. Technoir

It's related to prep vs impro I guess, but how ? In Forge-talk s it like Situation vs Setting or something ? And is the prepped thing explored (then exploration = discovery) or is it the not prepped thing (then exploration = invention)

komradebob's picture

I'm not entirely sure this will help, but with some of the stuff I've tried to design, I took inspiration from Fiasco's overall structure, so it's a bit of a hybrid.

A limited collection/universe of "building blocks" with a theme.
That theme is very simple and clear ( although very much tied to pop culture references, and almost always very US American ones)

A game design commitment to a 3 Act Structure with limited amounts of scenes for each player to initiate the focus of during play.

So, in this's a little of both.

There's a great deal of ability to Invent, and players are certainly allowed and encouraged to do that, but with a fair amount of limitation in terms of materials and color to start with. If, as a player, you don't start by riffing off the materials present, you're doing it wrong.

The commitment to the 3 Act Structure ( and a basic assumption of a one-shot nature as the norm) means players also have to at least attempt to tie things back together towards the end of the game. Not every devloped series of events around a character(s) must tie back together, but if none of them do, you're ( probably) doing something wrong.

I guess what I'm getting at is that one can definitely put some creative constraints in place, even while Invention is highly valued, and some kind of setting prep can be a valued part of those constraints.

DeReel's picture

Yes, of course : the structure is set and then anything goes within a scene (a padded cell). The limit test would be : are there revelations to the player that the character already knows ? Like in Improv "But you can't open the door : this is a plane. And you're the pilot"

Also : tying up loose ends. There are few games that don't leave it to player judgement : Otherkind games, Lovecraftesque and Annalise. Having a reminder such as an act structure is certainly helpful.

Rickard's picture

But what about a game where the focus is on the scene and anything goes regarding plot (1) vs a game where the focus is on the plot and the scenes follow (2) Sort of painting vs drawing, only in RPG techniques.

I think "plot" is the wrong wording here. If you're talking about "scenes", I would instead rather talk about "intention", as if the intention of the scene. It could be to to deepen a relationship, to establish something new, to reveal something old (ex. lore, clues), to explore a relationship, to get a cooldown moment around the fireplace, to obtain something, and so on.

The plot is just a result of intention + scene, and I guess I also revealed the order of them. The result of these, together with the participants actions in the scene, will create the plot. It doesn't matter what is prepped ahead (even if it's the plot) - the emergent result of what out in play is the real plot.

Do note, that people will interpret result of the scene (the plot) differently during play, which will affect the set intention in the upcoming scene(s).

DeReel's picture

Yeah, not Plot, but rather Intention. So, some games leave a lot to the Scene proper, and other games script the Intention of the scene. Excuse me, I expressed myself hazily*. It's not only the Intention that I want to pinpoint, but also that : in some games, the Setting is resistant to the Scene "by default".
*I think I skidded on my Technoir example, because a Transmission is a Setting (and a "Plot" in a limited sense). I prefer sturdy to exact.

I'll try and express the distinction I meant in OP :
2) In fiction, all is supposed to be "as in real life" (even verisimilar and neutral to the point of dullness) unless specified. In different genres, the basic expectations are more or less fantastic.
1) But in **some** games (and many Improv I see), anything goes when nothing is specified. That's where a scene has the legal power to change (unspecified parts of) Setting.

Phrased like that it's more about expectations. Not "fiction genre" expectations (that would be Setting proper) but rather Game expectations. See : being blood tied is nothing fantastic. It happens every day. Being blood tied unknowingly is dramatic, but within the laws of physics. Being blood tied and knowing it but not **the audience/players** has nothing to do with the Setting, but all to do with the game.

It's a wall I seem to hit when playing with my old trad friends. Could it be a difference between play cultures that hasn't been expressed clearly in game texts ? It's easy to pick from textbook examples, usually, at least in the more "Drama first" games. But in which rules of which games is it written ? Maybe it's written in the invitation to Metagaming by Vincent Baker in AW, or in a bolded "anything" I obverlooked in Polaris or in Swords Without Masters. I know nothing and that doesn't prevent me from hasty judgement (on the contrary !) : leaving Game expectations to play culture seems like a stupid thing to do. I'd better speak with my group about that.

Paul T.'s picture

We had a discussion about this - if I'm understanding you correctly here, it's still a bit haze to me - and it led Ron Edwards to posit four different "narrational authorities". (They were Plot, Content, Descriptive, and Situation, I think, or something similar.)

The basic idea which was important to understand here is that a group, to function properly, must agree on which authorities are appropriately exercised and which are not. Perhaps it's OK if I improvise the contents of a drawer, for example, in your game, but if it conflicts with backstory, then I may not. Things like that. There isn't really much good established vocabulary around that, but it relates the "game state" discussion, earlier. On the Forge, they spoke of "Full Myth" (everything outside the characters "exists" in some fashion, and we explore it in play), "No Myth" (anything not yet established is fully up for grabs), or hybrids.

I think it might be really worthwhile for you to illustrate with an example from actual play. What does this look like when it's happening with your group?

DeReel's picture

I bump into NoMyth everywhere. Thank you, Paul_T, it looks like that.
In play it's nearly palpable, but difficult to nail. Trying to picture games and moments, I can see they want railroads. I just realized their vision of a Sandbox is a railroad that will follow them anywhere (instead of forcing a location) *edited 2021/01/18 to add : it's what Ron Ewards calls "intuitive continuity", the term is from Greg Costikyan or someone ?* It's not something specific, in most games, I am like a pervert trying to look under the skirt of the scripted story. I stray out of the path without realizing it. (* further edited : yeah, I cross invisible lines of established Authority in their culture - and it's true, sometime, even int game rules. Ahem. *) Often they like that, but look at me as if I was a trouble maker, a chicken thief. But that's the railroad part. Like the plot part of FullMyth.

The question became clear in the most totally NoMyth game that is Penny for my thoughts. I added a lock on a fridge as an obstacle, and they fell on their asses : the lock wasn't there "in their mind" before, so it was too much NoMyth. Of course, there's a gradient, the table is not monolithic. But some in the group, they want a railroad, and most want as much Myth as possible. The concept clearly helps in the autopsy here.

*post "Silent railroading" thread linking, I add-edit : "Players may not have the same level of directoral power of the back-story as a GM in most games--but they're still responsible for their share of pacing and proactive activity. If a Player disengages with the GM, I think it's fair to ask the player to contribute something and try to work with them." Is exactly my attitude in trad games with these friends : I follow the road, princess play some, offering help to players and alternatives to the DM. Well, I confess I sometimes frame help and alternatives before offering them.*

I'll look into Full/No Myth some more to see if there's a meeting ground left, and also by sheer curiosity.

Alexander White's picture

The following is an edited excerpt from the EdwardsPorcuDialogue. You can download the entire document if you join Ron’s patreon.


Authority over backstory = things which happen either prior to the fiction of play or out of the purview of the characters we're immediately concerned with in play.

Authority over situation = the immediate location, characters present, circumstances, and details of the fiction, and far more than description – it includes both fictional information like the motion of a character from one place to another, and structural information like "ten hours pass." I must stress however that this is very often the least understood and most easily-damaged authority, and examples may be more often found in its breakdown rather than in its success.

Authority over narrations = very specific and specialized moments of play, strictly after the application of one of those unpredictable mechanisms I was talking about. So here I don't mean narration merely as speaking and describing, but the interface between (e.g.) how the dice fell and what gets said – and sticks. Rather than solely verbalizing what we see from the relevant mechanic, this often includes startling consequential content which emerges solely from the "authorizing" person (or from his or her confirmation thereof).

Authority over outcomes = given a change in the fiction having occurred, such as a fight or significant conversation – but not "just anything" – then this is how those changes come to be manifested in play as it continues afterward. Is the powerful old dowager friends with the heroine now? Is that guy dead? Are we way richer than we were before, or poorer?


In my experience with role-players from the Story game side of the aisle, there’s a lot of confusion over backstory. This leads to a style of zilch play I call hi-jinx. There’s lots going on and everybody is adding stuff (and it’s the butler, who is also his father, from the future, and he is his own farther, yada yada) but it’s actually confusing and emotionally unsatisfying. Dungeon world is like this in my opinion.

Dareel asks where this gets addressed? In conversations with Ron he’s said that it was a given among the founding Forge members so the texts don’t address it. Subsequently he’s said it’s the biggest problem in contemporary role-playing, far bigger than Agenda Clash. I think some of Ron’s current work is on trying to solve the problem. The latest version of Troll Babe often gets wheeled out as a text that ‘does it right’.

DeReel's picture

The following thread gives me information about why and how, but your answer gives me a nicely laid disrinction of situation and back story. I think outcomes or narration are a different set (conditional authority).;prev_next=prev

*edit after mining the linked thread :
Content authority - over what we're calling back-story, e.g. whether Sam is a KGB mole, or which NPC is boinking whom

Plot authority - over crux-points in the knowledge base at the table - now is the time for a revelation! - typically, revealing content, although notice it can apply to player-characters' material as well as GM material - and look out, because within this authority lies the remarkable pitfall of wanting (for instances) revelations and reactions to apply precisely to players as they do to characters

Situational authority - over who's there, what's going on - scene framing would be the most relevant and obvious technique-example, or phrases like "That's when I show up!" from a player

Narrational authority - how it happens, what happens - I'm suggesting here that this is best understood as a feature of resolution (including the entirety of IIEE), and not to mistake it for describing what the castle looks like, for instance; I also suggest it's far more shared in application than most role-players realize

DeReel's picture

I've got an idea to signal that I am interested in a specific part of the backstory / setting and that's the "glint the eye" flagging move. This is a bolt on mechanic to open NoMyth in a limited space. Once per scene, one player can zoom in on an item or face, and propose some audacious dramatic (plot) reveal or prop. Provided no one blocks it rides.

Maybe it would be enough to signal in game rules texts where the "load-bearing walls" are.

That's a paced and fast negotiated bit of rule that will also entice more "traditional" players to make use of the new resource. And it has a veto button on it in case a load-bearing wall is targeted.

Also, I found proof of @Paul_T talking about "narrational authority" at the Forge some time ago ;)

*edited to add : I am thinking a lot about it. I have Content vs Narrational (is what I asked in OP) in my mind for one of the games I develop, AND thinking about starting a new one just to focus on an hypothesis. My working hypothesis is this (clears throat) : the separation between Backstory, Situation, etc. is very practical but in no way essential. The cuts could be made in other places, such as : colour content / clues / meaning (Lovecraftesque), or ecology / economy / factions (Archipelago, BoB), etc. An element of proof would be that players using Narrational authority to frame Plot authority (or even Content) is a very valid game ; so much that negotiating overlaps still needs to be done (as Paul_T pointed out). There would be in practice no difference with any other "thematic vs thematic" or "my character vs the backstory" authority overlap. It's obvious Edwards dismisses a certain distribution of authority, round robin stories yada yada without rhyme or reason : it's fine to acknowledge that his theories are in harmony with his tastes. That shouldn't limit exploration of this key area.

Paul T.'s picture

You guys dug up all the relevant resources.

I like Ron's newer formulation of these "authorities", in the excerpt Alexander quoted there.

I do think that Ron's obsession with taxonomies can cloud the water here sometimes - as you point out, DeReel, there are many other ways to skin the cat, and Ron's sometimes overlap strangely. But being aware of the basic concept - that there are different kinds of authorities and that the group should be in agreement on who's responsible for what - is really key.

For example, Eero Tuovinen explains backstory authority nicely in his Solar System document:

Basically, the idea is that, in that game, the GM is responsible for "dramatic coordination" (making sure the important parts of the game, story, and characters cohere and engage). To be able to do so well and effectively is why the GM is granted "backstory authority".

This formulation connects the action and the responsibility with its purpose, which is nice. We can imagine similar formulations for other authorities. (In princess play, it's absolutely important for the player to be able to narrate their character's look, actions, mood, and dialogue, for example, so they can portray their unique persona. But perhaps backstory authority over things which define the character could be important, as well...)

DeReel's picture

Coming back to this pivotal thread: that was a breakthrough for me!
I realize I was very obscure, but I needed to express something I didn't know. Thanks to you all for helping in the maieutic here.

"Intention" can be tied back to "backstory authority", that I incorrectly call "Plot" in the OP.
"Scenes" in OP are a way of designating local creative space, any unspecified local authority of any kind.
Of course, the distinction between plot and scenes followed the old divide between GM = backstory authority, and players = playing scenes.