This how-to guide for running scenes was created by the player of Wu Mei and is used with her permission.
The Spark Method: Running Scenes Edit
Scenes are the cornerstone of MUSHing, yet too often we don't do them. We wait for others to do them and join in. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it puts an unnecessary burden on the small number of people who run scenes and burns them out. This means this is not only a small number, it's a shrinking one. Second, and probably more important in the long run, it robs us of one of the deepest joys of role-playing in MUSHes: creation.
Of course there's a reason for the reticence: coming up with scenes is hard! And running them is even harder! There's so many details you have to come up with and keep track of. And, always, there's the problem of players. Players ruin all your plans, so all that work just gets thrown away and the scene ends in chaos. It takes a special kind of person who can pull this off and make it work.
What if I told you there was an easy way to do scenes? That, while it can't cover every scene you'd want to have on a MUSH, it lets you do a large number of them in ways that are simple, quick, and satisfying to all. Not only that, how would you react if I told you this technique works for scenes that have scene runners equally as well as it does for scenes that are quick pick-ups for a bunch of people who just decided to have a scene without a plan? Would you call me crazy? Well, call me crazy, then, because there is a way!
Spark Scenes Edit
An obscure game published in Canada called 'Spark' is the source of this technique. It is a tabletop RPG firmly fixed in the "storytelling" style, and, more to the point, in the modern vein of games like 'Fiasco' or 'FATE: Accelerated Edition'. It is meant to be quick to pick up with a group of players and be playing in a custom-created setting within half an hour. It's a bit too formally structured for some RPer's tastes, but it has good ideas which can be mined for other styles. And its method for setting up and running scenes is gold!
At the cornerstone of this technique are four components:
1. The Stage.
2. The Tilt.
3. The Question.
4. The NPCs.
In a runner-driven scene, all of these may be firmly in the grasp of the runner, or one or more of them may be farmed out to other players. In an impromptu, improv scene, players will amicably negotiate among themselves for who gets which pieces. In the end, though, all four components will be readied quickly.
The NPCs Edit
The final component is the simple one. Who are the major non-player characters that will influence the scene. It could be as simple as "the shadowy figure with the gasoline cannister" or as complex as a full-blown character write-up of an important NPC if the scene is part of a longer-running plot. One player could be responsible for all the NPCs, or each player may introduce one, or some other arrangement is easily conceived. Key to this component is simply that the NPC have some bearing on the scene. The sailor who gets trapped by a burning wall of cargo. The shady captain who's trying to destroy some evidence of malfeasance. The major NPCs are "major" precisely because they have relevance to the scene and its resolution somehow. The amount of detail depends on just how important they are both to the scene and to any ongoing activity.
This leaves the remaining three pieces, each of which has a mysterious-sounding name.
The Stage Edit
The first of these is the Stage, and it's simply two things combined:
i) The setting (in time and space) of the scene.
ii) The relationship of the scene to other scenes in an ongoing storyline (if there is one).
An example of a stage might be: "Dockyards of Brunei, after dark, where the heroes have discovered the Midnight Emerald is due to arrive with its illicit cargo." This stage sets us in a location (dockyards), at a point in time (after dark), and ties it in to what was presumably an ongoing investigation about some kind of illicit dealings. It puts everybody in the scene on the same page and gives them something to talk about, discuss, plan, and, if newcomers to the story are present, catch up on. Soon, however, as the Stage is introduced and then entered, the Tilt arrives.
The Tilt Edit
The Tilt is an evocative name for what it is. Picture the players as actors gathering on a stage. Then physically tilt the stage to drive the actors to where they're supposed to go. That's the role of the capital-T Tilt. It's the initial action (and the overriding challenge) of the scene. It motivates the characters to do something and to do it now. An example of this for the Stage set earlier might be: "The Midnight Emerald arrives, and as it is starting to get unloaded, a sudden, and massive fire erupts in the cargo hold!"
This is the time for heroic action! Sailors must be saved! An arsonist must be caught! And that vital evidence--the illicit cargo--must be protected from the flames to have any hope of the perpetrators of the larger plot getting caught! Other challenges will happen. Individual small things like the shady captain trying to escape in a lifeboat, the sailor caught behind a wall of burning bags of popcorn, that shadowy figure who so obviously started the blaze making her getaway will happen, but it's all under the purview of the Tilt. The scene is run until the Question is answered.
The Question Edit
Which leads us to the final unknown component: the Question. This is the key component in keeping scenes under control and providing them with a definite end. It is simply a question whose answer, one way or another ends the scene. It could be as simple as "will the heroes rescue the princess from the enemy encampment?" or as complex as this one for our sample: "Will the heroes get the evidence they need of the Midnight Emerald's illicit activities while saving innocent sailors and dock workers, or will it all get burned to a crisp in the fire?"
No matter how it is answered, once the question is answered, the scene comes to a close, each person making a closing pose. The answer will provide hints of how an overall story can continue in a longer-term plot, or of how characters can react and report to others in spin-off scenes. The answer will, in short, drive further RP that may snowball into more scenes by more people until everybody on the grid is sceneing and feeding their scenes into each other's!
And Action...! Edit
So there you have it: a simple, easily-followed way to make scenes that are controlled both in scope and duration, yet satisfying to participants. And while this technique doesn't work for all possible scenes, it works for a good number of them and thus gives us an important tool to enjoy our RP!