|Lights, Camera, Action!
A look at the structure of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay scenes and episodes
|Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay | Published 12 October 2009|
One of the big attractions to roleplaying games is the ability to tell an interesting, engrossing story in a fictional setting. Often, these stories revolve around the players’ characters and their decisions and actions in the game setting. Tying these storylines together into larger, cohesive units is the basis for campaign play – dovetailing numerous stories, encounters, and adventures into a living history of the characters’ deeds and actions.
Events in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay unfold and are resolved in a variety of ways. The method used is based on what is being done, the amount of time the events generally consume, and how they affect the advancement of the story. The largest units used to measure events are campaigns and adventures – most often fully developed storylines that can span several sessions.
Story Mode & Encounter Mode
Within a particular session, events occur in either story mode or encounter mode. These are broad terms used to define a certain type of gameplay the GM can expect for a particular story element (as well as help the GM quickly scan and interpret information found in published adventures).
Story mode is used when the story’s focus is “zoomed out.” When actions are not being presented with significant conflicts, they can be resolved in story mode in a broad manner as if described by a narrator. If an event advances the story, but its individual details can be resolved with little resistance or conflict, or if the order in which they are resolved is of little consequence, it is best to manage these actions in story mode. During story mode, the order in which actions are resolved is generally less important, and characters are assumed to have sufficient time to attempt the tasks and actions they’re proposing.
When the GM or players wish to “zoom in” the story’s focus, the game is resolved using encounter mode. Encounter mode is useful when actions are being opposed, when resolving the order of events is important, or when the players wish to more fully roleplay the reactions and decisions of their characters when timing may be an issue.
Often, significant events being resolved in encounter mode are presented as an episode. Episode is the game term used to define the “framework” in which connected scenes or activities get resolved. Actions are resolved during encounter mode round by round. The events and their outcomes may occur simultaneously, but mechanically the players describe their characters’ actions, roll dice, and with the help of the GM, interpret the results to explain how the scene resolves.
Episodes are specific, over-arching events and activities that make up a story. They tend to have a fairly specific focus, a goal to be resolved, or a common theme tying the events together. In a movie, it is easy to identify individual episodes. When the camera cuts away to a new location or the characters finish chasing someone or examining a crime scene or hacking their way through a jungle and begin a new course of action, it generally signals the transition into a new scene. Or in WFRP’s case, an episode. The same is true during a game session. When the focus of the story changes, and the characters adjust their goals or the immediate objectives change, the game transitions into a new episode.
The Classic Three Act Structure
An adventure’s episodes are composed of building blocks called acts. Episodes in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay often make use of a classic three-act structure. This three-act structure is often seen in plays, with a rising action, a climax, and a falling action. In the classic format, the first act sets up the dramatic tension, the second act fulfils the tension, and the third act offers resolution. The third act may often become a springboard for the next encounter. Resolving the events of the previous act may reveal new clues and concerns which link back into the adventure or campaign, moving the larger plots along.
Specifically, an act is a single goal or action within the larger episode. If the characters are pursuing a fleeing band of cultists, that could be the overarching episode. It is part of the larger storyline, the characters’ attempts to shut down the cult once and for all. But within that episode there are several clear activities with finite goals and durations. The individual steps of the pursuit are the acts that comprise the episode.
Within the context of the over-arching episode, if the cultists disappear into an old abandoned temple and the characters go in after them, searching the temple can be treated as a single act. Confronting the cultists down in the cellar storeroom becomes a separate, second act. Chasing the cultists through an unstable building that collapses all around them could be the third dramatic act in this linked series of action. All three of these acts are part of the larger episode, but each act has a tighter focus, a narrower setting, and often its own separate set of immediate goals.
The Rally Step
An easily overlooked element to the episode structure is the transition between the acts. In game terms, this interval is known as a rally step. These are key elements to the pacing and resolution of the story. It is a momentary lull in the action, a deliberate pause from the frenetic pace of the encounter, a “commercial break” from the current episode.
The rally step is when characters and players alike can catch their breath. In-game, it is a chance for characters to reorient, rearm, and refocus – the PCs have a brief respite, just enough time to bind a wound, draw a sword, notch an arrow, and prepare for what comes next. In out-of-character terms it is the pause for bathroom breaks, drink refills, nagging rules questions, and off-topic asides.
Without a rally step, there’s a risk that scenes become muddled and flow into one another without distinction. That may sound good from a pacing standpoint – keep the energy flowing, the story rolling, and the characters running, so the adrenaline stays high and everyone stays focused.
Without well-timed pauses, however, everything may start to blur together. Soon the characters (and players) will have a hard time focusing on anything at all. The mind needs a break from a long sequence of action and danger. The players need a minute to look around and realise just how scary things are, otherwise they become less affected by the terror. Without a brief respite, it is hard to experience the same dramatic highs and lows. The scene transitions provide an opportunity to restore that perspective, which allows the GM to ratchet the action back up again once the next act begins.
These transitions are also useful character tools from a mechanical and narrative angle. They give the players a chance to adjust their characters, reacting to the end of the previous act while readying themselves for the next act. There’s rarely time in the middle of the action to work out a plan, but a rally step is that brief moment where the characters catch their breath… or enemy forces glare menacingly at each other, waiting for the other side to act first.
Why Use a Structured Approach?
A lot of roleplayers already use similar story structure in their own games. In a lot of ways, this sort of structure comes naturally when telling a story. There are breaks, pauses, changes of scenery, and different parts of the story being focused on at different times. By providing a consistent set of terms and guidelines for how these elements are used in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it becomes even easier for a GM to find ways to use these to enhance his adventures and campaigns.
The use of the episode and act structure results in a great deal of flexibility for the GM. First, it helps provide a consistent structure and means to develop encounters, allowing the GM to pace stories more effectively and keep the characters engaged. Second, it provides a sort of mental checklist for the GM, to make sure different facts of his story are involved, and allows him to approach session prep in easily managed bite-size chunks. Finally, the use of this story structure makes it easy for GMs to get the feel for the pace and organisation of the action provided in published adventures that present information using this approach.
And with this structure defined, it's easier to design and integrate mechanics that work off these different elements. For example, there are some special actions that can be used during the rally steps to take advantage of the brief respite offered. Likewise, different events or effect durations may be tied to the progress of a scene or act, streamlining effects and reducing book-keeping for the GM.
Events and Actions Outside of Episodes
Does this mean that all events that occur in encounter mode are part of a larger episode broken down into individual acts? Not at all. Some scenes simply do not need that level of detail or that sense of building tensions and anticipation. The episode term and structure are merely guidelines to help provide some structure when warranted. There are several questions the GM can ask himself when considering whether to run a scene as an episode.
Question 1: How long is this encounter? If a character wanders into a shop to buy a new pair of boots, how much time does he spend doing that? A few minutes? Is there enough time during this transaction to accommodate a formal structure? Not really. Not if he goes in, selects a pair of boots, pays for them, and leaves. Even if there is some haggling involved or dialogue with an NPC, if it is a simple transaction, it does not warrant more than some roleplaying or perhaps a skill check to resolve.
Question 2: Does the scene have any real stakes involved? The dramatic impact is also a factor. Buying new boots is a mundane activity. Unless something out of the ordinary occurs, it has very little dramatic impact on the story. In this case, it is unlikely you will want to use a formal structure, let alone a “zoom in” to use encounter mode.
Question 3: How many characters are involved in the scene? If only one character is involved, you may want to remain in story mode to move things along. This decision can be less about whether the scene feels important than about giving equal time to all your players. However, sometimes the encounter is significant enough, either to the character, to the story, or to both, that it does warrant a more structured approach.
Question 4: Does the act structure feel like a natural fit? Once a GM gets comfortable using the act structure, he’ll develop a sense of when a scene or encounter would benefit from using a more structured approach over a free-form approach. When in doubt, the GM will learn to trust his instincts.
The concept of structured episodes and acts to resolve encounters may be quite new to some GMs. Some examples are provided to help showcase this approach.
The Hostage Negotiation
Overview: Someone has been kidnapped or taken hostage, and the characters have to rescue the victim using their heads instead of their sword arms.
Act 1 - Opening Moves: News of the kidnap reaches the characters. The stage is set. The enemy’s demands are made known. This may be a very short act and may play out in story mode. The act ends when the PCs decide where to go to deal with the situation. This leads to the first transition before Act 2 begins.
Act 2 - Tense Negotiations: The characters arrive on the scene. Negotiations begin in earnest. Stakes are raised, tensions mount. A Progress Tracker resolves this scene, with tokens for the negotiation team, the hostage-takers, and potentially for any more direct rescue attempt. This act ends when the negotiator succeeds, the hostage-takers cut off negotiations, or a rescue attempt results in combat. There is a brief pause, allowing everyone to catch their breath, before continuing with Act 3.
Act 3 - The Resolution: The negotiation succeeds or escalates to bloodshed. Can the hostage be saved? Based on the results of Act 2, this act could be as simple as escorting the former hostage to safety or as complex as a rescue mission.
Possible Complications: The kidnapper is extremely powerful and unpredictable (such as a Chaos sorcerer), the kidnapper has nothing to lose (he’ll be hanged if he survives), time is of the essence (the hostage is bleeding and will die unless treated quickly), violence is not an option (the kidnapper is the baron’s son and the baron demands he not be harmed), the hostages don’t want to be rescued.
Overview: The party is caught off guard and ambushed by a lurking threat.
Act 1: Blindsided! The characters are blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen. This act starts out in story mode – after all, if they’re asked to roll for initiative, they’ll suspect something is up! Some clues may alert them, or the GM may ask a party member to attempt an Observation check. This act ends either when the trap is sprung (when the PCs enter the kill-zone or the GM decides enough time has passed), or when the PCs detect the would-be-ambushers. This leads to the first transition before Act 2 begins.
Act 2 - The Fight in Earnest: If the PCs failed to detect the ambushers, the attackers could receive some sort of bonus during this act - extra dice on their Initiative checks, faster recharge on their powers, or bonus fortune dice during the early stages of the fight. The GM can set up a progress tracker to monitor how long the ambushers have this advantage. Reaching the end of the progress tracker could be the trigger that transitions the action to Act 3.
Act 3 - A Change of Plans: The fight changes in an important way – perhaps the attackers flee, or their leader reveals himself. The ambush bonus goes away here, as during the previous rally step the PCs had a chance to reorient themselves. Alternately, Act 3 can trigger if the PCs change tactics – perhaps they decide to flee, for example.
Possible Complications: The weather works against the players (heavy rains, sleet), it’s dark and at night, the characters were lured into the ambush and are unsuspecting, the characters are using themselves as bait and hoping to be ambushed.
Set in the grim world of Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy universe, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a roleplaying game that sets unlikely heroes on the road to perilous adventure. Players will venture into the dark corners of the Empire, guided by luck and Fate, and challenge the threats that others cannot or will not face.
I like that FFG have really taken information management seriously. It's something that DnD 4th Ed does with its design to some extent, but it looks like FFG has taken this a few steps further. For all the complainers out there, I'll wager that you'll get more gaming in with this new system, and have more options as a GM with WFRP 3. Any GM worth his salt knows that a system is a tool (i.e: rules were meant to be broken).
Use WotC's way of justifying 4E: You can still play 3.5, it is still there. So too is the 2nd edition of WHFRP. If it is as some say, a system that works and needed only a few tweaks, then why not play 2nd ed?
This is the same sort of phenomenon I saw with D&D4E. Just to clarify, I dislike the direction they headed with 4E; I still do. It would have been better if they took 3.5 and start from there. Similar arguement to people here. But the game is successful, I can't deny it. I disagree with the comment that says "it still feels like D&D". That's bullsh. It doesnt feel like D&D, and many people will agree. Still, however, the game is successful. A lot of people find it fun.
You know I can understand your pain; the 4E transition is the same deal. But this here game has its merits too, much like 4E. Regardless of what you think now, you won't really get the real picture until you play the game at least once to form a real opinion that has value. And it'll take a few more games to make a real opinion that counts. (some people who liked 4E initially, after a while, got tired of it. So I think time with the system is needed to let the opinion mature). So why be so against giving it a chance?
I do agree that the way it is right now doesnt look very grim dark or brutal. But perhaps in game it is? Perhaps in the full rules it is? I certainly hope so. After all, that's what WH should be and FFG knows it. I'll follow with great interest, and hope the nay sayers are proven wrong and all of you look like idiots (I'm certain you wish for that as well). But for $100, honestly, I'll wait till I see some rpgnet reviews before I buy, just to make sure the atmosphere is there. FFG is FFG. I liked their old old d20 offerings, even. So I have faith they'll somehow pull this off.
So I have been reading these poo poo messages since FFG started running the articles and I finally had to chime in. I have been playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay since I bought my first beautiful hard cover book when it came out (remember Elves w/ WS of 50+? ;) I am excited about the new game. I think everyone is concentrating on the wrong things with this game, which is the nuts and bolts mechanics. Instead of looking at the rules as a hard and fast masters of your game, look at them as aids to help you and your group weave a great story. If you look at the mechanics that FFG is proposing, you will see how this will help tremendously!
I think Lochmacher put it perfectly when he said: "I, on the other hand, thought it was crap the moment I read the first words about "new" and "Warhammer RPG". A real slap in the face." I feel some of you that are raging right now have passed judgement and are just looking for things to prove you are right. If you look at the comments on this site, there are only a handful of people that do not like the way things are going, a far cry from the majority of people that will but this game.
I love the changes and I am with baited breath for the game to hit my local retailer!
You know, Darkkami was a "Wait and see" due-diligence guy and he's hit the nail on the head now. I think he was one of your most rational supporters for giving 3rd Edition a chance, proposing that people merely give it a chance and then decide when we knew more.
I, on the other hand, thought it was crap the moment I read the first words about "new" and "Warhammer RPG". A real slap in the face. I guess we are supposed to be grateful that you've thrown us the scraps left over from Black Industries in PDF form... Thank you for that small consideration.
If you claim to listen to your fans, then why did you continue to make this game? Why not cancel it as you did with the Arkham minis? I see, it's too late... You listened to Jay and now you're stuck. Too much time in the development pipeline to back out. In that case, I pity you: I know how concerned you are when your Affiliates and Partners lose money, speculating on your creative genius.
If you wanted to make a "Roleplaying for Jocks and Children" you should have just started from scratch, leaving the established alone and untainted. If "bookkeeping" is such a difficult task, maybe your 360 should do the thinking for you, eh?
I apologize if I have offended anyone, but if you can read this, you're probably not the target of my animosity.
Wow, this sounds terrible. FFG, did you even read the source material for WFRP? This cinematic high adventure stuff doesn't really ooze dark or gritty now, does it? No. It doesn't. I'm sure it'll be a fun game for standard fare fantasy, but why waste the WFRP license like this? Especially when 2nd edition worked well enough and only needed some tweaks...
Steamdrivin, you actually brought a chuckle to my afternoon. Thank you. Let me know when the mob is organizing, I'll get my improvised weapon ready.
thinking about it, in a fight an angry 2nd ed farm tool carrying mob would totally own FFG, we the mob would roll 2d10s to attack and 1d10 and some sort of modifier for our damage, the poor staff at FFg would be slowed down rolling their dice pools and having to wait to roll dice as I hear there are more than 3 staff members. they would then have to work out what the dice results let them do, we the mob, not so angry now, as we feel a bit sorry for those poor folk having to use all them funny looking dice, but still we chop them all up and feed them to our pigs Ooo is that a witch hunter over yonder hill? quick take down the chaos signs and act stoopid!
new players need this sort basic advice. it is a good thing to have but could it be a bit less ZZZZZZZZZ and a bit more "hey here's how its done, lets have some fun! :)"
to the people who have worked on this new warhammer game, have you read 1st, 2nd ed? sorry but to me you have not earned you wage, 4th ed best look/run like 2nd [ note the lack of winks here :) ]
bring back d10's and all that!
sorry must go, need to form an angry mob and attack FFG's with hand held old world farm tools! lol
Glad to see everyone staying on subject with this article. Shadowspawn I agree with you about wounded characters and needing a way to Rest/Rally. I am glad many of you not only have noticed this article is directed at newbies, but also have contributed your own lessons as experienced gamers.
I think the main reason FFG released a non mechanic article was to give us a rally/short rest to calm down before we get back to mud slinging over the next article. (I'm joking)
DnD 4.0 did have an amazing section for new GMs. It identified the many different types of players, stories, and problems that can arise then told how to deal with each. I am sure FFG will do the same.
Now for my hypocritical side I must get off subject.
I personally began RPGing with Exalted. I loved the anime art and demi-god power and having to hold back much of it so as not to draw the eyes of the Wyld Hunt. Since then I have tried Deadlands, Grimm, DnD, Vampire, Warhamer Fantasy, and WoW RPG. I began working with RPGs before I started playing them. Helping with the Hero System for Champs, Talsorian lines, and others. I know what it is like to make one of these monsters called Roleplaying Games. My favorite that I got to work on was the Warcraft RPG. Anyways my past shouldn't mean a lot to you, but at the same time it should be taken into account when deciding what type of game I would like to play. Same goes for the rest of you guys. Some people actually do like DnD 4.0 and its focus on combat, others enjoy Pathfinder focusing on skill checks, some will prefer Warhammer 3rd and Grimm for its focus on teamwork, some will like Warhammer 2nd and Champions for its wide section of character types. I personally love storytelling games from White Wolf.
I won't say Storytelling System RPGs are for everyone, because I can see why others would dislike how it's a pre designed world. Every book is 200 pages of lore and leaves little room for custom design. At the same time they make like how the games have no premade adventures. I won't say the Rest and Rally idea is stupid. Some people may actually hate having to tend minor wounds and such.
3rd is taking a different direction from 2nd by making it more magical and fantasy rather than a dark and realistic system. Now I can understand the anger coming from the other side, because their product that they liked is dead and Fantasy Flight left them hanging only to release a completely new system to replace it. I can finally agree now that FFG made the wrong move by giving 2nd edition players the finger and then turning their sights on how to make more money with the franchise. If I was an avid 2nd edition player I too would be upset for the reasons I pointed out above.
They also did this for the Warcraft Board Game now that I think about it.
FFG made the wrong move by catering to an entirely new audience and brought few ideas, out of many, over to 3rd that many 2nd edition player liked and I agree worked well.
At least DnD 4.0 still felt like DnD. I totally agree with you Chernobyl. This feels like a another game with Warhammer Fantasy being forced into it. I still stand firm in saying this system would have made for a better Lord of the Rings or Warcraft RPG. Warhammer is a very dark dog eat dog world and not a "lets create a fellowship to go kill the Witch/ Lich King (either one =P).
FFG should have made either of those and continued to SLOWLY convert 2nd edition into a system adopting the things that worked in one and placing them into another. Too bad they never turn to there community for ideas with games. A simple poll would be nice. That is how I would start. Instead of say...."let's make a Gears of War Board Game! I am sure the community will like that".
The fact that you took the time to break down a roleplaying game in your predefined catergories (zoom in and out) tells me me this isn't written for experienced players.
and I just cringed when I read "faster recharge on their powers" that not warhammer at all, thats some wuperhero game or something. rennisance/mideval society doesn't have powers, thats makes the game sounds like some saturday morning cartoon about superheroes.
The more I read about the new warhammer, the less it sounds like warhammer at all.
I'm now awaiting the day when green ronin gets the license for warhammer from FFG because it feels to me like they're killing the game.
as far as designer diaries go this one kind of sucks. I like what i have seen so far, but this one was obviously fluff. keep it crunchy, please. i thought we were going to get series of dd's on combat?
I am curious about the "Rally Phase" bit. It could be a deal breaker if it "borrows" to much from 4E D&D.
On the other hand if the "Special actions" are minor, like say: Regain X# of fatigue (Catching a 2nd Wind, fer example), or Remove a minor critical effect (Like wiping that blood running down yer face outta yer eyes), or Rejiggering yer Cards a bit (Re-thinking yer tactics)...I can live with that.
But if it just *Poof* you are healed X wounds...on to victory!....No thanks. I think that would be a huge mistake, and just not the style of game I looking to play.