Frame Scenes in your Roleplaying Games with the Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid dictates that we start with the most important information and for framing scenes in roleplaying games, this is the purpose of the scene. I frame this as a question within the context of the wider narrative or world and use every player decision to drive the scene towards a conclusion.

By doing this we can ensure all players are on the same page at the beginning of the scene to allow for equal contribution to the collaborative narrative, and scenes do not linger or meander away from a purpose.

What is a scene in a roleplaying game?

A scene is a unit of storytelling that answers a question posed by either the game master or the players and is composed of a purpose, context, and decisions.

I found lots of discussion regarding the framing of scenes in roleplaying games. Most of it was from more than 5 years ago.

And a lot of it was very in-depth, such as Justin Alexander’s blog post series, The Art of Packing; Running Awesome Scenes, where he describes how he structures scenes and implements different techniques to make a scene feel different or carry out a different function.

Much of this discussion was talked about:

  • On RPG.Net posts, Scene-Based Play, with hyper-specific definitions like: “a unit of dramatic action or exposition that stands alone in a general location and time.”
  • In the blogosphere which focused on the best way to begin a scene, such as Run a Game’s Scene Framing post, or what kind of language to use to elicit different tones and feelings like in Nerdarchy’s RPG Perspective and Scene Framing post.

All this discussion was interesting to me and likely helpful for GMs with a firm grasp of their ability, but I wanted something simple. A general rule that I could easily keep in mind during a game (and something I could pass onto new GMs without them feeling overwhelmed).

Hence my abstraction of a scene into three components: Purpose, Context, and Decisions.

Purpose is why the scene exists and the group is taking time to roleplay through it. I love questions and I think they are the heart of roleplaying (Bardic Inquiry, Using Questions to Start a Roleplaying Game Session), so I always frame my purposes as a question, e.g.:

  • “Can the players navigate the treacherous waters?” or
  • “How will the characters deal with the ambush?”

Context is the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Not all of them all the time but enough to allows players to become hooked into the scene and connect it to the wider narrative. Using the examples from before you can see how adding some context gives the scene more meaning:

  • “Can the players navigate the treacherous waters quickly to save dock workers from the fire in time?” or
  • “How will the characters deal with the ambush set by the royal guard.”

Decisions are the dramatic turns during the scene that culminate in answering the question (purpose). Much like how Ben Robbins described how a scene ends in Microscope – once the question has been answered, that is the end, and the next scene can begin.

What is the inverted pyramid?

The inverted pyramid is a method journalists and copy writers employ to write articles.

The essence of the inverted pyramid is to start the article with the most important information and follow it up with continuously less important information. You can read more about it here.

The idea behind the inverted pyramid is to grab the reader’s attention and to efficiently provide them with the information they need.

In roleplaying games, when we begin a scene, I believe everyone needs to be on the same page so we can all equally contribute to the collaborative narrative, thus we must begin with the information that will allows this to occur quickly.

How do you frame scenes using the inverted pyramid?

I use the inverted pyramid to frame my scenes by making the purpose of the scene evident to my players and then use every decision to drive the scene towards a conclusion.

I find it helpful to think of the inverted pyramid as a funnel in which every decision leads us towards the bottom, thus answering the question. This results in every scene feeling like it has narrative importance and to prevent scenes from meandering or not going anywhere.

A scene can be managed as though it was a funnel beginning with the purpose and using each decision to drive the narrative towards a conclusion.

There can still be a lot to unpack here, and it all has been discussed before in those posts I referenced earlier, but the point here was to keep things simple for myself.

So, running a scene approximately follows this procedure:

  1. Convey the purpose of the scene to the players by either explicitly stating the question or making the purpose evident through description of the situation.
  2. Allow players opportunities to make decisions and change the course of the scene whilst providing more context. Use each of these decisions to drive the scene to a conclusion.
  3. Once the purpose of the scene is fulfilled (the question has been answered), call an end to the scene and begin the next one.

Whether you plan the scene beforehand, improvise the scene based on player actions, or both: note the purpose and frame it as a question with context, then use every player decision to actively drive it towards a conclusion.

GRIMOIRE Development Post #6

The development of GRIMOIRE is tracking well. In the past month, I have reworked the overall layout design for the book, collected some new art, rewritten the rules to implement the overhaul described in the previous post, and have tidied up some of the language used throughout many of the prompts. However, there is still some work to do – namely the refinement of the quest prompts.

Figure 1. The Name spread from the new edition of GRIMOIRE that demonstrates the new layout design: parchment with a star pattern burned into the sides. A prominent feature are the new boxes that provide instruction to help new players start playing the game.

Figure 1 above shows the new layout design that will be featured for most pages. I decided to incorporate the parchment texture back into the design – something similar to what I originally used for the fantasy spell generation that sparked this project. I think it works well to add some substance to the pages without detracting from the ease of reading the text. I have changed my use of bold text to instead highlight key points at the beginning of each paragraph to ensure rules or procedure references are easier, and finally I have incorporated boxes using the star background to act as a bit of a designer voice at times and a way to provide hints or instruction to new players. Overall, I am happy with the how the design is coming along and now I just need to focus on the content.

As I intend to write more research and quest locations as future supplements for GRIMOIRE, I feel that I need to refine the setting that will come with the base game – the City of Athanasia. To ensure that it feels more like its own setting rather than some generic fantasy land. To do this, I am rewriting many of the prompts and writing some new prompts. Before I write them into the book I must first organise what I have into a helpful spreadsheet and decide on what type of themes I want to portray for Athanasia. Once I have done this then I can begin refining the prompts and incorporating them into the GRIMOIRE book. This is the last job to do aside from some slight tweaks to the Quick Reference spread at the back of the book (another new addition!).

Overall, GRIMOIRE is tracking well and I hope to have the final version release within the next month or two as a free update for everyone who owns it currently and as a paid game for those that do not. Following the release of GRIMOIRE, I will begin developing a supplement for the game that will introduce new research, quest, and relationship prompts amongst some other projects that have been plaguing my tired mind. In the meantime, if you have yet to play GRIMOIRE you can download the ruleset for free over at itch but be sure to refer to the rules overhaul post to play something closer to the final version.

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