Lights, Camera, Action!
A look at the structure of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay scenes and episodes
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.
Sample EpisodesThe 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.