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In the game I have running right now, one of the PCs have had a run in with a local "gang" of sorts. An encounter between the two is approaching, but I'm struggling to think of the best way to set up the encounter.

I'm not sure how aggressively I can/should frame the scene that starts the encounter. My question is, how far can a DM go with playing out a cut scene/situation without giving the PCs a feeling of no control? A very simple example:

As you walk down the darkened streets, 5 large men appear from the shadows. Before you can assess the situation, your knees buckle beneath you as something hard strikes a blow to your head from behind. As you twist and fall, you catch a glimpse of one of the attackers' sneering face before blacking out.

In the above example…

  • Would a PC feel robbed to not have the chance to dodge, perceive the danger, have a chance that their AC would block the blow?
  • Or are cut scenes like this perfectly acceptable in the interest of developing story?
  • If not, how is it possible to pull the PCs into such a threat without dice rolling and mechanics getting derailing the encounter's setup?

We're playing D&D 4th edition, but I don't think this is really specific to any game or edition.

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Reopened. This question can be interpreted in the scope of "trad games" - while some storytelling games vary, the majority of RPGs and gaming groups historically share a common tradition that this question makes sense within. –  mxyzplk Jun 25 '13 at 19:37
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Those are all great points to make in an answer. The comments are for clarifying the question and not for arguing with it. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 26 '13 at 15:17
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5 Answers

up vote 21 down vote accepted

If you want to ask your players beforehand if this is okay with them, then do it, but in general, this is a Bad Idea. As a rule, never remove the opportunity for a player to control their character, beyond what the rules already say. I'd go no further than "You see 5 large men appear from the shadows" without giving the players a chance to turn around, roll perception checks, or otherwise prepare for or avoid being ambushed.

The deeper question is, though, why do you feel the need for a cut scene to involve the players? If one of them has already encountered the gang, then perhaps all you need to do is provide clues as to their whereabouts or headquarters. Instead of being ambushed by the NPCs, they can (if they choose) observe and follow them to their lair. And if they're not interested, perhaps that's a clue that the whole stroryline is something they're not interested in pursuing. And I'd seriously re-think the whole set-up if you feel you need the players to be kidnapped or incapacitated. It's dramatic in books and movies, but doesn't usually have the same impact in games, because the players aren't just watching what happens, they're making it happen along with you.

If you have the players approval, you can skip over the slow bits, so if it's a mechanical problem about getting them to the NPC hideout, you can just say "you follow them to their HQ in an old abandoned villa just outside town (or wherever)." This cuts down on the die rolling and mechanics, but doesn't restrict player choice, which is a cardinal sin in RPGs.

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Excellent, that makes perfect sense and helps a lot. The movie analogy is spot on, I need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture here - not be such a forceful hand. Appreciate it! –  Josh Bruce Jun 25 '13 at 3:33
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While scenes like this can be very cinematic, that can be a detriment after a while. Cinematic is perfect for movies, but in games becomes very old very fast. I'm sure you can think of more than one time you've skipped (or at least wanted to) an especially long cutscene in a video game.

This is a game all about player decisions and their effects on the outcomes of an event. I think most people would agree that as a DM, your job in almost any instance is to set up the scenario for the players to act out.

That was just my general idea on what a DM should do in most cases. However, I'm also a huge fan of story development. If this PC being captured is essential to the story, then I say by all means, make it happen.

If you're going to take power away from a PC, then make sure it's for a good reason. Also, make sure you know what's going to happen afterwards, and make sure it's fun or interesting enough to that character to make up for any feelings they have that you pulled a cheap move.

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As soon as you think "cut scene" in the context of a game, stop and ask yourself what you're trying to accomplish and whether there's a better way to do it. Your players are there to actively participate in the game, not to be passive observers.

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My feelings toward video game cutscenes are pretty applicable here too: cutscenes shouldn't show heroes wielding or lacking powers contrary to what they normally (under the player's control) possess. If your character can double-jump, but he falls stupidly when the rock he's standing on crumbles out from under him, that's not going to make sense. If he has trouble beating a giant boss, but then jumps super-high to finish him off, that's not going to make sense. In the case of your game, if normally a character could dodge, block, absorb, or heal such a blow, it's not going to make sense that during your 'cutscene' they somehow lose this ability.

The way to get around this is to let them 'play' the cutscene, but that brings up another interesting situation: it's a fight they're supposed to (or at least allowed to) lose, in order to advance the plot. Players will feel frustrated if they think they have a chance, but are mis-playing and failing - so I always appreciate it if "you aren't supposed to win, you're just acting out losing" is telegraphed somehow.

For instance - have the opponents first ambush and knock out a random neutral NPC, to show the players that they, like the NPC, have been taken by surprise, by opponents who are intent on using non-lethal methods to subdue them. They can fight back, but they know it isn't 'the end' if they don't win, and that helps to alleviate the desperation of fighting a battle they can't seem to win.

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+1 Very good point, and I think you suggest a fairly good way to deal with this. –  Jonathan Hobbs Jun 28 '13 at 9:56
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I consider the GM to be trying to build good drama alongside the players. Thus, it is all about managing expectations. Because part of role playing is about exploring the choices of characters, if you take that away what is the point? Of course, the point is good story telling later. But for that, you need buy-in from the player. Therefore get player buy-in. Asked the mugged player is they would like to play the part of the damsel in distress/escapee and if they agree, role with it.

However, doing it without the player knowing up front what the situation will be is likely to get them to resent you.

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True; If your group's social contract includes players being in on plot secrets for the sake of cooperative drama, this could well apply to you. –  GMJoe Jun 26 '13 at 7:50
    
@GMJoe: Not necessarily. The GM could phrase things in such a way as to leave the specifics out and do it only once within the current game. It does not necessarily have to be all or nothing. But I do get your point of the social scontract and indeed agree with having one for each game. –  Sardathrion Jun 26 '13 at 8:02
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Indeed! It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Back when I was running paranoia, in fact, I kept a lot of things secret from the players - but not when they'd botched their knowledge rolls, as it was way more fun for them to act on incorrect information when they were in on the joke. –  GMJoe Jun 26 '13 at 8:06
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