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Instead of focusing solely on the protagonists (aka the players), would it be permissible to cut away from what they're doing to show (out of character) what else is going on in the world, specifically what an enemy is doing, something like a video game cut scene? What are the pros and cons of using this technique?

The cut scene would be such that no plot points would be shown, but more as a point of showing why the antagonist is such a badass. Think of stuff like Vader Force choking one of his Lieutenants.

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I've used this technique sparingly in the past. Sparingly, because

  • There's only so much uninterrupted GM Storytelling Time™ that a table of your friends want to sit through.
  • More than a few brief sentences rarely has the desired impact, and impact is mostly the point of such a cut-away narration.
  • It's not very often that deliberately handing the group meta-knowledge is desirable.
  • Not every type of game benefits from this. If I'm running a game where I want the players to be able to stay immersed in the eye-level views from their own PCs, I won't break their immersion by doing this. (This is analoguous to how, if a novel is written in first-person limited point of view, it would be perilous to the quality of the storytelling to have inconsistent writing POV by adding a sudden third-person omniscient scene.)

When I do use this cut-away technique, I typically stick to verbally painting a single visual “shot”, or describing one brief exchange between NPCs (like, a sentence/action or two each). I will sometimes give away new information like this, but only if I want the players to metagame with it. I will more often use this to emphasise something the PCs or players already know or will know shortly, or to skip time while also giving them info that they would have gotten if we hadn't skipped ahead.

For example, I used this once to describe an aerial view of a city during a riot, at the very end of a session. The PCs and players already knew of the chaos, but this let me show them fires breaking out and confirming their suspicions about how widespread the activity was. I could have done this by devoting a lot of PC eye-level time to moving around the city and showing them, or by having NPCs come to tell them about the extent of the riot, but with two sentences I could take a short-cut and we moved the action forward more quickly, handwaved how they actually learned this information, skipped a bit of time, and set up a clear understanding of the situation to begin the next session with.

Like most ways of breaking the “rules” of storytelling, it's far more powerful and effective when done rarely and judiciously. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've used this technique in games that aren't frequently narrated in this way already.

So yes, you're certainly allowed, but my advice would be to either 1) do it very rarely, saving it for when it will have the most impact and feel the most “right” to your audience, the player group; or 2) do it often, using it to change the “style” of the storytelling and metagaming standards of the campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Some novels that are primarily first-person limited use the occasional third-person omniscient scene to great effect, though as you said, sparingly. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle primarily used first person, but The Hound of the Baskervilles has a few important third-person omniscient scenes. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jul 21 '17 at 20:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm pretty sure that this is what divination spells are for.... \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Jul 22 '17 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nijineko That's not a narrative cut-away, that's still directly experienced by the caster. And not initiated by the GM. Unless you're saying "never, only when using divination spells", I'm not sure how the comment is relevant. (And even then, that's maybe better as a different answer.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 22 '17 at 21:32
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As the GM, yes, you can do something like this as you see fit

Assuming you're playing some game with a Rule Zero equivalent, and nothing where the GM has a limited set of actions they can take.

Some advice though...

Likely the first issue you will find is that this will detract from the players enjoyment if this goes on for too long. Generally player's aren't expecting to show up for a game night, only to have you read a short story to them for 3 hours. One method I've seen to solve this is to give the players alternate characters and have them observe and interact the scene. In our game, the GM gave us character sheets for a group of caravan guards, and set the scene as us traveling between two cities the party knew about. We came across the enemy army on the move. We slowly found evidence of other caravans that were attacked, other signs of danger, and then ran right into an army of like 500 giants. It did not work out well for those poor caravan guards. That incoming army of giants set the stage for the next part of the adventure.

There is also the issue of metagaming. If your cutscene includes some secret knowledge, you can't reasonably expect players to not use that ("Oh, the third wine bottle is poisoned, so I'll make sure to only drink from the first one"). Generally, it would be best if this was something either so obvious, or that by the moment the players can do anything about it, they would already know anyway.

A lot of this also depends on the tone of your game. If your players are expecting the game world to be more reactive to their decisions, with things happening as they choose to make them happen, then this sort of cutscene could be jarring for them. I would advise you ask their thoughts as well. Some may respond well to it, some may have issues. At least that way you can work out a solution without just throwing it at them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If I could have accepted 2 answers yours would have been accepted as well, but SevenSidedDie's answer was just a BIT more useful than yours. Even so I will be combining both sets of ideas when i do this. \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 21 '17 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wouldn't the game time issue be best solved by writing this discourse down and emailing to everyone to read between sessions? \$\endgroup\$ – T.E.D. Jul 21 '17 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.E.D. I've found out that players as a whole don't often read stuff game related, so I'd have to take game time anyways to cover it for the players who didn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 22 '17 at 2:47
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Well, you CAN but be aware that RPGs are not video games. You generally want there to be less meta-knowledge, not more. One way to give them some information about another part of the world though would be to run a one-off campaign, or maybe some traveler brings word (a few days after the fact at least) of some disaster or such. Or if this is D&D 5e for instance you could even have it be a vision planted by one of the deities keeping watch of the PCs, or some sort of scrying spell.

It's really up to you to decide what kind of information your players have and how they get it, but too much meta-knowledge can definitely be a bad thing.

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I use that resource as well, but I learned from a fellow GM an extra trick.

I also give the players some decision power. I sometimes do scenes of things that happened in the past or that are happening elsewhere. I allow one or more players to play the role of usually a minor character in the scene and at some point allow them to make a decision, they don't normally have the power to change much but sometimes they shape what happened in the past or what is going to happen.

My players love it too.

It also is a way of giving some exposure to all the effort we sometimes put on NPC backgrounds :)

These scenes take around 5 - 10 minutes, no more, and I try to get them to happen at the beginning of the session with stuff related to the current session.

For example, over the last story arch of my Fading Suns epic I showed different scenes of the siege of Jerico moon. They showed how the parents of one NPC died there, and in another "cut scene" they played some special ops at the same time in the same moon that caused that death, and showed how another NPC was behind it. Suddenly two NPCs that the players didn't understand came together and the players understood why certain things were happening in that story arch.

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I am not a friend of such cutscenes, as I feel like pulling the players off their characters.

Things I can recommend instead of drifting away from the characters are

  • Make them receive a vision. Either by a god or by magic. Maybe a magical spy?
  • Make them receive reports. These can be battle report, spy reports, etc.
  • If they want to know the how and why of an enemy, let them listen so bards, frightened allies, scared commanders or make them read short (!) stories on printed paper, that they can find when investigating the library.
  • Maybe you can even make the witness a harsh battle scene themselves! Let them look into mirrors showing them a special occasion. Let a wizard make them see things far away, etc.

just to name a few things that I, as a player, would always like better then being pulled out of my character


Another thing, that @gaynorvader came up with in the comments:

Another GM trick, building on this answer, is to only give the vision to one player, in secret and let them decide if they want to reveal it. I find players won't read campaign material when it's made available to all of them, but give it to them individually and tell them only their character knows it and they practically memorise it..

I think this comment adds some value to the answer.

I myself have used this with a character having the advantage visions in DSA (The black eye)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Another GM trick, building on this answer, is to only give the vision to one player, in secret and let them decide if they want to reveal it. I find players won't read campaign material when it's made available to all of them, but give it to them individually and tell them only their character knows it and they practically memorise it.. \$\endgroup\$ – gaynorvader Jul 24 '17 at 12:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @gaynorvader true that! involved this comment into my question, as it is a really valuable hint! \$\endgroup\$ – Do Re Jul 24 '17 at 13:19
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Just to add a little to the great answers so far.

West End Games goes into some detail on how to handle this technique in the Star Wars The Roleplaying Game 2nd Edition on pg 45. They call them Cut-Away scenes. Also, if you look in their adventures, they often have a description of a cutaway scene to end an episode and to set up the next.

I have used it before, mainly to increase tension in a situation. It can serve to give the players a better sense of the timelines involved, or what is at risk in the storyline. So you might cut away to the bridge of the command ship of the imperial fleet as he consults with a commander on how long before they make the jump to lightspeed. Do that right after a player asks how much time they have to get into the imperial tech facility.

Or if they fail to stop the zombie horde in time, a cut-away scene to the village that took them in last week getting overrun by the undead might be fun.

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To retain the player's sense of immersion and agency, I usually do this in between sessions, often via social media or whatever instant message system your team uses.

This method has a few benefits (beyond those already mentioned).

  • It does not eat up valuable table time. My group only gets to play about 4 hours a week, so spending 15 minutes reading from a script would really be lame.

  • It allows those players that care about the story and goings on in the world to interact in a setting where they can go more in-depth without boring the players that just want to kill some goblins.

This technique has worked really well for me not only for the "cutscene"-type third-person view, but also for describing player downtime activities or research and scouting activities that are just too boring for the weekly game table, but are also too valuable to leave out. For instance, say the rogue wants to scout ahead to the Evil Scary Castle or rob some local households - if you do this at the table, everybody not sneaking and robbing is left to sit there doing nothing. But, over IM, everyone can read the events at their leisure. If the rogue needs to make a roll, most IM programs have some ability to that automatically, or the DM could roll, etc.

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Obviously, as a GM you can do whatever you want to do. Your players may not appreciate it though.

I'd suggest finding a way to inform the players of what they need to know without cutting away from their characters and telling them a story.

If they need to know that the evil villain is up to, then have one of his henchman break and confess the plans after being captured. Or have an informant bring the information to players, preferably after they have done something to earn that person's loyalty or respect. Or, you could have them find evidence in written or forensic form of what the need to know in the course of their adventures.

If you think that players may need a steady stream of information that they just don't have a way to get on their own, then I would suggest inventing a mechanic to justify it. Perhaps, one of the players is a psychic or oracle who get's helpful visions. Or perhaps, the players come into possession of some item that is attuned to villain and gives occasional bursts of insight.

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I use cutaway's in my bigger campaigns to do exactly what you want to do, it works really well if the players are part of it. Let's say you want to show off a lich escaping the crypt. Let the players play the guards on duty. If you are running star wars then let the players be the rebels that run into the latest Sith Lord.

So in your case have the players be the ones about to face your antagonist. These aren't the player's real characters so they won't care if they die. It can be a lot of fun and gives you a chance to tweak the villain if it turned out that they did more damage than you expected.

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As GM, you need to know how well the players around the table will handle "meta-knowledge", and this is dependant on the players tendencies, how well they work together, and precisely how actionable the information you gave them is. One shouldn't reveal who is a traitor NPC as the next time they meet them they will inexplicably know to not trust him.

It would be better to use this to confirm what the party has already deduced in character but haven't yet confirmed, such as that the Big Bad is furious at the efforts of the heroes and 'something will be done'.

Another concern is timing, I would recommend not putting this in the middle of a session. Put this at the beginning or the end. So before you have established (or re-established from your previous session) where the party is and what is going on, so if the session begins with the party deep inside a dungeon you might actually open the session with an army of Goblins arriving outside the dungeon and the leader of the goblins ordering them inside.

Or as a session is ending, cut away to the Big Bad reacting to the heroes successes. This works as the mental perspective is expanding out as you leave the heroes or zoom back in on them as a new session begins. As you pan out you can show the impact the heroes are having on this world but once you have focused on them then that is where the focus stays for the entirety of the session. The players around the table keep an eye on what is going on on the table and appreciate it as immediate.

This avoids 'taking the players out of the game' as they are already disengaging from the game. But you are able to reinforce the impact of their decisions.

This is the one place where having notes or a script is ideal. As the PCs are not nearby, they cannot interject to change the course of any conversation. Notes/scripts are important here than ever as you MUST be brief. I won't repeat arguments others have made to keep it short. Time how long it takes to say, you should aim to complete the 'cut-away' within 60-90 seconds. Remember, this is a Tabletop RPG, not Storytime. The only purpose of this little expert is to reinforce their game session.

So don't let it be a pointless aside. Have such 'cutaways' have significant ramifications to their immediate circumstance.

One example of a good cutaway would be to consider if the film Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom was a DnD campaign. After the cool minecart chase, if the caves were suddenly flooded with water it may seem totally arbitrary to the players. However, if you had begun the new session with a short cutaway describing Mola Ram ordering his minions to break the walls of a dam then the mines suddenly being destroyed by floodwater has added gravitas. This flooding isn't arbitrary or accidental, this flood is sent by the Big Bad.

This can be helpful metagaming, when the players have the flooding apparent to their characters, it's far less likely they will do something silly like completely fail to appreciate that they are at risk of being killed by torrential flood waters. That this is their cue to escape.


There are many other ways other than cutaways to add further exposition. Dream sequences, using the spell 'mind-link', the spell "Ears of the City" to grant a vision of past occurrences or even a literal Divine Intervention as the avatar of a deity shows the path ahead. But all that is off topic, the question was cut-aways.

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