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Author Topic: Scene Framing and octaNe  (Read 16499 times)
hardcoremoose
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« on: February 04, 2002, 10:36:14 PM »

There have been a couple requests for practical scene framing guidelines.  I know some of this stuff has been hashed over before, but it seems like a good time to get the discussion going again.  I'm far from an expert on this subject, so I'll post my thoughts, and hopefully others will jump in to add their insights and/or criticisms.  

One thing I've discovered is that for the uninitiated, scene framing is hard.  There is a strange sort of apprehension that comes with it, and that's difficult to overcome.  I've seen it done successfully, but I'm still a mediocre scene framer at best.  For a primer on scene framing, check out http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=69&highlight=theatrix">this post (especially Paul's second post on the subject).

First, my theory of scene framing.  Scene framing is about getting from a defined Point A to an undefined Point B.  It posits a lot of stuff up front (Point A), providing the players with the raw materials to create an interesting, dramatic scene.  A well framed scene will force the players to make decisions, but will not provide just one obvious choice, nor imply any specific decision.  Through their decisions, the players will cause the scene to unfold.  When the most dramatic thing that could happen in the scene has happened, Point B has been reached, and the GM should end the scene and move on to the next one.  This theory is in direct contrast to the way games normally work, in which Point B is set-up well in advance of actual play, and sometimes before characters are ever generated (Point A, on the other hand, is often left kind of vague and up to the players, but in the most heavy-handed games, is predefined by the GM as well).  

I'm going to use examples of scenes I framed from this past weekend's game of octaNe.  Besides being fresh in my mind, octaNe is a superbly cinematic game, just begging for this kind of treatment.  And because I’ll occasionally refer to it, the Premise of the game was: “In a damsel in distress story, what makes for a good Damsel?”

For the first scene of the game, I told the players:

"You're on a deserted highway outside of Lost [sic] Vegas, zipping along at some very unsafe speeds". (at this point, the players informed me that they were playing highway tag).  A woman in an elegant evening gown suddenly steps into the road from out of nowhere, frantically waving her arms.  You're bearing down on her."

That was how I framed the characters into the scene; it was my "Point A".  I made a little mistake in that right after telling the players where they were, I asked them what they were doing (they were playing highway tag), and then continued with the scene framing.  It wasn't that big a deal, but I already knew I wanted the players to be drag racing, and I knew the woman was going to step in front of the car, and I knew that neither of those events were avoidable.  I should have just told the players they were drag racing and left it at that.  To me, that's an important part of scene framing - frame past all of the things you know are happening, get right to the interesting stuff, and then see where the scene takes you.

The rest of the scene played out like this: The PCs stopped for the woman, discovered she was actually a female impersonator, that she was being chased by a chainsaw wielding mutant hillbilly, that there were three other drag queens and a real woman with her, and that one of the drag queens (named Bobby) had been captured and taken away by the hillbillies.  This information was dispersed during the course of a chase scene, as the players attempted to get away from a suped-up pick-up truck filled to the brim with cannibalistic rednecks.  They eventually managed to blow the rednecks and their truck up.  There was only one big decision to be made here: Whether the players would try to save Bobby or not.  I kind of figured they’d go back looking for him/her, but they decided not to.  Already they were making Premise-related decisions: the transsexual was not interesting enough to them to be worth saving.  We had reached "Point B"; I ended the scene once that decision was made.

That opening, although fairly clichéd and alittle linear, was successful: I framed immediately to some action, and things progressed from there.  Note that we spent absolutely no time discussing why the PCs were on the open road, why (or even if) they were leaving Lost Vegas, or why they were drag (heh) racing.  Any of that information, if it became important, could be delineated retrospectively, through dialogue or whatever.  Instead, we just went right to what Ron calls a Bang.

Contrast that, fairly successful, moment of scene framing with my next:

"You've checked into a seedy hotel and are upstairs in your rooms.  The drag queens are settling in...".

That was all I had.  I followed some of the principles of scene framing - I cut out a bunch of boring travel stuff, and I didn't ask the players if they wanted to check into the seedy hotel.  I just thought the seedy hotel was cool and wanted a scene there and so I framed them into it.  But I had no conflict set up, nothing more interesting than a "seedy hotel", so I skipped a bunch of boring stuff to go right to some more boring stuff.  

One way to know that a scene is dying is when the players start filling the air with meaningless dialogue between their characters.  Good dialogue can help characterize PCs and NPCs.  Bad dialogue is a sign that the players don't know what to do, and so they're engaging in the one thing they can do while waiting for something to happen; it's the roleplaying equivalent of twiddling your thumbs.  If a scene reaches this point it's already ventured into the realm of anti-climax - you either need to save it by having something good happen now, or cut your losses and move on to the next scene.  This was the problem with the scene in the seedy motel - as soon as I finished framing it, the players immediately shifted into that bad dialogue mode.  I didn’t quite know how to save the scene, so I ended it and turned to the players for help, asking them to frame their own scenes.    

Paul, playing a one-armed padre, framed a scene for his character in which he was having a smoke outside the hotel when suddenly he had a vision from God (a burning cactus nonetheless).  Danielle, playing a biker momma, framed a scene with her and the hotel manager, who she apparently knew from past days in a biker gang, and who had important information for her.  And Matt, playing a classic Shaft/Ladies Man character, framed himself directly into the bedroom.

This sequence of scenes raised some concerns for our group.  Although the scenes framed by the players were interesting, we've had more luck when the GM does the framing, providing the context for the scene, and then the players provide most of the content.*  Asking the players to provide both puts them into the role of storyteller, and everyone else into the role of audience.  Those are roles to be sure, but it doesn't seem like roleplaying.  What's worked better for us is when the GM asks the players "what kind of scene would you like", and then gives them that scene, with his own spin on it.  I'm interested in hearing about other peoples' experiences with this.

I’ll start with those scenes as examples, but there was more to the game, and a lot more to be said on the subject.  I’ve left out some important concepts, like negotiating scenes with players, embedding conflict into scenes,and where Premise fits in, but there’s time for that later.

So to sum up for prospective GMs:

When framing a scene, posit everything that you know to be true about the scene up front; that's all stuff for the players to work with and around.  Get them to something interesting that forces them to make decisions, but that does not imply any one specific decision.  When those decisions have been rendered and the drama of the scene has played out, end it.

Now for some parting thoughts:

Above (*) I made the statement that the GM provides the context of a scene (through framing) and players provide the content.  This is almost exactly the same comment made by Ken Hite in his Sorcerer & Sword review, but it's a bit inaccurate.  The division of power lies mostly in that arrangement, but not exclusively.  Obviously, the GM is responsible for quite a bit of content within a scene, the most common example being villains who show up somewhere in the scene's middle (as opposed to being framed into its opening).  Likewise, players can be allowed to influence certain aspects of the scene context; when the GM asks the player "what kind of scene would you like", that's exactly what's happening.  There's a whole lot that could be said about this division of power, and I have ideas about how it can scale during actual game play, but I just wanted to clarify that at no point do I really mean that a GM can never have influence on the content of a scene, nor that a player should never have a say in the framing of the scene.  

Knowing when to end a scene is hard.  It’s at least as important as knowing how to open a scene - a scene that goes on too long can ruin an otherwise perfectly good moment, leaving a bad taste in your mouth.  I haven't discovered a great way to know when to end a scene; ideally it's when the most dramatic thing that could happen in the scene has happened. When you see that moment, find a nice line of dialogue or a good parting image and end the scene (by framing to the next one).  Whatever you do, don’t let it descend into idle banter and bad dialogue (see above).

I'm sure there's something I've forgotten.  Oh well, this has been enough writing for one evening.

Take care,
Scott
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James V. West
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« Reply #1 on: February 05, 2002, 05:52:22 PM »

Excellent, Moose!

You know, I've written a game that I consider almost totally narrativist and yet I've never tried my hand at scene-framing. Your various posts about it have sealed the deal. My next game is going to involve scene-framing.

So, how would you deal with scene-framing in The Questing Beast? I'd be essentially writing a scene intro into the Romances of the players, but, as Ron points out in another post, "we're all playing a game, aren't we?".
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Jared A. Sorensen
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« Reply #2 on: February 05, 2002, 06:14:31 PM »

Quote from: hardcoremoose

Paul, playing a one-armed padre


Just a quick interjection.

Hahahahaha!!!

Okay, this is probably only funny to me...it's funny because this particular Role in octaNe is called the "Two-Fisted Padre."

I'm still laughing.

Also, Scott --  Trannies, a biker, a padre and a bad mofo'...I'm guessing you guys were in Grindhouse mode? How much of the red stuff did you guys pile on? I'm also thinking of adding a "myths & legends" mode where the play is very mythic and gritty -- ala the Mad Max films (especially MM 2).
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Tim C Koppang
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« Reply #3 on: February 06, 2002, 08:47:45 AM »

Quote from: hardcoremoose

Knowing when to end a scene is hard.

More of a general question about scene framing:

What do you do in between scenes?  Is there any exposition, or do you just cut right to the next scene and frame it up that way.  For instance, in your example you frame up a scene in the hotel.  Despite the success of that scene, I'm assuming that you just cut from whatever the players were doing beforehand (fighting bad guys or whatever) to the hotel.  Is this correct, or is the transistion more delicate?
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hardcoremoose
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« Reply #4 on: February 06, 2002, 10:28:49 AM »

Hey Guys,

Jared,

We were definitely in Grindhouse mode.  One cannibal mutant choked to death on some lady fingers, and another was forced to eat his own heart (which he actually enjoyed until brain death set in).  Still, I didn't linger on the gore...not like in the Sorcerer demo I ran last year at GenCon (which I still disavow any responsibility for).

James,

I'm not sure I have time right now to explain how scene framing applies to TQB.  It's a technique, not a set of rules, so it can be used quite readily with nearly any roleplaying game.  The most aggressive scene framing I ever saw was when Paul ran The Pool.  Something that may be of interest to you is the idea of negotiating scenes; the idea that you can ask the players "Is there a scene you'd like to see next", which is the equivalent of asking "what do you do now" or "where do you go next".  I'll try to get back to this later...

Tim,

No, there wasn't any discussion between scenes.  If switching from scene-to-scene aggressively seems heavy-handed to you, you can soften it by asking the players "what scene would you like to see next?".  Sometimes the GM needs to assert himself though, framing aggressively to scenes that deliver adversity to the players.  It's not an easy thing to get a hold of, especially if you've never seen it done,  but done well, scene framing has a very visual, cinematic quality.

I'm out of time...more later.

- Scott
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Thor Olavsrud
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« Reply #5 on: February 06, 2002, 01:05:59 PM »

Quote from: hardcoremoose

Knowing when to end a scene is hard.  It’s at least as important as knowing how to open a scene - a scene that goes on too long can ruin an otherwise perfectly good moment, leaving a bad taste in your mouth.  I haven't discovered a great way to know when to end a scene; ideally it's when the most dramatic thing that could happen in the scene has happened. When you see that moment, find a nice line of dialogue or a good parting image and end the scene (by framing to the next one).  Whatever you do, don’t let it descend into idle banter and bad dialogue (see above).


Moose,

I haven't tried the scene-framing technique, but it sounds intriguing. As far as knowing when to end the scene goes, you might check out the book Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham.

He lays out an entire scheme for novels using scene effectively. The basic framework of a scene consists of three parts:

1. A scene question -- Determine what the characters are attempting to achieve in the scene.

2. Conflict or Obstacles -- Determine what hinders the characters in achieving that goal.

3. A scene ending disaster -- A scene ends when it resolves the scene goal. Unless you are at the end of the story, that resolution should always be a disaster of some sort, otherwise you lose all dramatic tension. Disasters answer the scene question in one of three ways: a. No, b. No, and furthermore, c. Yes, but.

For instance in the drag racing scene you describe above, you could have laid out the scene in this way:

1. Scene Question: Will the PCs save the damsel in distress?

2. Conflicts/Obstacles: Mutant Hillbillies seek to kill everyone.

3. Scene Ending Disaster:
a. The mutant hillbillies catch up with the PCs before they can get the damsel into one of their cars. The PCs are forced to speed off and leave the damsel to the mutants' tender mercies.

b. The PCs attempt to help the damsel escape, but in the ensuing chase, the PCs roll their vehicle, leaving the damsel and themselves to the mutants' tender mercies.

c. The PCs manage to escape the mutants with the damsel in tow, but discover that the damsel/female impersonator has escaped from a powerful mutant ganglord with important information/objects, and the ganglord will ruthlessly hunt down all those involved (and will then feast on their skins).

Note that not all scene questions will have three possible disasters waiting at the end. The point is that once you've resolved the scene question and established a disaster that adds to the tension, you know the scene is finished.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: February 06, 2002, 03:11:46 PM »

Hello,

I think a lot of people might be missing the fact that all role-playing ALREADY employs scene framing. Think back on your last game. The group played a number of scenes, right? There were a couple time-jumps and/or space-jumps among them, right? In all of your role-playing history, someone said, "OK, next morning ..." and everyone nodded, right?

All that is scene framing. It is merely ... scene transition. By adding "framing" to the jargon, all we're doing is calling attention to the fact that we perhaps ought to put some creative thought, and group enlistment, into how we do it.

Best,
Ron
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hardcoremoose
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« Reply #7 on: February 06, 2002, 09:27:34 PM »

Thor,

I like the supposition that a scene answers a question.  It fits with the way I choose to use Premise, which is to phrase it as a question for the players to answer.  In that sense, every scene should provide the players with the opportunity to make a statement about that one big question - the Premise (which the players did in the first scene described above).

In regards to every scene ending in disaster, what are we talking about?  I like to use the term "adversity", which could be a disaster (using the classical definition of disaster), but it could just be something that further complicates the PCs' lives.  For instance, the addition of three transsexuals and an emotionally charged vixen on the lamb seemed like plenty of adversity for that first scene (although, had the players rolled a little less well, things could have been much more disastrous).  Are we just arguing semantics, or am I right in understanding that by disaster you mean something worse than mere "adversity"?

- Scott
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #8 on: February 06, 2002, 11:27:31 PM »

Hey Scott,

The most aggressive scene framing I ever saw was when Paul ran The Pool.

Be careful not to say "Orcus" or he might show up eh :)

Let me say that I think your "Point A to Point B" way of thinking about scene framing is pretty damn incisive. Although I think you said it better on the http://indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1333">Alms for the poor thread in the Random Order Creations forum:

There are two points to a scene - Point A, where the PCs start the scene, and Point B, where they end up. Most games let the players control some aspect of Point A, and then railroad the PCs to point B. Good narrativism will reverse that by letting the GM create a compelling Point A, and let the players dictate what Point B is (ie, there is no Point B prior to the scene beginning).

I think it very effectively exposes, as Ron points out above, that although roleplaying games typically feature scene transition, by "scene framing" we're talking about a subset of scene transition that features a different kind of intentionality. My personal inclination is to call the traditional method "scene extrapolation," because the details of the Point A of scenes initiated using the method are typically arrived at primarily by considering the physics of the game world, what has happened prior to the scene, and the unrevealed actions and aspirations of characters that only the GM knows about.

"Scene framing" is a very different mental process for me. Tim asked if scene transitions were delicate. They aren't. Delicacy is a trait I'd attach to "scene extrapolation," the idea being to make scene initiation seem an outgrowth of prior events, objective, unintentional, non-threatening, but not to the way I've come to frame scenes in games I've run recently. More often than not, the PC's have been geographically separate from each other in the game world. So I go around the room, taking a turn with each player, framing a scene and playing it out. I'm having trouble capturing in dispassionate words what it's like, so I'm going to have to dispense with dispassionate words. By god, when I'm framing scenes, and I'm in the zone, I'm turning a freakin' firehose of adversity and situation on the character. It is not an objective outgrowth of prior events. It's intentional as all get out. We've had a group character session, during which it was my job to find out what the player finds interesting about the character. And I know what I find interesting. I frame the character into the middle of conflicts I think will push and pull in ways that are interesting to me and to the player. I keep NPC personalities somewhat unfixed in my mind, allowing me to retroactively justify their behaviors in support of this. And like Scott's "Point A to Point B" model says, the outcome of the scene is not preconceived.

How does it feel? I suspect it feels like being a guest on a fast-paced political roundtable television program. I think the players probably love it for the adrenaline, but sometimes can't help but breathe a calming sigh when I say "cut."

Paul
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« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2002, 06:56:46 AM »

Hello,

I just realized that we're failing to credit the first role-playing games to present the principles we're talking about formally. Feng Shui is one, definitely, with its rather swift-and-dirty "get to it" GMing advice.  The main one, I think, is Maelstrom, which has just about the best reorientation-text for a traditional GM which I've ever seen. Story Engine presents the mechanics of that system more clearly, but Maelstrom's extensive text and many examples about just what a "scene" is, how one gets to it, and what to do when you're done, are foundational RPG reading.

Best,
Ron
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2002, 10:41:11 AM »

Hey Ron,

I've accreted techniques from conversations with you and from discovery during actual play. One from you, described in the http://indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=69">Theatrix in action thread that Scott linked to above, was a Narrativist way of handling character skills like streetwise or contacts almost as a request for a scene. The player doesn't state the intent of, "I'm going to see my friend on the force." He says, "I'm using my contacts on the force to find out who's shipping the drugs." The throw of the dice informs the scene that gets framed. Success being a scene that reveals the information, perhaps a dramatic confession by a dealer following a grisly interrogation room beating performed by the police contact. Failure simply means consequences. Perhaps the player is on the premises of a crack house when a firefight breaks out. Neither of the outcomes is a roadblock. Both advance the story in some fashion.

Another technique I stumbled onto is the tactic of throwing an extra named NPC into scenes. The extra NPC sort-of opens up the potential of the scene. I'm not even sure what makes this work so well. I just know that one-on-one confrontations between protagonists and major NPC's have a higher incidence of being not that compelling than scenes with an extra named NPC in them.

Both of these tactics are not formalized or explored in the text of the games I've been playing and running. I'd absolutely love to see games that formalize these kinds of things, having explicit rules for player use of character skills as a vehicle for scene requests, or that explore how the presence and handling of NPC's function to make scenes more compelling. I haven't read Feng Shui or Maelstrom. Are you saying they get into this kind of stuff?

Paul
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« Reply #11 on: February 07, 2002, 10:49:29 AM »

Paul,

Feng Shui's text is mainly about not dillydallying around with shopping or travelling announcements, but getting right to the next scene with a fight in it. It's pretty GM-heavy, including (basically) license simply to ride roughshod over players who aren't "getting there."

Maestrom's text is much more extensive and describes what a scene is, in that it must contain some kind of embedded conflict or need for some kind of resolution (however you want to look at it). It describes how to construct such a thing in group terms, in a much more friendly manner than Feng Shui. It also includes lots of stuff like cut-away scenes, GMing across characters in different locations, and the use of sensation to convey things about scenes rather than feet-by-inches descriptions.

However, you're right in that most of the elements you describe in the above post have arisen more from our dialogues than from any of the texts.

Best,
Ron
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Thor Olavsrud
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« Reply #12 on: February 07, 2002, 08:34:16 PM »

Quote from: hardcoremoose

In regards to every scene ending in disaster, what are we talking about?  I like to use the term "adversity", which could be a disaster (using the classical definition of disaster), but it could just be something that further complicates the PCs' lives.  For instance, the addition of three transsexuals and an emotionally charged vixen on the lamb seemed like plenty of adversity for that first scene (although, had the players rolled a little less well, things could have been much more disastrous).  Are we just arguing semantics, or am I right in understanding that by disaster you mean something worse than mere "adversity."


Scott,

I think we're basically saying the same thing whether we call it "disaster" or "adversity." The point is that each scene needs to continue to tighten the screw on tension so as to maintain momentum in the story. In other words, keep piling on the problems so the players are always itching to see what happens next.

The three different types of disaster, or adversity if you prefer, allow you to do this in different ways.

A "no" disaster is similar to what I saw someone else call a "pinch." Essentially, a scene that ends with a "no" disaster says that particular avenue was a dead end. It narrows the characters' options and forces them to choose another approach.

I'm currently re-reading some of the Elric stories after picking up Sorceror & Sword, so I'll draw an example from the story Elric of Melnibone. At one point in the story, Elric, sailing on the Ship Which Sails Over Land And Sea, attempts to assault the city of Dhoz-Kam. He wants to attack by land because the route by sea is guarded by the Mirror of Memory. However, King Grome (lord of the Earth Elementals), desirous of the ship he gifted to his brother King Strassha (lord of the Water Elementals), refuses to allow them to sail on land. The "no" disaster is invoked and Elric must assault by sea instead.

Note, in the process, Grome also removes the ship's power to sail on land, so this could possibly be interpreted as a "no, and furthermore" disaster. However, because that consequence does not further complicate the story at hand, I consider it a simple "no" disaster.

A "no, and furthermore" disaster does the same thing as a "no" disaster, but also heaps on additional problems for the characters to deal with.

Earlier in the story, Elric has a scene in which he is to deal with Yrkoon, the cousin who recently made an attempt on his life. The scene question is: "Can Elric deal with Yrkoon once and for all?" The scene ends with a "no, and furthermore" disaster because Yrkoon escapes and spirits away Elric's love, Cymoril, at the same time.

A "yes, but" disaster gives the characters the satisfaction of solving one particular dilemma, but in the process they discover that things were even worse than they previously imagined.

In the scene where Elric assaults Dhoz-Kam, the scene question is: "Can Elric save Cymoril?" The scene ends with a "yes, but" disaster. Elric recaptures Cymoril's body, but discovers that Yrkoon has put her in a sorcerous slumber and escaped through the Shade Gate in search of the two Runeswords.

I suppose you can think of each disaster as a sort of mini-kicker which drives the characters into the next scene.
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contracycle
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« Reply #13 on: February 11, 2002, 03:16:59 AM »

Quote from: Thor Olavsrud

I suppose you can think of each disaster as a sort of mini-kicker which drives the characters into the next scene.


I'd be wary of that phrase as a kicker is a thing associated withg character or player, not with situations IMO.
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Thor Olavsrud
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« Reply #14 on: February 20, 2002, 06:50:55 AM »

Quote from: contracycle

I'd be wary of that phrase as a kicker is a thing associated withg character or player, not with situations IMO.


My bad. I'm still getting the terminology down. Would it be more appropriate to call it a mini-Bang then?
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