Written by Zakalwe, our co-founder wizard…
Trust, Transparency or Walk Away
So, I love it that people are running scenes. If they weren't, then the whole game would be something of a pointless exercise, so I really can't overstate my enthusiasm for the idea. But on those occasions when a problem crosses my desk (so to speak), there's a pretty good chance that it springs from one of the many misunderstandings that can sour a scene.
So with that in mind, I'm going to pitch out a simple framework that can make a scene work well, especially a GM'd scene, and it boils down to this: Trust, Transparency or Walk Away.
Trust is at least a little self evident. When you're playing with other players or a GM whose style you know and who you're comfortable with then most other guidelines become secondary considerations. A group with a high level of trust knows which rules to ignore, when to make assumptions and what direction to take things towards. If you've got a scene where that level of trust exists, then life is probably pretty good.
But if you're not sure that level of trust exists, then it can be very dangerous. If there's an unfamiliar player in the group or a player with a different style joins in, the behaviors which are comfortable to a high trust group can be problematic to that new player. Alternately, the new player may engage in behaviors which disrupt or violate the assumptions of trust. One way or another, there are a lot of potential break points, and just ignoring them is a surefire way to make sure they turn into real problems.
As such, if you cannot be certain of trust, then the next best solution is transparency. Transparency means that negotiation is open on an OOC level, and the assumptions of trust are replaced with clear communication about intent and results. This has two big benefits. First, it helps keep everyone on the same page, allowing the scene to progress in a way that keeps everyone involved while keeping miscommunication from turning into fights. Second, this is how trust gets established, especially among players who do not have an out-of-game backchannel to establish trust through.
That's a great ideal, but it does not always work. Sometimes there are issues at work that keep communication from being transparent. This is where it gets tricky, because at that point, someone needs to be willing to look at the situation, say "This isn't working" and walk away. Even if the situation does not appear to have any obvious exits, any GM worth his salt will find a way to make it work because a graceful exit is always going to be better than the player disconnecting or some equally abrupt departure.
Certainly, this can be occasionally complicated by things like consequences - this is not a license to bail out after losing a conflict or otherwise agreeing to an outcome. But consequences often allow exactly the kind of graceful exit that can work well to get out of a scene, as the consequence provides the reason to exit.
One useful trick to remember is that things work even more smoothly when the player taking the consequence steps up and proactively suggests an outcome. Something like "How about I take and arrow and go down, and with that, I'm out of the scene" ties the consequence into events and allows a face saving exit without disruption, and requires much less OOC bandwidth to sort out.
But as much as that elegant exit is desirable, I want to underscore that a player can pretty much always walk away. The burden is not on the departing player to make sense of it if they see no path to doing so. The purpose of a scene is not to trap an unhappy player into making everyone else unhappy, nor is it to drive people to playing things they don't want to do.
So, think of these three levels as descending in fragility. If you are confident that trust exists throughout the scene, then go with it, but if you are not 100% certain, then fall back on transparency. If the whole group is not willing to buy into transparency, and a level of OOC communication that makes play fun for everyone can't be achieved, then fall back to the question of whether you might just be better off walking away.
Bad play is worse than no play, simple as that. Do yourself a favor and think about where you stand the next time you feel a scene gong south on you.