September 7, 2019

Smash Cuts

Comments from the Finger: I've found I use this TV-inspired framework a lot in my games, so it's time to write an article!

Today, I want to chat about a technique I've used more and more as I grow as a DM: cuts. A cut, as borrowed from cinema, is when one shot ends and another shot just begins -- in D&D terms, this signifies a switch from one perspective to another in the narration. We all (at least subconsciously) understand how these are used in film, and what these uses signify, but it might be useful to talk about how to use them when narrating the game, when to use them, and what feeling each conveys.

Fade To
The gentlest cut-based transition, fading to another scene ends the current scene and begins another. Always, the implication is that time has passed and that the characters have arrived at the natural conclusion of something implied by the previous scene. Fading to another scene is not a montage: it does not skip challenging or complex actions, nor does it fade into the middle of such actions unless something interesting is about to happen.
     This transition is great for skipping downtime and travel, shortcutting preparations, and moving between big narrative beats for long-term time skips. However, it's critical to include how long has passed and what has happened in the meantime when setting the scene after a fade to a new scene.

  • Fade in on colorful tents and the jaunty music of accordions. It's the Darktide Festival time and the three of you are incognito, wearing party masks, and holding fresh caramel candies on sticks. 
  • Fade in on a log cabin three years later. Your armor and sword sit in a closet, collecting dust. The days are long, but the work is honest. You hear a knock on the door. 

Smash Cut
The smash cut moves you instantly from one scene to another, sometimes as a bit of a punchline. The implication of a smash cut is that the new scene is less important -- parenthetical, but casually linked to the main scene. Done well, it's also humorous, letting you highlight some funny cause and effect that the characters have no ability to see from their perspectives alone.

  • So you attempt to steal from the king. Don't even roll: smash cut, you're in the dungeon, chained to a wall, trying to eat from a wooden bowl filled with gruel. 
  • Smash cut to a bird singing a beautiful song in the middle of the forest. The ballista bolt you fired smacks into it, leaving only a puff of feathers. 

Side Cut
A side cut happens when rapidly flipping between two or more concurrent scenes. This is easily one of my favorites, as it makes all the events much more hectic. Most often, this transition and the accompanying concurrent scene structure happens when players have split the party or when the characters are racing against an NPC. This is also useful when the chaos the characters have caused continues to unfold in the background, and the results might endanger them in some way.
     When using side cuts, keep the momentum between scenes going quickly, cutting as often as possible and jumping to the next interesting beat of each scene as you go. It'll keep players engaged, even if they aren't active in the scene, and it'll make you narration feel more dynamic.

  • Side cut to the outside of the vault as Kelberos continues to juggle various objects to distract the guards. Dexterity check.
  • Side cut back into the vault as the banker struggles under Barnibo's weight and tries to make any noise she possibly can to alert her fellows. 

Wide Shot
This cut moves from the perspective of the players to someone nearby, describing what they see. Use wide shots when something happens which the characters don't notice in order to impart a touch of dramatic irony for the players. This is especially useful for certain failed Perception checks.
     Done correctly, a wide shot can impart a feeling of mystery, a sense that the tension has been dialed up (even if the characters are unaware of the danger), or a bit of insight into what's happening. This can be very effective for keeping players in the loop on mystery-oriented story beats, but it can also give them too much information. Keep a keen eye out for metagaming after you use a wide shot.

  • Wide shot of a mysterious figure lingering in the shadows, watching you, one by one, enter the house.
  • Wide shot of people murmuring, pointing to your brawl in the street, and running off to fetch guards. 

Why Use Cuts at All
Now that I've covered all of the basic cuts, I feel like I should make a real case for them. Too often, D&D has a simulation aspect to it: characters should always roll travel encounters, track their meals, and catalog the days of downtime and adventures for fun and profit. This extends to the DM's role in explaining the world: many DMs simply explain what the characters see, rather than what they intend for the players to see. This mindset can be anti-useful, however.
     Groups tend to be more focused on the task at hand when unimportant material is skipped over, when they can see logical outcomes to their actions (even when their characters can't), and when important information is presented sensibly, yet dramatically. Moreover, if GMs only describe what the characters see, rather than what the players should understand, they can inadvertently obscure critical information when someone fails a check. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the shorthand of cuts is so ubiquitous, you and your players are simply missing out if you're not using it.

1 comment:

  1. I've never called them "cuts", but yeah, "meanwhile on the other side of the island", "after arriving and settling in you're in a pub", etc. have been very useful in my experience.

    Cataloguing them is a nice touch.