[⚔Swords⚔] Montages as a narrative tool

One of the best things I got out of playing 13th Age was the use of Montages. This is an invaluable narrative tool that drives the story forward while putting every player in the spotlight. Today, I’m going to discuss some variations of Montages that I’ve been using in my games (not just limited to 13th Age).

What Montages Are

Montages are usually done when there are lull moments e.g. travelling across long distances or searching for a place. The GM asks one player what problem he/she encountered. Then, the GM goes to the next player and asks how he/she solved it, and what the next problem encountered is. The GM also facilitates by embellishing the players’ solutions with flair and pizzazz. This whole process is repeated until every player has detailed a problem and narrated a solution for the prior one.

Why They Are Effective

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My players all love Montages. Montages allow the players to actually make interludes interesting, while sharing with the GM the burden of the creative process. The quieter players, especially those who don’t like to role-play, will have to contribute to the flow of the narrative; at the same time, nobody is made to feel awkward by being called out because everyone is given an equal opportunity to share in the tossing of ideas.

Montages also provide a rare opportunity for players to have things go their way. You know how it starts to get really annoying as a player when you keep rolling fumbles and misses, while the enemy consistently gets the upper hand over you? Yeah. Montages are basically the GM’s way of giving players permission to take a wild idea and run with it.

Finally, they just make the story that much richer. As a player, I don’t remember a large chunk of the things my GM says (but that could just be me). I do, however, remember things that my character personally does, and events around my character that personally affect him. Montages put everyone in the spotlight and emphasise the ‘role’ in ‘role-playing’.

Possible Downsides

Montages are best for ‘fast-forwarding’ the story. They are half-exposition, half-narrative. As a result, the personal investment just isn’t as great as playing out the full extent of the scene(s). Imagine a ship on troubled waters. A montage can capture a length of snapshots of the entire process — what each problem is, and how it was conquered. However, it doesn’t fully flesh out the details, and much is still left to the imagination of the players.

Montages can also be exploited, in that they can skew the narrative flavour. If we’re playing a serious story, and one player comes up with a problem during the montage that aligns with the whimsical… well, as someone sitting more often on the GM’s side of the table, I can’t say I’d be too pleased.

Supplemental Tips for Creating Cool Montages

Along the way, I’ve been using some of my own hacks/derivatives for Montages as advised from the 13th Age Resource Book and from Ash Law’s Organised Play modules. As with Montages themselves, these tips are system agnostic, and should work so long as dice are rolled.

#1: Should players come up with something that’s not sufficiently fleshed out, I will ask binary questions like “Was it a terrible smell?” to assist them. This helps to build their confidence and understand the track that we’re moving along. As most of my players are students, and quite a number of them are shy or don’t express themselves well, this tip works well regardless of what the Montage entails.

#2: When embellishing what the player says, if a player comes up with an idea that’s over-the-top ludicrous, I gently guide the player using the power of suggestion and compromise. On the rare occasion when players push their luck while coming up with solutions to problems, I tell them “Well yeah, you process that thought in your head. It seems like it might be feasible, but you really get the feeling that it’s not going to work out after all. On the other hand, you do notice that…” So far, both players and GM have always ended up feeling satisfied with the outcome of the solution.

#3: At times, I will ask players to make skill checks during Montages, especially when they come up with improbable solutions to a problem. Success means they succeed with style. However, failure doesn’t mean they’ll fail — they will still succeed, but a complication arises, potentially providing a hook for the next player’s problem. This was particularly effective with bigger groups in which players would have a harder time thinking up problems.

#4: Montages can also be used to set the stage for a scenario, but they can also be used to end off the scenario. For many of my games, I like to ask players what they did in the weeks that followed the final scene. This has the effect of ending the game on a high note, and players can even come up with quirky details like ‘I was seen consorting with that traitor by Player Character B’.

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Conclusion

I hope you guys found the tips here helpful. Montages are an invaluable tool in all the games I’ve run so far — not just 13th Age, but also Atomic Highway, Interface Zero (Savage Worlds), Risus, Barebones Fantasy, and too many to name. Not only are they powerful in driving the story forwards, but they also tie in very nicely with most games that have dice-rolling mechanics. They can also be tweaked to the needs of you, the gamemaster, as well as the players at the table. I hope the above tips prove useful, and as usual, happy gaming!

-Jim

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