The montage is a trope of visual storytelling, from The A-Team all the way to The Sound of Music. A montage is a short series of clips showing one or more characters working to achieve a long or complex goal. The typical A-Team version saw the characters convert a barn full of junk into a highly-improbable armoured fighting vehicle/ This vehicle was then the centrepiece of the episode finale as the heroes defeated the villains and saved the day.
Now, who would not want to run that sort of a scenario?
How Fate does it
I was reading through the excellent Fate System Toolkit, looking for inspiration for fresh Rules Widgets for HeroQuest 2, and I found a short piece about using montages in roleplaying games;
If you’re less interested in playing out the day-to-day changes needed to reform a criminal justice system or fortify a castle, you can instead construct montages for your characters’ progress. Set a time limit—including a limited number of actions—that represent that time and resources the characters have available to resolve the situation before the story picks up in full.
For each roll, the characters attempt to resolve one of the discovered aspects using appropriate skills. Characters can work together, or they can split up to try to solve multiple problems. In this style of making big changes, narrate the group’s success like a movie montage, pausing only long enough at each roll to see the group succeed or fail to improve the situation.
Montages in RPGs
All about the story
On reflection, the Fate description reads very similar to the Fourth Edition D&D Skill Challenge, the difference would be the presentation of the montage, and the requirement that the montage cover a reasonable amount of time.
While I may be late to the concept, this is such a great tool for the GM. The combination of skill use to engage the Players and the ability to greatly aid the narrative through time-compression make montages so brilliant.
The Players will want to be involved with the process of building defences for the village, but the real excitement lies in the battle with the bandits. A montage allows the Heroes to use their skills, but skips through the tedious preparation process and brings the game to the exciting confrontation much sooner.
Structure of a Montage
Who rolls what?
As outlined in the FAE System Toolkit, there are two main elements to prepare for the montage. The first is the story goal, which should arise organically from the game. Fortify the village, jury-rig weapons in a barn or research an arcane ritual would all make suitable montages. The montage is a method to achieve a medium- to long-term goal in a short space of game time. Thus, most large story arcs and many Character goals will provide you with opportunities to use a montage sequence.
Once the story of the montage is found, the GM will need to set the parameters of the montage. It could be run as a variant on any extended contest or skill challenge that your current rules provide, possibly varying the narrative to fit with the style of a montage.
Alternatively, you could create your own format for running a montage at the table. To give impetus to the Players, it would be best to set a time limit to the montage. This will probably be set by the story element above, for example, if the bandits will attack the village in three days.
Next, break down the available time into broad units, in the case of the village, this gives us six time periods, being morning and afternoon for each day. So, each Player would be able to take an active role no more than six times. For each action in a montage, a Player can perform one action. Ideally, this action would involve a single skill roll. The action could be active, such as sharpening stakes for a defensive ditch, or supportive, such as aiding another Player. In this way, the montage sequence would be composed of each Player acting once during each time period.
The other point to remember in the structure of a montage is to ensure that each Hero will have an equal number of chances to roll. Depending upon the circumstances, these might be chances to co-operate on a larger task, or individual assignments. Even if a montage is about one Hero’s goal, you want to balance the spotlight out among all the Players as much as possible.
Dig or saw?
It is also possible to introduce an element of resource management into the montage, albeit in a loose, narrative-style. Thus, there should be more that the Players would want to do, than there is time. Likewise, for our village example, there are a limited number of workers available, so the Players would need to choose carefully what they want to do to the village.
So, in our example, there might be enough time to dig a ditch all the way around the village, but that would leave no time for anything else. The Players could fortify the central hall, or two of the smaller houses, but either option takes villagers away from digging a ditch. There might be enough timber to create a line of stakes to block cavalry, but not enough for a complete palisade around the village. Of course, the Players could choose to harvest more timber from the nearby forest, but this takes workers away from the ditch, and so on.
Furthermore, the narrative part of the montage works better with a “degree of success” skill system, rather than a binary “pass/fail” one. The montage skill rolls are not so much to determine whether a ditch was dug, but rather how long it took and how good a ditch is produced. In this way, the results of one montage roll blend into the next time period, as the ditch might be taking too long to dig, on a failed roll. Or, perhaps the villagers worked especially hard, and dug a deeper ditch than expected.
However the montage plays out, be sure to reflect the results in the subsequent action. So, for our villagers, a deep ditch could see the bandits held up for longer crossing it. This makes the Player choices during the montage relevant, as they have direct consequences in the later climactic scene.
I am sure that other GMs will have explored the possibilities of using a montage sequence in their game, but reading the piece in the Fate System Toolkit was my first exposure to this narrative tool. Using a montage in your game will give you a faster game and more story.
So, have you used montages in your game? Share your experiences in the comments.