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The Scene System of Japanese TRPGs


This post was originally going to be part of the next installment in my A History of TRPGs in Japan thread, but the subject matter is so rich I felt it would be too long. And also, I think this might lead to more discussion, which might derail the History thread. There's actually a bit of info on the scene system at Wikipedia, but I feel it's a bit skimpy, and somewhat buries the lede. Hopefully, this provides more interesting info.

Officially, the first use of “scene” (a transliterated loanword, シーン shiin) appeared in Far East Amusement Research (F.E.A.R.)’s 1998 RPG Tokyo N◎va The Revolution, and thereafter became part of their Standard RPG System (SRS). But it’s origins go back to growing abstraction and abbreviation of exploration elements in fantasy RPGs, as well as the numerous RPGs based on anime and/or set in modern or future times.

We could describe what I call a “weak” scene system like this; every room in a dungeon is a scene. Movement between rooms is glossed over, only briefly described. The scene is complete when the characters literally exit the room. Each room has a particular goal attached to it, which then leads to further rooms/scenes. One final room, reached only by having gone through other rooms, contains the last boss and/or the treasure/goal of the adventure.

Now we can further extrapolate this to a non-dungeon adventure. Instead of dungeon rooms, we have different locations on a map, but the essential play is the same. Any particular scene may revolve around combat, solving a puzzle, or interacting with a key NPC. And if your playstyle has drifted to one-shots, with an introduction, middle section, and climax, as the popular playstyle of Japan has, this type of system slots quite easily into that.

Although it never uses the word “scene,” what I’ve described above perfectly describes how the game Sword World suggests creating an adventure and how they design their published adventures. As a matter of fact, Arianrhod RPG, which uses the SRS and thus explicitly uses a “scene system,” includes an adventure in its Starter Set that is exactly as I described the dungeon above, and reads pretty much the same as a Sword World adventure.

Looked at this way, it is not especially different from adventures in many Western RPGs, including D&D 5e. We use different terminology (“encounters” or “chapters” instead of “scenes”), we may add sidequests, flesh out the environment and put a little more work in moving from encounter to encounter, and we may not place much importance in finishing the adventure in one session, but the basic structure is there.

Now let’s add a rule to strengthen our scene system. In every scene, every player has to make one skill/ability check. Even when it’s not a combat, we still go around the table, in turn, with a player describing their action and making a relevant check for success. That’s a bit more restrictive in a way. No one has the option to just hang out and do nothing in a particular scene; they are forced to engage with the scene for it to move forward.

To turn our “weak” scene system into a “strong” scene system (again, “weak” and “strong” are my terminology), we’re now going to split the party. Same rules, but now disparate groups of characters, sometimes only a single character, all in different scenes. Those scenes may be synchronous, or asynchronous.

And now we get to the strongest version of a scene system, the kind that is the default of SRS, as well as Adventure Planning Service’s Saikoro Fiction (Dice Fiction) system. The default is that each character gets their own scene. The players go in order, each taking on the role of “scene player,” in which their character is the protagonist of the scene. If the GM allows, they can bring other PCs along with them to their scene. Or, if the GM allows, other players can jump into the scene in the middle of it. We’re still following the same rules as above, so before a player completes a scene, they have to make at least one significant skill/ability check which will affect the story (if only in terms of resources a PC may or may not have at the climax).

Both SRS and SF split their scenarios into phases: an introductory phase, a middle phase (sometimes called a “research phase”), a climax phase, and an epilogue phase. Each phase contains multiple scenes, enough for everybody to be in one. A fantasy game like Arianrhod RPG may quickly complete the introductory phase with one scene containing all PCs. But a game like Shinobigami, in which there is no party, and there’s even a vein of PvP involved, the introductory phase is suggested to have an individual scene for each player, with some elements worked out in advance by the player and the GM, which acts to introduce the PC’s personality and abilities to the rest of the players.

The goal of such a scene system is not just to be “narrative,” as it were. It’s to be cinematic. Many of the suggested GM tools for scene play call back to movies or TV. For example, informing the players of the basic thrust of the scenario by describing a “trailer” for it. Or using “master scenes,” that is, scenes that contain no PCs, but provide context and guidance for the players, while hearkening back to cinematic tropes.

Shinobigami is a game that plays this system for all its worth. Each player is a modern day ninja. At the start of the game, they are given private information relating to their characters goals/missions/desires. Thus, while the scenario has a GM-run antagonist, the players themselves may find themselves at cross-purposes, requiring temporary alliances, antagonism, or betrayal.

Although a great many RPGs in Japan, probably even the majority, use the scene system, and many of those games are definitely popular, it is not without its detractors. Many players bounce off the meta aspect of it. While the fact that everyone getting the spotlight can be considered a strongpoint, some players do not want the spotlight, at least to that degree. And some players don’t care for the rigidity of the system. They play RPGs to have the freedom to do anything, not to be forced to make checks in every scene they are in, or to even have a scene to themselves.

Nevertheless, 20-some years of scene system play has left an indelible mark on the general way TRPGs are played, and strongly influenced how they are designed. One of the newest and popular games out these days is Nobi Nobi RPG. Nobi Nobi RPG has a number of different versions: Nobi Nobi: The Horror, Nobi Nobi: Steampunk, Nobi Nobi: Sword and its companion Nobi Nobi: Magic. But all play the same way: a distilled, pure version of the scene system. Players select from one of the pre-generated characters. There is no need for a GM; each player can take turns being the GM for another player. The “GM” simply takes a scene card and describes its contents to the scene player. Included are a check the PC must make, and the consequences of success or failure thereof. When each player has had a scene (or two, if the group wishes), they turn over a climax card, and follow its instructions to complete the game.

Very interestingly, while Sword World does not present itself as a “scene system” game, for their latest box set, the Sword World 2.5 RPG Builder Set, they utilized a system very similar to Nobi Nobi. The party draws a “Commission” card, which describes a job they are taking on. On the front of the card, it indicates the number of “events” that happen, some combination from among “Event Along the Road,” “Midway Fight,” and “Pre-Boss Event.” The players take turns drawing and reading these event cards, which will present a choice, or require a check (or a fight!), and then indicate the result of that choice, or that success/failure means. After going through the events indicated on the front of the Commission card, it is turned over to reveal the climax. The goal is have a game you can sit and play with virtually no prep, and that is finished in 30 minutes to an hour.
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