For several years now, I’ve prefaced almost all of my RPG sessions with a vignette scene. I’ve become a huge proponent of them because when used properly they can add laughs, chills, or raging vengeance to any party of players. They can be used to elaborate upon the story, to give insight into the motives of a mysterious character, or to set a lighthearted tone at the beginning of the story.
A vignette is a short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or gives an insightful impression about a character, idea, setting, or object. If you’ve ever watched episodic TV shows like the X-Files or House, you’ve seen vignettes in real-time. They are often used in television to set up the conflict, mystery, or premise of the episode that follows. Many times they don’t even involve the main characters, but rather introduce something or someone that the characters will have to deal with throughout the story.
The true beauty of vignette scenes in RPGs is their sheer diversity of use. Need a story hook to get your players to clear out a mine that’s infested with demonic spiders? Why not start the adventure with your players briefly role-playing as the miners trying to escape? If you want to show the destructive nature of a magic item without killing your players in the process, have one of them role-play as the villain wielding it while the others play as bounty hunters who fail to retrieve it!
There are many advantages when incorporating vignette scenes into your adventures. Here are just a few.
Don’t Tell the Lore, Play It!
Whenever I start a new campaign, I always begin with a vignette. I don’t want to read a pre-written script explaining the backstory or lore needed to setup the adventure, I want the players experience it first-hand.
Vignettes can take place at any location with any character in the campaign setting, and they can also take place at any time. Relics and ancient ruins can come to life when your players take on the roles of characters who used them two hundred years ago. It’s much more interesting for players to learn the importance of a long-lost artifact when they find it themselves, rather than simply being told of its importance when they find it and making a History check.
Give Players a Different Perspective
Since vignettes can take place anywhere at any time, they can be used to give your players a different perspective on the adventure they’re playing. There are often casualties in even the most noble of adventures -villages might be destroyed in the process of capturing a dragon, for example. In the subsequent session, let the players role-play as refugees from the village, now wandering homeless and looking for work and food to feed their families.
It isn’t easy to sympathize with a necromancer until you learn that she was once just a young mage whose family was killed in a goblin raid. Her obsession with bringing them back into the mortal world slowly led her down a dark path…
Between their alignment and the ever-driving motive of leveling up and getting better loot, it’s easy for players and their characters to get tunnel vision about what’s right and wrong in the campaign. Mix it up by showing them the grey areas in the world you’re creating.
Foreshadow Climatic Events
Mystery and intrigue are great themes for any story, and the best stories have clues left throughout to hint and tease at what’s to come. If the heroes have an ambush in their future, you can have a brief vignette of a group of assassins gearing up for a the trap they are setting, unbeknownst to the players that their party of heroes are the targets.
Using the foreshadowing technique, you can give the players a glimpse into the future of their world, should they have failed their quest. This is best used to boost player enthusiasm and to emphasize how dire the situation has become.
Clarify or Alter Plot Points
Vignettes can also be done mid-game. These can happen as flashbacks triggered by magic relics or spells.
The true nature of a double agent is revealed when the players go through a vignette scene of the agent’s memory in which she is plotting a massive triple-cross with another relevant ally of the party. In this case, it’s the characters themselves, rather than the players, who are in the vignette scene. We have to go deeper!
Alternatively, vignettes can be used to alter a story point that was revealed earlier in the game. Sometimes, there will be events or decisions that will detrimentally affect how the DM can progress with the story. Vignette scenes can be very convincing in changing the story that the players thought they understood.
The biggest challenge in using vignettes is the inevitable meta-knowledge that they give to players. In general, meta-gaming is frowned upon, and vignette scenes are guaranteed to give players knowledge and insight that their characters don’t have.
This can be a problem for anyone who has a player incapable or unwilling to separate in-game knowledge with out-of-game knowledge. They may try to use the lore and knowledge gained from a vignette scene with their character. This is a player issue, though, not an issue with vignettes themselves.
The key is to use these vignettes to get players more engaged in the story of the game. Engagement and enthusiasm are more important than worrying about what their characters may or may not glean from a vignette scene.
Have you ever used vignettes in your games? How did they work out? We want to hear your stories in the comments, and we’ll post the best of the best on our Twitter and Facebook pages.