Melodramatic Story Structure

These rules extend the Melodramatic Mutants and Masterminds rules to support player-driven subplots. The Melodramatic rules put more structure around an adventure's story. This structure provides a framework to give players more control over what happens to their heroes. This structure delineates which elements of the story are the responsibilities of the GM and which belong to the players.

Plots and Scenes

The Melodramatic rules divide activity in the story into the main plot and subplots. Time in the story is divided up into scenes. Different types of scenes deal with different aspects of the plot.

Main Plot and Subplots

The main plot is the focus of an adventure and is the responsibility of the GM. The main plot should involve all the heroes. The main plot should be resolved in a single adventure, which could span more than one game session. Longer stories should be broken up into a series of adventures, with the main plot of one adventure leading to the main plot of the next adventure.

Subplots focus on individual heroes and are largely the responsibility of the players. Each subplot should revolve around some complication in the hero's life. Possible complications are discussed on page 122 of the original M&M rules. Players can choose complications when they create their hero or invent new complications as the game progresses.

Subplots often span multiple adventures. Some subplots resolve when the hero permanently overcomes one of his personal problems. Other subplots are fundamental to the character and never really end. If a subplot ends, the player can choose new complications that enter the hero's life for future subplots.

Types of Scenes

The Melodramatic rules use three kinds of scenes:

  • Open scenes are transitional scenes not focusing on a specific plotline.
  • Action scenes generally focus on multiple heroes and advancing the main plot.
  • Personal scenes focus on individual heroes and their subplots.

Each type of scene focuses on different plotlines in the story, giving each time to develop. The scene structure ensures that each player has roughly the same amount of "screen time" and a chance to shine. Both action scenes and personal scenes involve some kind of confrontation. This confrontation could literally be a fight, or it could be some kind of physical, mental or emotional challenge.

Open Scenes

Open scenes are unstructured. Open scenes let players play their heroes in some innocent situation and explore their personalities in a light-hearted setting. For example, the heroes could be hanging out at their base or going to a party. There are no special rules for open scenes. Given how dangerous and dramatic most heroes' lives are, an open scene can easily shift into an action or personal scene.

Action Scenes

Action scenes are "normal" role-playing. The group of heroes works together towards some goal, such as investigating the villain's schemes or winning a fight. The GM calls for checks for character actions and checks, resolving them as usual. Action scenes focus on the main plot introduced by the GM. The GM decides what action scenes are about, where they take place and who is present.

Action scenes should involve most if not all of the heroes. Scenes involving individual heroes should be handled as personal scenes.

Personal Scenes

Personal scenes spotlight a single hero. These scenes generally focus on some complication in the hero's life. This lets the player earn bonus cards for the hero's troubles. Personal scenes use a simplified resolution mechanic. Most personal scenes conclude with single confrontation and a single check at the end of the scene.

The GM should rotate among players, giving each a chance to have her own personal scene. Unlike action scenes, the player gets to decide what her personal scene will be about. This gives the player more input into the story and lets the player decide which subplots she wants to focus on.

Playing Personal Scenes

Personal scenes follow these stages:

  • Setting the scene: The player chooses the focus for the scene, generally some complication in the hero's life.
  • Choosing supporting cast: Other players may take on supporting roles in the scene.
  • Playing the scene: The players role-play the scene until they reach some final confrontation.
  • The confrontation: The GM challenges the player to determine the outcome of the scene.
  • Bonus Card Awards: The player may gains bonus cards depending on how the scene turns out.

Setting the Scene

When it is a player's turn to have a personal scene, the player gets to decide what the scene is about. Most personal scenes are based on some kind complication in the hero's life. This could be an existing complication defined in the hero's background or a new complication invented for the scene. If the player is stuck for ideas, the GM can make suggestions, but ultimately it is the player's decision.

When a player chooses the complication for the scene, she decides what the scene will be about in general terms but not how the scene will end. For example, a player could choose to have a scene exploring her hero's relationship with her Aunt Maisy. She can be more specific, deciding that the scene will be about trying to convince her Aunt Maisy to move into a nursing home. A player could not decide whether her hero will be successful. That has to be decided during the course of the scene.

Supporting Cast

When setting a scene, you must also decide what other characters are present as supporting cast. In the above example, Aunt Maisy could be considered a supporting cast. To keep as many players involved in the game as possible, you should let other players take the roles of the supporting cast instead of the GM. Supporting cast are essentially NPCs who are controlled temporarily by another player.

When you take on a supporting role, understand that the scene still belongs to the hero. The supporting cast is a foil for the hero, to give the hero's player a chance to develop her own subplots. This does not mean that the supporting cast should not have goals of their own, but those goals should in some way reflect on the hero's life and choices.

If you are not sure how to play a supporting cast character, ask for guidance from the other players and the GM. Keep the focus of this scene in mind and drive the story in that direction. In most cases, the supporting cast doesn't need detailed traits. If you need trait values for a supporting character, use the most appropriate character archetype from Chapter 11 of the M&M rules.

Playing the Scene

Once the scene is set, the focus is chosen and the roles are assigned, the players should role-play the scene. This part of the scene is a bit like improvisational theater, as the players ad-lib the dialog and action for the scene. The GM can call for checks if necessary, but mostly the players should simply describe the action in the scene without playing cards or rolling dice.

The goal of the scene is to reach some kind of confrontation that allows the scene to resolve. The confrontation may be decided in advance when the player chooses the focus for the scene or it may evolve as the scene progresses. You may find that when you reach the end of the scene, the central confrontation is different from what you expected.

Even if other players are playing the supporting cast, it is always the GM's responsibility to identify and resolve the final confrontation. If the scene is floundering, the GM can intervene and suggest a way to move the scene toward resolution. The GM's role in a personal scene resembles that of a director. The players act out the roles in the scene, but it is the GM's job to make sure the scene comes to an interesting conclusion.

Resolving the Confrontation

Every personal scene ends in a confrontation. This can be a conflict between the hero and the supporting cast. Alternately, the hero and the supporting cast could be working together against a common problem. Either way, the GM decides what the confrontation should be about, bearing in mind the scene's focus and the players' actions in the scene.

The player and the GM suggest possible outcomes for the scene. First, the player states what she wants to happen if she wins the scene. Then the GM counters with the result if the player loses. The player and the GM each play a card. Whoever has the highest card value "wins" the scene, and their stated outcome is what actually happens. If the player loses, she gets to take the GM's card as a bonus card. This takes away of the sting of defeat and gives the hero hope that things can get better in the future.

Bonus Card Awards

If the player "wins" a personal scene, she gets to redraw the card used, as usual. Her hand size does not go up. If the player "loses", she gets the GM's card as a bonus card. The player also takes back the card she played, and the player's hand size goes up by one. This rewards the player for letting the hero suffer in the story. Win or lose, the GM draws to replace the card he played.

There is nothing wrong with deliberately choosing to "lose" the confrontation. You may think your opponent's result will be more interesting for the story or you may just want to earn a bonus card. In many superhero stories, a character's triumphant heroic life is contrasted with a terrible personal life. These rules model that style of superhero story.

Any player that who took on a supporting role in the scene is also rewarded with an extra bonus card, taken at random from the deck.

Example Personal Scene

The player Amy has a personal scene for her superhero Dawnstar. The GM, Chester, prompts her to choose a focus for the scene. Another player, Bob, also makes suggestions and has the opportunity to play the supporting cast.

Setting the Scene

Chester: OK Amy, what do you want your personal scene to be about?

Amy: I don't know. How am I supposed to decide?

Chester: Well, it's easiest to make the scene about some complication in your hero's life. You wrote down on your character sheet that you live with your elderly Aunt Maisy. Maybe you could make the scene about that.

Bob: Yeah, Aunt Maisy could find out Donna is really Dawnstar. After all, Donna is away from home so much these days being a superhero.

Amy: Ugh, that is a problem, isn't it? If Maisy lives with Donna, it's only a matter of time before she figures things out. Maybe Donna can't keep taking care of Maisy. Maybe Donna should put Maisy in a nursing home.

Bob: A nursing home? Man, that's harsh.

Chester: Actually, that sounds good to me. How about a scene where Donna tries to convince Aunt Maisy to go into a nursing home?

Amy: That works for me.

Chester: OK Amy, where does the scene start?

Amy: Hmm. Donna is coming home for work. She is exhausted from staying up all night chasing bad guys. She is worried she is not spending enough time with Aunt Maisy. When she gets home, Aunt Maisy has done something stupid to annoy Donna and that starts the whole argument.

The Supporting Cast

Bob: Can I play Aunt Maisy?

Amy: Sure. She's old a bit senile. She's my mom's sister and is always talking about how great she was and how much better it was when my mom was alive.

Bob: What if Maisy tried to cook dinner and made a huge mess in the kitchen and burnt all the food?

Amy: I can work with that.

Playing the Scene

Chester: OK, you have everything set up. Amy, Donna is coming through the door and smells something burning in the kitchen.

Amy: Donna sniffs, drops her briefcase and runs into the kitchen. "Maisy, what on earth are you doing?"

Bob: [In a creaky old voice] "Oh Donnie, dear, I just whipped a little something for dinner." You see Maisy stirring a pot of black sludge and there are dirty dishes and bits of food and flour all over the kitchen counters.

Amy: [Rolling her eyes] "Oh god, Maisy, not again. How many times have I told you to stay out of the kitchen?"

Bob: "But Donnie, dear, I thought a home cooked meal might be nice for once. I get so tired of eating take out all the time."

Amy: "Never mind, Maisy. I have to clean this up. Go into the living room while I take care of this."

Bob: [Muttering] "You never let me help."

Amy: OK, this is the last straw. After Donna finishes cleaning, she is going to have a talk with Maisy.

Bob: OK. Maisy is in the living room watching her soaps.

Amy: [Taking a deep breath] "Aunt Maisy, there's something I need to talk to you about."

Bob: [With the creaky voice again] "Yes, Donnie dear?"

Amy: [Struggling] "Listen, I've been working longer at work lately, it is getting hard for me to find the time I need to care for you."

Bob: "What do you mean dear? It is about my cooking? I swear your stove is broken. It is so much hotter than it is supposed to be, that's why I burned everything."

Amy: "Actually, Maisy, I worry about you spending all you time alone. What if something happens to you while I am out? Don't you get lonely during the day?"

Bob: [Suspiciously] "What you are getting at, dear?"

Amy: "Well, I just think you might be happier someplace where people can take better care of you."

Bob: "What? You want to put me away?"

Amy: "It's not like that, Aunt Maisy. We can find someplace nice for you, with other people your age to spend time with. You don't have to be alone all day."

Bob: "But I've always lived at home! How can you do this to me?"

Resolving the Scene

Chester: OK Amy, it sounds like you've found the confrontation for this scene. How do you want the scene to turn out?

Amy: I just want Aunt Maisy to accept this and go quietly to the home.

Bob: Aunt Maisy is going to pitch a fit!

Chester: That's one way we could go, but that's not how I want the scene to end. [Chester is already forming plans for the villains to kidnap Maisy from the nursing home.] How about this? If I win, Maisy still goes to the home, but she is convinced Donna no longer loves her and just wants to get rid of her.

Bob: Ouch!

Amy: That's mean! That's not what I wanted at all!

Chester: [Smiling] Hey, I have to keep things interesting. Pick your card.

[Amy is conflicted. She really wants to earn a bonus card, but she doesn't want Maisy to hate her hero. She decides to hedge her bets and plays an 8. That way, if she loses, she at least gets a good card.]

[Chester likes this plot twist. He decides this is worth using a high card and plays a Jack.]

[Both of them reveal their cards.]

Chester: A Jack. I win. Bob, you want to finish things up?

Bob: Sure. Maisy hobbles off to her room. "You hate me! You would never have done this if your mother were still alive!" Maisy slams her door.

Amy: Can I go after her?

Chester: You lost the scene, so that's the end of it for now.

Amy: [Grumpily] Great. I guess Donna sits in the living room looking dejected. Maisy hates her now.

Chester: Don't worry. It's not the end of the story. You can fix things later.

Bonus Cards Awards

Chester: Here is a consolation prize. You get to keep my Jack.

Amy: Thanks. [Amy takes the GM's Jack and her own 8 into her hand. Her hand size goes up by one.]

Chester: Bob, you get a bonus card for your supporting role.

Bob: Cool. [Bob draws a bonus card from the deck. His hand size goes up by one.]

[Chester draws a card to replace the one he played from the deck. His hand size remains the same.]

Personal Scene Variations

The main point of personal scenes is to give each player a turn in the spotlight and a chance to advance her hero's subplots. Other players stay engaged by taking on the role of the supporting cast. It is also an opportunity for players to earn bonus cards for use later in the story.

Personal scenes do not always follow this pattern, however. This section discusses some variations on personal scenes.

Choosing the Right Focus

The player's choice of focus for a personal scene gives him the power to decide the direction of the story, at least with regard to his heroes' subplots. Choosing a good focus is critical to having a good personal scene. The focus must be clear enough to give direction to players of the supporting cast without actually dictating the outcome.

If you are new to this style of play, you may have trouble deciding on a good focus. The GM and other players can offer suggestions. You can use existing character background and complications as ideas for the scene's focus. You can invent new complications, possibly related into the main plotline. Ultimately, the player always decides what personal scenes are about, though the GM can veto ridiculous ideas.

It is often best to focus on the same problem for several of a hero's personal scenes. This lets you develop that specific subplot and give it the opportunity to reach some kind of interesting climax.

Plot-Focused Personal scenes

A focus on personal problems caters to a particular style of role-playing, namely players that enjoy a lot of drama in their character's lives. Some players are more action-oriented and prefer focus on the main plotline, even in their personal scenes. There is nothing wrong with this. The primary function of personal scenes is to give each hero a turn in the spotlight and if a player prefers to focus on the main plotline instead of a subplot, that is fine.

You can handle a personal scene focusing on the main plot in two ways:

  • Invent a complication related to the main plot and treat it as a normal personal scene.
  • Play the scene as an action scene with standard character actions and trait checks.

If a player chooses the second option, bear two things in mind. First, the player is giving up the chance to earn bonus cards and is missing out some character development for his hero. Second, the hero should not be allowed to "solve" the main plotline on his own. Any climax of the main plot should involve all the heroes. Despite these limitations, some players may prefer this to an improvised personal scene.

Handling the Supporting Cast

The supporting cast is another important feature of personal scenes. Having supporting cast allows other players to participate in the scene. Maximizing player participation lets you to have many personal scenes in the game without having a lot of bored players.

Not every character is suitable as a supporting cast, however. In general, the GM should play any villains or bad guys, to keeps those characters threatening and dangerous. The GM should also play minor walk-on characters that only appear briefly or don't do anything important. It isn't much fun for a player to play a store clerk who is a background character with only a line or two of dialog.

If you have reoccurring supporting characters, you may want to give that character to the same player whenever he appears. This helps establish a consistent personality for that character. If that player cannot control that character for some reason, either because she is absent for that session or because her hero also appears in the scene, it may be better to let the GM control the character for that scene rather than giving it to a different player.

Characters with secrets are also hard to play as a supporting character. The player controlling the character may not be able to judge when it is appropriate to reveal the secret. This is especially true if the secret affects the group and is something that the controlling player shouldn't know. This problem makes it hard role-play an investigation as part of a personal scene.

One way to handle secrets is to have a supporting character that has access to secret materials without knowing the secret itself. For example, the secret could be in documents locked in a brief case and the scene could be about convincing or tricking a supporting character into giving access to the briefcase. If the secret is revealed, the GM can explain the secret without ruining the surprise for the other players.

Personal Scenes with Multiple Heroes

Most personal scenes focus on a single hero, but it is possible to have a personal scene with more than one hero present. There are two ways you can handle this.

First, the second hero could act in the role of a supporting cast. The focus of the scene is still on the main hero's complications and subplots. If the hero Blue Static had a crush on the heroine Dawnstar, you could have a personal scene exploring that crush, but it would be Blue Static's scene and the confrontation would still be resolved between Blue Static's player and the GM. You should give the player of the supporting hero more of a say in how the scene resolves, however.

Second, you may have a joint personal scene where two heroes explore related complications at the same time. For example, two heroes could find themselves bidding on the same business contract in their secret identities. They both can't win the contract.

At face value, it may appear that the heroes in a joint personal scene are opposed to each other, but all personal scenes are resolved between the player and the GM, never hero against hero. The final confrontation should be about making the situation better or worse for each hero individually. For example, one hero could win the contract but be forced to work overtime to complete it. The other could lose the contract but gain some important personal contact. To avoid contradictions, resolve each hero's confrontation separately.

Choosing the Right Confrontation

The players can guide the scene in the direction of a confrontation, but the final confrontation is always in the hand of the GM. Choosing the right confrontation requires some care. The GM should choose a confrontation where either a positive or negative result is interesting and leads to future stories.

From the earlier example, Aunt Maisy going to a nursing home is an interesting outcome because it keeps the supporting character in the story but puts her away from her niece's protection. Having Aunt Maisy suddenly drop dead of a heart attack isn't as interesting or believable without a lot of prior setup hinting at the aunt's frailty and illness.

When choosing outcomes for the confrontation, the GM wants something that will be unpleasant for the hero, but not so unpleasant that the player will refuse to accept it. Early in the subplot the consequences for failure should be relatively minor. As a subplot goes on, the outcomes can get more serious.

The same logic applies to the player's choice of outcome. The player should choose an outcome that makes things better for the hero without necessarily ending the subplot. If the hero were on a first date, it would be better for it to end with a kiss instead of love at first sight and a marriage proposal. It is more interesting to let things build slowly, making subplot's eventual resolution more exciting.

Some complications never really resolve, but others may build for a while and come to some kind of final conclusion. When the player feels that a particular subplot has gone on long enough, she can ask that a personal scene resolve that subplot. The conclusion of the scene should bring the subplot to some kind of permanent end. The hero wins her sweetheart's hand in marriage or he decides that he has to leave her. The ailing aunt finally passes away or recovers fully.

Complications and the Main Plot

The players get to choose what complications and personal problems their heroes endure, but the GM is free to incorporate those complications into the main story. If the hero has loved one, that character is threatened by the villains or is tricked into helping some nefarious plot. If the hero has an alcohol problem, that problem let's the villain escape or cause the hero to miss some important clue. Any complication introduced by the player could become part of the main plotline as well.

This is the real reason why the GM always chooses the final confrontation for a personal scene. It lets the GM frame the confrontation in the context of the larger story and tie things together. Not every subplot has to fit in but when they do, it makes the story more interesting and compelling.

Scene Pacing

Ideally, your game should have an even mix of action scenes and personal scenes. You need a good balance between villain-pounding action and character development for the heroes. You should devote about same amount of time in action vs. personal scenes, but since action scenes tend to take longer, they will probably be fewer in number.

Open scenes: Most of the excitement will be in the action and personal scenes, but that doesn't mean open scenes should be avoided. Sometimes the story needs some "downtime" and relative calm, and the players need time to relax or plan. You will probably have more open scenes towards the beginning of the adventure rather than the end.

Early personal scenes: Personal scenes are designed to let you develop the heroes as characters in a controlled way. Early personal scenes may be short, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. You just need enough time to introduce the characters and their problem, and then bring it to some minor crisis. Later personal scenes in the same subplot can be longer, but shouldn't take up long periods of game play. Many short personal scenes spread over several game sessions are better than a few long scenes.

Allotting scenes among players: Ideally, each player should have the same number of personal scenes. If your game sessions are short, this may not be possible to do in a single session. If players without personal scenes play supporting cast in other player's scenes, they will be able to earn about the same number of bonus cards. This lets you spread personal scenes over multiple game sessions without disadvantaging the players whose scenes come later in the story.

Action scenes: Action scenes and the main plot should involve multiple heroes and players. If your action scenes only involve a few heroes, you should consider reworking the main plot to interest more of your players. You should warn the players when you reach the climactic action scene of an adventure. Players usually prefer to save their bonus cards until they really need them. The players need to know when they are reaching the climax so they can spend their unused bonus cards.

Post-Climax Personal Scenes: If you want to bring heroic subplots to some kind of conclusion, the GM can allow a few personal scenes after an adventure's climax. Since the players no longer need to earn bonus cards, they will be more inclined to play high cards at the end of the personal scene for a happy end to a subplot. If, however, you want subplots to continue, you can defer more personal scenes to the next adventure.

Planned vs. spontaneous stories: Different GM's have different play styles. Some GM's are more comfortable with inventing plots on the fly, while others prefer to plan out a story in advance. These rules lend themselves more towards spontaneous stories. Action scenes are easier to preplan than personal scenes. If the GM wants more time to plan for complications, he can ask the players to decide in advance what complications they want to appear in the next adventure. You may find that personal scenes do not require as much advanced planning, though, because the players do much of the work instead of the GM.

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