Build Scenes, Not Encounters

Build Scenes, Not Encounters

For a better story-driven experience, structure your tabletop RPG adventure using scenes rather than encounters as your building blocks.

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I have... mixed opinions. I tend to think that the skill of DMing tends to be in the ability to balance the combat, puzzles, and story together. The "storytelling" style your describing works well when your dealing with things online in relatively slow moving games via E-mail and such where doing everything you might at a tabletop would render things virtually unplayable. In a live session though the big problem I've always run into within the whole concept of "scenes" (which some adventures are even written with) is that they can remove a lot of exploration, and also tend to be rather limiting since PCs aren't always going to be doing the predictable which can make setting them up the way you want difficult and some of them that seem cool don't work unless approached exactly the right way. Starting an adventure or campaign is the easiest encounter or scene to run because you can decide where the PCs start. However in a scene based game where the PCs are moving from scene to scene let's say you have a scene based on the idea that the PCs are going to be taking a forest path from point A to point B, and what's more things that happen or can be obtained in that scene are mandatory to the rest of the adventure. What happens if the PCs decided specifically no to follow the forest path and instead cast flight spells and invisibility and just fly over the forest? Or decide to do something like use "Plant Door" spells to move through the area. Especially as the PCs become more powerful and have more options (nobody stays poor and reckless forever) it becomes far more difficult to set a scene progression... unless of course you want to railroad them, or force them to comply with your intent.... at which point why bother playing? Nobody wants to deal
with that.

Perhaps I misunderstand what your saying though, it just sounds like some rather bad GMing advice I've heard in the past. Although admittedly things like that can vary from system to system. In certain horror games for example the PCs ate intentionally so humble in power level (ie ordinary humans without spells and such) they become much easier to predict, as exploring a haunted house for example there can only do so many things if they hear a noise or whatever. In an average CoC game you don't need to worry about some dude deciding to say approach the area by going into the basement with intangibility and then rising through the floor where he heard the noise. :)

Trying to be descriptive and do a good job with it is just generally good advice however. The trick is that you need to be able to keep both the "role playing" and "game" aspects together. Basically it defeats the purpose if the PCs just play their roles like actors in scenes you have made up, just as it sort of defeats the purpose if all the PCs do is hack at things and throw numbers around and the who, what, or why never seem to really come up.

I like running off kilter games, and for me part of the fun of being a GM is to do things like run stuff like "Horror/Super Hero" crossovers where I'll say use pulp super hero rules to run a more action oriented CoC game
or whatever. It wouldn't be as much fun though if I could actually predict everything that was going to happen, having to say Ad-Lib when "the human ghost" pops up on the cultists hiding from the PCs in the house and getting ready to ambush them and ambushed them instead can be part of the amusement factor. :)

That said I have seen an increasing number of RPGs developed around similar principles to what your talking about. "Dungeon World" for example tends to be fairly concept based all around both in terms of the PCs and their capabilities and it's take on how to run adventures and encounters.

Therumancer:
*snip*

I suppose I should have expanded on the "The details are left vague enough for ample improvisation" part. In my games, I've omitted scenes entirely based on decisions made by players, and sometimes I've simply re-arranged the order in which scenes occur. Sometimes new scenes come up based on the context of what's going on, or a given scene takes a different direction than planned. Whether you pre-script a scene or improvise one entirely, it's simply about ensuring that this distinct portion of the narrative will serve some purpose to the bigger picture beyond, "you get XP and loot." (But again -- this is if you want to run a more story-focused game.)

Many of the scenes in Shadows of Esteren provide little more than 50 words of description - truly bare bones and only providing tentpoles. What happens in the scene doesn't matter, so long as the scene's purpose is filled -- how that purpose is filled will be determined based on actions. I've seen almost no word-for-word dialogue to quote to players, so ad-lib'ing is the name of the game.

So... they're paying you to advertise their game, right? I'm interpreting that correctly?

I mean, nothing wrong with that, I know y'all have bills to pay, but when you talk about story-driven tabletop versus encounter-driven and you go with a random 1% market share game instead of the 25% market share game that's called its GMs 'storytellers' since 1991 and actually awards XP based on story participation and roleplay, it sort of throws up the stealth marketing flag pretty hard.

Is there some sort of tag or indicator on that which I'm just missing?

Jim_Callahan:
So... they're paying you to advertise their game, right? I'm interpreting that correctly?

I mean, nothing wrong with that, I know y'all have bills to pay, but when you talk about story-driven tabletop versus encounter-driven and you go with a random 1% market share game instead of the 25% market share game that's called its GMs 'storytellers' since 1991 and actually awards XP based on story participation and roleplay, it sort of throws up the stealth marketing flag pretty hard.

Is there some sort of tag or indicator on that which I'm just missing?

The Escapist clearly marks promotional content as far as I've seen, so I guess the author simply prefers SoE over World of Darkness. In my honest opinion, World of Darkness has always been better at naming itself story-driven than actually being so. The God-Machine rules updates were a massive step in the right direction, but they are still not integrated with most of the sourcebooks. I would rather go for something more free-form or Apocalypse World/Dungeon World.

Most of my games are a cross between scene-driven roleplay and traditional dungeon hacks. Actually almost any encounter (aside from most undead and animal or mindless creature encounters) can be a spot for roleplaying rather than fighting. Or roleplaying that leads to fighting...
Either way I try to emphasize that the game isn't just about rolling dice and ticking damage, its also about telling a story. The better the players attempt to roleplay their characters, the better the story but you are right. A good DM (or whatever) must be willing to write scenes as well as encounters.

Johkmil:

Jim_Callahan:
So... they're paying you to advertise their game, right? I'm interpreting that correctly?

I mean, nothing wrong with that, I know y'all have bills to pay, but when you talk about story-driven tabletop versus encounter-driven and you go with a random 1% market share game instead of the 25% market share game that's called its GMs 'storytellers' since 1991 and actually awards XP based on story participation and roleplay, it sort of throws up the stealth marketing flag pretty hard.

Is there some sort of tag or indicator on that which I'm just missing?

The Escapist clearly marks promotional content as far as I've seen, so I guess the author simply prefers SoE over World of Darkness. In my honest opinion, World of Darkness has always been better at naming itself story-driven than actually being so. The God-Machine rules updates were a massive step in the right direction, but they are still not integrated with most of the sourcebooks. I would rather go for something more free-form or Apocalypse World/Dungeon World.

Yeah, I really hope that after Tito's piece only a few days ago that they are still mindful of the guidelines for reporting payment. And I'm with Johkmil- WoD is not inherently a great system for telling stories. It's passable, but even D&D now offers xp rewards and "inspiration die" for roleplaying.

I disagree that encounters are an inferior way to structure a story. Although different encounters (and the same encounters in different editions) have different impacts on each other, they are not in a vacuum. Each encounter is supposed to be a scene, a high point where you zoom in on the action rather than handwaving (like travel).

Jim_Callahan:
So... they're paying you to advertise their game, right? I'm interpreting that correctly?

I mean, nothing wrong with that, I know y'all have bills to pay, but when you talk about story-driven tabletop versus encounter-driven and you go with a random 1% market share game instead of the 25% market share game that's called its GMs 'storytellers' since 1991 and actually awards XP based on story participation and roleplay, it sort of throws up the stealth marketing flag pretty hard.

Is there some sort of tag or indicator on that which I'm just missing?

I am unaware of any agreement that can be considered "paying you to advertise their game" between the game makers and The Escapist/Defy Media, nor does there exist any such agreement between the game makers and myself, the article author.

I received no instructions or requests from The Escapist/Defy Media/the game makers/the voices in my head to include mention of SoE in this article. I could have written the article without referencing the game at all, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

I am, however, working on an upcoming review of SoE, which is why I'm in the thick of the content presently and have it on my mind. Disclosure: they sent us review copies of the rulebooks. But again, there is no agreement - as far as I'm aware - of any form of exchange of coverage for dollars, gold coins, or nachos.

Why not talk about WoD? Because I am not intimately familiar with that system. It has been pointed out that I mention D&D in just about every tabletop article I write - that's because 99% of my 15+ years of tabletop experience consists of running just about every edition of D&D and various d20 system spinoffs. These are the systems that my groups have wanted to play.

Also note that I mention that SoE does not include any special rules for story and explain - with clear examples - how you can adopt the same framework in any other game system - ie, without purchasing SoE.

Jim_Callahan:
-snip-

This is an opinion piece. The author can mention anything their heart desires so long it helps to express their opinion. This isn't a news article. If you seriously see the mere mention of a game system as a shameless plug, just wow. Stop looking for shadowy cabals in the real world and remember that they can only happen in the game world- and those cultist need to die!

In reference to the article. I thought it was a little short but overall solid topic choice. I've been passing these pieces to my DM as we're about to start Rise of the Runelords and it's always good to get a fresh take. I've always been a fan of heavier story. I love combat, but one of things that frustrated the hell out of me in past campaigns (as a player) was when the Dew-chugging ADD members of our party would "ruin" a puzzle room by just killing everything or adopting a "smashface" attitude. I'm not saying ever room or every scenario needs to be solved with our brains but would it kill us to at least try one? Even if that means we tell our more immature party members to shut up and colour while the grown ups figure it out, it would be a welcome change. Some of us picked up Thassalonian for a reason! /rant

Encounters are those random battles in Final Fantasy games: not very filling, but they pass the time and the characters advance. The scenes or scenarios in the game are like the scripted cut scenes that lead to a boss battle or major event. You tend to remember those.

It's sort of fascinating how this is going in a rather different direction to Alexander Macris's old "Check for Traps" series. He was a pretty big opponent of the whole "planning a story" idea.

Anyway, as a World of Darkness player (Mummy: The Curse is just incredible), I'm rather familiar with the concept in this article. Personally though, I tend to run my games more as sandboxes than stories, despite the system. Once I start trying to nail down a proper story, I lose out on all the incredible player-driven stuff that happens organically. If your players are in the right frame of mind, all of that juicy character development tends to unfold pretty naturally.

i am an avid player of white wolf's classic world of darkness games (Hunter: The Reckoning, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Vampire: The Masquarade, etc) and they are more story focused games. The rules tend to be very open ended, and the books will say if there is a conflict, story trumps rules, the rules should serve the story, etc.

In my one D&D game, my players currently are on a mission to take the elemental artifacts they acquired in the previous act to the corresponding elemental planes and reactivate the elemental foundations. Their purpose in doing so is to keep a a powerful tower artifact out of the hands of the Zhentarrim, would be able to conquer all of Faerun with the tower under their control. They have already completed the elemental plane of fire, and just recently activated the water foundation, which leaves air and earth. So with the information given, how might I go about composing those two foundation missions as scenes rather than a series of encounters with the plane's denizens?

I think it might be good when I do encounters to try to build more tailored encounters, designed with my characters various strengths in mind. One trouble I run into with that though, is I have a very mixed group. I rarely have the exact same group two or more consecutive sessions. So I tend to use set pieces and set encounters, where if they go here, they will meet this or that creature, regardless or how well or ill suited they may be to deal with it.

 

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