Scenes are the building blocks of adventures. Scenes are exercises in set design, casting, and props. The act of assembling scenes together allows the Games Master to create something for the Players to enjoy at the gaming table.
This week, we look at scenes, and how to use (and reuse) them creatively to provide endless variety in your gaming sessions.
I'll be referring to Plot Points Publishing's book, Encounter Theory, and also to Mutant Chiron Games' Republic. There are links to these titles at the bottom of the post.
The Purpose of Scenes
The point of scenes is to stage events which move the adventure forwards. Encounter Theory points out that scenes serve two basic purposes: the characters interact with the setting in some way (e.g. the environment, an object, a door), or they interact with a being in some way (any type of non-player character).
Any other type of scene where the characters are interacting with neither the setting nor other beings in any way (such as a narrative scene where the Games Master is just describing something going on, and the characters are spectating), is a literally useless waste of time, and it can be dropped without it affecting the course of the adventure in any form.
As Encounter Theory puts it,
Everything is an interaction with the setting, or an interaction with another character ... the encounter, the unit of game during which these interactions occur, should be the centre of the adventure-designer's design.
Where Design Meets Play
Encounters are where design meets play. Every encounter - every scene - presents an opportunity for the Adventurers to do something meaningful, either to advance their own stories or to advance the plot of the current adventure.
Encounter Theory presents four Principles of Encounter Design: "Face The Player And Free The Player," "Present Problems, Not Solutions," "Use The Dungeon As Adventure Structure", and "Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description".
Face The Player And Free The Player
The Players are the audience for this medium. Scenes should have something for the Players to give their Adventurers to do. Whether it be negotiating with a stranger to persuade them to enter an alliance or provide truthful intel; solving a puzzle lock; avoiding a trap; fighting a dagger-wielding foe; or summoning an allied spirit; each scene is about offering the Players something to satisfy them.
You must only put something into the adventure that the Adventurers can discover, bump into, fight, and so on. If the scene is anything like Yaskoydray's legendary Eternal Monologue scene from the Classic Traveller scenario Secret of The Ancients, where the First Ancient turns up and monologues at the Travellers ... you should replace the scene with something else, such as the Travellers discovering something like stone slabs which allow the Travellers the chance to discover the story for themselves.
Present Problems, Not Solutions
Conflicts in a scene, whether they are with the setting or with encountered beings, should give the Adventurers situations which they can solve, using the skills and other resources they have to hand. Let the Players come up with their solutions, and run with them. An example: On their way through a forest road on horseback, escorting a wagon pulled by a mule, the Adventurers encounter a gang of thieves, who've felled a tree across the road. They defeat the rabble easily, but how to move the tree? It's up to the Players to realise that they all have Brawn skill, and they also have a very strong mule ...
Oh ... the problems should be soluble. Do not create a Tomb of Horrors, or Kobayashi Maru. Your goal, as Games Master, is to enable the Players by enabling the Adventurers. It used to be the custom for Games Masters, or rather Dungeon Masters, to be fiendish, and present the Players with problems designed to be impossible to solve. That is not the custom now. Your job is to give the Players a great, and memorable, game, not cheat them with a total party kill out of nowhere, or bore them to tears with a twenty minute Yaskoydray monologue.
Use The Dungeon As Adventure Structure
I have a personal dislike of the word dungeon to describe the background of a setting. There are so many different kinds of sets you can use - tombs, crypts, halls, loggias, tunnels, T-junctions, stairways, bridges, piazzas, streets, parks, shorelines, rooftops, wood-bordered gardens, library reading rooms, laboratories with a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling ...
However, this principle is sound. The things and beings available in the scene should be there for the Adventurers to enjoy interacting with. How they interact is not entirely up to the Games Master. They could be meeting by moonlight, in a semi-secluded, partially-enclosed, corner of the garden bounded by a clematis-strewn trellis curving overhead, and an open space with a bench ... but what the Adventurers do when the Non-Player Character shows up is up to the Players, as long as it is fun.
The purpose of the scene is to interact with the Adventurers, and have them interact with the scene / set / props / beings. A scene which just has three non-player characters talking with one another is probably best cut out and replaced with something where the focus is on the Adventurers instead.
Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description
Keep your descriptions to the point. Also, keep the descriptions limited to the things, backgrounds, props, and beings with which the Adventurers can interact. If they can't chat with the guards, or try the door to see if it locked, or draw over the sleeping guard's face with a Sharpie, probably leave those out.
This goes for anything which requires there to be a prop, or a specific skill, or a particular spell or magic item, or advanced tool. If you need it to solve the problem, or if it's going to cause a problem in the adventure, introduce it somewhere else or make sure to include it in the scene's description.
Chekov's Gun is a thing for a reason.
A good way to think of how to describe the elements of scenes is to use the terms of the theatre - sets, props, and actors.
The sets are the places where the action happens, whether the action is a negotiation, or introducing a new element or being, or a straightforward combat. The nature of the set is important: a steel-walled enclosed room filling with water is going to involve a lot more problem solving and maybe checks of Brawn, Endurance, Swim, Engineering, Perception, or Mechanisms (and maybe even Luck Points spent) and not so much Customs or Seduction checks. And a scene set in an oak-panelled gentlemen's club, full of very old, very rich men sitting in upholstered armchairs is much more likely to involve quiet negotiations (Influence checks, not Oratory or, Gods forbid, Sing).
The props are important tools and resources which the Adventurers can bring into play. A book of magic spells must have the correct spell for the Adventurers to chant out loud; a door lock must be opened with an actual key, or failing that an Adventurer's lockpick set. If an adventure involved possessing, say, a magic wand, then the Adventurer wielding that magic wand must get to use it at some time during the adventure - and it must work: say, a Wand of Flesh to Stone with a little carving of Medusa's head at the tip should work perfectly against the monstrous foe at the end of the adventure, even if it does expend all its remaining charges and break up into dust after one last discharge. The point being, the tool is there to facilitate the Adventurer's action.
These are the beings (people, non-human people, animals, AI, androids, holograms, spirits) with whom the Adventurers must interact. If there is a guard, she must challenge the Adventurer, to allow the Adventurer to use their Influence, or Insight, or Acting / Disguise, or magic, or Seduction checks.
Again, bring in actors to allow the Adventurers someone to interact with in some way. Do not bring in actors with whom the Adventurers cannot interact; and don't leave out actors which must specifically be there for the Adventurers to interact with, such as, oh, using Influence on the guard (and possibly a hefty bribe) to get her to unlock the exit to allow the Adventurers through. In order to open the door, either the team's lockpick must have their lockpicking kit, or the guard with the key must be there.
Putting Scenes Together
What structure do you use for your scenes? This is a matter of personal taste. Games Masters have struggled with this since the first adventure modules sprang into being. Unlike writing or music, game scenes don't have to follow a linear path. As long as they do follow some sort of pattern, the Players can make decisions of what their Adventurers do, and create branch points at random linking one another in some weird pattern.
The simplest form of connective tissue - a scenario which goes from Scene 1 to Scenes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ...
Never satisfying, because it just leads the Adventurers down the line from one box to the next, by the nose. Also known as railroading.
Also known as Drunkard's Walk and sandbox, essentially the Players decide what their Adventurers do, and the Games Master makes up stuff on the spot to keep the momentum going.
Named after the Russian nested dolls. Resolving the problem in the outer scenario unlocks the portal to the next tunnel, which unlocks the next, and so on. Each new level unlocks a new surprise, a new secret, a new depth to the story. Like unlocking levels of trance recursively, you just go deeper and deeper.
We've covered improv before. Here, improv is about the Games Master keeping a whole "prop room" and/or "set room" in the background, basically a collection of items and places in a journal, and inserting them with some moderately-tweaked attributes here and there into play. The Adventurers open the double doors of the crypt, possibly smelling fresh air through the keyhole, and find themselves in an open air garden, with a set which looks familiar (corner of the garden, trellis climbing overhead, partial enclosure) but which has been tweaked (no bench in the middle, no clematis) and which contains a prop - a scroll case containing a scroll and a little note, "Cast this spell next time you meet the Duke - he is not who he appears").
Kinds Of Scenes
Scenes, or encounters, are meant to break down the scenario into manageable chunks. Those chunks are there so your Players can run their Adventurers through the game, sampling and enjoying the delights of their game.
Each scene has a point to it, whether it is introducing a new thing, or something the Adventurers do. Modularity is your friend. Reuse and recycle everything.
Start with a planning scene. Let the players make plans and pick a direction for the story. If a story stalls, planning scenes can allow the Players to take stock and regroup.
These kinds of scenes allow the Adventurers to interact with NPCs meaningfully, so the characters can advance their agenda.
Knowledge is power. By learning whatever the can about about their opponents, and developing their understanding of the current issues, the players can make changes in the direction the story takes. Investigation scenes are for learning new things, and exposing secrets.
The Adventurers are up against some sort of immediate conflict, and there is little time to debate when there is something physical to be done, whether it be moving a corpse or trying to turn your opponent into one.
Whoever is opposing the Adventurers' agenda strikes here, requiring the Adventurers to respond to the challenge.
This is an action taken by the Adventurers to get power or influence over something, which then enables you to get what you’re really after.
What political ability a character uses determines how they get their way, but it can also have unintended consequences.
In these scenes at the end, everything comes together.
Scene design and structuring is very much like designing and writing a play. You describe sets, props, and actors. And like a theatrical play, all the words in the world are meaningless unless you get together to make the sets, props, and costumes, and to allow the players to read at least some of the script.
Unlike the theatre, however, the audience and the actors are one and the same. It's like a script - the readthrough is nowhere near as satisfying as the finished performance. And for the Players, that means getting their hands dirty, via their Adventurers putting their lives on the line to make a difference to the world the Players are playing in - which is the world you are running for them.
But if you keep thinking of each encounter, each scene, in terms of the Adventurers doing something in each one, either with whatever they encounter in the scene or with the scene itself, then you'll be able to provide the Players with keenly-remembered, well-structured adventures and stories, even if you are literally throwing the scenarios together on the spot.
Edited by Alex Greene