Planning Your RPG Experiences in Scene Structure
Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to talk about a little thing I learned from my White Wolf days helpful not only in Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying game related endeavors but also in my fiction writing and I’m hoping it helps you too. This is the concept of thinking in scene structure for your RPG experiences.
Framing a scene for your RPG
The word encounter gets tossed around a lot and this can get pretty muddled. Some people use it to refer to combat while others talk about different kinds of encounters. Is a puzzle room with an NPC in it still one encounter or does it become two? Do you plan for them separately? How does this affect the pacing of the game? These are all valid questions each with a lot of answers and every Game Master handles them differently. But buckle up because we’re about to reframe the situation.
In a work of fiction a scene starts because a character wants something. There’s a goal. And a scene ends with the consequences of attempting to accomplish the goal. A scene takes place in a location. A scene has characters in it. So, too, do scenes operate in your tabletop roleplaying games.
When thinking about scenes for your RPG it can be amazingly beneficial to take a piece of paper and write down the following:
Where does the scene take place?
This can have a variety of answers if you want to give your characters options. Deciding where a struggle takes place is an exercise in agency and a bit of a power move so whether or not you let the characters decide where an encounter happens does a lot for their feelings of control over the situation.
Do you want the characters to feel on top? Let them pick their battleground. Want to throw them off? Have an NPC surprise them. Either way consider options for where this scene could take place, what all is there and how these elements affect the rest.
A scene taking place on a dramatic cliff face overlooking the ocean — even in a theater of the mind game — threatens a long fall and a GM can use this through narration to increase the tension for example. Meanwhile rushing to an underground chapel to stop the dark resurrection of a dead prince is going to be more close quarters and not as easy to get out of safely.
What do the characters want?
Along with character motivations what wrenches can a GM throw in the way of them reaching their goals?
Characters have to want something. A scene without a goal meanders. I often hear characters want concrete objectives. This is one place where having the answer helps a GM a lot. Even in those cases where characters get a wild hair to go do something unusual they typically aren’t doing it for no reason whatsoever.
GMs sometimes complain about characters going on extended shopping trips. In this case the characters want to get gear. And since they aren’t just buying it off screen they probably want this to be difficult for some reason or at least engaging. There’s a great example of this in Curse of Strahd where some shop shmuck charges like five or ten times the normal cost of things because he has no competitors. If characters refuse he gets a goon to come out and try and beat them up. The characters want supplies and they are stopped by price gouging and a goon.
GMs don’t have to know how problems gets solved. Players are resourceful. If they have a hard goal in mind they will find a way to accomplish it and surprise their GM by how creative they get in their attempts.
Who is present?
Adventurers might decide to talk with any character who is present in a scene. Most of the time they won’t bother with faceless rabble but sometimes they will approach random NPCs. If there’s a bunch of unknowns in a crowd it’s worthwhile for a GM to consider the sorts of people comprising the crowd but it’s okay to treat them like one entity for the most part.
Make notes for individual characters in a scene. What do they know as regards the adventurers’ goals? What do they have to further the scene or detract from its impact? Is this creature a help or a hindrance?
If adventurers are investigating a murder that one NPC fanboy showing up to ask them all kinds of questions for his adventurer fanfiction is going to not only get in the way of the investigation but also potentially give the bard something to do as he brags to this person to keep them busy.
What are the end conditions?
How do the characters win the scene? How do they lose it? If they do what happens next?
It’s okay to have some low stakes scenes and scenes the party has to win in the sense of positively overcoming a challenge. It’s important for a GM to consider these win conditions and allow some loopholes and unexpected approaches. The more subtle the better. If they can lose the scene it’s a good idea to consider what the characters might do next to mitigate this or move the story forward. It’s usually good to have a few options to offer though as always it’s best to be able to roll with it if they go in a way you don’t expect them to. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: They almost always do!]
Remember what characters are trying to do in a scene. Throw wrenches in their plans. Consider who is there and how these creatures impact what characters do. Consider several potential endings but remember — no plan ever survives first contact with the players so be ready to throw all this out the window. Being a GM is a quintessential pain in the butt in the most fun way. Of course don’t forget to leave a comment if you found this helpful or if you’re terribly affronted by it and as always, stay nerdy!
*Featured image: In this scene from Golden Test the adventurers want to get their belongings back from a very unusual giant eagle. This and 54 other dynamic encounters provide opportunities for characters to create their own memorable scenes from Out of the Box. This encounter was created by guest writer James Introcaso with illustration by Kim Van Deun. Check it out here.