Painting a Happy Little Scene

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All right. We’ve got our resolution and our motivation right?

What? Oh, yeah. You’re expecting some kind of long rambling introduction to basic concepts or some s$&% like that, right? Well, first of all, I’m too busy for that s%&$. See, this week (the first week of September, 2015, if you’re reading this from the future), I’m heading off to Save Against Fear, which is a Pennsylvania convention hosted by the Bodhana Group. They’re this not for profit group dedicated to helping children and teens who have been impacted by sexual violence. They provide treatment and also training and consulting services and they’ve been exploring the uses of gaming in therapy. All in all, it’s a pretty great honor to be their guest. So, I’m going to be running some Dungeon World and some Monte Cook Presents Bruce Cordell’s The Strange RPG by Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook and I’m going to be doing a couple of seminars about how to be a less worse GM than you are now. If you’re in the Harrisburg area, I’ll be in your neighborhood.

But we’re talking about adventure building now. And specifically about building scenes. And why I don’t need to do a long, rambling introduction. The reason is (apart from business), I already did one. It was a whole f$&%ing article defining scenes. Remember? Scenes: The Lego Bricks of Adventure. We defined scenes as a “continuous sequence of related actions” And we talked about what that meant and the types of scenes and how encounters are special types of scenes. Remember?

Look, if you don’t remember, you need to go back and reread that s$&%. Because from here on in we have to get our hands kind of dirty. We need to start building some scenes and slapping them together. And today, we’re talking about how to actually construct a scene. What bits and pieces go into it. If you don’t know what a scene actually is, you’re kind of f$&%ed.


We have a resolution and a motivation. We know how our adventure ends and why it begins. And now we need to fill in the middle. And the middle of an adventure is just a big mishmash of scenes that connect the motivation to the resolution. And those scenes are all connected with transitions. That’s structure.

So let’s talk about what goes into a scene. See, when GMs talk about building a scene. They always talk about “setting a scene.” You know, the crap where the GM paints the scene for the players? “Remember, friends,” they say, “it’s your little world. And you’ve got to bring that world out of you. And I can’t tell you what your world should be. I can just help you find it. So, maybe there’s a happy little beholder who lives right there, just as happy as can be. Maybe he hides in the shade of this little cloud and then, when the heroes come along, he beats the devil right out of them. But maybe not. Because it’s your world.”

I’m sorry to say scene building is not like that at all. You ain’t just putting down happy little beholders in alizarin crimson and van dyke brown and maybe just a little dab of cadmium yellow. There’s actual bits and pieces to a scene and the beholder is, in a lot of ways, the least important part.

Scenes and Encounters, Which Are Also Scenes

Lets take just a quick minute to be very clear about the difference between scenes and encounters. Or rather, let’s be very clear that encounters ARE scenes, they just have extra elements. They do the same basic things. And they get built the same basic way to start with. It’s just that encounters need a lot of extra parts. You don’t build them differently, you just build more when you build an encounter.

Scenes start with a bit of narration, which we call setting the scene. It describes how the scene opens and presents the players with options. If the narration begins by describing their arrival in a village, they have the option to explore the village or check out specific landmarks or find an inn or whatever. Then, the players will take some actions and you will adjudicate those actions. Results will happen. Eventually, the scene will end and you will give a transition that leads to setting a new scene. Sometimes, a transition is a gentle sort of transition. “You head for the inn. Inside, you find the common room is dark and dingy and everyone eyes you with suspicion. The landlord says ‘yeah, what?’ He doesn’t seem pleased to have guests.” Very little time passes and it’s hard to tell the difference between a transition and just the result of an action. Sometimes, it’s a hard and firm transition. “You go to the inn, a dingy and run down affair, and secure lodgings – five silver pieces each, by the way – and get settled. But then, in the middle of the night, you are disturbed by screaming in the streets. Smoke and odor of burnt flesh fill your nostrils and through the shutters you can see the glow of numerous fires and hear the sounds of pitched battle. What do you do?”

Scenes and encounters start and end the same way (because encounters are scenes), but encounters include an element of conflict and uncertainty. In a scene, the PCs do things and make decisions, but there’s no significant opposition. Things just happen. Go left or go right? Explore the temple or visit the inn? Talk to the weird stranger by the hearth or sit quietly and drink at the bar? Encounters add a dramatic question (will the PCs save the town) and sources of conflict (or will the orcs kill them and all the villagers and burn the town down).

Adventures are made up of both scenes and scenes that are encounters. And we’re going to go over both. But today, we’re going to focus on scenes. The framework into which you stick an encounter.

Planning vs. Improv: Once Again Addressing the Dumba$& Argument

Whenever you talk about adventure building, you always invite this huge argument from screaming gamer morons about whether planning equals railroading or whether improv ruins pacing and makes it too hard to run games. Well, you should know me right now. I don’t really care about that argument. Because, it’s your little world and maybe a happy little preplanned scene is what lives under that tree there. Or maybe you just like to suddenly discover a fluffy cloud drifting in front of that wyvern because the whim strikes you. It doesn’t matter.

Here’s the motherf$%&ing truth: both answers are wrong. You can’t just improv out of whole cloth completely on the fly. That’s a myth. There’s no such thing. People who are good improv either accidentally or intentionally build with a framework, they build toward a goal, they understand how scenes fit together to tell a story. Those other people run sucky games. And you can’t preplan absolutely everything because the players have the freedom to make choices and those choices are going to lead in directions you weren’t ready for it. And some of the s$&% you preplan is going to get thrown away. On top of that, improvisation isn’t really operating without a plan anyway. It’s just planning in the moment. It’s planning just a moment ahead of executing. So that argument is f$&%ing stupid. And if you want to be a good GM, you need to be able to plan and also to work off the cuff. You need both f$&%ing skills. Eventually, you, the GM, will find a balance that works for you. But learning how to plan a scene enables you both plan scenes and build scenes on the fly.

In general, my advice is to plan an adventure that works on paper before the PCs get to it. And we’ll talk more about this in the future. But basically, I advise people to write an adventure that will get the PCs from the motivation to the resolution assuming everything goes as planned. And then be flexible enough to go off script. In time, you might find you don’t plan as much as you used to. I don’t preplan nearly as many scenes as I used to, except in vague terms. But I still know what the elements that a scene needs are. And that’s what I’m teaching you.

Meanwhile, for now, overplan and be ready to discard. It’s easier to adjust when you have overplanned than when you have underplanned. And if anyone tries to tell you not to plan, that planning is railroading, to plan as little as possible, or that your planning should fit on one index card, tell them to f$&% off. You’ve got me giving you the right answer.

How to Write This S$&% Down

Apart from not spending a lot of time telling you when to plan and when not to plan, I’m also not going to spend a lot of time telling you how to write s$&% down and how to format it. There’s just no write way to do it. And it varies from person to person. Hell, for me, it varies week to week. I tend to write a lot of backstory down but not write down a lot of individual scene planning because I’m good at keeping that in my head now, but I wouldn’t advise that. Instead, I advise you to start writing down whatever you want to remember. Even if you never refer to it at the game, writing it down or typing it out helps fix it in your brain. Recording it helps your brain remember it.

Beyond that, learn what you’re good at doing at the table. If you can’t do flavor text on the fly, write it beforehand. If you aren’t good at figuring out personality traits and motivations for NPCs, write them down. Start your GMing career by overdoing it and gradually stop doing the things you don’t need to do.

The W’s and H’s of Scenes

Okay, so we’ve covered what scenes are (and how encounters are special), whether it’s okay to plan scenes, and how to write them down. So, let’s talk about what actually makes up a scene. What are the bits and pieces of a scene? And we can break these down into the classic questions that English teachers kept drumming into you: Why, Where, When, Who, What, and How.

Now, I have to warn you, we’re going to be a little general and vague right now. Even though we have two whole freaking example adventures to build, building scenes is a little tricky. Remember how I explained that Every Adventure is a Dungeon? [[]] And I pointed out that an adventure’s structure consists of scenes and the connections between them? And so an adventure is sort of a big, complicated flow chart? Well, that makes it really tricky to just talk about steps in building an adventure. Because you tend to build scenes and connections a little bit willy nilly. I want to lay the basic framework now so that we can sit and just build a whole adventure.

Why the Scene Exists

The first thing that defines a scene is why it exists at all. For a scene to exist, it has to serve some purpose and once that purpose has been fulfilled, the scene is over. Usually, the why of the scene explains how it helps move the heroes from the motivation to the resolution. For example, if the resolution of the adventure is “the heroes find the murderer or the murderer escapes,” the scene where they visit the crime scene generally exists so they can find clues that lead them to the murderer. Or so that they can find leads to other scenes that will lead them to the murderer.

But not all scenes have to move the heroes from the motivation to the resolution. Scenes can do all sorts of things and part of the key to bringing the world to life is to have scenes that don’t just connect the beginning and the end. When the PCs first arrive in town, it’s perfectly okay to let them wander and explore so that you can reveal stuff about the world, establish the mood, set the tone, and so forth. Hell, the first scene in my most recent campaign was just a scene of wandering the town discovering things so that I could plant a lot of seeds.

But you, the GM. have to know why the scene exists and what it has to accomplish. And you have to know when it ends. Generally, the “crime scene” will end when the heroes find one or more leads and decide to follow them to another scene. The “exploring the town” scene ended when I had given everyone at least one chance to interact with stuff in town and when I had communicated certain ideas. And I had a list. I’ll show you at the end.

Even scenes that the players invent have a purpose. And, as a GM, you need to figure out what that purpose is really quickly so that you can tell when the scene is over and transition the hell out of it before it ends up just flopping around doing nothing, embarrassing everyone. So, when the players decide, for example, they need a scene to sit down and compare notes and digest all the things they’ve discovered, you need to understand that that’s what they are doing. They are not trying to reach a firm conclusion for their next course of action, they just want to talk things out. And you’ve got to watch closely and see when they stop saying new things and start going in circles so you can say “the landlord sweeps the last jugs off the table and says ‘folks, I gotta get to bed, maybe you should to?’ He’s polite but insistent and, in the end, you have no choice but to head to your rooms. The night passes uneventfully and the next day…”

Anyway, every scene has a purpose and you have to know that purpose. When a scene has filled its purpose, if the PCs are still putzing around, it’s your job to shove them out the door.

Where and When the Scene Happens

Where does the scene take place? And when does the scene happen? These seem like simple, obvious questions. But they can get really fuzzy really quickly. And they include some stuff you might not think of.

First of all, scenes are only as local as they have to be. The “crime scene” scene might take place in a single room or alley or on a dock or wherever the murder took place. Simple enough. And the “talking things out” scene might take place in the common room of the inn where the heroes are staying. Or in a private dining room. Or around a campfire in the wilderness. But the “exploring the town” scene isn’t nearly as local. It sort of takes place everywhere. And that’s when you start to realize that, in the brain of a GM, a single room is no different than an entire town which is, in turn, no different than a desert island or a patch of forest.

Imagine a dungeon room. And this is some kind of a shrine. So there’s an altar, and a font, and some pillars covered with runes, and a statue, and maybe a closed coffer (a treasure box). The heroes come into these scene and they want to check it out. So maybe one checks the statue and one tries to read the runes and one looks into the font. And then, they all gather together and check out the coffer because they think it might be dangerous. Now, this is all one scene.

Now, imagine the town. It has an inn and a temple and a hunting lodge and a cemetery and, I don’t know, a Wal-Mart. Whatever. So, the heroes might split up at first. The cleric goes to pay his respects at the temple. The ranger goes to check in at the hunting lodge. The barbarian heads to Wal-Mart to buy more javelins because they are on sale. Whatever. And then they all gather together to explore the cemetery because they are hoping to find some zombies or something.

Each of those things could be separate scenes or they could all be part of one scene. If they are just getting the lay of the land and gathering rumors and information (as they were in my most recent game), that’s all one scene. It’s no different than one hero checking the statue and another checking out the font and another reading the runes. Or imagine they are stranded on a deserted island. First, they might visit the little jungle to find water. Then they will explore the weird ruin on the coast. And so on. And you can see how those might be different scenes or, again, just a larger scale version of the runes and the coffer and the altar.

The setting for the scene is as big or small as the scene needs it to be. If they are exploring the deserted island to find resources and map it out, I can do that as one scene. Or, if the ruins are cursed and contain an entire dungeon and the jungle is filled with beasts and is basically an adventure in itself, those decisions lead to other scenes.

My point is: determine the setting for the scene based on what you are trying to accomplish. It’s okay for the whole town to be one scene if everything that happens there is pretty much united in one common purpose. Right? A continuous series of related actions. But you’ve got to make that judgment. And that’s why you start with the purpose of the scene.

And it’ll come as no surprise now when I say the same goes for When the scene is. Because When is not just about “what’s the time and date,” though that can be important. When is about how long the scene lasts. And that is also a matter of scope. Because, just like you can zoom out and show the PCs a map of a town and say “okay, what do you do?” You can also zoom out to a whole day and say “what do you do?”

Examining the crime scene is a moment by moment thing. It takes exactly as much time as it takes. No more, no less. And the action is pretty much moment to moment action-reaction kind of stuff. But exploring the town? The time frame can be broader. And it can zoom in and out. So, one PC decides to go check out the construction site. Cool, that takes a while. But it’s not moment by moment. The PC wanders the site and sees what’s going on and watches who is doing what and all that crap. And then you report “you spend an hour prowling around the site and you learn that they are building something big and there’s a lot of soldiers watching and most of the crates are covered with thick black cloth marked with a red claw symbol and the foreman is wearing noble house colors.” But the other PC who decides to go ask the innkeeper about the construction might have a moment-by-moment conversation. Again, those can be part of the same scene or two different scenes. The determining factor is purpose.

And when the PCs split up into three teams on the deserted island, one to find a shelter, one to find water, and one to search for inhabitants on the island? They will be gone all day, probably. But that could still all just be one scene.

Remember, continuous doesn’t mean moment by moment. It means that the actions follow from one another. And they are united in purpose.

Who and What the Scene Contains

So, you have a purpose and you have a setting. But those are big, grand things that help you run the scene. The trouble is, if you just tell the players “you’re in a room, there’s information here,” it isn’t much of a scene. The players don’t have much to go on. Sure, you can specify “you’re in a temple room, there’s information here,” but that isn’t MUCH better. It’s a little better. Just not a lot better.

And that brings us to the rune-covered pillars and altars and treasure chests and taverns and cemeteries and Wal-Marts and the landlords and the city guard at the gate and the weird beggar mumbling about pancakes and shaking a cup at passers-by and also the smoke monster that lives in the jungle and and the jungle itself and the ruins and the cursed yuan-ti ghosts that haunt it.

All that crap, the people and the things, those are the drivers of choices. Those are the levers that the players can pull. You can read the runes. You can explore the cemetery. You can listen to the beggar. You can track down the smoke monster. You can flee from the ghosts.

In order for your scene to invite the players to accomplish the purpose of the scene, you need to fill it with things. But you don’t have to fill it with everything. Once the players have context, they can invent a lot of things you didn’t imagine.

For example, let’s say the hero is looking for an incriminating letter that someone has hidden. And they are in a bedroom. You don’t have to explicitly mention a bed in order for the players to know they could search under the bed. Or in the pillow. It’s good if you do. The more levers you give the players to pull on, the easier it is for them to start pulling levers. But you can rely on them to invent a lot of levers.

You might have a map of the town, but you don’t need to label every building. You’ll describe the biggest points of interest. But the players might invent something that suits their needs. “Is there a general store?” “Is there a barracks or guard house?” And you can accept or discard those ideas. “Yes, of course there is a general store.” “No, the town isn’t big enough for a standing guard.” That’s all fine.

The point is not to overcreate and to be prepared to improvise. You’re going to have to do that eventually, so you might as well start now. But the point is also to create something, something in the scene that says “hey, come and play with me.” Because this all comes down to…

How the Players Can Do the Things in the Scene

Every scene has a purpose, right? You’re damned right it does. How many times have I already said that?! Every scene has a f$&%ing purpose. Something needs to get done. Maybe, you even have a list of things. The question now is how the players can get to that purpose. And usually, the answer is “by playing with the Whats and Whos.”

So, in the “crime scene” scene, the purpose is to let the party discover some leads and clues, right? And I’ve probably got a list of things they could discover. Maybe, that the victim was part of the Hunter’s Lodge. Or that the murderer poisoned the victim. Or that the murderer was a big, muscular person.

How can the players find those things out? The victim has a signet ring with the symbol of the Hunter’s Lodge. The heroes find a discarded vial stained with noxious fluid. They find a big boot print in the mud.

What you’re doing now is connected the purpose(s) of the scene to the things in the scene to determine how the PCs can get at the purpose. Note, that if there’s a conflict that has to be resolved and there is a question as to whether the PCs will be successful or not, that’s where the scene becomes an encounter. Otherwise, the scene is just a scene.

Now, not everything in the scene has to be connected with a purpose. And we’ll come back to that idea in a future article. We’ll also look at sidequests and optional purposes. But for now, you take your purposes and you connect them to things in the scene the PCs can interact with, so they can actually accomplish the purpose.

Simple, right?

Ha! Honestly, this can be very, very tricky. Especially when you are trying to build a complicated mystery adventure. You know you want to put a bunch of clues in a scene, but you’re not quite sure how to actually get them in there. It takes a lot of finesse and creativity and that’s something that is f$&%ing hard to teach.

But, conceptually at least, it’s not hard to grasp what you have to do. Scenes have purposes, scenes are filled with things, connect the things to the purposes and then let the PCs play with them.

Putting it All Together

Now, as I said, I’m keeping this all vague and kind of general because I wanted to discuss what goes into a scene before I started building and connecting whole bunches of them. But, let’s run through three scenes quickly just to review. And in two weeks, we’ll talk about a very specific type of scene called The Hook that every adventure needs. And we’ll build one for both of our example adventures.

The Crime Scene Scene

Why: The PCs need to discover a few clues so they can start investigating the mystery. They need to find at least one lead. There are two. There’s also one clue, which is optional. The victim was a member of the Hunter’s Lodge. The murderer used a rare poison that is hard to get. And the murderer is a big, beefy individual. The PCs can also get some general details like who find the victim and when. We’ll call that all “background.” It’s optional.

Where and When: The scene takes place near the ferry dock just outside of town. There’s a lot of clutter, because the ferry mostly brings heavy goods back and forth across the river. It is probably midday, assuming the PCs proceed right to the scene as soon as they find out about the murder. And time passes normally as the PCs take actions.

What and Who: Obviously, there’s a corpse. The corpse of the victim. There’s also a lot of crates and barrels which made a good hiding place for the killer. The sheriff is there as well. Obviously, I’d spend sometime on details like what the corpse looks like and the personality of the sheriff.

How: The PCs can learn background details from the sheriff. I could decide to make this an encounter by making the sheriff uncooperative. I would assign a source of conflict like “the sheriff resents the PCs involvement because he wants the credit for solving the mystery” or “the sheriff feels that the lord hired the PCs because the lord lost faith in the sheriff.” Whatever. And then I would probably assign some DCs for interaction skills. Examining the corpse turns up a signet ring with a symbol that the PCs can readily identify (or research) to discover that the corpse was a member of the Hunter’s Guild. No obstacle there. It’s pretty obvious. If the PCs search around, particularly if they go looking for hiding places, they will find the spot where the murderer discarded the glass vial. It is stained with noxious-smelling liquid. An alchemist can identify the poison. And here I would invent the details that would lead to some further scene. And if a PC tries explicitly to look for tracks, they can turn up the boot-print in the mud by rolling a good Tracking check (or whatever). Again, that turns this into an encounter.

The Exploring the Town Scene

Why: The PCs last visited the town several years ago. Since then, it has become more militaristic. It is also extremely tense and the friendly relations between the humans, the dwarves, and the elves have fallen apart. There have been some outbreaks of violence. Overall, there is a sense that the town is a powderkeg just waiting for a spark. Everyone is on edge. Because I just want them to have a sense of the setting, I’ll make sure each PC gets one or two clues about these aspects of the town: militarism, breakdown of race relations, outbreak of violence. There is also a new temple that is being commemorated in a few days and a new high priest. This is optional information, but the PCs might discover it. Otherwise, they will find out about it later.

Where and When: Where is obviously the whole town. I’d be smart to draw a map of it, so I do. When is over the course of several hours. I’ll assume the PCs will arrive at midday and explore until dinner time.

What and Who: I need to scatter some points of interest. There are three inns, one to the west, one to the east, and one to the south, each along one of the roads that lead into the town. And these inns and roads correspond with the three races that visit the town: humans, dwarves, and elves. So, more generally, I can say there’s a human part of the town, an elf part of the town, and a dwarf part of the town. There’s a new temple, as I noted. There’s a market in the center of town.

How: Here is where I show you how you often end up bouncing back and forth between what and who and how. So, first, militarism. Let’s just add a point of interest: they are adding a wall to the town. It and the gatehouse across the roads are partially built. The PCs can’t help but discover those right away. As for racial relations, that’s a little bit trickier. First, in the market at the center of town, only humans and dwarves are trading. The elves have set up their own market just outside their gate. If the PCs note this, either by visiting the elf side of town or market, they can ask and discover that there was a falling out. Dwarf merchants think an elf stole an item of dwarven heritage. The elf insisted that he bought it. No dwarf would have sold it. The dwarves tried to seize it, the elves united to protect their own, and now they won’t share the market. That’s a cool little anecdote. If the PCs check out the dwarf side of town, they discover a gibbet near the dwarf in with a pair of fresh human corpses hanging from it. If the PCs investigate, they can learn that the humans were con artists and the dwarven community took the law into their own hands, making things frosty between the dwarves and the humans. That also shows the increased violence of the town. I invent a few more anecdotes. The story of a fistfight that grew out of hand and ended with a stabbing. Maybe a jilted lover burned down someone’s home. These sorts of neat rumors can be overheard just about anywhere. Wherever the PCs go, I can have some NPCs sharing a story. And if the PCs check out the new temple site, they discover that preparations are being made for a big ceremony. If they ask about that, they can learn about the new priest and the commemoration of the new temple. And if they pay close attention to the temple site, they might notice armed soldiers walking around in brand new armor and crisp, unstained uniforms, all with the look of untrained conscripts.

The Talking S$&% Out Scene

Note that this scene is probably unplanned. But that doesn’t matter. The players suddenly invented it and I’ve got to handle it. And that means, I still need to plan the scene. I just need to plan it very, very quickly.

Why: The PCs finished exploring the town and/or investigating the crime scene. They all performed different tasks and haven’t had a chance to talk everything out. So, they need to collate their data and discuss their theories. They don’t need to pick a direction though. I’m ready with a big event. An assassination attempt they can prevent. It’ll happen once they’ve talked enough to start going in circles.

Where and When: At the inn, over the course of an hour or two.

What and Who: Just the PCs, though I will have the innkeeper on hand to interrupt if I need to or if they want to ask a question about the town/murder to clarify things. Always a good idea to have an NPC nearby.

How: They are just going to talk. And I’ll let them keep talking until they start repeating themselves, go quiet, or go in circles.

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5 thoughts on “Painting a Happy Little Scene

  1. I’ve been stuck on trying to figure out how to build an adventure and the scenes within for awhile now and suddenly it all clicked when reading this. It all seems so obvious now but for some reason I couldn’t piece it together. Thanks for the article as always Angry!

  2. Good article, wish more GM guides would actually devote some time to this kind of advice in there adventure building chapters. Might actually get more people running games.

    Love how you tell folks to write stuff down, I would add only one thing to that section and that is even if you don’t use it during your current adventure or campaign having it all written down will help you in future adventures and campaigns. Can’t count the number of times that when reviewing my old notes that I have come up with ideas and directions for the current game I am working on and I frankly have started doing it before every new campaign.

  3. I would love to see you do a sort of “Good Idea, Bad Idea” deal on a YouTube video about GMing.

    Fantastic guidance for someone like me who’s just starting as a GM. Thank you!

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