Scenes: The LEGO bricks of Adventure!

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It’s time once again to listen to me babble about how adventures are put together. I keep doing these “basic concept” articles partly because you need a solid understanding of how adventures are structured before you can build your own and partly because it puts off the day when I actually have to build an adventure in front of you to show how all this crap fits together. So, that in mind, LET’S STALL!

To review, an adventure is a framework that gives context to the scenes and encounters that happen inside of it. An adventure has a beginning (which we call a Motivation), it has an ending (which we call a Resolution), and it has a way of putting all the bits together (which we call a Structure). The Structure is basically a flowchart that shows how all the scenes and encounters lead from the beginning to the ending. Before we talk about beginnings and endings, though, we’re going to talk about all those little bits that fit together. Scenes and encounters.

Yeah, yeah, I spent a lot of time insisting that an adventure was NOT just a pile of encounters. That the adventure was actually the Motivation, Resolution, and Structure. And I ain’t going back on that now. But without the scenes and encounters, there’s no game to play. Nothing happens.

Look, scenes (and encounters, but I’m going to stop typing “and encounters” and you can just pretend I fill in “and encounters” until I finally explain why I separate scenes and encounters). Scenes (and you know what’s) are like LEGO. By themselves, they are just cool little interlocking plastic caltrops. If you imagine an adventure is just a whole bunch of scenes, all you’re doing is sprinkling LEGO bits in the carpet so that people will step on them and hurt themselves. And the fact of the matter is some RPG adventures are really little more than LEGO bricks scattered through the carpet waiting to hurt the players’ feet. And while that may be hilarious, it isn’t really very satisfying.

Some GMs especially love the “go find the LEGO bricks in the carpet” approach to gaming. Here’s a map, go find all the LEGO bricks and hopefully build them into something fun. And sometimes that style of ultra-sandboxy dick-around game can be fun as a brief diversion.

But we’re not talking about that crap. Any idiot can scatter LEGO bricks through the carpet and laugh at the players when they stumble on a 1 x 4 profile brick that’s 20 levels too high for them and it’s a TPK because they should have been smart enough to run away. Or they go out searching for days and days of wasted time only to find a plain gray 1 x 2 jumper plate that isn’t even carrying any treasure.

Yeah, don’t f$&% with me. I was a Master Builder before the LEGO Movie was even a concept.

Anyway, we’re not talking about that crap. We’re talking about turning all those loose LEGO bricks into something cool, like the Atlantis Exploration Headquarters. There’s a difference between my awesome LEGO City of Atlantis (I LIKED the Atlantis line, okay?) and a pile of bricks. And the difference is not the bricks. The difference is the way the bricks are assembled. With a purpose. And a goal. In other words: Structure, Motivation, and Resolution. Get it?

But since we’re going to talk about creating your own adventurous LEGO Sets instead of just reassembling your LEGO Batcave for the umpteenth time, we’ve got to actually talk about the different types and shapes of LEGO bricks. And that’s what we’re going to do.

Scenes: The LEGO Bricks of Adventure

Now, let’s think back to long, LONG ago when I defined an encounter. I said that an encounter “starts with a dramatic question, ends when that question is answers, and involves the resolution of one or more conflicts?” Yeah, that was a really good definition, wasn’t it? It worked really well. Except that it was an utterly s$&%y definition. Why?

Imagine if you came over to my house and I was putting together my LEGO Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Turtle Lair Attack Set and you had never ever even seen a LEGO before. And you picked up a piece and said “what is this thing?” And I said “that’s a modified one by one, vertical clip, hollow stud” It’s not that I’m incorrect. It’s that the answer is useless to you. Because my definition assumes you already know what LEGO bricks are and what they do. And that’s the problem with my definition of an encounter.

Notice how I said how an encounter ends and how it begins and what happens in the middle. But nowhere did I say what it actually is? Never caught that, did you. I left a pretty big thing out. Well, let’s talk about that thing now.

An encounter is a special type of scene, just like a round 1×1 with fins is a special type of LEGO brick. I should have said “an encounter is a scene that begins with the posing of a dramatic question and presents one or more sources of conflict that must be resolved in order to answer that question.” That’s an accurate definition. But then we are left with the question of what a scene is.

In an RPG, a scene is a sequence of continuous, related actions.

Now, that definition seems very easy and very “duh, obviously,” but there’s some subtle nuance to it. See, most GMs don’t think in terms of scenes. They think in terms of locations and encounters. And that makes things all screwy. So we need to be really, really clear.

A Continuous Sequence of Related Actions

So here’s the deal. You know there’s this basic order to the game, right? The GM describes what’s going on and then says “what do you do?” And then some idiot does something stupid and the GM describes how that makes things worse. And then some other idiot tries to fix it and makes it worse again. And the GM describes that outcome and then someone else does something. And on and on and on and that’s a game?

Well, that’s not quite true. That back and forth sequence isn’t really continuous. In every situation, there comes an end point where the situation is resolved or the players have to give up on something and run away or everyone is dead. And then, the GM will usually say something like “you continue on your way. You walk for several hours and then stumble into a new situation which I will now describe for you. And then you will take actions.”

What you’re seeing there is the scene structure at work. The GM Sets the Scene, describing the initial situation. The players do a bunch of things. And then, the GM Transitions to a New Scene when it’s all over.

Scenes are where the game actually happens. That’s where the players are making choices. Remember, actions start with choices. Other actions can happen too, but actions and choices don’t happen outside of scenes. You can’t break away from that structure. Even a simple scene that involves only one choice is still a scene.

“You come an intersection. You can go left or right. The directions look identical.”
“We go left.”
“You turn left and continue on your way. After several hours, you come to…”

It’s a simple scene, but it’s a scene.

Even though a scene is a continuous sequence of actions, that doesn’t mean a scene can’t take up minutes, hours, or even days of game time. And this is where a lot of GMs get hung up.

For example, if Ragnar is crafting a new suit of armor and has to keep rolling dice and deciding how to allocate resources and spending money and so on, that’s one scene. It might take several days in the game. At the table, it might take a few minutes or a few hours depending on which particular overwrought, uninteresting crafting ruleset you’re suffering under (crafting systems ALWAYS suck). If the party is researching a thing in a library for hours and hours, that’s also still one scene.

In movies, we use montages to cover that. Right? A series of short bits of video of people doings related to the thing they are doing. Like training for the big game. Or walking across Middle Earth. Or learning together to work as a team to infiltrate Lord Business’ Skyscraper. Montage. But it’s still a scene.
Something Has to Happen: Scenes are Not Locations

It’s important to note that locations are not scenes. And scenes are not locations. Even though many GMs think they are. An empty room on the map with nothing to do, one way in, and one way out, is not a scene. It’s a waste of f$&%ing time. It’s basically just interrupting a transition by asking the players “would you like to continue doing the thing you already decided to do?”

Let me blow your f$&%ing mind. If you’re the sort to draw a map and then put numbers in the rooms so you can describe the rooms, you’ve been numbering your maps wrong. I almost guarantee it. Because you put a number in every room even if there is nothing in that room. Because it is totally okay to have empty rooms. It’s fine to have empty rooms. But when you put a number in there, you’re claiming it’s a scene. At the same time, I’ll bet you don’t number your hallway intersections. Even though every one of those is actually very short, boring scene.

Am I telling you to redraw your maps? No. Because a dungeon map isn’t a scene map. It’s a location map. And it’s pretty easy to improvise those “intersection scenes” on the fly. But being cognizant of the difference might lead you to structure your maps a little different. For example, when you realize that every intersection is a scene, you might make your intersections more interesting. And when you realize empty rooms aren’t scenes, you might start to pace your descriptions better by just including them in your transitions:

“You wander down the hallway. It opens into a big, square chamber, but the chamber is featureless and empty. So you continue out the exit on the other side and keep going.”

And if that somehow feels wrong to you (I know some GMs find that idea reprehensible), maybe you should ask yourself why you keep putting those useless rooms in your dungeon? A few empty rooms is a good thing, but you can get more use out of your empty rooms (as I’ll show you below).

Scenes Have to Do SOMETHING

Every scene has to have a purpose. You don’t want scenes with no purpose floating your game. Every LEGO brick contributes something to the construction. But before we go too far with that, let me get something out of the way.

If you ever utter the phrase “move the story forward” to me, in person or in my comment section or on Twitter or anywhere else, I will find you and I will slap the stupid out of you. And that will probably take a lot of slapping. There’s always a few pretentious, self-proclaimed “story focussed” GMs who will tell you that every scene or encounter or whatever has to “move the story forward.” But if you ask them what that actually means and how can you tell, they can’t answer. Because that phrase is meaningless horses$&%. It literally means nothing. It is a useless criteria. And it is also not true.

You could TRY to claim that every scene must move the players from the beginning to the end of the adventure. But that’s kind of dumb. Because every scene has a place in the game somewhere on the path from the beginning to the end. Even if we assume there are never any dead ends or setbacks (which you CAN TOTALLY HAVE), every scene happens in the context of the adventure. It’s already moving the game from beginning to end.

But scenes do have to serve a purpose. Check it out. LEGO bricks. Some of the bricks in my LEGO Battle of Helm’s Deep are there because they make the structure stable. They are workhorse pieces. They aren’t necessarily visible. They could be replaced by other bricks that aesthetically fit together just as well. But are there to make the set stable and hold together well. Other bricks are there because the set has to look like Helm’s Deep from the movies. The crenelations at the top of the walls don’t support the structure. They are there because Helm’s Deep had crenellated walls in the movie. Likewise, the Horn of Helm Hammerhand pretty much had to be in the set, right?

Now, other bricks are flourishes. They don’t lend stability and they wouldn’t really be missed if they were left out. For example, the little torches along the walls. If you left those off, no one would say “well, that’s not Helm’s Deep. Where are five or six torches?” They are just decorative.

And then there are some really cool bricks. For example, there’s these structures that stack together to make a break away wall and it has a little trigger I can push to make the wall collapse. Why? So I can reenact the cool scene where the Uruk Hai blow up the wall with the giant bomb. And there’s a teeter-totter sort of piece that launches a mini-figure from the side door to the main gate because Gimli made that jump in the movie and I can use it to launch Gimli at the Uruks.

What’s my point, apart from clearly advertising and/or bragging about my LEGO Battle of Helm’s Deep? My point is that scenes can do a lot of different things. And no one job is more important than any other. Scenes can be structural, aesthetic, or just plain cool and fun. It’s all good. It’s only when a scene does absolutely nothing that it starts to be a problem. Like the big empty room you stop the party in to ask them whether they keep walking or not.

So, let’s talk about some of the different types of scenes you might have in your adventure and what sort of purposes they fill.

Exposition Scenes

An exposition scene exists solely to impart information to the players, often information that they need. Most adventures actually begin with an exposition scene, a scene in which the main goal of the adventure is presented and the heroes are set on their way. Other exposition scenes allow the players to gain information from all sorts of resources: books, NPCs, oracles, visions, dreams, and so on.

Exposition is one of those necessary evils. Sometimes, you have to pass information along to the players. And exposition scenes are the quickest, most efficient, and most boring way to do it. Now, it’s okay to have a few. Don’t cut them all out. But understand that they barely qualify as scenes because there’s almost no action or choice to be made. The players’ only decision is often “let’s seek this information,” and all the talking that comes after it is the GM describing the outcome “here’s all the information you discover: bllllalaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

So, if you have a drawn-out exposition scene, it’s fun to make it interactive. Give the players some of the info right away and then let them ask questions. If they don’t ask questions or if they miss anything, fill it in. Don’t let them lose out on vital information just because you decided to be more interactive. But let the players break it up with talking.

Exposition scenes aren’t purely about giving information that gets the party through the quest. Many are, but exposition scenes can also give information that brings the world to life. They can reveal the context of the heroes’ adventures, reveal backstory, help make motives clear, provide future hooks or optional goals, foreshadow future events, or make the world seem more real.

Recap Scenes, Planning Scenes, and Character Scenes

If exposition scenes are mainly driven by the GM, recap, planning, and character scenes are driven by the players. These scenes are all similar in that they involve the party isolating itself from the events of the world in some way to talk amongst themselves, free of interruptions. They might be going over what they know, discussing what to do next, or just interacting with each other in character. The GM is almost completely uninvolved in these scenes.

All three of these scenes are necessary, even though the GMs instinct is usually to seize control or interrupt such scenes. If the players are taking time to recap or plan, it means they NEED that time. Let them have it. They have to get things straight in their heads. Its cool. Don’t get involved. Back the f$&% off.

As for character scenes, those scenes allow the players to play with their characters without the world getting in the way. They can just relax and learn about each other and show themselves off. Some players love that s$&%. Others only want it in small doses.

Now, you’re rarely going to plan for these scenes (but you can, and we’ll talk about that another time). The players will usually try to create them. The key is to give them space to do so. When the party is settling down to camp or traveling for a few days or sitting around a tavern or whatever, leave a long, pregnant pause in your transition. A sort of hint that the players can jump in and do stuff.

“The camp Alice picked out is perfect. As the sun sets, you gather around the warm glow of the campfire…………………………………………After you eat the cooked rabbit that Bob trapped, you settle in for the night. The night passes uneventfully and the next morning you’re ready to start your adventures anew.”

The trouble with RPC scenes is that players generally decide when they start and it seems like they should decide when they end. But players are really bad at knowing when a scene is over. That’s why you have to use transitions to begin with. Players will let these scenes drag on forever and go around in circles. Your job, while not interrupting, is to monitor the scene closely and see when it’s petering out. When the party starts to repeat themselves or the discussion slows down and people are struggling to find things to say or it seems like the party has a plan and they are hammering on niggling details, it’s time for you to drop a transition on there. “The conversation continues for several more minutes, but then you all go to bed.” I know that seems heavy-handed, but pacing is your motherf$&%ing job. You built this LEGO set. It’s got to look good.

Exploration Scene

An exploration scene is a scene in which the players are free to interact with the world in order to learn interesting or useful information. They are sort of like interactive exposition with all of the same possibilities. But the information isn’t given and it isn’t guaranteed. Its there for the players to discover. Or, at best, it’s hinted at.

You can think of these scenes as giving the PCs world details to play with to see what they can find out. You have to be careful putting vital information into exploration scenes, because, by definition, the players might not find it. But, if failure is an option in your adventures, that might be okay. It’s up to you.

Exploration scenes are one of the most important and most often overlooked scene types in RPGs. They are what get lost when you think “Scene Equals Encounter.” Exploration scenes are not encounters. There’s no conflict. The players can have as much information as they can search for and learn as much as they can logically conclude and deduce.

I’m going to take chance here. Because this is a controversial view, especially in games with Knowledge Skills and passive skills like Perception. But here it is: exploration scenes really shouldn’t have die rolls in them. I know, I know. What about hidden information? What about religious lore rolls to see if people know what that icon is? What about a whole bookshelf full of stuff and the players need to find the one right tome? Fine. I’m not going to press the point. But I firmly believe those rolls are crap and do more harm than good for the game. If there is no actual, external conflict, there is no encounter. And if there is no encounter, there are no dice rolled. But I’ll forgive you if you don’t want to follow that rule. I’ve accepted that, in this respect, I’m the guy at the end of Twilight Zone screaming “it’s a cookbook” and no one can see the gremlin on the airplane wing and my glasses broke.

Decision Scene

A decision scene is usually a short scene in which the players have to decide what to do next. Often, they are built into other scenes, like exposition scenes and exploration scenes. Actually, at the end of those scenes, if the players have options about where to go and what to do next, they make a decision. And then the GM transitions to the next scene.

Decision scenes are just naked choices. The intersection with nothing to discover about where to go or what to do. Now, the thing is, decision scenes on their own kind of suck. And maybe one of the things you should take away from this is not to use them. I’ll tell you why in a little bit.

Discovery Scene

A discovery scene is similar to an exposition scene in that it’s usually there to give the players something. But in this case, you’re not giving them information. You’re giving them something valuable. A resource, like an ally or a treasure or some other kind of boon. Discovery scenes are like decision scenes in that they are a little bit bland by themselves. Usually, a discovery goes well with exploration or with an encounter. Or even with a decision or with exposition. And we’ll talk about why using them isn’t always the best choice.

Preparation (Montage) Scene

My preferred name for preparations scenes is montage scenes, but that name often confuses people because it implies they have to be smeared out in time. Like a montage scene in a movie. So, I’ll stick with preparation scene as the name so as not to confuse anyone to only think in terms of Rocky’s training or Emmett teaching the other characters to work as a team and enact a plan to sneak into Lord Business’ tower.

A preparation scene is a scene where the PCs actually get something done. They are doing something, but they have to make some decisions along the way. It doesn’t count as an encounter because there’s no conflict. But they still need to perform some actions and therefore need to make some choices. Crafting an object, doing research, shopping, that kind of thing. At the end of the scene, the characters have something to show for it. And they had to make at least one choice along the way. Preparation scenes are like decision scenes. By themselves, they are just a naked sequence of actions that accomplish something but don’t do anything interesting along the way. And again, we’ll talk about why in a minute.

Now, I am also going to make the point that preparation scenes are like exploration scenes: die rolls aren’t necessary and actually detract from the pacing in my opinion. But that’s just Crazy Uncle Angry and his psychotic view of only using dice when they are useful and interesting. Just ignore him and he’ll go back down to his basement and you can roll your Craft and Research checks.

Encounter Scenes

And now we get to the big one. The interesting one. The one that makes the game worth playing. The encounter. I’ve already talked extensively about what makes an encounter. And how to build the f$&% out of them. But understand that an encounter is a scene where the goal or purpose of the scene is locked away behind one or more sources of conflict: obstacles that have reasons to get in the players’ ways.

What About Interactions and Skill Challenges and Combats

You might notice that my list seems to be lacking a few things you used to think were scenes. Like combats and interactions and skill challenges. Surely, I forgot those things. Au contraire. Angry doesn’t forget things. He’s smarter than that. Way smarter.

Scenes are defined by the purpose they serve. If there’s a goal and uncertainty and something in the way, that’s an encounter. Maybe it’s a combat. Maybe it’s an interaction. Maybe it’s a obstacle. Whatever. But it’s an encounter. It’s resolving a conflict to accomplish a goal.

If there’s information being imparted to the PCs that they need or want, that’s exposition. Doesn’t matter if they are getting from a dude or a corpse or a book or the mystic voice of the narrator telling them what they know or remember.

As I said when I talked about designing combats, it’s important to keep your options open and to differentiate the encounter from the ways of resolving it. Yeah, I’m going to keep reminding you of that article. It was really good!

Point is, though: scenes serve a purpose in the game and in your adventure. And that purpose ain’t “talk to people,” “fight people,” “roll dice.” It’s impart information, ask for a useful decision, get something done, present a challenge, and so on. And when you plan an adventure, you want to plan around those purposes. NOT “combat,” “talk,” “obstacle,” etc. “Here the party can fiddle with stuff to learn about the world, and there they have monsters between them and the thing they need and over here they have to choose between going left or going north.” You don’t focus on the color of the LEGO bricks, you focus on what they do. Well, you do focus on the color too. But shut up.

The Right LEGO for the Job

So, you’ve got your basic scene types: Exposition, Recap, Planning, Character, Exploration, Decision, Discovery, Preparation, and Encounter. And these scenes do different things. Some impart information, some give the PCs things, some require decisions, some throw conflicts in their way and so on.

Now, in addition to the purpose of the scene – the type of scene – we also have to worry about two different qualities that every scene has. The first is pace. And pacing is such a big, important concept for building and running adventures that it is going to need its own special article and it’s a sick, twisted joke that no Gamemastery Guide spends an entire chapter on it. They barely mention it at all. So, forget pacing for now. Expect fifteen thousand words about it another time.

But the other important quality of a scene is the level of agency. That is to say, how much control can the players exercise over what happens in a scene?

For example, imagine you need to get information to the party about the terrible raptor-puppies that dwell in the grassy plains of the land of psychotic animals (any resemblance to Australia is purely coincidental and yes that have raptor-puppies there). You COULD simply tell the players what they know about the raptor-puppies. Or ask them to make a skill check which amounts to exactly the same goddamned thing but with a chance of failure and a wasted die roll in front of it. Or you COULD have a grizzled hunter tell them all about raptor-puppies. Or they COULD find a copy of Raptor-Puppies for Dummies.

Those are all exposition scenes. They simply hand the players information. “Here’s what you need to know: blaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh!” But the level of agency in that scene is nonexistent. The players don’t make any real choices. And for f$%&’s sake NO, choosing to ask for a Monster Lore check is NOT A CHOICE! I hinted at the fact that you could make them more interactive. But notice that at a certain point, the scene becomes so interactive, that it’s an exploration scene.

So, they encounter the grizzled hunter in the lodge whose had his leg bitten off. And through clever leading, the GM starts a confrontation over the missing leg. The hunter suddenly accuses one of the PCs of “eyein’ his leg” and “sniggerin’ behind his hand” and maybe drops a hint that “you’ll not be laughin’ when one o’ them raptor-puppies bites out your throat.” And the players can start to ask about raptor-puppies and also meet an interesting, colorful character. And maybe learn about the mysterious land of Not-Straulia. Bam. Exploration scene.

Same with decision scenes and discovery scenes and all those other bland scene types. Yeah, sometimes they are okay. And there’s no harm in them. But they should be used sparingly.

Sure, I need to know if the party goes left or right at the end of the hall, but if I also know I need to have a scene later where I give them some information about Sidnee, the greatest god of Not-Straulia, maybe you put an icon to the god at the intersection. Now, you mushed together a decision scene with an exploration scene.

And that brings us to the real trick of scene planning in adventures. The real trick to building a great adventure is to figure out all the scenes you need and then smoosh them into the fewest number of possible scenes. Let the more boring workhorse scenes absorb some of the stuff from the more interesting scenes. You’ll never get rid of all the workhorse scenes and you shouldn’t try to. Because pacing. But economizing makes your scenes punchy and interesting.

And that’s a good endpoint. Because now you understand the building blocks of a good adventure: scenes. And we’re going to use that knowledge soon to plan a really kickass adventure. Sure, we’ve got a lot more ground to cover first, but remember that the LEGO Attack on Weathertop set begins by snapping a single black 1 x 2 brick onto a green 6 x 6 cut corner wedge plate.

Seriously. Look it up.

P.S.: Don’t forget to go hunting for your XP for the week. You’ll have to really know your way around a globe to find it.

18 thoughts on “Scenes: The LEGO bricks of Adventure!

  1. and partly because it puts off the day when I actually have to build an adventure in front of you to show how all this crap fits together. So, that in mind, LET’S STALL!

    I had to stop reading the rest of the article to say that this passage is hilarious.

  2. I am glad to know that I was already mushing many of these scenes together instinctively. After reading this I feel I have a better understanding on which scenes I can put together with others, as some of my previous attempts were left with mixed results. Thanks again!

  3. So, is the reason that die rolls are bad for exploration and montage scenes because in order for die rolls to be interesting, they have to have a point. As in generally speaking it solves a dramatic question of some form, which is kind of awkward to put into prep scenes an exploration scenes… or is it some other heretofore untouched reason im not seeing, because in the name of economizing scenes wouldn’t montages and explorations be pretty rad if occasionally they became encounters.

    i spose that’d be pretty annoying if it happened all the time, but occassionally could be a nice change of pace. Is that why you arent too adamant about the whole dont do it ness??

    • I think you’re half right in that dice should be used when there’s conflict, which should be used to answer a dramatic question, which creates an encounter – but at that point you’ve either transitioned or combined an exploration etc scene into an encounter scene. I mean, sure I suppose you could have a dramatic question of “can Ragnar craft this suit of armor??” But if you’re rolling crafting skill dice it implies the source of conflict is his skill level… Which isn’t really a source of conflict. Either he has the skill to make it or not. Now, if he requires some rare materials and has to go barter for them and then has to convince the smith to let him borrow his forge etc you can create an encounter scene. But that’s not a preparation scene anymore.

      • Heh. I guess I should’ve reloaded comments before replying, because your response says everything I wanted to and more better.

    • I think you’ve got it on your first try: there should be an interesting reason to roll dice. But if such a scene ends up having conflict it becomes an encounter and then die rolls are totally appropriate.

  4. Basically, that’s right. Rolling dice when there’s no conflict and no stakes is a waste of die rolls. The roll to search a room is the classic example. So, the heroes search a room. Ransack it, really. Absent any external factors, what is it that keeps them from just searching the room until they turn up something? You can say time, but, if time has no value (there isn’t a ticking clock), well, then it’s very vague. How much time? How much time do they spend searching a room before they get bored or decide there isn’t anything there? And do the heroes get a say in that? All of these decisions are ultimately meaningless decisions. They don’t do anything to enhance the game. And then they require you to put these limits that say “no, you can’t search the room again” if the heroes don’t like the roll or remain convinced there is something there even if they didn’t find it. It becomes very silly when you start to think about it.

    Now, you could argue that the GM must ALWAYS provide external stakes – something to drive the choices, a conflict, like a ticking clock – but that isn’t always realistic. At that point, you’re demanding contrivance. How will the players feel when there is ALWAYS something hanging over their head just to provide a reason why they can’t take their time and be extra careful.

    BUT… remember that this is just to provide a basic conceptual framework for planning adventures. In the real world, things get a little messier. In the middle of an exploration, a combat can pop up, and then disappear again. But, by thinking of those things as separate scenes will help you with your narration, shifting from one “scene” to the next. It’s amazing how little things like “with the foes dispatched, you can continue searching the room” help the pace of the game. Ever notice how the game hits a brake after a combat ends? The players sort of stand around a bit and the GM is like “what do you do now?” Sometimes you get a “we search the bodies,” but it takes a few seconds for the game to get back on track. That’s because the GM isn’t providing a transition to help the players’ brain shift gears back to what was going on.

  5. Pingback: Painting a Happy Little Scene | The Angry GM

  6. Empty rooms are not pointless. Because they require a choice: spend time searching, or continue on without searching? Similarly searching requires die rolls per time unit because the opportunity cost is time.

    And time = wandering monsters. Wandering monsters aren’t just some pointless grog are concept. They exist for a reason. They eat up party resources, and can even kill a low-resource party.

    If you’re removed wandering monsters from your adventures, you’ve removed the time pressure. Removing time pressure screws up everything in D&D, its the basis for the entire character resource system. So you need to add in all sorts of hacks to replace it.

    Your focus is on a narrative structure game, as opposed to a more classic war-game. That’s fine as long as you realize what you need to replace to make the system work for your preferred style. In this case, skipping over things that previously used up a resource (time), and having to rearrange or rebalance the systems that depended on that resource (such as rest).

    • So, your only definition of D&D is like Little Brown Books, Basic, or AD&D 1st Edition? I mean, I enjoy these games, but the point you are trying to make is similar to the one why gold as XP (in your opinion) was best for rewarding inventive players or any other original element of the game that has changed since? How many D&D players exist today that view it as a “war game?”

      I personally enjoy the OSR, but searching empty rooms, making rolls, fighting another combat encounter from the random table – these things tend to get old and tedious over time. Time is a resource in such games, but at the same time other pressures are missing. Often you can return to the dungeon multiple times, you just have to gauge when to make your exit. The narrative is often weak, and character development can be woefully absent.

      When I read the articles on this site, I see references to 3E, Pathfinder, 4E, 5E. I don’t remember reading the words “wandering monster” creeping up there. They play differently and their DMGs usually advise to build adventures differently – not just draw a dungeon, spread some treasures, monsters, make an encounter table, end of story.

      Even though I like the OSR I do not believe that the old school way of playing the game is in any way better. It is often a screwy, bordering-on-the-tedious resource management game. Just as other, different styles of adventure may seem like railroading, unoriginal adventure paths, or similarly-paced experiences. But I really wouldn’t agree that simply adding wandering monsters to create time pressure is an ingredient that ultimately is a better solution to every situation. Never having a wandering monster, either. If the place is particularly dangerous, why not? If there are guards roaming, why not? But I do not consider the wandering monster idea to be great game design, because the only way to really avoid that is to rush and then be killed by all these oh-so-clever traps that just exist to punish players for failing rolls or rushing. If the dungeon is interesting, giving it a thorough run should not be penalized by a barrage of wandering monsters.

      So, I would not call having a clear concept of different scenes “hacks.” Calling them hacks implies that they replace something that worked and was perfect in some way with something less. I don’t buy that. Frankly, the WHOLE of Original D&D was a hack, thinking about it. Nobody knew what a “role-playing game” was and some war-gaming enthusiasts cobbled a game together that had plenty of issues, but was fun enough to spawn a whole slew of other games who had issues – sometimes similar ones, sometimes different ones. Lots of it was hacks and trial-and-error and after looking at it hard for a long time I refuse to believe the propaganda that the old school was somehow an inherently better way to play the game or that it was pure genius. People started migrating away from it as soon as the 70s because it was not for everyone, it did not hold universal appeal. It is not the lost grail of roleplaying. It is just what a particular subset of people in the hobby enjoys.

      Even what Dungeons & Dragons stands for changed over time – be it railroady look-what-the-big-shots-are-doing Krynn campaigns, or simple map-based dungeon and hex crawls with Basic, or be it adventure paths in Pathfinder, or be it the whole bag of ideas opened here or anywhere else… all of this is D&D, all of these are ways to play D&D. And deserve to be called D&D. I belittle no one for running an old school dungeon crawl, or a straight-forward linear adventure, or whatever floats their boats. None is the be-all-end-all of the game. One size doesn’t fit all. Keeps a lot of companies and authors in business.

  7. When you say die rolls aren’t necessary, you’re really breaking your own rules for when die rolls are necessary. Lets take the example you outlined in your comment, the searching the room. A die roll may or may not be necessary, it depends on how the thing the party might find is hidden. For example, if a bag of gold is just hidden under a cot, no roll is necessary. If the party decides to look under the cot, or if they decide to toss the entire room, they find it. No chance of failure. If, on the other hand, what they might find is a cunningly hidden secret door that is almost imperceptible, they might not succeed. There is both a chance of failure, and if you designed the dungeon well, there is some noticeable impact of failure. Either you find the secret treasure room, and get extra loot, or you only get what the boss was carrying. Either you find the shortcut that bypasses the trapped entryway, or you must navigate through that entryway, possibly falling victim to its traps.

    I suppose you could argue that becomes an encounter scene, because there is a source of conflict(the door being hidden), but in structure, from a narrative standpoint, it’s not much of an encounter. It does have conflict and a resolution, but narratively, it is structured much more like an exploration scene. The players are not posed with a question they have to solve, and a conflict they must overcome. They are posed with an environment they can interact with and possibly find something useful. Only if the characters know there is a secret door in that room, say because they found a map or note earlier in the dungeon, does it follow they same narrative structure as an encounter.

    At least, that’s how it seems to me. I may be splitting hairs, you seem to include any scenes like that under the heading of encounter scenes, but even then those types of rolls and checks that you disparage are still useful. The player is taking an action that may fail or succeed and the result has meaningful consequences.

    • It doesn’t have to be a LONG encounter.

      You said it yourself, there is a chance of failure. The dramatic question is, in this case, did the party find the hidden thing? If yes, they get treasure. If no, they get no treasure.

      Just because it was in the middle of an exploration scene doesn’t mean it’s not an encounter.

      • As I said, you could look at it that way, but from a narrative standpoint the scene is not the same as an encounter scene. It doesn’t play out the same way, it doesn’t have the same impact on the players, it doesn’t give them the same engagement. Yes, rule-wise, the door is an encounter, but when building the scene, the engagement and narrative role is the same as an exploration scene. And look at the definition he game for an exploration scene. They might find useful information, or they might not. Right there, chance for failure and meaningful consequences. That’s what I’m getting at, I guess. There seems to be an inconsistency there.

        • How is it different from searching a room while a lurking monster waits to ambush the PCs? If the monster knows they are there but decides to remain hidden, then the encounter doesn’t play out. Maybe I’m missing something but this seems similar. The secret door is opposing the PCs in the same way (trying to remain hidden), although the PCs aren’t aware of it.

        • As to what type of Scene the hidden door example is, it depends partly on what the door conceals, whether or not the party knows of it’s existence, and how specific they get in searching for it.
          Angry isn’t ignoring his own rule though (not that ignoring your own rules from time to time isn’t necessary/useful in games). He stated that rolls only need to be made when they matter and are interesting, or said another way, resolve a conflict and have a risk or cost. A hidden door that hides a path that bypasses a crap-ton of traps has the goal of remaining hidden, the players searching the room have the goal of finding everything. Angry’s basic lesson about having interesting encounters taught us to identify that as a conflict, and his lesson about making rolls require a risk or cost to failure tells us this scenario does have a cost of “taking the trap filled hall to doomsville” if they cannot find the secret door.
          The Players will know they missed something if they failed the roll, but the DM has to either make that roll for them in secret and move on without drawing attention to it, or cheese off their Players by enforcing the “fact” that unless they learn about the existence of the pathway or secret door (through clever mapping and noticing the “hole” in the map, or finding a diary/blueprint about this safe hallway or a monster stabbing their backsides from the previously empty room) then all of their subsequent attempts to search just turn up more of the same: They found nothing interesting and the characters would have no reason to think otherwise, unless the cleric casts detect secret doors, or the elf and halfling take candles to every section of the wall looking for a draft, but then they are precluding the roll and Exploring with specific actions that are likely to work anyway.
          The hidden door concealing treasure example is one Angry specifically called out as having no cost of failure at all, since the players had no idea of what they are missing out on if the roll failed. That would be a time to narrate them finding the door just because they searched, or just not having the door and treasure at all in the first place.
          If the hidden door concealed the boss who is trying to summon ‘*insert unpronounceable mess of letters and symbols here* the all-masticater’ then I think it would be a good time for rolls: “There is chanting echoing through the room, and energy arcs and swells randomly as the ritual has approximately 5 minutes until it’s completion. ‘You’ll never find and stop me!’ Lord Razorspaulders cackles to you in his echoing voice. What do you do?”

    • Having read since yesterdey almost all the articles from Angry about running and building since Dating Skills system to this one, I’m going to try to answer, but I might be wrong.

      I think by exploration scene he meant the ones where players can keep looking endlessly without interruption or pressure. So it’s the same as the Lock Picking, “do you continue to explore the ruins?”. Eventually, they will find everything in there. Also, I suppose he also means that resolving exploration encounters with a die roll is boring, just like the Traps article, there should be hints and such for the players to work with instead of just “roll perception to find the secret entrance”. Also, I think searching the room for a secret door is conducting a search, not exploration, exploration would be more like “let’s go to those ruins to see what’s there”, not actively looking for something. Although it amounts the same thing as the lock picking, if the players are convinced there’s a secret door or there might be, they will keep rolling and rolling until they find it, so you might as well just grant them the automatic success.

      At least that’s what I read into it, I might be way off the mark here. This might be the first article that left me confused about the different definitions, all the others are great, but then I’ll have to see what Angry does with these types of scenes to see if I’m right or wrong.

  8. Pingback: How to Code a Scene | The Angry GM

  9. Hmm. So regarding “search the room”, would this be a legitimate way of presenting the choice?

    [[The gypsy caravan master has folded his burly arms and looks pissed off. “You outsiders have seen our shame, and now it’s time for us to move on.” You guys only have time to search 1 piece of furtniture inside the caravan. Do you pick the bed, the dresser, or the large mirror? Roll perception on each.]] Let’s say there is a magic item in the dresser, there is a clue behind the mirror, and there is a smelly sock in the bed.

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