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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.