Adventure Structures

Whilst I quite liked the RPGaDay as it forced me to think about questions I would not have otherwise asked, it can be a bit of a task master. With the month over I can now write about what I want to write about as and when I want to. Today it is about how we structure adventures, not from a playing at the table perspective but the written page and how we present them to the GM. I raised this topic last week and  have been thinking about it ever since but now I want to throw it open to a wider audience.

There are two fashionable structures. Scenes and Locations.

Imagine a simple adventure where an urchin gets caught trying to rob a PC but then says he was planting a letter on them. He had to do this as his parents are being held captive by thugs. The thugs work for a crime lord. The contents of the letter incriminate the PCs in a coup against the current ruler, planned for tomorrow.

So lets play with this adventure.

In the Scenes method each scene has a brief outline and a scene objective. You then describe the scenes that make up this adventure. The players may proceed from scene one to two to three sequentially or they may leap from scene to scene. Rather than random monster encounters you can have a collection of ‘interrupted scenes’ that may or may not happen.

So…

Scene 1: “Caught Red Handed”

Objective: introduce the adventure to the party
Props: Incriminating Letter
Cast: Urchin
Location: Street or Market
Synopsys: An urchin tries to plant an incriminating letter. When caught confesses that he had to do it to save his parents.

Scene 2: “Fire In The Hole”

Objective: Rescue the parents and learn who is behind this plot.
Props: none
Cast: Uther & Annie (the parents), Vignir (half orc knifeman), Barny (human wrestler) and Mildew (Elven archer)
Location: Squalid backstreet terraced house
Synopsys: The players need to rescue the parents. Vignir, Barny and Mildew have orders to kill all three members of the family once they know the letter has been planted. The thugs work for Maris Piper the harbour master and suspected black market racketeer.

Scene 3: “The Viper’s Pit”

Objective: Confront Maris Piper
Props
Cast: Maris Piper (Elven Bard), Sailors deck hands and salty sea dog type thugs.
Location: Probably at the Harbour Master’s Office or attached Warehouse
Synopsys: The players may try to confront Maris Piper. Maris will try to claim innocence of the whole affair but if the confrontation turns violent will call for help from dock workers in his employ. The players may learn that Maris is himself just a pawn and has been paid by an unnamed foreigner to sow civil unrest.

Interrupted Scene: “What’s this then?”

Objective: complication
Props: the letter
Cast: Town Guard
Location: Anywhere in town
Synopsys:If the players are carrying the letter then they may be stopped by a patrol of the watch and subjected to a search. The letter is by its very nature incriminating.

…and so the adventure goes on. I would create scenes for each ‘action point’ and interruptions for any time where the adventure could be extended, if things are going too smoothly then a complication could be fun or if I wanted to showcase a particular piece of the world culture.

Practically I would put one scene on a single page so the extra white space is usable for notes or tracking adlibs.

The scenes are intentionally non-prescriptive. The party may cast a powerful sleep spell over everyone in the house and rescue the parents that way without any conflict or use telepathy to read the thoughts of the thugs and then walk away. As long as the objective is met then the story moves forward. A hack and slash game could approach the scenes one way an investigative game completely differently but the game notes remain the same.

Locations as a method is slightly different. You would still have the plot hoot of the urchin but then we would describe the terraced house in detail. The harbour master’s office and warehouse would be described and mapped and the possibly the location of the coup (Throne room?), a guard room in case the characters are arrested and anywhere else characters may go.

So now it doesn’t matter which order the players visit these locations. They could go from the introduction to the hovel to the guard house, tak their way out of trouble then to the harbour or they could get descriptions of the thugs from the urchin, ask around on the street and then head to the warehouse that night, bypassing everything.

The numbering of scenes tends to imply a sequence of events and the accusation of railroading but in reality the scenes should cover all possible scenes, a director’s cut if you like. What happens at the table could be completely different.

Old style (1980s) D&D modules were very much location based. Those from the 1990s and 2000s were more scene based. Five years ago Scenes were certainly all the rage but I have seen Locations being touted as the new best thing in some very recent releases.

There is no intrinsic reason why Locations have to be dungeon crawls or why Scenes have to be railroad tracks.

If we think back to Octomancer. You could have that as a set of scenes, “In the Marshes”, “The Watcher in the Gatehouse”, “The Librarian says Shh!”, “Invitation to the Palace” and the showdown “Splish, Splash we were having a bash!” or we could just detail the marsh, the gatehouse, the library, palace and the cistern system and just let the GM manage everything.

So is there any advantage to one over the other?

I think if you are an improv style GM then scenes work well. As long as you have the objective and the few key facts from the summary to hand you can go completely off piste and yet guarantee the story moves forward by creating opportunities for the objective to be completed. If the objective is to impart a key piece of information but the archer nails the NPC in the first round before they utter a word then you just need to create a new way for that information to get into the players hands.

With locations it sometimes becomes obvious when you have gone off piste when suddenly the rich descriptions that are used in some locations can trail off as the GM no longer has the full details in front of them or the players just do not know what or where to go next.

The flip is that scenes can assume that an NPC is still alive in Scene 3 but the players killed them in Scene 1 or that the big showdown is meant to take place on the docks, at night in a raging storm but the players attack at dawn when the villain is on their way home.

Writing location adventures can take a very long time to details hundreds of rooms, taverns and crime scenes but then they never get used. The same can go for NPCs as well. If you put the NPC’s stats in with the location but the players meet them somewhere else then the GM has to page flip to have the right stats in the right place. If you put all the NPC stats in a single reference then the GM definitely has to page flip to run every single encounter.

So what do you think? Do you have any preferences? Does it vary with game style? Do Scenes work best for fantasy genres but locations best for modern day games?

3 Replies to “Adventure Structures”

  1. I do prefer locations to scenes. I also like the old school hexcrawls, an alternative to dungeon crawls, such as was seen in the old D&D Expert series. I recently re-read a lot of these and admittedly they now feel a bit sparse compared to modern offerings, but that was probably due to the upfront expense of offset printing.

    With location adventures I probably wouldn’t write all the potential rooms, locations, taverns, descriptions, NPCs etc. Instead, I’d probably write the primary ones and then use various supplements for when players get off track, such as dressing books, NPC lists and brief taverns, shops and villages. For these I’d probably go to Raging Swan Press, Fishwife Games – and me, because that’s the sort of thing I do! This does cost of course, but it’s useful if time is limited.

    Also, if you do have loads of unused content, these can be published for other GMs who may lack the time to come up with everything needed, meaning that there can be a potential use for them. So, if anyone has such that they want to publish…

    1. I can see the advantages of both. It is easy to give a single paragraph overview of a buildings architecture and state of repair so the GM can improvise the undetailed rooms and the fully flesh out the key locations. On the other hand if the players just somply do not visit that location of open the door look in and then walk away a lot of preparation effort was for nought. Scenes offer more flexibility in some respects and right up front the GM knows that the point of the encounter is.

      I think that is an important element, what is the point of an encounter. I was reading an adventure a while ago and in the cellar were 2d8 zombies. To my mind 2 zombies was no challenge, 16 zombies could easily become a TPK but what was the point? Was it to use up party resources? Was it to weaken the party? Was it to slow their progress? If the encounter doesn’t have an actual reason, that adds to or furthers the story then it probably shouldn’t be in the adventure. Scenes take that ‘point’ and calls it an ‘objective’ and as long as the GM keeps the objective in mind then you can shift power levels up or down, you can shift locations, you can turn fights into stealth and skulduggery into political machinations.

  2. Since I tend to sandbox game, and structure more toward campaigns than one-off adventures I favor the location approach, but I also use scenes heavily. I think you need scenes if you’re doing more traditional espionage gaming (for example) where there’s a timeline (which the characters aren’t immediately aware of) and things are happening in a fairly set order (arms dealer arrives in town, meets his contact, meets again to cement the deal, and so on). Of course the characters can interrupt that timeline, but you need some set encounters to keep it moving.

    Of course, my thinking moves from setting to what can characters do in that setting, so I bias heavily toward location. I can typically use some tools to come up with things happening around them (random encounters aren’t bad if you bother to structure them to the location), but scenes with no solid details are really wasted on me. I also tend to favor games that have solid, believable settings (or mechanisms for creating the same). If you have a solid location (and I use that term broadly to include a wider geographic setting in addition to a highly-detailed village or town) you can always come up with scenes to bring characters there. Scenes in a vacuum aren’t as appealing to me.

    Getting back to your question about game style, I do think locations work better with modern games, but that’s because of the nature of the adventures and campaigns. You can string scenes together for those (clear the room, rescue the hostage, and so on), but you really need a solid setting for those to have any kind of continuity or flavor. Especially in a campaign. In modern gaming, at least for me, the setting almost becomes a character of its own (and we see this in video games as well…the entire Rockstar GTA series is known for distinctive cities), and a wise GM makes maximum use of this. With a well-thought out location scenes can more or less write themselves, but it’s harder for a scene to generate a solid location (at least in my experience). They’re really more blended as opposed to either/or, but I do feel location is the more important of the two, especially in non-fantasy stuff.

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