Friday, April 26, 2019

Scene or Event-Based Game Sessions (And How I Prep Them)

Sometimes I run traditional location-based adventures that make use of a predefined, keyed map. Other times I run "scene" or "event"-based adventures. (Most adventures even manage to combine both.) To be honest, I don't find them to be all that different as modes of adventure in terms of preparation or execution.

There are a lot of strange assumptions that orbit the notion of "scene" and "event"-based play. I've seen accusations that these styles of adventure are "scripted," as in they provide a predetermined plot line into which the DM merely inserts the player characters. This assumption often implies that the players have little or no agency and must follow the DM's "story" as it was envisioned at its creation.

I don't find that assumption to be particularly accurate in terms of how I prepare for game sessions or how they play out at the table. Here's why:

When I prepare for a scene or event-based game session, I only prep a situation--something that happens that will draw-in the player characters, a problem to be solved (or not) by the players' actions, something that demands confrontation. 

Here's what I don't prep: the way the situation must be addressed. The situation is an open-ended problem; certainly, possible solutions probably suggest themselves to me, but I place no importance on one of those outcomes coming to pass. I'm open to the players approaching the situation from an angle I haven't considered; frankly, it's more fun for me if they come up with something I haven't accounted for or didn't expect.

Think of a situation as a question, but consider that posing a question doesn't presuppose a known answer. I think this is what people mean when they say "Play to find out what happens."

The shape of the adventure is a series of "scenes" or "events" that I have prepped ahead of time. In more concrete terms, this means I have prepared places they might visit, NPCs they might interact with, and fights they might get into.

However, it's important to emphasize that none of these events or scenes have to be played out necessarily for the game to progress. It's also worth noting that I don't plan how these scenes or events will resolve--that's in the hands of the players as they make decisions for their characters and sometimes determined by how the dice land if it comes to that.

Realistically, some outcomes are more likely than others. Based on initial descriptions, the players are likely to have a short list of places they might want to go to or people they might want to talk to. Those scenes suggest other places to go and other people to talk to through things like clues obtained during investigation, further knowledge provided in conversation with NPCs, and details discovered by exploring locations. 

In this way, an scene-based adventure does have a certain shape, but the shape is malleable and definitely not predetermined. In fact, the choices the players make inevitably change the shape of the adventure because the actions their characters take have consequences; the world reacts to the characters, the situation changes in response

If the players decide on a course of action I didn't see coming...I improvise. There is no urge to get them back on track; I'm happy to go where they lead. There is no plot to be followed and no story that needs to arrive at a foregone conclusion; rather, there is a web of connections to be navigated as the players choose.

Which, to my mind at least, is not all that different from location-based adventure design. Each room where something might happen in a location-based adventure is essentially a "scene"; it's part of the larger situation that can be addressed with exploration, stealth, roleplaying, violence or a combination thereof. When you key a map, you're keying scenes and events that might come to pass when and if the player characters arrive there and choose to engage. 

The web of connections is there in the corridors, intersections, a stairs; it too is to be navigated as the players choose. The web of connections is present in every hexcrawl; each border is defines the shape and scope, each numbered hex points to scenes to come or to be skirted at the players' decisions. Admittedly, my scene-based adventures tend to use a lot less graph paper than my location-based ones.