Days of High Adventure
Build Scenes, Not Encounters

CJ Miozzi | 16 Sep 2014 04:27
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Traditional tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons build adventures around "encounters." Bet it a combat encounter, a trap, or even a 4th edition skill challenge, the rules presented to a DM, as well as the sample adventures a DM can draw from, focus on an action-resolution paradigm. Generally, these encounters are tied to locations: Room A has a combat encounter with a dragon, Room B has a trapped chest, Room C has a hidden door, and Room D has nothing of interest - and thus no associated encounter. But my experience with the Shadows of Esteren tabletop RPG has made me realize that building an adventure around "scenes" rather than encounters delivers a better story-driven experience.

Don't get me wrong - traditional dungeon crawls are fun. But after a few years of running those, I yearned for a more story-driven type of adventure, one that was less about individual encounters and more about character development, plot, and deep engagement. The problem is that, while the D&D rules are fantastic at detailing how to build balanced encounters, and, consequently, excellent dungeon crawls, they offer scant advice on how to build a good story. There's nothing wrong with that - D&D doesn't have to be everything for everyone. But my group decided to stick with the D&D system, and so I found myself building around the given structure rather than truly building with the given structure.

Shadows of Esteren is a lighter system with respect to rules and places much more focus on story. However, it doesn't provide any additional "story rules" that D&D lacks. So what was the lightbulb moment for me?

Presentation. Shadows of Esteren doesn't present its adventures as a series of locations with associated encounters - it presents them as distinct scenes within a three-act structure. This simple paradigm shift turns the experience from one that is primarily a game with win/loss conditions, to one that is primarily an interactive story.

Shadows of Esteren adventures lay out the tentpoles of a scene and give you all the information you need to run them. Here's a summary of what happens in the scene; here's the narrative purpose of the scene; here's some guidance on how to handle the scene. The details are left vague enough for ample improvisation, and the best thing about this system is that it can be adopted by any other tabletop RPG.

When designing a story-driven adventure, rather than using encounters as your building blocks, think in scenes. What exactly is a scene? For our purposes, it's a miniature story: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Scenes can vary in length, scope, and purpose, but they are united in the feeling of being a distinct segment of the story. Movies are the perfect visualization of scenes, and we often talk about movies in terms of scenes - remember that fight scene in Helm's Deep? The scene when they meet Galadriel? The Council of Elrond scene?

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