Build Scenes, Not Encounters


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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A scene can contain one or more encounters, or none at all. What’s important is that the scene serves some purpose in the story, be it to introduce the players to the villain, create a bonding moment for the PCs, advance the plot, and so on. While random encounters are great in dungeon crawls, anything that doesn’t serve a greater purpose in the story is just filler. Don’t add encounters just to meet an XP quota – give those encounters purpose, even if that purpose is solely to establish the setting as one that is dangerous. And if that’s the case, ensure you use other elements to support that purpose – evocative descriptions, setting an appropriate tone, and focusing on the elements of danger above all else.

Shadows of Esteren made me realize that, for years, I’d been trying to structure my adventures in scenes, but when putting pencil to paper, would follow the sequential encounter structure typical of a D&D module. The scenes were all there – but they were in my head, rather than neatly organized in my notes. The result was suboptimal organization and added mental strain while running sessions.

Let’s draw excerpts from the first scene in a Shadows of Esteren adventure, which could have easily been written as a standard D&D encounter. The write up opens with a suggestion to play a specific track from the Braveheart soundtrack to set the mood and some advice on keeping details scant for the time-being in order to engage the players rather than “infodump” on them. “The aim of this scene is to throw the players directly into the heart of the story,” the description reads.

It goes on to establish the opening situation – the PCs are spending the night in a little mountain chapel when suddenly, they hear unsettling noises. “Strange snorting, the chapel door moving, claws scratching… it would seem that monstrous creatures are about to attack!”

The write-up instructs the DM on how he can keep pressure on the players in order to maintain a tense atmosphere, and when he “decides that the tension is at its peak, the beast will eventually attack.” A stat block for the creature – a mutated bear – follows, as well as information on what can be learned from examining it (or its corpse), which are precursors to the main plot of the story.

In short, in D&D, story is the stuff that happens between fights. Or, to put it more adroitly, story is the vehicle that drives the characters to encounters. In Shadows of Esteren, encounters are a consequence of experiencing a story. Know the type of game you want to run – if it’s a good ol’ fashioned dungeon crawl, stick with an encounter-based structure. But if you want a more story-driven experience, start thinking in scenes.

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