On 'The Scene' in Adventure Design: Supplimental

This is a supplemental article discussing adventure design. The first post covering Line Structure is here. The second post covering Space Structure is here. The third post covering Time Structure is here.

What are the six elements that compose a scene in the context of a tabletop RPG?

The answer is more simple than you think.

A scene is composed of two primary parts, The Setting, and The Action.

The first component of  a scene The Setting, is fairly simple. It's the platonic ideal of a space for the players. It could be a static room, a house, a giant complex, or a spaceship. It is where the players exist during the scene.

What happens in this setting?

Surprisingly few options. What's more surprising is that Gary Gygax already laid out the sum total of everything that could possibly happen relative to play in a tabletop RPG in 1981!
"That's right bitches!"

Dungeon masters guide page 171.
Table V.F. Chamber or Room contents

1-12 Empty
13-14 Monster
15-17 Monster & Treasure
18 Special
19 Trick/Trap
20 Reward

Let's look at these options.

Empty: Nothing could happen
Monster: The players could meet an antagonist
Treasure: The players could get a reward
Special: Something unusual that his neither wholly good or bad could occur
Trick: The players could experience a plot twist or a challenge of wits
Trap: Something bad could happen

That is the sum total of any and every possible thing that could occur. These six elements compose The Action of the scene. These two things, The Setting, and The Action make up the scene. So what does this have to do with our structures?

Line Structure and Space Structure are all about the way that scenes connect. They are literal structures, because in a very real sense they physically connect the scenes that they are made up of. They are useful tools for providing a virtual game-board for the players to explore. Sadly, they are very static having their actions trigger only when the players arrive. (The cultists muscles ache as they hold positions, waiting for the players to bust down the door and save the sacrificial victim)

So to address the static issue we use Time Structure which allows our environment to change and react in simple ways to the players.

Much like rudimentary Artificial Intelligence programs, the Time Structure is not reactive because it is actually intelligent. It either reacts based on a predetermined plan, or in reaction to the player action. For instance, if the players eliminate a set encounter that they fought as a wandering monster, and then later either find the empty set encounter or get the same wandering monster result, then this doesn't make the Time Structure intelligent, it just means that what the Time Structure is using as reference to introduce some dynamics in the environment is empty.

Happy Cultist Leader
Not smart. Not Dynamic. Just empty. At least using time structure the cultists can execute their sacrifice at midnight regardless of the player action. Happy Cultist!

This type of thing feels fairly dynamic to the player, but really it's just changing the states of a few scenes, based on player choice (i.e. how long do they spend doing what).

I would like to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with using just these three structures in unison. My last two games used just these structures and no others. This tends to give the game an old school feel. The world is large and dangerous and the players move within it as heroes. Lots of modules, megadungeons, and old-school games take this approach. It leaves the heroes as the only giants to stride across the land.

But what if you really want the players to feel like they are in a world that's alive? How do you make the elements of a scene truly dynamic, instead of just a list of things that you've decided as Dungeon Master? A world that's authentically dynamic and have the players not only combat dungeons and monsters, but other entities and organizations? How do you create emergent game play at the table?

How does one set up a city based game or play a political game without resorting to rolling skill checks or playing the spreadsheet game? How do you handle non-combat encounters without resorting to a mythical iMech? That's what we'll look at next time when we examine Power Structure, or Spiderweb Style.

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