2017 is in full swing, which means the travelling RPG Blog Carnival is already jumping between blogs. The latest host is the team at Tabletop Terrors.
They nominated a staple of RPG scenarios: the encounter. This loose term means different things to a range of GMs. Crunchy f20 games have a precise definition, and associated prep requirements. In contrast, many narrative games take a much looser definition of the term. A discussion of what constitutes an encounter, and how to run one, covers a wide range of approaches.
The Tabletop Terrors site outlines the topic like this:
This article is part of the magnificent and prolific Blog Carnival, and the topic for this month is Encounters. This month other fantastic bloggers will be exploring things like inventive ways to come up with encounters, different ways to run encounters in play, and even explore using encounter concepts across multiple systems to surprise players and breathe new life into your game.
Over the years, I have developed an improvisational style of play. This demands relatively little prep, and gives me a lot of freedom at the table to work with the Players building the story together. This essay takes a close look at my understanding of an encounter, and the way I run one in an improv game.
The encounter is the building block of every RPG session, the equivalent of a scene in a film or theatre play. As a unit of storytelling, the encounter has a beginning, a middle and an end. Often encounters seem to overlap, as good scenes flow from one to another.
Those three main encounter features each bring their own considerations for the GM. For the purposes of this essay, I added a fourth category: contest. This heading covers the mechanical aspect of a scene, where the rules come into play. This is the aspect of encounters which demands the most prep from the GM, especially for rules-heavy games. The four aspects of an improv encounter to consider are:
- Story Elements
Part 1 explores the opening to an improvised encounter.
The opening of an encounter refers to how the Players arrived at the scene. This concept is not restricted to the opening line of the encounter. The roots of a scene are not just in how it begins, but also in why the Players are here at all. In many cases, the opening of one encounter grows smoothly from the conclusions to the previous one. The best sessions are where one encounter leads seamlessly into another, all linked together in a narrative chain.
I see two broad categories of openings:
The best opening to an encounter is when the Players lead the way. The classic GM line at the end of a scene is “What do you do now?” The response by the Players is the lead into the next scene. Clearly this approach works well in a dungeon, when the Players choose which door to open. The GM responds by narrating the contents of the next room, and the game segues smoothly into the next encounter.
On a more abstract level, the narrative structure of an RPG resembles the classic dungeon map. Once a scene or room is finished, then the Players consider the routes out of this room and into the next. There is a short travelogue as the Heroes journey to the next room, possibly with a decision point when the route forks. Eventually, the Players arrive at the next encounter, enter the room and the game proceeds as normal.
The GM always has input into the scene, and can improvise the content as required by the narrative. However, the fact the Players chose this encounter heightens their engagement with the subsequent scene and highlights Player agency.
Conversely, if the Players are reluctant or unable to suggest where to take the story, then there may be a deeper problem. This is a good sign your mystery is too complex, your clues are too subtle or simply the Players face too many threats. Worst of all, the Players may simply have disengaged from the game. Carefully gauge the Players’ reaction to “What do you do now?” If this question is met with silence and blank stares, then it might be time to pause the game and have a frank discussion with your Players. For whatever reason, the game is not working for them and you need to resolve that problem or watch your game dissolve.
The other main category of encounter opening is where the GM sets up the scene. In my game I always narrate the instigating incident, the encounter at the start of the session. This sets up the time, place and even tone of the subsequent session. This opening encounter is a free pass to the GM to determine the focus of the session.
A strong opening scene sets up a powerful session, so choose wisely. My improv games feature a lot of narrative freedom, so I am not constrained to starting one session where the previous one ended. Sometimes I will keep the action rolling on from the last session, especially if a large plot was not resolved. However, this is not a requirement for every session. Thus, I often allow time to pass between sessions, giving me more freedom when framing a new instigating incident.
Of course, there is nothing stopping a GM from opening a scene later in the game. However, this method should be used with caution. Clumsy use of this technique will lead to accusations of railroading, as the GM may be usurping Player agency. The distinction often depends upon how much Player input there was in the opening.
For example, suppose the Players declare they want to go shopping, rest for the night, visit family and then leave town in the morning. This rambling statement of intent hands the GM plenty of leeway. If you want to improvise a lengthy roleplaying session, then skip to the awkward meeting with family. If you want to run a bar-brawl, then hand-wave the shopping, and skip straight to supper in the tavern. If you feel the session should pick up speed, then jump straight to the next morning as the Heroes ride away from town. Any of the above options are likely to be accepted by the Players, even though it was a direct choice by the GM as to which, if any, option was played out at the table.
However, let us assume a different scene followed the above statement of intent. If the GM narrated a meeting with the Town Council, then the Players may feel cheated. Even if this meeting leads directly to a juicy plot hook, this was not what the Players wanted. Now the accusation of railroading sticks to the GM.
The GM interruption
The GM-lead opening is a powerful tool, but needs to be used with care. The interventionist opening accepted at the start of a session will not always sit well with Players later in the session. Yet, there remain ways in which the GM can influence the choice of scene. As noted above, when the Players give a multi-part answer to the “What do you do now?” question, the GM has greater freedom to pick the option they want.
However, a legacy from the roots of the hobby allows the GM to interrupt a Player-lead opening. This is a variant on the classic wandering monster encounter. Here, the GM starts narrating the opening to an encounter specified by the Players, before hijacking it. This approach buys into the classic improv response of “Yes, but . . .”
- Yes, you head to the family home, but are ambushed by a street gang.
- Yes, you walk into the market, but meet your angry cousin coming the other way.
- Yes, you retire for the night, but a brick is thrown through your window.
The “Yes, but . . .” opening line acknowledges Player agency, yet balances it with GM input. Be prepared for the Players to reiterate their original intent once the interruption is resolved. However, the GM has the opportunity within the current scene to present the Players with a more attractive follow-on encounter, one they want to visit more than their original intent.
Repeatedly thwarting the Players’ attempts to reach a specific scene will quickly appear deliberate, and draw accusations of limiting their agency. If you really do not want the Players pursuing a particular encounter, then you might be better talking with them directly. If you want more time to prepare an important scene, or think they are simply not ready to face the challenge of the dragon, then tell them. A little out-of-game honesty will prove better for your relationship with the Players than a string of clumsy interruptions.
The other point to remember with these Wandering Monster encounters is to make them fit the setting. Thieves in dark alleys and brawls in dockside taverns all fit the setting. Encountering the same interruptions in the Imperial Palace may challenge the reputation of the autocratic Queen.
The opening of each encounter is a brief, but significant moment. The GM should use their power here wisely, or face accusations of railroading. Whenever possible, show your Players their agency by allowing them to choose their own openings, hopefully stringing together encounters into a seamless narrative chain. Yet, there are a couple of techniques open to the improv GM to ensure their input into the direction of the narrative.
Next week I focus on improvising the content of an encounter. How do you open your encounters? What techniques do you use to guide the Players while maintaining their sense of agency? Do you think Players even care? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read all the current entries to the February Carnival at Tabletop Terrors.
- The RPG Blog Carnival is under the stewardship of Johnn Four, at his Roleplaying Tips website.
- See my Index page for a full list of all my RPG Blog Carnival contributions.
- I was the host for the January event, where the chosen topic was Prophecies & Omens, summarized here.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Fiasco Interludes
- Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Encounters 2, When & Where