2017 is in full swing, which means the travelling RPG Blog Carnival is already jumping between blogs.
The February host was the team at Tabletop Terrors, where they nominated a staple of RPG scenarios: the encounter. This broad term gave me a lot to think about, and my initial essay needed to be split up. Thus, I am still pursuing the February topic, even though the month has finished.
The Tabletop Terrors site outlined 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.
My exploration of this topic focuses on an improvisational style of play. I enjoy needing relatively little prep, and the freedom at the table to work with the Players building the story together. However, to avoid a chaotic session, it helps me to have a structure for my encounters. In the best sessions, encounters seem to overlap, as good scenes flow from one to another. Yet by maintaining good encounter structure, the GM keeps the story flowing in a way the Players can understand. As I outlined in the previous essay, the four aspects of an improv encounter to consider are:
- Story Elements
The next aspect of an improv encounter is the content of the scene. I wrote extensively about story elements as part of my Improv Gaming series last year. There is no point in repeating myself here, so I direct you to these three essays:
The story element cards described in those essays serve as prepared prompts at the table. Even with a good story element to weave into the story, there is additional improv at the table. The essence of being an improv GM is the reduced prep burden. Thus, the story elements are brief notes, not a detailed encounter plan. Additional input is needed to bring the encounter to life.
Using my prepared story element cards, I improvise an encounter by answering the following questions:
When is the encounter occurring?
The first GM input into an encounter narrative is an indication of when the encounter is taking place. This question is usually a simple one for the GM to answer. At its most basic level, this detail should reflect the combination of the relative distance to the previous encounter, and the Heroes’ rate of travel. Passing through a doorway into the next room takes seconds, and probably need not be mentioned. An overland journey to the neighbouring kingdom could take weeks.
Few games need absolute timing precision, so it is enough to give a general statement about the passage of time. Yet, it is worth remembering that the majority of campaign time passes between encounters.
Where is the encounter happening?
Everything happens somewhere. Very often the Heroes are on a journey, whether this is a crawl through a dungeon, a quest through the wilderness or a shopping trip around a city. The location story element can thus be a marker showing the Players their progression through the journey. As noted, the GM must ensure the passage of time described at the start of the encounter matches the new location.
When improvising an encounter location, the GM has four main options:
- Revisit a Previous Location
- Use a Prepared Location
- Improvise on the Spot
- Brainstorm with the Players
1. Revisit a Previous Location
This is the easiest option, as all the work has already been done. Television drama is full of characters returning to the same location time after time. Many sitcoms feature only a few locations, yet still tell enjoyable stories. This option is best suited to an urban environment, where the Heroes revisit their favourite taverns and shops many times. These recurring locations give the setting believability. They allow Players to become invested in the familiar environment, and the cast of recurring characters they meet in these places.
2. Use a Prepared Location
Another simple option is to use a prepared location. If you are running a dungeon adventure, or a published scenario, then the important locations are already written. This method increases the prep burden on the GM, even if all you need to do is read the scenario and understand the intended flow of the story. Presenting a new location to the Players for every encounter requires more narrative input from the GM, unlike the previous option of revisiting a location the Players already know.
Alternatively, the GM may use a location story element personally prepared in advance. This also requires more prep from the GM. However, by creating the location yourself, you have a greater feel for it. When using your own creations, you are less likely to skip a crucial detail that might be otherwise lost in a wall of text found in a printed description. Your inherent understanding of the location also makes you comfortable with changing minor details to better fit the needs of the current story.
While I favour reduced prep time, certain locations demand careful preparation in advance. The most important locations in a plot benefit from the extra consideration you give them away from the table. The villain’s lair for the climactic battle merits preparing in advance. Likewise, if you want a location to showcase a major campaign theme, then write it in advance to ensure it portrays what the story needs. The same is true for a location highlighting a fantastical aspect of your campaign world.
Overall, if a location needs a high “wow” factor, then you probably should prepare it in advance. I prefer a low-prep routine, but sometimes we all need to prepare elements of the game beforehand.
3. Improvise on the Spot
The zero-prep version of the previous option is to simply improvise the location in the moment. This is the quintessential improv GM play, and probably what scares most GMs new to improvisation. If you are good at thinking on your feet, then this option is available.
When I use this option I typically imagine a similar location I saw in a film, and then describe it to the Players. Take a real-world location you know, add a fantasy twist, then make it the location in the game. Once you layer in the other encounter elements, it is unlikely the Players will identify the location.
Overall, this option really is not as scary as it may seem. Re-profiling a real world location is a good way to build confidence in your skills as an improv GM. This option is not your only solution at the table. However, your comfort levels with this options are a good judge of your confidence as an improv GM. Start small, and your confidence will grow.
4. Brainstorm with the Players
The final option for creating a location is to brainstorm it with the Players. This is a favourite method with my group. Nothing builds Player engagement with a setting more than involving them in the creation process. Likewise, the Players will remember the locations they helped add to the setting.
The when and the where of an encounter are important background elements. Every encounter has a time and a place, which the GM needs to narrate to the Players. Of these two elements, more options for an improv GM relate to the location. I hope this discussion helps you create the right locations for your game.
Next week I expand on the other encounter questions. How do you decide the location of your encounters? What techniques do you use to determine the passage of time between encounters? Have you tried brainstorming encounter elements with your Players? 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: Improv Encounters 1, Openings
- Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Encounters 3, Who & Players