The 2017 travelling RPG Blog Carnival is in full swing. 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 broken up into this series. 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.
- To learn more, see the Tabletop Terrors site.
- As February has finished, Tabletop Terrors have posted a summary article.
- In Part 1 I discussed encounter openings.
- Part 2 answered the When and Where encounter questions.
- Part 3 presented the player-focused aspects of the Who question
- Then part 4 explored the GM-focused aspects of the Who question
- Part 5 completed the Who question by presenting the faceless opposition
When improvising the content of the scene, the GM must answer the following questions:
Previous essays in this series answered the When, Where and Who encounter questions. Part six explores the fourth question.
What is Happening in the Encounter?
The answer to this question revolves around the story. The essence of an encounter is how it takes the story forward another step. Whether the scene provides background details, plot development, a character highlight or a climactic confrontation, these are all steps in the story.
Thus, the What of an encounter is the most important question for the GM. A strong answer here creates a powerful scene to inspire and amaze your Players. To help you generate effective scenes, the What question can be further subdivided:
What is happening in the Setting?
This aspect of the What looks to the set dressing of a scene. These are the events occurring in the background when the Heroes enter the scene. This What can range from a flamboyant coronation parade to dripping water in an empty chamber. It can be a visual feast for the Players to watch in awe, or simply a moody sense of place.
Indeed, mood, tone or style are all conveyed in this aspect of the What. Noir stories are dark and foggy, cyberpunk cities are rainy and lit by neon. These simple stylistic tropes are easily conveyed as part of the set dressing of a scene. Each one reminds the Players about the style of game they are playing, and reinforces story expectations. Keep a list of genre setting tropes in your notes, to regularly weave into your scene introductions as a way of reinforcing the mood of your game.
Along with such small details, the What of a scene can be big set piece descriptions. Think of them as the wonders, or iconic locations of your setting. The Royal Palace with its rainbow marble wall, the dome of the Sun Temple which shines so brightly it dazzles, the rift to the Plane of Fire. Every encounter does not merit a lengthy description from the GM, but a few iconic locations deserve special treatment. These wonders distinguish your setting from every other fantasy realm, so ensure your Players understand what their characters are seeing.
What is happening in the Plot?
This aspect of the What question explains where the current scene fits in the broader campaign plots under the GM’s control. Every scene need not relate to these sweeping plots. However, this campaign subtext to the encounter should be borne in mind by the improv GM. It is always better to show the Players the impact of the king’s cruelty, rather than have GMCs simply tell the Players about it.
The coronation parade may be evidence of the usurper king taking control, or perhaps the city council are spending lavishly in support of their political ally. Likewise, the dripping water might be a clue to the water demons deeper in the dungeon, or a warning that the river is about to burst into the caverns, weakened by the goblin tunnels.
Many encounters will not have this subtext, and that is fine. However, if your campaign has a deeper plot, then keep this in mind when improvising encounters. Is the current scene a chance to show important background events? These may often be small clues, but the accumulation may be enough to alert shrewd Players. Likewise, when a secret plot is revealed, it will seem more believable if the Players were seeing clues in many of the preceding scenes.
The topics referenced in this aspect are very similar to the Why of an encounter. Here we are focused on the campaign plot, whereas the Why question is more about the metagame. The Why of an encounter is the topic of next week’s essay.
What are the Players doing?
All GMing is about reacting to the Players. The basic structure of the game is a back-and-forth exchange of information. This aspect of the What of an encounter is a reminder to the GM to react to what the Players are doing. It is not always appropriate to give the Players exactly what they want. Yet, the game is supposed to be fun for the Players. Thus, you should ensure you amuse your Players.
During an encounter, the GM needs to watch how the Players react. If the scene is boring the Players, then switch up a gear with a new input into the scene, or cut your losses and wrap it up quickly. Conversely, if all the Players are engaged, let the scene run on for longer. You may have stumbled upon a GMC the Players love chatting with, or maybe the Players are simply enjoying in-character banter. So long as everyone is having fun, let the scene play out.
Over time, the GM learns what their gaming group enjoys. Make this aspect of play a regular feature of the game, whether it is combat, gossip or wondrous locations. Vary the encounters to ensure every Player has something they like, but return regularly to those favourite encounters.
What is happening in the Story?
The final What of an encounter is the story of the encounter. Firstly, this aspect is a reminder to the GM to record what happens in every scene. This is crucial for continuity, as well as showing the Players how their actions matter. Short actual play reports are a great way to record the campaign and illustrate how the Heroes had an impact on the setting.
Secondly, the GM should be aware of how future encounters are effected by what happens in the current scene. The best illustration of how the Heroes impact the setting is to have the consequences of one scene shape a later scene. The encounters in a campaign should flow smoothly from one to another, and this aspect is about noting the events in the current scene to later weave them into a future encounter.
The What of an encounter is a complex question, covering a wide range of topics. This aspect looks both back and forward. The What is crucial to creating a smooth sequence of encounters within a campaign. It is also the area where the GM can weave together the threads of the story arc, which is my favourite part of being an improv GM.
How do you decide what happens in your encounters? What techniques do you use to weave in campaign plots? Do you give the wonders of your setting enough attention? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read the summary of all the 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 dedicated page for a full list of all my RPG Blog Carnival contributions.
- 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: My Big Four RPG Cities
- Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Encounters 7, Why Now?