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
- In Part 6 I answered the vital What is happening question
When improvising the content of the scene, the GM must answer the following questions:
Part seven explores the final question.
Why is the encounter in the story?
Where the What question focused upon the story events, the Why is looking at the bigger picture. The Why of an encounter is a metagame question: Why is this encounter even in the game? Time within the game is limited, we cannot show everything which happens to the Heroes. So why is the GM showing this scene, and not hand-waving it away?
The answer looks to the motivations for the encounter as an episode within the game. There are three main reasons for running a scene:
The Encounter Develops a Plot
The important distinction to remember here is between plot and story. Story unfolds at the table, the narrative which emerges through play. Story is influenced by the interactions between Players and GM, typically modified by random chance created by dice or other input.
In contrast, plot is a planned path towards a desired goal. The GM creates plots for the world, and sometimes Players have personal plots. Characters within the game act in pursuit of these agendas. Plots are the character’s plans, while story is what actually happens at the table in reaction to these plots.
This is a subtle distinction, but the concepts represent different aspects of the game. Thus, careful application of the terms allows us to discuss the art of storytelling. I wrote elsewhere about this distinction:
Advancing the Plot
Having defined the concept, I can return to answering the Why encounter question. For a narrative GM, one of the main reasons to present an encounter is to advance a plot. Most campaigns feature the Heroes fighting against a major villain. The villain has an agenda, and works towards achieving this goal. An encounter where the Heroes directly oppose the actions of the villain falls under this category.
Of course, many campaigns are not this straightforward. There may be several factions all competing for control of the kingdom. This allows the GM to weave together these plots, and present the Heroes with a variety of encounters. After a short series of encounters pursuing an agent of the Grand Vizier, the Heroes may skirmish with the Cardinals guards, before a tense roleplaying scene in the palace with a scheming Countess. Each encounter advances a different plot, but they are all moving the story forward.
Finally, it is worth noting how Player-initiated scenes can also advance a plot. This encounter motivation is not the sole preserve of the GM. Occasionally, such a scene may advance a campaign-wide plot. Generally these Player scenes develop a Hero’s personal agenda. This is as good a reason as any to have the encounter, and a clever GM may weave a broader campaign theme into the Player-focused plot.
The Encounter Presents Background
This category of encounter is another useful tool for the GM. While it is possible to simply tell the Players about the setting, this is not the best method of presenting information in a game. Remember, it is always best to show the Players something, rather than just tell them about it. Thus, an encounter may be a vehicle for presenting the Players with an aspect of the setting.
The tone and theme of the setting, or even those of the current location, are best conveyed to the Players in a scene. A mundane encounter at the gates of a city can show the Players the mighty walls, an intricate system of locks on the carved gates or the general efficiency of the City Watch. This scene at the gates is not a threat to the Heroes, but carries useful information about the city.
Ideally, there should be something for the Players to do in a background scene. A short roleplaying exchange with a guard, haggling with a street vendor or a similar street scene can be wrapped around useful information about the city. If you want to pass along more information, have a guide try to persuade the Heroes take a tour by offering them a few historical snippets of information. In the wilderness, the Heroes’ mounts could shy at the sight of a passing dragon, or a raging torrent of lava. This triggers a skill roll or two, and allows the GM to describe this natural wonder to the Players.
Use background scenes sparingly, unless you can fold in a dynamic encounter. These descriptive scenes may be too passive for some Players. It is important to give Players details about the incredible settings you create, but be wary of boring them with too many facts.
The Encounter is Fun
Our hobby is meant to be fun, so the GM should ensure the Players have fun at the table. Every group enjoys something different, and the GM should work to include scenes of pure fun in the game. This category is a very personal one.
Many of my Players enjoy riddles, so I scatter riddle rooms through the story. These are rarely tied to any major plot, but exist solely for the Players’ enjoyment. If your group likes the tactical aspect of gaming, then throw random monsters at them. Likewise, if your group loves to banter with GMCs, populate your setting with chatty barkeeps and grumpy guards.
You know what your Players want, so ensure every session has at least one encounter which plays to the audience. With a mixed group of Players, you may need a selection of fun scenes to cover all the bases. Sometimes these scenes will relate to a broader plot, but this is not a requirement. It is enough for the Players to have another opportunity to do what they enjoy the most.
The Why of an encounter looks to the bigger picture. How does this encounter play out in the session as a whole, or even the campaign? An encounter can progress the plot, show the setting or just entertain the Players. By understanding the purpose of an encounter, the GM can improvise it appropriately.
How do you categorize your encounters? What style encounter do your Players like? Do you vary the style of your scenes? How would you weave background elements into an encounter? 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: Improv Encounters 6, What is Happening
- Something for the Weekend next week: Top 40 Websites for Storytelling GMs
- Read the next in the series at Improv Encounters 8, Contests