All the way back in February, the 2017 travelling RPG Blog Carnival host was Tabletop Terrors. Their nominated topic was a staple of RPG scenarios: the encounter.
This broad term gave me a lot to think about, and my initial essay plan developed into this series. Thus, I am still pursuing the February topic, even though the month has long 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
- Part 7 explored the final question, Why is the encounter in the story?
- Part 8 examined the mechanical aspects of an encounter.
- Part 9 presented no contest encounters.
- Part 10 explored three ways of weaving together more than one contest in a scene.
- Part 11 presented advice about running contests as an improv GM.
Closing the Encounter
After four essays exploring the complex area of contests, it is time to move along to the final encounter feature: the closing. Just as it is important to start an encounter well, it is equally important to consider how to conclude an encounter. There are three aspects to closing an encounter for an improv GM:
- Finish Fast
- Deliver on the Promise
- Point the way Forward
Improvised games tend to run quickly, as the Players push through the streamlined encounters. Something about the improvised content has a roughness or edginess, which manifests as a tendency for the Players not to linger. The GM is unlikely to provide detailed descriptions, so the speed of the narrative correlates to speed of action by the Players.
To maintain this pace in the game, it is important for the GM to close encounters quickly. It should be clear from the start of the encounter what the Players hope to achieve. If this is a combat encounter, then once the opposition are dead or run away, then the scene is finished. Likewise, a shopping scene should conclude once the desired object is purchased, or a social scene should end once the vital piece of information is found.
Once the encounter goal is achieved, the GM should wrap up the scene with a short piece of narrative. Corpses are quickly searched, or the Heroes finish their drinks and leave the tavern. Additional small-talk is quickly hand-waved away, as the narrative hustles the Heroes out of a scene with nothing more to add to the story. Once the goal of the scene is met, there is little point in dragging it out. Keep control of the pace of the session through direct narrative at this point, rather than waiting for the Players to end a scene naturally. Trust in finding new excitement in the next scene, rather than eking out the dregs from a concluded scene.
Deliver on the Promise
The caveat to the first aspect is that the promise of the scene needs to be achieved before the GM hustles the Players out of it. A clear goal for the scene should be established early, even if this is only known to the GM. The Players may think they are visiting the armourer for a new helm, but the GM knows the real purpose of the scene is to witness a failed robbery. Then, instead of immediately leaving the shop with the new helm, the GM could allow the armourer to chat for a little longer, until the robbery attempt. Or, the GM could use a phrase such as “you are about to leave, when . .”
Players may initiate a scene where the GM does not really know what constitutes the goal. In these cases, it is important to listen to the flow of the conversation. These are often talking scenes, and may even be a conversation between Heroes. Moments of intense roleplaying are all part of the fun, but once again, the GM should be ready to end a scene which is dragging on. The goal may simply be a chance to play a scene in character, or explore a relationship between two of the Heroes.
These character scenes reach their goal once Heroes display their core traits, and maybe exchange a few catchphrases. Monitor the mood at the table. If the other Players start to lose interest, or the conversation is circling back on itself, then the character goal has been met. The GM then takes control of the narrative to conclude the scene. A change of location, or the arrival of a new piece of information requiring Player response can be enough to close the scene and move on.
Point the way Forward
This feeds smoothly into the final aspect. It is all very well to end a scene once it achieves its goal, but the Players need to know where to go next. As I noted previously, the scenes in a session should flow one into another. Thus, when a scene is closed, there should be somewhere for the Heroes to go next. The standard exit from a scene is for the GM to ask “What do you do now?”
Of course, sometimes the Players simply for not know the next scene they want. An alternative for the GM is to initiate a short discussion between the Players, where they debate how to proceed. This could be as simple as a short debate about whether to open the door on the right, or the one on the left. Alternatively, the GM may need to summarize the current plot, hopefully drawing upon the previous scene, and then inviting the Players to discuss their options.
Finally, the GM may take this chance to spread the spotlight among the Players, and move the Heroes into a new plot thread entirely. If the new scene contrasts strongly, or otherwise references the previous scene, then this really helps the flow of the game. Interwoven plots which later unite help justify this narrative cutting.
There are two important points from this last aspect. Firstly, do not end a scene the Players are enjoying to then have the game stall in a dull scene with no purpose. Secondly, the GM should always know how to keep the game flowing. Jump from one plot to another, or one action scene to another. Weave different encounters together, keep the game moving strongly and give the Players plenty to do.
Knowing when to close a scene grows with experience. Ideally, one scene should flow smoothly into the next. Maintain the pace of your session by jumping out of a scene once the goal has been achieved. Always carry the Players along with you, giving them plenty of opportunity to direct the flow of the game. However, do not be afraid of shifting the narrative to a different sub-plot to share out the spotlight time, and generally contrast with previous scenes.
The next instalment concludes this long-running series by presenting an overview of all the advice. In the meantime, how do you like to close an encounter? What phrase best invites the Players to move along to the next scene? 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: July Blog Carnival, Grimdark Interludes
- Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Encounters 13, Plot Overview