Aug 04

February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 13, Plotting Overview


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.



This essay in the series brings together the plotting concepts highlighted in these essays. My final essay next week reminds the GM how to involve the Players in the improvisation process, and thus create a fun game for everyone.



Start Strong

The first scene of my session is something of a cheat. This instigating incident either follows directly from the closing scene of the previous session, or is a set piece prepared in advance. As noted in my Improv Prep series, this scene is the only one prepared in advance.


Read more about the Instigating Incident here


This strong start to the session is then run by the GM, giving the Players a chance to settle back into the game. The events of this scene lay the foundations for the improvisation proper which begins once this scene closes. The improv GM builds the plot of the session upon this strong foundation by using the following methods:

  • Repeating structures
  • Weaving story elements
  • Varying the scenes




Repeating Structures

The basic structure of a session is a series of scenes. Each scene has an opening, content of some sort, and a closing. Thus, a roleplay session is a repetition of this scene structure, hopefully with one scene flowing smoothly into another. The improv GM operates within this repeated structure.


This basic structure, almost fractal in nature, offers a degree of security to the improv GM. As the game wants to operate in this way, then this structure supports the improv GM. Think only of improvising the content of the current scene, not worrying about the whole of an empty session stretching ahead of you. Once the required content of a scene is resolved by the Players, then close the scene quickly, and follow the story onwards to the next scene in the pattern.



Weaving Story Elements

Of course, each scene needs content at its heart. Sometimes Players lead the way, and the story follows their actions. Prepared GMCs or mechanical elements are used here to flesh out the scene the Player initiated. Often this scene suggests a follow-up scene, perhaps meeting a GMC referenced earlier, or involving another type of callback to the plot thread initiated by the Player.


The improv GM should be on the lookout for where the plot could go next. If nothing is suggested by the current scene, then a new story element may need to be introduced. I keep a stock of prepared story elements to weave into the session. Ideally, something in the previous scene will connect to the new scene. A recurring character or location is great, even a throwaway comment which ties into the previous scene creates a sense of continuity.


There can be scenes where I see no clear step forward, but I feel the session is about to run out of steam. Thus, a new challenge is needed for the Heroes. The fact the game focuses on the same Heroes ensures a sense of continuity even as we jump between plot threads. Sometimes it is better to push for a strong game session, rather than insist on tight links between scenes.



Varying the Scenes

My final plot consideration is the need to ensure variety during the session. The content at the heart of the scene structure could be:

  • a mechanical contest, typically a combat, but other extended contests such as a chase, construction montage or lengthy research project all apply
  • a puzzle, such as a riddle or complex mechanical trap
  • personal interaction, the roleplaying encounter
  • setting background, presenting atmospheric details, specific information, or broader clues to a plot
  • character moment, where Heroes focus on banter or other expressions of their personality or relationships


Clever scenes weave two or more of these elements together, but an improvised encounter is more likely to be just a single aspect. It is acceptable to link together two, or more, scenes of the same type, but there is a risk of boring the Players. At a minimum, the GM should aim to improvise a supplementary element into a repeated scene. Thus, a straight combat, followed by a combat in a trap room, then a combat against a witty opponent who engages in banter. This would entertain Players more than just three basic combats in a row. As ever, your game may vary.


Better still, would be to remove the combat element from the second and third scene. This creates the sequence combat, puzzle, roleplay. Now three different sets of skills are challenged, hopefully spreading around the spotlight within the game. Where possible, the GM should aim to challenge the Players with a varied sequence of scenes.




From the GM’s viewpoint, the progression of the Heroes through the intended plot is a prominent goal. For the campaign to tell a compelling story, then the Heroes need to work through the plot. This is not to railroad the Heroes, but to present the obstacles to the Players and allow them to find a satisfying solution to the problems raised by the plot. Thus, the improv GM needs to drive forward the session, weaving in varied plot elements within the repeated scene structure.


My intention was to conclude this long-running series with a single overview of all the advice. However, this essay proved too long, so I split up plot advice from managing the table. Next week addresses this last topic. In the meantime, how do you like to weave together your encounters? Is there another style of scene I missed from my list? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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