On structuring Roleplaying Scenarios

Like most roleplayers, I have a rather significant pile of games I’ve read but never run. It’s very tricky how they keep putting out new materials for games I already like, as well as creating new games. One really obvious reason why I have run a tonne of Deadlands but never really gotten around to, say, Deadlands: Noir is the original game has a huge back catalogue of scenarios that you can pick up and reconfigure for your immediate needs, while Noir hasn’t got a plot-point campaign, only a handful of published scenarios all with more-or-less at a one-shot scope. When I was 18 I had the time and energy to devise two sessions a week of monsters, dastardly NPCs, cunning locations, etc, but at 41 I basically want someone else to do the hard work and leave me the fun stuff. There can’t be much doubt that the provision of numerous and high-quality scenarios from the late 1970s until now has been a cornerstone in the success of Dungeons and Dragons. This is why Imaginary Empire pushed out books of scenarios for EPOCH as soon as practical.

Scenarios are an indispensable part of our hobby, but they don’t seem to receive the attention that setting materials and game mechanics do. The game lines taking scenario production seriously, like the new version of TORG, like D&D 5th Ed, and like Deadlands, are the games that I think have a longevity to them; games where you get a rulebook and are then cast adrift on the sea of your own resources, are probably doomed to languish unplayed, and be forgotten. The more complex the intellectual framework of your game, the more offbeat the narrative archetypes, the less likely the game is to be played. Even if you’re absolutely in command of things, Hamish pitches the utility of scenarios well:

You can also read the missions in order to see some increasingly complex
examples of the kinds of mission you might run in The Sprawl. In particular, each mission contains fully described Legwork and Action Clocks and Mission Directives, so you can see further practical examples of how you can tweak these yourself when designing your own missions.

But Hamish, you say, I’m a badass cyberpunk MC and I always make my own missions. Does this mean these files aren’t for me? Well, first of all: rock on with your chrome self, Mx. Badass, you totally can! But second: I made these files for you too, the skilled director of cybernetic action and manipulator of corporate fuckery. Ever had a late day at work that stole your time to prep before the game? Read over a mission and go!

Hamish Cameron, The Sprawl: Mission Files, 2018

Assuming I’m right about the centrality of pre-written scenarios, you might think that scenario design production would be high on any game company’s agenda, and that either the production of scenarios or advice on how to write and structure a scenario would dominate the activities of game producers. This is one area where I think Pelgrane Press shines amongst its competitors – there must be 50 available scenarios for their flagship Trail of Cthulhu now, though the smaller games are a bit less supported. This is aided to some extent by the similarity between any two Trail (or, indeed, D&D) games. Basically you’re an occult “investigator” in the 1930s, probably in England or New England, facing a well-understood basic echelon of Lovecraftian/Derlethian/Chamberian horrors and their cultists. Whereas, say, no two Night’s Black Agents games will be operating in either the same part of the world or potentially even against the same kind of vampire. Your game fighting Dracula’s descendants is going to be pretty different from Hite’s version of the Stones of Blood. So instead of a lot of scenarios for NBA out the gate, Hite devotes a fairly big chunk of the Night’s Black Agents rulebook to providing a genre framework that a GM can use, distilled down really into two diagrams: the Vampyramid, which outlines the heirarchy of the foes you face, and the Conspiramid, which describes what kinds of actions the enemy will take against the characters given precursor actions.

The slew of Apocalypse World derivatives are a double-edged sword in this regard, because they rely very heavily on spontaneous creation at the table. Games where everyone’s deeply steeped in the genre, like Monster of the Week tend to go better in my experience than the more diffuse or abstract outings, like Legacy: Life Amongst the Ruins, or, indeed, the original game. Irregular assumptions about how a genre should work can derail things really fast. I’ve specifically had that experience twice over the role of sex in Apocalypse World. The idea of intimacy or connection presented in the OG *World does not work at all with the way the genre is understood if you’re coming at it from, for example Mad Max: Fury Road. I’ve recently been running Brindlewood Bay, and the after action on that will have a lot more about extemporised play, so for now the rest of this post will focus on the old school of pre-prepared scenarios.

The scenario which prompted this post is the demo put out for Feng Shui 2, Hong Kong Task Force 88. FS2 slotted very neatly into the gap between a great sounding high concept and my inability to actually imagine in detail what would happen in a game session. The high concept of contesting Chi sites across different time periods combined with a high pulpy action is very appealing, so I backed the kickstarter. Unfortunately, it quickly started to look like the game would be an orphan – a big glossy hardcover to stand more-or-less alone in its product line. There were a tonne of materials out for the first edition, so perhaps their guess was that people would either retread those, or be sufficiently steeped in the concept from that existing archive that they’d grok the genre sufficiently to carry on unaided. That wasn’t me. The scenario is a fairly entertaining read in and of itself, full of nice evocative touches and flourishes. The cast arrayed against the heroes have variously tragic and interesting backstories for how they came to be on the wrong side of the law. The scenario includes 5 fights plus “connective tissue” which led me to think that the actual mechanical resolutions of the fight would be quite fast. I got together a small group and we launched into it.

I almost immediately tripped up by taking the scenario’s advice completely at face value without thinking about what I should be trying to accomplish as a GM. I’ve got no legitimate excuse for my poor players – I’ve been around a long time. My illegitimate excuse is basically that as an explicit demo scenario written as if you’re picking it up and playing it straight away (step 1 in the scenario is “choose a GM”) that I assumed the scenario would spoon-feed me what I needed to know. Here’s the boxed text to introduce the game:

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! You are in Hong Kong to create a united task force to bring down a growing threat before it takes root in Hong Kong. You all have your ways of handling things, from the local cop who knows the intricacies of Hong Kong’s streets to the outsiders with their own methods for investigation and crime fighting. You’ll have to at least try to work together, possibly while proving to the others that you’re the best of the best!

The specific mission? Eliminate a criminal syndicate pretending to be a drug manufacturer who are using Hong Kong as a new base of power and flooding their streets with their dangerous and experimental drugs. This is going to take more than one cop on a mission, this is going to take the new Hong Kong Task Force Double Eight!

Hong Kong Task Force 88

This is super-light on details, so whether you’re thinking about this as an investigation or as more of a tactical challenge, the first thing that the players do is pepper you with questions – what syndicate? what drug, what does it do? do they have any clues at all? The author has focused on evoking a certain mood without really concerning themselves with the practicalities of the situation. Luckily, the scenario dumps the characters into a fight, allowing the GM to announce “you don’t have any time to chat about that now, because a gang of toughs emerges from the crowd to silence you forever!” The scenario helpfully explains that one of the main antagonists is watching the fight, and suggests you “throw out a Perception check” to see if they spot him, which leads into a chain of and/if statements where you need them to 1. spot him, 2. decide he’s interesting (based on the meta-game concept here that because the GM mentioned something it’s interesting), 3. have pre-selected one of the suggested backgrounds for the task force, 4. make a second skill test, then they know the guy’s name. The rest of the scenario just assumes they know who he is, because why wouldn’t this probability chain have worked out? My group failed the perception test, leaving them a bit stranded, and in fact they never managed to learn anything significant about the carefully rendered back stories of any of the main antagonists.

The rest of the scenario turned out to be similarly unhelpful, focusing on providing evocative descriptions and moments of dramatic flare, but completely disconnected from the practicalities of the game. The “Investigation” section after the first fight lists 4 facts they can potentially obtain, and one of those facts isn’t the name of the key character they need to visit in the next section of the narrative. Crucially, the scenario doesn’t consider the characters taking any proactive moves, such as doing the super-obvious move of staking out the headquarters of the syndicate they’re investigating. Ultimately, depending on how you read the scenario, the characters start out the game with the name of the ultimate bad guy, but the scenario never considers they may try to actually use this information from the beginning.

The completely linear story focused around uncovering the deep past of Game Master Characters (GMCs), the lack of thought around player character activity, the perfunctory nature of the “connective tissue” between fights, and the lack of any attempt to pull back from the detail and advise the GM why a scene is structured or presented as it is all suggests that this is not so much a roleplaying scenario as a work of short fiction presented in the style of a choose-your-own adventure, except without any choices. Clearly, nobody at Atlas Games read my post on Player Facing Scenarios. It’s all a bit surprising for a demo of a game written by the designer of Gumshoe:

GUMSHOE scenarios generally require a backstory that describes what happened before the PCs arrived. They overcome obstacles in the present in order to reconstruct the past. The backstory can tempt you to treat the scenario as a story about the people in the backstory. Remember that it’s a story about the people learning about the people in the backstory.

Gumshoe Writer’s Guidelines 1201.1.1

Linearity in presenting roleplaying scenarios is a difficult problem to work around. A linear story is logistically and ergonomically a lot easier to explain than a complex web of inter-dependent scenes. (We’ll return later to the need for third-party aides to explain the Zalozhnyi Quartet.) Where this is done poorly it transforms the PCs into marionettes of the scenario designer. This driving logic, of the scenario designer outlining a specific sequence of events, is completely pervasive and an insidious problem. Even the simplest scenarios, where the explicit design approach is about creating spaces to freely navigate, can run into this habit of expressing an implicit narrative within the descriptions that are supposed to be neutral. Consider this trivial example:

Anyone first entering this room does not notice that he [sic] has emerged from an enchanted portal unless he happens to turn around and look in that direction.

The Lost Island of Castanamir, Ken Rolston, 1984

Despite the scenario being somewhat player facing, the construction of this sentence establishes a really clear default “reality”, of unobservant dupes, and frames the player character action as an aberration or deviation from the norm. The scenario thinks a lot about what can happen to the characters, but not much about what they might do, and gives very little space to any future-contingent action, making the exploration of Castanamir’s lair a very episodic and fragmentary experience, even as every single encounter is unconsciously framed as a micro narrative.

More sophisticated versions of this scenario, such as the original Ravenloft also tend to omit consideration of this very basic concept of the player characters as protagonists. Which gives us a few potentially different answers to Morgue’s inquiry about Ravenloft. If you haven’t read Morgue’s series on the “Hidden Goblin”, and you’ve made it this far through this post, you really must go and read the whole thing in its entirety. TLDR: the Hidden Goblin is a metaphor for how the GM implements their control over the game environment. Morgue read the GM advice for running Strahd, the adversary at the heart of the scenario, which advises “Whenever he [Strahd] is aware of the PCs positions, he is allowed to make an attack how and where he wants. His attacks must be timed to be most advantageous to him.” To which Morgue asks two questions: 1. Who is wanting? 2. Who is allowing?

I think the answer Morgue gives is basically correct – but I’d extend his answers a little, because ultimately it is the players who most want Strahd to attack. There’s really no point in exploring a bunch of empty rooms while listening to wolves howl in the distance. Morgue’s answers clarify a kind of limiting state for the attacks, but I’m not sure they go sufficiently far in explaining to a DM what the purpose of the attacks is. The purpose of having Strahd attack the characters is precisely to generate an emotional response – fear in this case. When Morgue identifies that the game text calls for the DM to “play to the limit” and hence:

Strahd is a genius who knows how to use every nook and cranny of his castle to his advantage. You can have Strahd attack where and how you like. Strahd is smarter than you and he doesn’t play fair, so don’t hold back.

Yes, this is a great step on the journey – but the “where and how” that you like should still be directed at a purpose. Morgue posits the basically typical assumption at the time, that D&D was some kind of game and so questions of fairness are applicable. In the three-fold model, Ravenloft could also be a dramatic experience, as I advocate. I think this speaks to the heart of the advice Morgue quotes, that D&D is “not a competition” – competition being a fairly integral part of the concept “game”, as in roleplaying game. The argument that it’s a simulation is a little less straightforward. Without understanding the purpose of an encounter, it’s not easy to see how to structure and manage it. Despite its great strengths, Ravenloft isn’t yet a game that’s aware of its narrative needs, even as it more strongly imbues a narrative into the notionally location-based design approach that is D&D’s great strength. The sting is in the “optional ending” where the text advises “you may want to provide an ending for the players to wrap things up” and then goes on to provide 6 paragraphs of text about game master characters and their elaborate backstory now resolved. My sarcastic and rhetorical question therefore would be – who’s ending?

The explosion of World of Darkness is always credited with providing the first major alternative to the idea of roleplaying as a game, but the great weakness of that corner of our hobby has always been the paucity of pre-written ready-to-run scenarios for their games. The over-arching meta-narratives of Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse were semi-intelligible to me as a teen, inasmuch as V:TM is basically just a death-spiral of humanity loss. I’m still not absolutely sure what “should” happen in a Mage: The Awakening, or Mage: The Ascension game, and I played in games of each that lasted a couple of years. For my money, instead of brooding urban fantasy, the next real evolution of designing roleplaying experiences came from TORG.

TORG is a conceptually difficult game, since it’s fundamentally about the multiple over-writing of reality’s fundamental axioms in different parts of the world simultaneously. Yet, as a relatively inexperienced gamer in the 1990s, I was able to really clearly understand what the game was about and what the action at the table would comprise. TORG is explicit about the idea of the story as a story – breaking scenarios down into major acts and scenes within those acts. The scenarios are all structured pretty much the same way – you get

  • “The Major Beat” which explains what the function of the next bit of play will be in the story,
  • “The situation”, explaining the background location and what’s been going on generally before the story
  • “The Action”, which is just what it sounds like
  • “Locations”, obvious
  • “Flags”, which outlines some contingencies from player actions
  • “Variables”, outlining things you’ll need to amend for the scenario depending on the history of the characters
  • “Cut to…” which is what and how the players might just evade this particular scene. This is usually then re-captured in “Variables” later on.

I’ve got to admit, having recently run their original campaign Relics of Power that a lot of the detailed design decisions within this framework are not great – but what’s really powerful is that the game actually explicitly talks to the GM about to run the game at every stage, helping the GM understand just what the purpose is for any given scene and advising how to get the most dramatic presentation:

Play this one for atmosphere. The seedy bar, the seedy clientele wandering in and out, the dirt and the noise from outside, the faint crackle of radio static from inside. There are even occasional Aysle denizens who come in and out, speaking quietly to the bartender.

The Possibility Chalice, Douglas Kaufman, 1990

Designers like Hamish have picked this up and made it even more specific and focused on the experience of play, so Mission Files is riddled with pointers for each phase of each story:

Sow lots of potential twists in the Legwork phase to give yourself options for later. In particular, think about what the operative was doing and why they might be so important that their recovery is necessary… or is that just a cover for the system sabotage?

Mention the recent lawsuit and the damaging optics. Are these just standard corporate “profit over people” or something more? Hint at the unanswered questions, even if you don’t get answers for all of them.

The contrast with the approach of the absolutely scripted narrative that’s still ubiquitous today is extreme. Compare the kicking-off point from a recent Deadlands: Noir scenario:

Early on a Monday morning, Franklin LaFleur contacts the investigation. He identifies himself as the manager of the downtown branch of the Confederal Bank of New Orleans. He asks them to meet him at the bank as soon as possible, and he’ll explain everything when they arrive.

A Face By Any Other Name, John Goff, 2018

Clearly the virtues of explaining what’s going on to the GM and advising them on how to handle it, rather than reformatting a short story into playable form, have not been universally recognised. I’ve run A Face by any Other Name twice now, and it’s a solid enough experience – but it’s hard not to imagine me at 15 making a total hash of it trying to shoehorn rowdy teenagers into 2 pages of exposition before the scenario actually begins for the player characters, not to mention, buying all too heavily into the narrative as presented instead of the narrative as experienced. Scenarios like this one are often described in my circles as “The Tunnel of Fun”. There’s no real expectation of player characters as protagonists, just that they’ll have an entertaining time.

The best Tunnel of Fun game in my experience is EPOCH. Full disclosure – I’ve been playing in the author’s home game for 15 years (with a small holiday in the middle while I lived abroad), and played a few early versions. I’m in the acknowledgements. What makes EPOCH so effective is a couple of really fundamental design decisions that Dale not only implements, but articulates. The advice in the game book is probably worth the money, but if you’re cheap, Dale put a highlights package out on his blog, arguing in favour of structuring your fun. The way EPOCH presents scenarios, I think you could probably pick almost any of them up and run it as you’re reading it; not that I exactly endorse that approach. I suspect that the reason EPOCH’s never managed to “break out” is the heavy advance cost in effort of making the various cards you need to play the game. I’ve often wondered whether a booklet of the scenarios reskinned into, say, Gumshoe, might sell well.

The design concept that Dale applied stems from his understanding of horror as a narrative, and he very carefully articulates how that genre generates and emotional response in an audience and how that can be replicated at the table. It comprises of an honest and clear-eyed appraisal of the system’s purpose and the logic behind the design. If you want to take issue with the end product, and I have definitely done that from time to time, you can at least start from a position where you understand the basic axioms being applied to any bit of the design problem. It’s something that is sorely missing from some of the most intriguing, yet baffling, games that I own, and it’s right there at the front, on the second page of actual game text. When I open, for example, Unknown Armies, you get “About the Book” and then “About the Rules” – and I’m not even sure yet what the elevator pitch is for the game, let alone whether I’m going to need to know the distinction between “Minor”, “Significant”, or “Major” skill checks. We’ve then got a dozen pages of in-game found-footage style fiction before being thrust into a “Street Campaign”. I guess the game’s on the street then? By the time we get to the GM stuff on page 228 of the rulebook you learn such gems as this:

The occult underground is intended to be a big grab bag of characters and cabals for you to choose from. You can use everything, or ignore most of it.

Unknown Armies, Greg Stolze and John Tynes, 2002

What the whole book misses, so far as I understand it, is why you’d choose to include or exclude any particular “character and cabal”. How do I make that decision? It’s a toolbox without an instruction manual. So, for the better part of 2 decades, the game’s sat dormant on my shelf, because I just don’t even know where to begin with it. Or at least, there’s just so much else out there that I do understand and seems at least as cool, so I’ve just never bothered to really try.

The idea of a scenario goal, of a purpose and being explicit in the write-up about that is actually older than you think. Nightmare Keep, a sort of non-linear scenario for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, released in 1991 actually has little sections like “Goals” where the game author explicitly tells the GM why the events in each bit of the scenario happen:

In this chapter, the PCs should accomplish the following: hear rumours and legends associated with Wolover’s keep; learn information about Amry Wolover and his experiments, discover the body of Cord Shoddar…

Rick Swan, 1991

This is an imperfect and primitive version of the technology, but when I pick up scenarios published three decades later that don’t try to grapple with the practicalities of the game at the table, it’s a little hard to cut them much slack.

When I wrote my best scenario (also, lamentably, a decade ago), I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the problems I’d had actually running games, and trying to tackle them with specific advice, and cutting out anything not essential to the game. I opted for a detailed scene structure like this:

  • Purpose of the scene
  • Location
  • NPC Roster
  • The Action
  • Main Exits
  • Railway

I didn’t pay enough attention to how to end the scenario, and I’d completely re-write the included player characters these days, but I think on the whole that the scenario presents manageable information focused on the practical experience at the table.

I don’t think the problem of scenario is actually all that complex either. Convergent evolution, and a bit of friendly adaptation, has provided a bunch of fairly similar conceptual frameworks. EPOCH, Gumshoe, TORG, andThe Sprawl each use different break-points between scenario parts, but all are basically just saying some version of

  1. Why do we have this bit of the scenario?
  2. What might happen?
  3. What story elements feature in this bit of the scenario?
  4. What needs to happen now for the other bits of the scenario to work?
  5. What could go wrong?
  6. What happens next?

Not every game author is going to be able to articulate the specific purpose and methods of their game with Dale or Hamish’s lucidity, but you don’t need to be a deep critical thinker to just cover the fundamentals. You don’t need to wrestle with an existential nightmare of the Meaning of Roleplaying Games – you can just recount the things you learned from the playtest. And you don’t need to direct it to some theoretical future-perfect GM, just write what you think. Thinking about the fundamental story mechanics will pay dividends. Your scenario will be better than if you just come up with a theme, motif, and some cool locations or NPCs.

In a way, using the written word probably automatically suggests a linear narrative simply through the basic form of the expression. Words in English are read left to right, down the page. Whether scene A must come before scene B, or could come after it is prejudiced by the fact that you must pick which one to present first on the page. This was the main area I pushed back against Dale’s structure when writing for EPOCH, which requires scenes be presented as a linear narrative that’s caveated out of a “lockbox” mode. When I wrote A World of Possibilities, I conceptualised the narrative as a braided stream – yes, there were genuine choices, but in a convention scenario there also has to be an inexorable pull toward some kind of resolution. Going beyond linearity has definitely become an important goal for me when writing, and the scenarios I’ve read which have that goal definitely feel constrained in text. When I read the Zalozhnyi Quartet, with it’s complex relationship of possible scenes within each of the quartet and where you can reorder the scenarios any which way, the clarity of the Gumshoe structure becomes inadequate for understanding how the scenario might actually play at the table. I suppose that’s why for the even-more-complicated Dracula Dossier, they’ve more-or-less eschewed providing a traditional scenario at all. They provide a heap of useful resources, each of which is basically aimed at practical play rather than being theoretical world-building naval-gazing, but at the end of the day, the GM must actually assemble a narrative from the parts themselves.

I hope we’ll see the development of some kind of story diagramming as a way of concisely conveying the story system. It’s something I’ve been playing around with for a few years now, beginning with The Salt Bond, but really coming into an actually-useful form with my Night’s Black Agents trilogy last year. Not quite ready to publish the design paradigm for the story diagramming approach I used, but maybe after the next scenario.

It seems to me that the way the “average” scenario designer approaches their task is still fundamentally rooted in the idea of a linear narrative with predictable actors at their centre. Scenes are developed based on this idea of narrative, but there is not usually much of a sense of what narrative structure underpins the detailed story decisions. Scenario designers don’t tend to make explicit the linkages between scenes, or directly state any given scene’s purpose in generating either an emotional response or fulfilling a structural need. There are some game lines which are better than others for this – I’ve put my cards on the table about which ones I like, I think. Despite their structural and representative flaws though, some scenarios get a pass for me on their other charms – I’ve bought basically every Deadlands supplement I’ve had the opportunity to acquire, because the style and stories of that setting really deeply appeal to me, and I might grumble about how I’d like them to sharpen their story structures, but basically they’ve got a consumer for life. I generally don’t think that the structuring of a scenario should be the hard part, and hopefully one of the several structures I’ve outlined will seem useful to you next time you’re designing a scenario.

If not, well, have fun your way. 🙂

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