Welcome once more to the RPG Blog Carnival. You can find the kick-off post here, at Tabletop Terrors.
This month's topic is "Rethinking Encounters." Obviously that's pretty open to interpretation so today I'm going to look at how I decide to include a scene in my game. Before I get started I should also note that I don't think of them as encounters but as scenes, because RPGs are like movies with an unlimited budget that you and your friends screen in your mind's eye. Also because a scene can happen without the group "encountering" anything at all if you do it right.
The Why of the Scene
When it comes to planning a game session or a written adventure I can lump scenes I use into one of three things categories based on their purpose in the overall narrative. That narrative is often times confined to a session, but can be as easily scaled up to a campaign if longer term planning is your thing.
Plot point - a.k.a. slave to the story
The best game sessions, adventures, and campaigns have a story to them. These stories may be loosely defined, like an open world "sandbox" game, or very tightly written, like a any number of published adventures and campaigns, but regardless there's a story at the heart of them. When it comes to adventures and game sessions these scenes are the ones that push that story along. They might be the kickoff scene where the players are hired to rescue a kidnapped princess. They could be a bridging scene, where the players find the princess and find out that she wasn't kidnapped but instead ran away from her uncle who wants to usurp her throne. Or they could be the denouement where the players finally defeat the uncle and restore the princess to her throne.
You really can't have a story without a couple of these kinds of scenes. Hopefully sometime after the initial idea and before they game table these scenes evolve from obligatory story advancement into something cool that pulls the players in or keeps them interested.
These are also the scenes that you can't cut for time. If you find that you got started late and only have 3 hours instead of 4 to run your session you can probably skip that scene where the party has to find a way across a collapsed bridge, but you really can't leave out the scene where the princess tells the party about her jerk of an uncle.
I try to keep my plot scenes to about 1 per hour of play. So for a weekday evening session I'm probably using only 3 and keeping my plot somewhat simplistic compared to something I might plan for a 4 or 6 hour weekend game.
Nobody likes to be bored, but depending on your players you may have to juggle very different personalities and very different interests. You may have some players who want to do combat all the time, others who want to deal with social interactions and role-play, and others who want to explore and solve riddles. Your plot point scenes will have one or more of these aspects of course, but you may want to inject additional scenes to play to the goals of the other players.
By ensuring that that everybody gets a chance at their preferred game flavor you can stave off boredom at the table. If you know your group well enough you may be able to run a whole session without combat, or intrigue, or whatever, so long as the campaign is well balanced to suit all the players. However sometimes an intrigue faced session may still call for a late night ambush by assassins that the combat focused player will love.
Inspiration - a.k.a. the cool scene
Basically these are scenes that are specifically included because of their cool factor. For me this could be a really cool boss fight that the rest of the session/adventure is designed to build up to. It could also be a cool set piece like a rooftop chase, or battle in a unique locale, or with a unique enemy. The point here of course is that I think the idea is cool and that it gains entry on that merit. These scenes often take on aspects of session balance or plot points, but that comes after the initial idea. Often these ideas are the kernal for a whole adventure to be developed.
These scenes often also need to be made to work in the narrative either as plot points or as a way to balance the kinds of scenes to appeal to all your players. It's also possible to back into the cool. Maybe you are planning your big finish with the players confronting the evil duke. This could be in a throne room, but it could also be on the palace's parapets, with winds whipping through the air and the only thing between the characters and a deadly fall being the crenelations of the castle walls.