This started as a post on pacing until I checked other game masters’ advice on pacing and discovered that nobody discussed the same topic. Some “pacing” advice helps GMs run at a brisk tempo. For that, see my posts on initiative, delegation, and how to end a battle. Some explained story beats, dramatic tension, and the three act structure. I’m not clever enough to finesse such narratives without my players noticing a loss of freedom.
Have you seen the image that explains Dungeons & Dragons as the game where a 3-hour walk takes 5 minutes, but a 5-minute battle takes 3 hours? That sentence tells the difference between scene and summary.
Game mastering advice rarely talks about scene and summary because game masters tend to manage the two by feel. Mostly, feel works okay, but often not. Although scenes feature the game’s excitement, dull role-playing sessions start when a GM tries to make a scene from time that should pass in summary. On the other hand, a bad summary makes player feel rushed and railroaded.
In a role-playing game, scenes focus attention on the times when players fight a battle, talk to an non-player character, or search a chest for secret compartments. In a role-playing game session, scenes show all the action. During scenes, players make every decision for their characters. In combat scenes, game time expands so players can focus on small decisions and use the game rules to determine outcomes.
A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. Summary speeds past the times when players travel a safe road, search a library, or collect a reward from a patron.
A good summary leaves players with a sense of passing events and with chances to pause and make decisions. During a summary, characters heal damage, tally and replenish resources, weigh their options, and make the choices that lead to the next scene.
When to run a scene
To start, a scene needs two ingredients: characters with a goal and an obstacle that stands in their way.
The classic D&D scene starts with the goal of treasure and the obstacle of a dragon. Sometimes, monsters attack and the party goal becomes to survive. (In those cases, especially, think about the monsters’ goal. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want.) The most interesting encounters often feature a goal different from kill all the monsters.
A goal needs enough stakes to merit a scene. If the party goes to the fletcher for arrows, the chance to save a few silver hardly calls for a negotiation scene.
Typically, role-playing scenes combine a goal of gaining help or information, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.
When characters lack a goal and a GM launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.
The obstacle in a role playing scene comes from any NPC reluctant to help anyone who asks. For help creating the obstacles needed for compelling role-playing scenes, see 22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.
A true obstacle must bring a chance of failure. If players face a locked wooden door, but they have unlimited time and an axe, the door fails as an obstacle. On the other hand, if the crash of an axe into boards could bring monsters, players face a dilemma and the scene has an obstacle.
When players explore, they have a goal—perhaps only find the treasure—but they may face unknown obstacles. The unseen hazards make the players’ choices important and make the exploration work as a scene. If a scene continues for too long with unknown obstacles, players may lose interest. Add a reminder of nearby peril. Perhaps strange sounds echo through the stones, or a chill passes the corridor.
In exploration, when no obstacles lurk nearby, the game master can rely on summary. “You look through all the rooms in the cellar and find a polished, black ring among the rubbish.”
Sometimes game masters start a role-playing scene without a goal or obstacle because they want exposition. At the start of an adventure, players tolerate such scenes. The implied goal becomes, learn our goal. Scenarios often add a minor obstacle by introducing a patron who needs the right questions to provide extra help and information. However, such weak scenes typically work better in summary.
I used to make the mistake of trying to conclude adventures with a scene where characters meet their patron to collect payment and tie any loose ends. I learned that as a scene, denouements never hold attention. While players tally their loot, just summarize the medal ceremony.
Exception: Scenes that work as a reward
When a game master announces treasure, players tend to pay careful attention to their reward. Likewise, role-playing scenes that reward players with information can hold attention even when the scene lacks an obstacle. These scenes feature players with questions and a colorful NPC ready with answers. Crucially, these scenes still feature a goal. Players must want the information enough to have fought for it and won. Don’t dump unwanted backstory and call it a scene. See How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.
When to do a summary
Whenever an game session lacks the ingredients for a scene, a goal and an obstacle, you can rely on summary. If you feel unsure about switching to a summary, ask the players. “Do you want to do anything special, or should we move forward?”
During a summary, as game time speeds along, players can feel like they lose some control over their character. Among other things, my next post will explain how to do a summary without making players feel like passengers on a railroad.