My last post explained how scenes and summaries allow game masters to speed past uneventful time in the game world and focus on the action. This post offers more advice on running scenes and doing summaries.
Running a scene
Before starting a scene, you need two essential ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) an obstacle that stands in their way.
To start a scene, set the scene. Describe the time and place. Make the description vivid. Finish your description with the thing that will spur the players to action. In a classic Dungeons & Dragons game, the call to action comes from the monster in the room. Mention the monster last, because otherwise your players will plan their attack and ignore your description of the bas-relief, the incense, and the patter of dipping liquid.
A monster will launch some scenes into motion, but other triggers could be the duchess asking why the characters intruded on her battle council, birds crowding the rooftops to silently watch the players, or anything that invites players to act. A good call to action hardly needs the usual follow up question: “What do you want to do?” Nonetheless, characters might ignore the call. The party might see the gathering flocks as a threat, or the druid might want to have words, or perhaps they count the birds as an omen and move on.
The rules of most role-playing games dwell on the scenes, leaving little need for more explanation.
How to do a summary
A summary skips the uneventful parts of passing game time. It begins when the scene ends—when players look at the scene’s outcome and decide what to do next. Often, they choose a goal that carries them to their next scene.
During a scene, the players’ choices tend to focus on overcoming an immediate obstacle. But during a summary, the players’ choices tend to drive the adventure. If players pass too many summaries without a choice to make, your game may start feeling like a railroad.
In a summary, damage is healed, resources replenished, and so on. Players can describe as much of the activity as the game master.
“We go to the docks and find the captain of the Salt Mist, and then hire her to sail north to the City of Sails. Does anything happen along the way?”
“No. After 3 days at sea, you dock in Luskan on the Open Shore.”
If the passage of time presents new developments that might change the players’ plans, then mention the events and give players a chance to interrupt the tale and make new choices. Perhaps something happens on route. “On your second day at sea, you spot a thick column of smoke rising from inland, just beyond a hill.”
You might remind the players what makes their new options interesting. “As you talk about investigating, the captain seems too willing to put you ashore, and you suspect she may be eager to leave you behind.”
When a summary takes players someplace new, add enough description to give the flavor of the experience, and a sense of the passing time.
A summary can include colorful moments that inspire players to act in character. For example, if the party spots a live stag with an arrow in its flank, does the druid heal the beast, or does the ranger finish it and host a feast? Such moments usually lack the ingredients of a scene, but they offer hooks that let players reveal their characters.
Accelerating the pace
When a summary covers familiar ground, shorten the narrative. That first journey to the City of Splendors deserves some color. The third can pass in a sentence.
As players approach their ultimate goal and the climax of the adventure, they will lose patience for long summaries. When adventurers first reach Barovia, players may enjoy stately trips from town to town. But when the party stands ready to confront Strahd, cut directly to the gates of Ravenloft.
A cut eliminates all the narrative between scenes. The players might say, “We want to question the longshoreman to see if anyone saw the Salt Mist.”
“Okay, now you’re in the Siren’s Call as the place fills with thirsty roughnecks.”
Cuts rush past the flavor of the game world, and short circuit the players’ chances to make choices. Early in a campaign, avoid cutting between scenes.
Near the end of a long campaign, cuts grow more welcome. When few choices remain and when players feel eager for the story to reach a climax, cuts accelerate the pace.
Letting players take the narrative
In How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke, I talked about how the GM bears responsibility for the game’s challenge. Often, a GM must control the narrative so players face meaningful obstacles. But in a summary, no obstacles block the characters’ progress. This makes a summary the ideal time to let players tell their characters’ tales. For example, if the players spend 10 days waiting on town, ask each player for their character’s story of the downtime.
At the end of the adventure, when the characters return to the town they saved, let them tell of their hero’s welcome. Who celebrated with the fetching Sheriff? Or maybe keep that to yourself. This is a family table.
During a summary, when players take the narrative, characters gain chances to reveal their personalities. Plus, you get a break while they do the talking. That’s how you win at Dungeons & Dragons.
This post was awesome! Very informative. I’m definitely going to point my DM to this post. We’re having a ton of fun in our campaign but sometimes he can struggle with the narrative. Then again so can we as players.
I’m working on building a blog for advice and the like as well. It’s still a work in progress at this time. But please feel free to check us out: https://loreforgers.com/
I have been working on improving my pacing as a DM, and have found that judicious use of summaries vs scenes is one of my weaknesses. Also, letting control rest with the players *sheepish*
I appreciate guides like this post that help me come out of my stuck-in-the-mud ways and try and expand my skill set. Recognizing that gameplay is made up out of separate elements like scenes and summaries is not something readily covered in DMing 101 (not that I’ve ever seen such a class… I’d totally sign up).
One experiment I’ve undertaken recently with summaries is to turn over the reins to my players and give them a guideline to summarize a “random encounter” montage for travel. I’ll take what they come up with and build on it if needed, but we rarely touch our dice as the player (or sometimes players) collaborate to describe the challenges they overcame on the road from one scene to another. It seems to work really well, and not only adds to player immersion, but to player buy in and attention.