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Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters

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.

How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

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.

So this post covers scenes and summaries.

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.

Scene

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.

Summary

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.

Goals

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.

Obstacles

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.

Exploration

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.”

Exposition

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.

Next: Running Scenes and Summaries that Invite Choices and Reveal Characters