Encounters vs. Scenes – RPG Terminology and Philosophy

I really started to notice it starting in 3E D&D, and it’s become even more prevalent in 4E. Adventures for D&D are breaking down to a collection of encounters. That’s the way the DMG addresses adventure creation, that’s the way the majority of the published adventures are written, and that’s the way I’ve been thinking about creating adventures.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. But it does encourage a specific type of thinking about adventure construction, and that in turn shapes the type of game play you get in that adventure.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms. According to the DMG:

An encounter is a single scene in an ongoing drama, when the player characters come up against something that impedes their progress.

p. 34

Also according to the DMG:

An adventure is just a series of encounters. How and why these encounters fit together – from the simplest to the most complex – is the framework for any adventure.

p. 94

For contrast, I’m going to be talking about White Wolf‘s SAS adventure structure. Here’s what they say about scenes in their SAS Guide pdf:

Each scene is built as a discrete game encounter (or a closely-tied collection of game encounters) for the troupe to play through.

p. 2

And here’s what they say about their adventures:

Think of a Storytelling Adventure System product (SAS) as a story kit…

The basic parts that make up most SAS stories are simple: Storyteller characters, scenes and some advice on how you can put them together.

p. 2

So much for contrast, huh? They both seem to say pretty much the same thing.

Except they don’t, really.

D&D focuses on encounters, challenges for the characters to face, things that cause them to struggle. Whether it’s a combat or non-combat encounter, it is a point of conflict.

White Wolf adventures focus on scenes, which may or may not contain conflict, but that are focused on moving the story ahead.

What difference does this make?

Well, after my last D&D game, the discussion of the high points were things like how tough a monster was, or what a cool combat that one encounter was.

After my last Hunter: The Vigil game, the discussion was about what a cool NPC the Rag Man was.

It’s a subtle but profound difference. By thinking about the basic building blocks of the game – encounters/scenes – differently, a different mindset is created during both adventure creation and play. In D&D, the focus is on challenges overcome. In World of Darkness games, the focus is on story progression.

Let me put it another way.

In most D&D games*, the idea of spending an entire session attending a party with minimal dice rolling and no combat would be seen as a very unconventional session. Not necessarily bad, but different from the normal adventure. Especially if they didn’t have a mechanically-governed objective in mind**.

In most World of Darkness games, the idea of spending an entire session prowling through the sewers killing monsters and looting their corpses would be seen as a very unconventional session. Again, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad, but it would almost certainly be a departure from the norm. Especially if success (whatever that means in context) was based on the number of monsters killed.

Now, there are a number of reasons why this is. We can talk about genre conventions, the differences in appropriateness of tropes between fantasy and horror, modern versus medieval setting, and target market for the games. But all these things are focused through the lens of adventure creation, and the way the designers have chosen to address the universal RPG question of, “What do I do with my character?”

D&D is a game about heroic pseudo-medieval fantasy adventure. World of Darkness games are about dark modern horror stories***. The designers have chosen the tools, including the philosophy behind the adventure creation, to focus on the ideas that they feel work best given their respective games. And in many ways, I feel, the difference between the two is encapsulated in the simple choice of encounter or scene to represent the basic building block of the adventure.

So why am I going on about this?****

Because I was running into a brick wall designing the next adventure for my Post Tenebras Lux campaign.

Part of the goal was moving away from what my players called the Fight Club design of adventures, giving them more options and more freedom to respond to different situations. So, I’ve got a fairly loose, open-ended kind of adventure set up, with a small adventure site and a fair bit of exploration and interaction surrounding it. I sat down and created the combat encounters, and the traps and skill challenge portions, for the adventure in an hour or so, then sat looking blankly at the connecting portions, trying to think how to make the adventure more than just a bunch of strung-together encounters.

So, what to do?

Well, I’m stealing from the SAS school of adventure design, along with my years of experience running other games*****. I’m putting together a bunch of NPC notes, notes on the locales, little roleplaying scenes that provide story information without conflict, and other things. I’m using a very loose flowchart of the the adventure to show how one thing may lead to another, and how different parts interrelate.

And then, I’m gonna play it by ear, and let the characters set the pace and direction.

I think this will give me what I’m looking for.

See, I needed to make the mental transition from encounter-based design to scene-based design to make this adventure what I wanted it to be. Once I did that, I was able to look at the whole setup in a very different way, and see what needed doing to produce the result I wanted.

I want to be very clear about something, though. I don’t think that scene-based design is intrinsically superior to encounter-based design. I don’t think that D&D is wrong about how they design their games and adventures. I don’t think White Wolf games are inherently superior, or that all games should follow their model of adventure design.

What I do think is that we, as GMs and players, need to be aware of the underlying assumptions and design philosophy inherent in the games we play if we want to be able to make them be the games we want. The design and the system is just the toolkit. What matters is that, when you sit down to game, you and your friends have fun.

That’s all.



*Yes, I am generalizing here and, therefor, lying to some degree. I know that some people have different play styles. And don’t worry; I’m going to generalize about White Wolf games in the next paragraph.

** This is one of the blessings and curses of the skill challenge rules in D&D. Now, you can have a whole skill challenge centered around making a good impression at a party, and everyone can roll their dice to do it.

***Another example of the impact of language: adventure vs. stories.

****Dude, I’m at about 750 words, and you’re just asking this now?

*****In trying to gain some mastery of the 4E rules, I’ve been cleaving very close to the party line with adventure creation, doing things by the book. This has meant ignoring some of the skills at improvising in the middle of a game, or building a very loose structure, that I’ve picked up in running things like Unknown Armies, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Amber Diceless RPG.

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8 Responses to Encounters vs. Scenes – RPG Terminology and Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Three links « Cogito, ergo ludo.

  2. Pingback: Chad Perrin: SOB » What is the importance of RPG terminology?

  3. Ben W says:

    I considered deleting the comment below – it is a blatant ad, and does not contribute to the discussion. It also talks about Houses of the Blooded as a revolution, when it is based on the FATE system developed by Evil Hat Games, and used in Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG. But Houses of the Blooded is a decent enough game, from the look I’ve given it; just very focused on its own ideas of play. Anyway, I’ve decided to let the comment stand.

    Check out the Revolution that is coming to gaming. Houses of the Blooded might be the best example of how RPG is changing for the better. Where the story is the thing, where the GM is no longer the Autocrat of the Tale, where the players truly add to the story. Where tension and foreshadowing are added before the game even begins. Where scenes are what occurs and the concept of an encounter does not become a special table top cousin of the Random Monsters that liter the empty roads of every Final Fantasy game. Check the downloads page specifically for the short little intro, that alone will blow your mind. Then buy the PDF for five bucks and then dream about how you can turn every one of your other games into a system like the one HotBlooded uses.

  4. Questing GM says:

    Interesting perspective.

    I was tutored in the way of an adventure being just a string of encounters. Then after some experience I always wondered what happened to roleplaying? Now I’ll probably go with Encounters = a scene with a point of conflict (combat or skill challenge) and Scene = a scene without a point of conflict (roleplaying).

  5. Donny_the_DM says:

    Does it really have to be one or the other?

    Why can’t encounters be the components OF a scene? The breadcrumbs or necklace pearls that lead from the “beginning” to the “end”.

    I think of the scene as being the sum of the encounter parts. It is everything in the session that ISN’T the encounters themselves. I.E the scene is the overt role-playing, while the encounters are the hack and slash that nearly always results.

    I don’t think I would want to play a game that didn’t have both elements, and too much of either sucks almost as bad, while some systems do one better than the other, I know of none that are at parity…I see this as a great weakness.

  6. Rick Neal says:

    I would argue that you *need* both. I would also argue that the optimal mix of the two qualities is going to vary wildly, depending on the system, the players, and the GM.

    I just think that the choice of terminology indicates a bias in one direction or the other, and shows what the game design (not necessarily the designers or the players) VALUES more.

    In my own games, I’m trying to lay out a wider variety of things to do in the game, from talking to people to slaughtering monsters. None of the things are completely devoid of their… let’s call it opposite number on the continuum… but each has a certain starting point, and moves from it through PC action and the reaction of the NPCs.

    Basically, what I’m trying to do in my head is move away from a rigid framework of Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3… and Fight Encounter, Fight Encounter, Roleplaying Encounter, Skill Challenge Encounter, Fight Encounter… into something that feels a little more organic and fluid. Understanding the implied structure of adventures in the games I’m running helps to do that.

  7. d7 says:

    Due to a certain system I’ve started playing (not going to evangelise here—my blog’s good enough for the curious), I’ve started thinking of sessions in terms of Interesting Choices instead of scenes or encounters. I like this because it does two things:

    a) It encourages me to skip the filler. You can get a lot done at the table in a few hours by not making the players walk through the stuff that you actually want them to get through anyway, and just get to the interesting stuff where they can surprise you.
    b) An Interesting Choice doesn’t have a foregone conclusion or path of resolution. I don’t design “combat” scenes/encounters any more, just junctions where the players have to make a choice that develops either their characters or the story (or better yet, both) and forces them to consider alternatives that may not be no-brainers. They might end up saying that they fight the Prince’s Guards when I was expecting cordial negotiations; they might parlay with the dragon instead of slaying it. It’s not limited to “Combat: yes/no?” either, just that it’s nicely fluid.

    Interesting Choices can be the crux of a scene or they can be incidental in a scene that started out being about something else. To put one’s life on the line (i.e., get into combat) is just one kind of interesting choice. I think it does end up giving us, as a group, that optimal mix of scenes and encounters.

  8. Pingback: 5e: How to Make Engaging Campaigns — Make a Skill Check

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