Help! How do I design Scenes and Narrative Encounters? (Encounter Design Part 3)

A few days later, you arrive back at Thistle Hold. The fire of the lighthouse beacon burns bright and guides you home to the familiar stench and noise of civilisation. You approach the North Gate and one of the city guards steps forward. He asks you for the usual toll: One shilling per leg and wheel.

 

‘Yeah alright, let’s pay and get inside so we can patch up and get the cloak identified.’

 

‘Hell no I’m not paying a toll. Can I roll something to avoid it?’

 

A bribe to him personally with a roll of Persuasive-5 might do it. If you fail, the situation will get worse.

 

‘Minus five? Man, these guards are usually such pushovers. What’s happened? Oops, that’s a terrible roll.’

 

You try to slip the man a few shilling to let you and your friends through without paying the city. The guard seems enticed, but he glances over his shoulder and his superior officer comes over. “Is there a problem here? Can’t pay the full toll, even with your heavy carts? Do you have licenses for this collection?” The officer moves to inspect your cargo.

 

“Hey now, you’d best keep your hands off our stuff! We’re important people you know! If Nightpitch hears about this…”

 

“If Nightpitch hears about what? Your refusal to pay your fair share?” The guard officer tests the weight of one of your bags of symbarian jewelry. 

 

‘Can I use Dominate to threaten her to back off from our cart?’

 

Go ahead and make a flat roll, but if you fail she’s going to call her friends over and beat some sense into you.

 

‘I hold my hand on my sword hilt, and put on my best portrayal of an indignant noble. I deliver a rant that attempts to imply that I hold sway over her military commission and… Argh! I can’t roll today!’

 

The guard officer whistles, and five men come out from the gatehouse, with cudgels drawn. “This isn’t the first time someone has tried to threaten me today, but after I walk your bloody and beaten ass down main street in chains, it’s bound to be the last!”

 

This isn’t a fight to the death. It’s just a scuffle, but it’s going to have serious repercussions for your reputation in the Hold. We’re going to do one turn of fighting, and then you can have another parlay. Your reputation, your goods, the toll fee, and a few months in jail are all on the table depending on how this goes.

 

‘You just had to provoke them, didn’t you…?”

What makes a scene?

Symbaroum is a curious system. At first glance it seems to present minimalist characters reduced to a handful of attributes and abilities geared for fighting through dungeons. Then as you read on it becomes apparent that it’s written specifically for theatre of the mind style play with little concern for grids and detailed tactical play. That’s how I play my games anyway, so that hardly concerns me. But then it starts going on about scenes and interludes and challenges, leaning towards a modern narrative style of structure, and I think some people may feel lost at that point.

From my experience speaking with other people who play Symbaroum, the Experience-per-Scene thing is something a lot of people disregard early on. Most groups don’t structure play that way, at least not consciously, and scenarios and adventures from other games are not written with scene structure in mind. If you’re running an old-school dungeon from another popular game, how do you treat someone stepping on a trap and having to roll to avoid being hit by a swinging blade – is that a scene? What about when the wizard stops to study the murals on the wall – is that a scene? Or when the goblin patrol comes around the corner and the players try to hide to avoid a fight – is that a scene?

Trying to force a scene structure on top of a more traditional approach to roleplaying isn’t always going to work, and you either have to throw out the scene-based thinking altogether or you have to start thinking about scenes from the very beginning.

Symbaroum’s Scenes

The rulebook presents two different types of moments: interludes and scenes. Interludes are narrative sections where nothing challenging happens. The GM describes some stuff, the player characters talk and make plans, and travel happens. Scenes are narrative and mechanical sections where there’s tension and action and risk, and a challenge test for at least one character.

I would personally like to add a third type of scenes. I would suggest that action scenes/combat/encounters/struggles/fights (encounters for short) represent a third ‘scene type’ that makes for a three-step escalation:

Interlude: The GM describes the world and gives the players context. The players interact with the world in a risk-free way.

Challenge: The GM presents the players with a challenge that must be overcome. The players take risks to make progress.

Encounter: The characters must face a physical altercation or extended challenge with significant danger.

All of these three should be called ‘scenes’ in normal parlance, but only the Challenge and the Encounter are worth experience by Symbaroum’s definition. Taken together, they form construction blocks you can use to construct scenes in a fluid way while still gelling with the structure of the system. Presenting this way of thinking to the players can also allow them the agency to deliberately escalate or de-escalate from one style of scene to another.

Scene-based Design

The opening to this post is a simple approach to the Interlude-Challenge-Encounter approach, structured this way:

Interlude: The players arrive at Thistle Hold and are asked to pay the toll. If they pay the toll they move on to the city. There is no risk and no challenge. The players could stop to chit-chat with the guard to hear if any other successful expeditions have returned lately, what the news in the Hold are, etc. The scene can have substance, but it won’t be worth any experience. However, it presents a hook that a player can use to escalate the interlude to be a scene.

Challenge: Faced with a toll (and a scene of no experience value), one of the players decides to ’cause a scene’ and decide a challenge for themselves: They will make a roll to try to reduce the group’s toll fee. The GM approves of this, but indicates what the consequences of failure will be. The player fails, and the cost of entry will now be much higher than it initially was. The player wants to make another attempt. The GM actually makes this roll easier than the first, but makes it clear that failure will have dire consequences. The player fails again, and at this point the scene escalates again.

Encounter: The players are now engaged in combat with a squad of Thistle Hold’s city watch. However, it’s not a fight to the death. The guards will want to teach the players a lesson, arrest them, and possibly impound their loot. The players will want to dissuade the city guards from further antagonising, and hopefully de-escalate from outright fighting. The GM says that there will be a single round of fighting, and after that everyone will take a breath and discussions will continue depending on how the fight resolves and which side looks to have the upper hand.

In the interlude, there was no risk but there was a cost to travel.

In the challenge, there was a potential reward on the table (lesser toll, friendly guard) and a risk (higher toll, unfriendly guard). The situation then moved on and the risk ramped up (bodily harm, reputation loss, legal punishment).

In the encounter, there was a framing (administer beating) that made it different from a normal combat situation, and which made it a natural extension of the previous negotiation. The future balance of the negotiation is much less certain, and even if the players come out on top they may still suffer serious consequences.

Having left three of Officer Vanda’s men face-down in the muck and herself clutching a bloodied eye and missing a few teeth, it seems that she was content with you tossing the regular toll at her feet. You lie low for a few days in case someone is out to arrest you or get revenge for a broken bone, but no-one comes picking a fight. You eventually hear through the grapevine that Officer Vanda reported it as a torchbearer match that got out of hand, but you are also very much aware that prices in most of the Hold’s establishments seem to have gone up just for your group. Maybe it’s just the usual gouging that comes with a returning expedition, or maybe Captain Marvello has alternate ways of extracting restitution from troublesome citizens.

When you break down the scene design into these three different levels, you can think about what you have available in your GM’s toolbox separately for all three.

The interlude asks: What is the current situation? Where are the players? What is this place like? What is currently going on in the story? What are the players hoping to accomplish? This is the context on which the players’ actions rest. When the party stops to discuss something, these are the questions they are trying to pin down, and the Interlude is only interested in answering them. The Interlude takes the players to the door of their contact, it delivers them deeper into the dungeon, it helps them orientate themselves after a confusing revelation.

The challenge asks: What is standing in the players’ way? What is the difficulty they are facing? What are the risks involved? What is the blockage? As a game master, when you stop and asks the players “What do you do?” there needs to be something in front of them to deal with. The Scene puts a locked door in the players’ way, a collapsed bridge in an underground passage, or a strange guardian patrolling a path.

The encounter asks: What is the immediate opposition? Who is there to punch and get punched? What is the tactical situation? What environmental factors can be exploited for movement and fighting? This is the direct result of some risk in a failed challenge or a consequence of a previous Scene. The Encounter brings the guards down on the party when the thief fails to pick the lock fast enough, it awakens a swarm of spiders when the adventurers cause a ruckus in the catacombs, or faces them off against a raging monster when attempts at appeasement fail.

This core challenge of the scene could be a social or environmental blockage that needs to be negotiated in order to move on, no matter how the combat goes. These core challenges are what make the difference between “We fought some guards” and “We held off the baron’s men while the ogre smashed open the gate so that we could escape!” Ideally, a scene should retain its challenge even if you take away the encounter, and remain even after the Encounter has been resolved – or be the blockage that allows the players to escape from the encounter.

Elements of Scene Design

Interludes

  • Game Master delivers non-interactive description
  • Party safely travels between two locations.
  • Dialogue between party members, or non-challenging NPC encounters
  • Cut-scene of events that the party is not privy to but the game master wishes the players to know
  • Little or no time pressure
  • Can be escalated if a player character decides to cause a challenge.

Challenges

  • One or more points of experience on the line.
  • There is something a player character wants that is difficult to accomplish.
  • One or more player characters face a challenge.
  • There is a moderate to severe risk associated with failure
  • Time pressure, social pressure, or physical pressure
  • Character growth, information reveal, and/or plot progression
  • Can escalate to an Encounter

Encounters

  • One or more player characters are in danger
  • There is a risk of death, capture, or other terrible failure
  • There are tactical choices to be made
  • Someone or something is directly trying to stop the player characters from accomplishing their goals.
  • Involves fighting or other action that can make use of character abilities (hunting/fleeing, sports)
  • Can de-escalate into a non-encounter scene when one side has lost all capability or will to fight

Examples

I: The players are making slow progress through treacherous terrain. There have been few opportunities to rest and they are starting to feel the exhaustion.

C: A crumbled bridge marks the end of the road. The player characters must jump or find some other way to cross.

E: The player characters are being harried by creatures that are flying or have a higher ground advantage. Moving into a cavern or interior might protect from the enemy advantage and allow the characters to reach them.

 

I: The party has realised that who they thought was their ally was actually an enemy and now they are caught in the bad guy’s lair without their weapons or gear.

C: A blocked door or gate is impeding the group’s progress. The solution might require magic, finesse, or brute force but there are traps, time pressure, or a danger of detection that complicates things.

E: The bad guy’s loyal but ineffective minions are searching for the players and will attack them in waves once located. They don’t have high morale but anyone that flees will join a later wave.

 

I: An ancient temple sinks deeper into the ground as the player party tries to escape it.

C: A ritual must be deciphered and performed in reverse to cancel an imminent and gravely destructive event.

E: Enemies use portals or hidden doorways to reach the players and try to abduct them unless the portals are blocked or destroyed.

 

I: The players arrive at a chamber decorated wall-to-wall with art depicting the history of an ancient lost city.

C: Studying the frescoes requires a learned scholar, but the room also conceals numerous triggers that open trap doors that drop into a lower chamber.

E: A pack of starving monsters held in captivity are unleashed to feast on the player characters unless they can be led to an alternative food source.

 

These examples can be mixed and matched to create a lot of variety. When you split the theme, blockage, and danger of a scene into separate levels of escalation, you can experiment by combining them in different ways. And once you are set in this way of thinking, consider picking up one of those dungeons from some other game and look over them with this lense. If there’s a hallway with a trap and a room with some goblins, are the goblins in the next room laying in wait for someone to trigger the trap? Look at what consequence trees you can tie together so that a roll always has a risk and a consequence. “Nothing happens” doesn’t usually make for drama or tension.

If your players expect everything to be a fight, and tend to make short work of bosses, use these steps of escalation to draw out encounters with more flavour and alternate ways of resolution. Should the Lindwurm attack the players straight away? Instead, might it be showcased in an interlude where its mysterious whispers reach the players long before they see it, and then it offers them a riddle? In reward they get to pick what they want from its treasure hoard or they must swear to become its pact-bound servants.

Set core challenges first, then see how the threat of a fight might complicate things. Finding the key in the pile of troll garbage might just take time, but if the trolls are on their way back to the lair and aren’t expecting company, the core challenge suddenly gains much more tension. If the daemons will keep swarming the players until the magical rift is sealed, the players should realise that fighting isn’t the scene’s only dimension.

3 Replies to “Help! How do I design Scenes and Narrative Encounters? (Encounter Design Part 3)”

  1. Niclas Florén says: Reply

    Hey,

    I just want to give many big thanks and great credit to you for your posts here. I love reading them, I have read all of them and most of them several times. I have never written any comments because I am just not very prone to commenting online, and also because I’m not running or playing in any Symbaroum game, or any rpg for that matter, as for now. I don’t really have anything to bring to the discussion. So I just want to voice my appreciation for what you’re doing here, and don’t think that your efforts and the insights you share go by unnoticed in the vast void of the internet.

    Thank you, I hope that some day I can be the one sharing the knowledge.

    1. Master Xaras says: Reply

      Thank you! I really appreciate it!

  2. Wonderful work mate! Thanks so much

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