Staging a Scene vs. Detailing a Location

Last Friday I took apart a great Dungeon Crawl Classics module from Goodman Games and attempted to put it in terms of production elements. Words, pages, artwork, etc.

102448Today I want to approach it from a different point of view. IMHO, the OSR movement seems to swing the design pendulum from story- and character-motivation-heavy modern D&D 4e approach (see Zeitgeist as a terrific example) to a more stoic, sparse approach for encounter design (the more Old School feel). I’m going to look at the document structure as well as encounter construction and see what I can surmise.

Note: Keep in mind I’m not saying either approach is better than the other. I have really enjoyed how detailed the world of Zeitgeist has been as we’ve played through it our current 4e campaign. But I love a good dungeon crawl as much as the next guy. The trick is balancing the story side with the combat side so that everyone is entertained on both sides of the GM screen!

For this exercise, I will use Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea from Goodman Games again and add in White Box Adventures: The Wererat’s Well from Barrel Rider Games, plus add in a bit from some Moebius Adventures adventures as well.

DCC #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea Structure

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Rumors & Superstitions
  • Encounter Table
  • Player Start
  • The Ruined Keep (Collection of Areas & Monsters)
  • The Starless Sea (Collection of Areas & Monsters)

The Wererat’s Well Structure

  • Wererat's Well coverIntroduction
  • Preparing for the Adventure
  • The Village of Willowford (Overview, NPCs)
  • The Wererat’s Well (Collection of Areas & Monsters)
  • Aftermath and Further Adventures
  • New Monsters

Some Analysis

Really they’re both structured in a similar way. Introduce the adventure, prepare the GM with some additional background, then walk through maps a location at a time. Pretty straightforward.

In the Lost Age Adventures, we offer some Introductory material and then walk through a collection of scenes, almost as though you’re playing through a movie script. Each scene becomes a longer equivalent to a particular location on a map. In The Snake’s Heart, that’s what it comes down to. In Serpents Below, it becomes even more abstract, off-the-map offering as you work through the adventure.

When we look at the encounters themselves however, what does it look like?

A Bit More on Encounters…

In Sailors on the Starless Sea, each area is introduced by some read-aloud text, potential actions by the PCs, any items discovered, and any monsters or NPCs encountered, along with the consequences of any particular actions. In some cases, a single area can have nearly a page of text, whereas others are just a few paragraphs in length.

Though Wererat’s Well is a shorter adventure overall, the encounter structure is the same though much more brief. Each area is reduced to some read-aloud text, a paragraph or two of description of anything encountered within, and stats for items, NPCs, and monsters.

Each scene in a Lost Age Adventure is structured with a bit of introductory script, a setup, a list of any NPCs or antagonists encountered, and the aftermath… Though sometimes tied to a particular area on a map, the scene structure is more abstract offering a more story-like “Beginning, Middle, and End” with the PCs providing the “Middle” themselves.

More Questions

the-snakes-heart-coverSo with that high level information in mind, I’m curious what might be a comfortable middle ground between the map-driven open-ended structure provided in the first two cases vs. the story-driven approach of the Moebius approach.

After discussing this format with a couple of other folks, we have come to the conclusion that the scene-based structure doesn’t lend itself well to branching adventures, vs. the map-based structure does leave itself more open to a sandbox approach.

For more complicated stories, would a combination of the two work? I think that’s what I’m leaning towards in both our first two adventures. There are some mile markers on the road, but ultimately it comes down to how the players work through a particular storyline. They may walk through it completely backwards and it’s up to the GM to figure out how to keep up.

I suspect that if we had better maps, achieving that happy medium might be a bit less of a challenge. One part storytelling with a Beginning, Middle, and End, and one part dungeon crawl detailing particular areas with the tidbits required a bit at a time. Perhaps we could even sneak more story into those area descriptions…

What do you think?

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