Scenes are the building blocks of an adventure. They are those moments when the player characters interact with the setting, be it NPCs, searching a site for clues, etc.
Organizing your adventure in scenes is, to my mind, the most flexible way to craft an adventure, but there are several questions the GM must ask himself in order to keep that flexibility and have a satisfying session.
What Is the Purpose of the Scene?
First and foremost, you need to know what your’e trying to accomplish with the scene. Does the scene exist to:
- Bring about combat or possibly bring it about?
- Provide the PCs with information?
- Allow the PCs to gather information?
- Give time to develop the PCs?
- Make time for PC-to-PC interaction?
- Introduce or develop an NPC?
- Introduce a MacGuffin?
There are countess other possible reasons, I just listed the more important ones and maybe the most common.
Who Is in this Scene?
Who are the NPCs that I intend to be present in this scene? Do I envision this as a scene with the entire party? Just one PC? Have I figured out a way to make it work either way?
You have to know who you intended cast is going to be in order to further develop the scene. This is not to say this WILL be your cast for the scene, but you have to start somewhere. Often the players will turn left rather than right. They’ll completely discount one possible course of action at pointless before they even explore the possibility.
In order to keep things moving forward, you need to be flexible, and this is the first place to prepare for those “wrong” turns.
In order to do so, you need to go back to the previous question: what’s the purpose of the scene? If you intended the Old Widow Smith to present the party with the MacGuffin, could someone else do it, if for some reason, they choose not to see the Old Widow Smith? Who else could have it? Perhaps they could find it on a slain thief? Perhaps this would lead to a scene with the Old Widow Smith, where she tells them of the MacGuffin’s significance.
Keeping the cast of the scene flexible will help you keep the story moving when the unexpected happens.
Does the Scene Have a Particular Tone or Emotion?
This is often very reliant upon the cast of the scene, but not always; it can be reliant upon WHERE the scene occurs. Am I trying to convey tension, revulsion, dread, fear, panic, satisfaction, contentment, security?
Once I know what sort of emotional tone I’m looking for, I need to bring in elements to elicit that tone.
Perhaps if I’m looking to crank up tension in a potential combat scene, I’ll add a very long drop (place the scene on a rooftop or near a chasm). If I’m looking to create a sense of security, I might describe the castle walls, fortifications and platoons of guards watching every approach.
If I want to create a sense of contentment or satisfaction after a big fight, I might place the scene in a pub or tavern, where food, drink and revelry are plenty.
It’s important to note that if the players go in an unexpected direction, the who and where of the scene might change, and this well might change the emotional tone of the scene.
Having complete knowledge of your setting and your cast of NPCs will go a long way to informing you as to how to fill out scenes on the fly when the course of the story changes.