The Alexandrian

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Up until this point, a lot of this blather about “game structures” may have sounded like it was something that only game designers need to waste their time with.

But, to the contrary, game structures represent the primary and most important tool in the GM’s toolbox. The more game structures a GM has mastered, the easier they will find it to prep and run their scenarios. The fewer game structures a GM knows, the more limited their scenarios and the more difficult their prep becomes.

(The argument can also be made that, fundamentally, all GMs need to act like game designers: An RPG without a scenario is like Monopoly without a board. Or, to put it another way, if Monopoly were packaged like a typical RPG it would come with rules for moving your pawns and buying properties, but it would expect the group to design its own boards. Scenario design is game design.)

To demonstrate what I mean about using scenario structures as tools, let’s take the example of a fairly straightforward adventure concept:

The PCs have been tasked with accompanying a clerk who has been charged with acting as the proxy for the Duchess of Canterlocke to bid for a dilapidated estate standing opposite the Dweredell Gardens. The PCs are to protect him while finding out more about the other parties interested in the estate and the suspected cult activity surrounding the estate.

Fifteen years ago, my mastery of game structures was limited. I basically had two of them: Dungeoncrawling and linear railroading. Faced with this concept for an adventure scenario, I would have been forced to resort to the linear railroad: A pre-programmed sequence of scenes that the PCs would experience. (To my fictionally retroactive credit, I would have probably tried to make those scenes as flexible as possible because I wasn’t actually a fan of railroading. But I would have been fighting my prep structure, and that usually means a lot more prep.

In a similar fashion, you can see how the lack of a game structure for wilderness adventures has resulted in most modern adventure modules presenting overland travel as a linear sequence of pre-programmed encounters:

Route to Tazion - Serpent's Skull

But today, with a wider array of game structures at my fingertips, I find it relatively trivial to break this scenario concept down in a way that’s easier to prep, easier to run, and offers the players a much greater freedom in how they want to approach the scenario.

(1) “The PCs are to protect him…” I’m assuming this means that there will actually be something to protect him from. To prep this, I draw up a list of threats (i.e., the attacks that will be directed his way). These might be triggered by location (“when he reaches Water Street, the assassins strike”), but just putting them on a timeline will probably work, too.

(2) “To bid for a dilapidated estate…” When I prep a large social or business gathering, I prep two tracks: First, I prep a roleplaying profile for each significant participant. Second, I prep a list of significant events.

Sometimes the significant events are on a timetable. Sometimes they’re keyed to particular NPCs or locations. Sometimes they’re just a list of conversation topics that are popular at the party. (Ultimately, it’s whatever makes sense and is most useful to me. More details here.)

(3) “… a dilapidated estate standing opposite the Dweredell Gardens.” Here we come to a key question: Is the estate something that the PCs are supposed to explore room-by-room (like a haunted house)? Or will we just be just be treating it as a backdrop for the auction? The former gets prepped (and run) as a dungeoncrawl. The latter gets prepped with a few brief descriptions and maybe a generic floorplan if I think it’ll be important for some reason.

It might also be both: The mansion itself might just be a backdrop for the auction; but the family crypts under the mansion might shift us into a ‘crawl. Or maybe the mansion is treated as a backdrop during the auction and then we approach it as a ‘crawl during the night when all the ghosts from the Well of Souls come out.

(4) “The suspected cult activity around the estate.” Like most mystery structures, I’m going to default to node-based scenario design to break it down into easy-to-manage and easy-to-design chunks. To launch players into the node structure, I’ll liberally seed clues in the threats in #1, the NPCs in #2, and the rooms in #3 (if I went for a crawl-based structure there). A sample node list might look something like this:

  • Cultist Assassination Team
  • Shrine of the Black God
  • Temple of the One-Eyed Priest
  • Councilor Jaffar (Secret Cultist)

The assassination team is a proactive node that attacks the clerk the PCs are guarding. One of the assassins has a distinctive tattoo (asking around town indicates people have seen people with similar tattoos hanging around the Shrine of the Black God). Questioning any of the assassins will reveal they were sent from the Temple of the One-Eyed Priest. Maybe one of them has a note signed by Jaffar telling him to kill one of their fellow assassins once the job has been completed.

And so forth.


The first thing is the scenario hook: The Duchess of Canterlocke wants to hire the PCs to guard a clerk for her.

That hook is connected to a simple timeline structure: The clerk needs to head to the estate at Time A; assassination attempts will be made at times B and D; the open house and auction will begin at time C.

That timeline has additional triggers in it: Clues on the assassins will trigger the node-based investigation. Escorting the clerk to inspect the house will trigger the ‘crawl of the house. Escorting the clerk to the auction will trigger the social-based party structure.

The ‘crawl of the house will probably include triggers for combat (undead in the crypts below the house or whatever). The party structure will contain additional clues triggering the node-based investigation. And the node-based investigation will lead to both the Shrine of the Black God and the Temple of the One-Eyed Priest, which are probably both prepped as dungeoncrawls, too.


Like most projects, once you have the right tools, it’s just a matter of identifying the right tool for the job and then using it.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that we instead used all the wrong tools:

(1) We try to prep escorting the clerk across Dweredell as a ‘crawl: That means prepping every street with a keyed encounter so that the PCs will encounter content no matter which streets they decide to walk down. (Result: Way too much prep, a lot of decisions that aren’t of particular importance to the immediate goals of the PCs, and probably some severe pacing problems.)

(2) We prep the crypts under the house as a timeline of undead-themed encounters: After 5 minutes of explortation we trigger encounter 1; after 10 minutes of exploration we trigger encounter 2; and so forth. (Result: The only meaningful input the players have here is to say “we keep exploring”. Our impulse is probably to at least improvise a map as they explore, but of course that just moves us back towards the dungeoncrawl structure that we’re specifically eschewing for the purpose of this broken example.)

(3) Instead of prepping auction bidders for roleplaying, we instead give ‘em combat stats and roll for initiative whenever the PCs want to talk to them.

And so forth.

Use the proper structures and the prep will be easy and naturally allow your players to make meaningful and relevant decisions. Use the wrong structures (either by mistake or because you don’t know the right structures to use) and your prep will be difficult and your players will struggle to make the choices they want to make.

But what if the right game structure doesn’t exist?

Go to Part 13: Custom Structures

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9 Responses to “Game Structures – Part 12: Using Scenario Structures”

  1. Quirky DM says:

    And it keeps getting better and better.

    I am in whole hearted agreement that you can only help your GMing by looking at the game design. Game design and GMing are very similar and you can use a lot of the same tools to do both.

  2. jdh417 says:

    As adventures are ultimately whatever the DM has prepped or is improvising, do players really care about choice? Players are really only reacting to what the DM is throwing at their characters.

    What I would like as a player is for my character to be in interesting situations that can be dealt with in different ways. That’s a hard mandate for a DM to set up, much less make up on the spot.

    Railroading seems to come about as the characters are generic, with the generic goals of killing monsters, getting gold, and and completing quests (and leveling up). When directionless, anonymous characters are forced into certain actions by the DM (in order to get the prepared adventure moving along), that’s where friction occurs.

    If the characters had some sort of inherent motivation, an adventure could be crafted that assumes some of the players’ actions and their willing participation, rather either fighting the path or whimsically going off the rails (not that that won’t happen anyway, but there’ll be reason). Characters are still killing, looting, and questing, but at least their players know why they’re doing it.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    “What I would like as a player is for my character to be in interesting situations that can be dealt with in different ways. That’s a hard mandate for a DM to set up, much less make up on the spot. “

    It’s actually much easier (and requires much less prep) to create an interesting situation and then let the players interact with it however they choose than it is to create an interesting situation AND a railroaded sequence of events based on that interesting situation.

    “Railroading seems to come about as the characters are generic, with the generic goals of killing monsters, getting gold, and and completing quests (and leveling up).”

    I don’t really see the connection. Railroading happens when a GM negates player choice in order to enforce a predetermined outcome: Nothing about that requires (or is even really encouraged by) generic goals.

  4. Jono says:

    It’s interesting you use a social encounter with a combat structure. I recently bought Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire RPG, in which social mechanics, or intrigue, are pretty much analagous to the combat mechanics.

    Each character has an attack bonus and defence score based on their various social stats, and a number of composure points (hit points). Have you come across the game yourself, and if so what do you make of those mechanics ?

  5. Hautamaki says:

    Justin I think I know what jdh417 is saying.

    What he’s saying is that the players have a responsibility to create characters with goals and intrinsic motivations, and the DM has a responsibility to design his adventure hooks with those motivations in mind.

    If the players do not meet their responsibility beforehand and then are presented with adventure hooks they arbitrarily decide on the spot do not interest them, a frustrated DM may see himself forced to railroad them into the adventure anyways.

    If the DM creates adventure hooks or scenarios which specifically contradict the character’s initial motivations and then force them into those scenarios and adventure anyways they will feel frustrated and railroaded.

    A good example; a group of players creates a good-aligned party who wants to smite evil and protect the innocent. The DM had been hoping all along for an evil-aligned campaign. So in the first session, the PCs are thrown into an unwinnable battle in which they are all knocked unconscious and cursed with an evil brand. They wake up with desire to eat the hearts of the innocent and are filled with an ever growing hunger which weakens them until they do so. In later sessions the players are thrown out of the good-aligned city that was their home base as their mark of evil is clearly visible, and they must attempt to pursue the evil warlock that cursed them. He leads them through a village, but he had cursed all the villagers as well and so the PCs are forced into a battle where they must make attack and damage rolls against old men and women, children, and even a few pregnant villagers. In point of fact, the players tried to first circumvent the village, and then tried to flee rather than wiping it out, but in both cases were over-ruled and ultimately had their hands forced by an NPC accompanying them.

    At that point I had had enough of the campaign. That’s railroading because the campaign overruled the stated intentions and motivations of the PCs. If the PCs had made clear they wanted to play a dark, evil themed campaign, the campaign as set up would have been perfect. But because it was the wrong campaign for the PCs, it felt all wrong.

  6. jdh417 says:

    I think what I was trying to say was that if the characters (players) aren’t well motivated, the DM almost always is (since they’re making up the adventure) and will start to force things.

    Yeah, exactly. It’s like a session with a dominatrix. The slave actually sets all the rules of the encounter. (Wow! What a questionable analogy.) The players and the DM need to agree to and establish who the characters are and what they’re after, and what sorts of adventures the players are looking for. In a pickup setting, the DM should essentially announce what sort of adventure they’re offering and players should either agree or not play.

    I wonder if 4e (and to a lesser extent 3e) might have a leg up on Old School in this regard. Given the prop-driven nature of the encounters, players may be more inclined to go along with whatever the DM has planned, simply because if they don’t, there may not be much of an adventure. Or perhaps players look at 4e as more of a wargame scenario/computer game with the role-playing parts representing the cut-scenes.

  7. S'mon says:

    “What he’s saying is that the players have a responsibility to create characters with goals and intrinsic motivations, and the DM has a responsibility to design his adventure hooks with those motivations in mind.”

    That approach creates way too much burden on the GM, IMO. Much better to have the GM or the rules (eg ‘XP for gold’) tell the players what their PC goals are; then everyone starts off on the same page. Or at least make it a mutual discussion where the group decides together on the campaign goals.

    Once goals are clear, the PCs can have a lot of freedom of action because the GM can allow for all reasonable PC approaches to furthering those goals. Whereas if PC goals are not made clear before play begins, it’s a recipe for a failed game. Eg I played a Savage Worlds zombie apocalypse game (War of the Dead) that did not set clear PC goals prior to play. Instead it simply railroaded the PCs from scene to scene through force. The PCs were pushed along with no reference to their own motivations.

  8. Hautamaki says:

    S’mon that’s exactly what I do (XP for gold, with a little quest completion XP rewards if I feel that there isn’t enough gold to reward characters commensurate within the quest (for example rescuing a farmer’s daughter from a band of troglodytes who wouldn’t logically have much in the way of treasure))

    And I agree 100% there should be a mutual agreement between players and DM beforehand. I guess because I’m usually the DM myself and I tend to put the burden mostly on myself to ensure that everyone is having a good time that comes through in how I word things sometimes.

  9. Carl says:

    Late reply:

    Renegade Crowns from 2005 is also a kind of hex-crawl – even with the old-school assumption that you want to take over a stronghold or castle to be able to assume control of a province. Not in a friendly way, though, in the end there’s just one ruler of the forgotten province.

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