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Creating a Dynamic, Powerful Session and Scene for Your TTRPG Game

As Game Masters, we all aspire to bring powerful moments to every session and campaign, sometimes with the tears and laughs of our players coming out from an imaginative, creative game as though they were interacting with your story 'for real.' Being able to create a powerful scene that brings moments like that is a skill that takes practice, but once learned, can be expanded on and mastered.

Now, before getting started, I want to mention that many bits and pieces of this blog have been paraphrased from Randy Ingermanson's books on the Snowflake Method, specifically his book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. He is a fantastic fictional writer, author, teacher, and has beautifully written books that explain this Snowflake Method. Now, when it comes to a tabletop game, it differs from writing scenes for a novella or novel, so things will be a bit different and tailored to work for your sessions. However, I highly encourage anyone wanting to increase their writing abilities to check out some of his books. The best ways to learn include reading, practice, and observation!

Story, Consent, and Boundaries

I like how Ingermanson describes a story as "what happens when you walk through great danger in somebody else's skin." We are going to keep that in mind here, since it applies to TTRPG sessions! In a TTRPG session or campaign, the player gets to experience 'playing' as someone else. It can be whoever they want to, within the realm of the system being used and game master rules. It can let a player either experience things they've been through before differently, repeat moments, walk in someone else's shoes, or even get to let out hidden emotions through therapeutic actions of their character. That in itself is powerful, and anything from danger to someone's relationships, life, self-worth, possessions, and rights creates a story, a moment, some fun, some pain, and reflection. Unlike real life, a TTRPG game, or a story, can be experienced through imagination and acting. It is a safe space. Remember that. As a game master, it will be important before deciding what dangers to bring into the game space that your players are comfortable with said topics. This is consent. This is important. Some players will not want to re-experience past traumas or triggers for themselves. Respect that. If not, don't be a game master. You run the game, not the players or their characters, and definitely not their beliefs, ethics, or boundaries.

The Scene

Now that we've gotten story, consent, and boundaries settled, lets discuss what truly makes up a scene, or a session. First, a scene will include the characters, the ordeal or adversity, and then the decision or conclusion. We will use the two different types of scenes, proactive or reactive, as the layout for a session. Each session is like a chain, that links to other chains until it gets to the very end. You follow this path, and they need to have some sort of linkage to stay together, make sense, and just be cohesive.

Therefore, starting at the first part of a scene, characters, we will follow the chain. Now, not every scene in a session needs to involve every single character, sometimes you will create scenes that focus on one character, or maybe a few of the party members. You need to decide the focus of the scene you will be having. To avoid the issue of favoritism, it will be important to look at previous sessions and scenes and make sure that it isn't leaning too far on one single character. Now, if the focus is one single character, but the entire party is compelled to help in those scenes, it becomes more balanced. But, eventually you will need to lean towards someone else to avoid being seen as favoritism. Sometimes, you will have multiple scenes to make the story, but each scene needs to be a story in itself. There will need to be a lead towards some sort of decision or conclusion.

That brings us to the next part of a scene, the ordeal or adversity. Every scene needs to have an aspect of adversity that the characters are dealing with. Now, remember what was said earlier, there is a chain of sessions that encompass the story, or the campaign arcs. Therefore, you need to decide the ordeal of the entire story, AND the adversity that happens in the scene. The best way to explain this is, the adversity of a scene is what is ruining or troubling the characters right there, right then. It might lead to the eventual reveal of the entire ordeal, but be careful to not reveal the story ordeal right away. Leave footprints, or foreshadowing, towards what's truly going on that's causing all this adversity for the characters.

Now, as mentioned, there are two different types of scenes, which will help you determine what adversity to have the characters face, and how it should link to the end of the session or scene. A proactive scene will start with a goal, lead into the conflict, and then end with a setback usually. It could end with victory, but rarely should. A reactive scene is when the characters recover from the previous scene, aka the proactive scene. They are reacting to what happened. So, it starts with the reaction, facing a dilemma, and then needing to make a decision. How do you decide what type of adversity to have them face in each of these scenes?

In a proactive scene, the character will already have a goal set for what they want to accomplish by the end of the scene, or session. Very simply put, the adversity will be something that might make them not achieve their goal. Take for example the characters who desperately want to save one of the party members from the BBEG. This goal will drive them not only for one scene, but can be carried out over multiple scenes. The adversity can simply be explained as the difficulty of infiltrating the BBEG's lair.

In a reactive scene, the character will now be reeling with shock from the Setback of some other previous scene. The adversity is the feeling of guilt, depression, lack of options, anything that makes them feel like there isn't a way forward. There isn't a new goal yet. In the example given, say that they try to infiltrate the BBEG's lair in a previous scene, but it doesn't work out, and they are left feeling hopeless. They will be forced to deal with this dilemma and decide what to do next.

It is important in a proactive scene to usually end with a setback, especially if this scene concludes at the end of a session, because then it pushes the players to feel like there is some unfinished business they need to finish off in the next session. It motivates players to want the next session now, but give them enough time to think through the next scene, the reactive scene. They will be thinking hard over the next week or two about how they will approach the situation, and it will lead to an even more powerful session next time. As a game master, you can also use this as an opportunity to listen into what some of their ideas are. Think of how you can twist things a bit to give them a true dilemma to make a decision about, and to make sure the next scene is as powerful and momentous as possible.

Now, when a setback would equate to a character dying, then that is when the characters need to have a victory. No one continuously loses and has setback after setback without some sort of victory, as small as it might be. In the example given earlier, usually entering the BBEG's lair will have some layers to it, and so there should be proactive scenes that leave the players feeling victorious as they manage to get by a layer. This leaves room to lead to another proactive scene where they face the next danger of the dungeon or lair. There's also an advantage to having a victory, it can later become a setback later on, if you are able to write it in. This is where you can note that emotionally powerful doesn't necessarily mean emotionally satisfying. Now, unlike a book, you want the dissatisfaction of what's happening in setbacks and conflicts to not affect the actual player, but feed into their passion for continuing and pushing on. It goes back to consent and balance. You need to balance the rollercoaster of emotions that players go through. If you drudge them through setback after setback without any small amount of victory, then the players themselves will be dissatisfied with not just the game, but with you as their game master. It is a careful balance, and you need to make sure you're not going too far.

Now that there's been a setback, you can employ a reaction scene to force the players to choose between various 'bad options.' They are forced to set aside the high emotion they're feeling in order to think rationally. As long as the players come together to try and rationalize a decision, then that means the dilemma was a good dilemma. By good, I mean difficult. However, their choices need to fit within the characters' personalities and morals. At times, you can force a group to do something they don't want to, but only if you can give them a chance to redeem it later. Don't force the reaction to happen right away, let everything be natural. By that, I mean that sometimes after a big setback, players might want to spend the rest of a session, multiple sessions, or quite some time before they go back to dealing with the adversity or ordeal that brought them to that setback. Be prepared to give the players some smaller scenes and encounters that will lead to clues, hints, foreshadows, and most importantly, some victories to bring their morale back up. The high-tension that a setback can bring is exactly what can fuel a powerful battle, moment, or realization in a campaign. If your players don't have to think much about what they'll do next, then it's likely that the setback or dilemma was not powerful enough. Again, it takes practice to master these concepts.

In Conclusion

You have now learned all the aspects of what makes a great scene so powerful and dynamic. It needs to have flow like a linked chain between one scene to the next, with room for breaks and moving from one objective to the next. It should feel like a fun rollercoaster for everyone, but it should never surpass the boundaries of one of the riders leaving them sick and wanting to go home. They will need to face setbacks, small or big, and have some victories here and there to push them forward after making difficult decisions. Remember to decide what these ordeals and adversities they will face are. Tailor it to the characters and what their weaknesses and strengths are. Build up their emotional suspense, satisfaction, and dissatisfaction to keep the tension high-enough for the final link of the chain(s). A campaign can have multiple chains linking to the final scene, that being the story arcs.

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