Session to session, adventuring parties will encounter scenarios the Dungeon Master (DM) has prepared for them. These scenarios give the session content for players to engage with. As DM, you’ll often find yourself coming up with your own scenarios for the party to overcome even if you’re running from a module or campaign book. Many of these scenarios are prepared in advance, or at least conceptualized, before the session they’re featured in. I liken these to scripted events in video games. In Skyrim, quite early into the game, the protagonist is (seemingly randomly) approached by an Old Orc asking for an honorable fight to the death. The two available options are to engage him in a fight and grant his wish, thereby killing him, or to decline and leave him to sit where you found him until the end of time (or you come back and kill him later). Being an iconic RPG, the choice is yours, so long as it fits into one of those two scripted options. Moreover, while the Old Orc approaching you has a degree of randomness as to when and where it happens, it will inevitably happen in your playthrough should you explore enough of Skyrim.
But, tabletop games aren’t video games, nor should they be treated like one.
It’s common to approach Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and other tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) like you might a video game. As a player, you can unintentionally limit your choices or, if you’re particularly considerate, try and match your choices to what you expect the Dungeon Master intended. While, as DM, you might have specific bits of dialogue scripted out and a pre-planned outcome for the party to experience.
While D&D is drastically different from a video game, it’s often necessary to implement so-called “scripted” scenarios (encounters, events, whatever you prefer) in TTRPGs. The major deviation between a video game’s scripted event and a prepared scenario in D&D is the player’s constant control over choice and the ability to forge their own outcome, even one the DM hadn’t anticipated. D&D takes a scripted scenario and turns it into a dynamic back and forth with numerous possibilities for the party to explore; because it isn’t hardcoded and running on auto-pilot like a program. How the party engages, the decisions they make, and how much blood they shed may alter the outcome of a scenario significantly. In most cases, the player’s choices and their degree of effectiveness will at least deviate from the scenario’s default outcome.
The default outcome is a key component of scripting a scenario. Emphasis on the “default.” The actual outcome of a scenario should not be pre-determined by the DM, because, as we just established, the player’s influence will help shape the outcome and the DM (try as we might) cannot predict every possible move players will make. However, when scripting a scenario, it helps to have in mind a default outcome should the party fail to engage with the scenario’s hook or fail to impact the outcome in any meaningful way. Before we get into that…
Let’s break down the process of scripting a good scenario. How much you literally script out in your notes depends on how comfortable you are with running the game and improvising. As you build experience and confidence you will feel less compelled to hardcode dialogue and details. Probably. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to write your scenarios, this is just a baseline! So let’s break it down.
Intriguing Goal or Meaningful Purpose
A scenario you plop down in front of your party should have a clear goal for your players to deduce and that goal should be meaningful to them.
It’s common for DMs to pick out a monster or two or ten and put them on the table for the party to fight. This is a combat encounter, where combat is the expected solution. It is not, on its own, a scenario. Well, it can be, but it’s not a very good scenario on its own. These wandering monsters need more purpose behind them and the party needs more intention driving them for this combat to be a meaty scenario rather than a scrap thrown out to fill the party’s unyielding hunger for battle.
Why is the party where they are when these monsters provoke them? What do these monster’s have that the party wants or what is beyond the monsters that the party needs to reach? Why would the monsters stay and fight? Is the party motivated enough to stick around and fight the creatures instead of finding a way around them or turning back?
Ideally, a scenario is what stands between the party and their next goal or desired resource.
For example, consider the following scenario in a cavern:
You see before you an active, bubbling pool of magma. Rocky formations dot the surface, creating a natural but treacherous bridge across the lava lake. On the opposite side sits The Artifact You Desire For Reasons. Imps patrol the path, currently unaware of the party. The magma boils and pops with increasing aggression, building slowly toward an eruption. What do you do?
The goal is to retrieve the artifact, which the party needs because it’s important and we love to sprinkle the campaign with plot-critical magical doodads. This purpose is straightforward enough and, because it relates to the main goal of collecting a powerful artifact, it most certainly will interest the party.
A less obvious example:
As you explore the sprawling ruins in search of the Mayor’s kidnapped son you come to a fork in the path. To the left you see the path winds onward through broken chambers, a way forward. To the right you see an occupied room with what appears to be a high ranking bandit and their crew, about four others, breaking for a meal by the fire. What do you?
In this case, the party is looking for the Mayor’s son in a large network of ruins. Time is of the essence. There is no clear goal in the presentation of this scenario and the party is free to scoot on by undetected or engage with the bandits through any way they imagine. The objective or purpose is derived from what the party thinks or knows they need: information, keys to unlock doors or cages, a hostage for negotiation with the Supreme Bandit Leader. Or do they need to remain covert and not raise a single alarm, so the goal to sneak by?
In short: The scenario itself should be interesting to engage in and have a goal that is meaningful to the party.
A scenario should have some form of conflict between the party and an external influence. That influence could be humanoids at odds with the party, territorial beasts, turbulent weather, or even a fallen tree blocking the path forward. The conflict is how that person, creature, thing, or event interferes with the party’s objective or goals. It’s important to note that conflict does not always mean combat or even the risk of bodily harm. A Commoner NPC poses no physical threat to an adventuring party, but can still act as a source of — or participant to — conflict.
- A storm at sea threatens to sink your ship
- A gaggle of bandits threaten to delay your time-sensitive delivery of merchandise
- A pool of magma threatens to singe your flesh off but must be crossed
- A Hill Giant literally blocks the mountain pass with its huge body
- A rockslide blocks the road to the apothecary and your NPC ally is close to death
- A noblewoman threatens to your ruin your reputation at the gala with rumors and lies
- A prominent bard claims the lute you looted from a tomb rightfully belongs to him and has brought the guards with him.
The conflict, whatever it is, should require some action on behalf of the party for them to proceed toward their goal. The necessity to get from point A to point B is not a conflict, it is the goal. And without a conflict between A and B, then it is simply a journey the DM can narrate. Throw a broken bridge across a ravine with an angry wyvern into the mix and now we’re talkin’!
In short: A scenario requires a conflict the party must overcome or circumvent to continue toward their goal.
Enemies and Allies
A scenario could, but doesn’t need to, have enemies or allies present. If the goal is to get a time-sensitive shipment to its destination and a fallen tree blocks the road you don’t really need enemies, but the addition of them may make for an even more dynamic and tense scenario. The conflict is the impediment to progression that the tree creates and the resolution is to overcome it. Is there a nervous NPC ally fretting over punctuality while thieves are in pursuit? Did bandits chop the tree down for the purpose of highway robbery and are laying in wait? Or is it just a tree in the road?
Determine what value having NPCs or antagonists adds to the scenario and sprinkle them in as needed.
In short: A scenario doesn’t necessarily need anyone other than the party present to have a goal, conflict, and outcome. But in most cases, there will be other creatures or NPCs present.
The outcome is how the scenario is resolved or wrapped up. What was the result? Was the party successful in overcoming the impediment to their progress? Did they secure the magic item they sought? Did they defeat the villain? Or did they ignore the call to action? When building a scenario, consider the default outcome and avoid implementing definitive outcomes. Once you have assessed outcomes, next consider the possible consequences of the outcome. Your party may surprise you with a novel or unexpected resolution and you may come up with interesting consequences, positive or negative.
Ideally, the party will override the default outcome with a new outcome they created by taking action and resolving the conflict.
The default outcome is a sort of placeholder result should the party fail to engage with the scenario or simply make no headway toward achieving their goals and/or resolving the conflict.
For example, let’s return to the ruins and the room full of bandits from above. If the party decides to take the left path and void the bandits altogether, the DM will use a default outcome for what happens to those bandits and any consequences that may impact the party. The default outcome could be that the bandits finish supper and go to sleep — effectively removing them from the game until the party comes back through. Or, the default outcome could be that the bandits immediately go on patrol and eventually catch up with the party. Or, it could be that the bandits are on standby until an alarm is raised and, if the party trips an alarm, five extra bandits show up for combat. If the party had incapacitated or befriended the bandits, those five would be exempt from future combat.
A default outcome may fall under the following categories:
Maintaining the Status Quo
Neither the party nor the external influence/source of conflict makes progress toward achieving their goals. Or, there is no change to the scenario.
An example of this may be a patrolling guard wanders by. The party Rogue attempts to pickpocket the guard’s keyring. They didn’t meet the sleight of hand Difficulty Class (DC) to successfully steal it, but their attempt to pickpocket goes undetected by the guard. The guard continues onward, neutral toward the party, but the Rogue is empty-handed and will need to find another way into the prison or another key to steal.
The External Influence “Wins”
By ignoring an important scenario or poorly handling a scenario, the party may inadvertently let the villain “win” by default. If the party walks by a graveyard and sees a necromancer raising the dead but decides to keep the going… well, the necromancer is successful. No ordinary gravedigger or guard could stop them. If the party tries to intervene, but succumbs to a magical mist and fails their saves, slipping into slumber, the necromancer may succeed and leave with an undead army.
The Party Succeeds
Generally, DMs want the party to succeed. This makes it easy to decide the default outcome of a scenario is that the party wins the day, defeats the bandits, and gets what they need to progress. However, a default scenario is intended to compensate for what happens when the party doesn’t interact with the scenario or fails in their attempt to overcome the conflict. It’s good practice to hope for the best and have a good idea of what will happen should the party decide to go around the room of bandits or wave at the necromancer on their way to the pub.
A “definitive” outcome is an inevitable result. It is preordained and immutable, no matter what actions the party takes throughout the scenario because the DM has scripted it and it shall come to pass.
I recommend avoiding the use of definitive outcomes as much as humanely possible. There are, perhaps, some specific narrative cases where the outcome can be concrete, but these should be rare and far between. A scripted outcome undermines the party’s efforts and the player’s engagement by removing any sense of impact they have on the outcome. Even if they “do everything right” in a scenario (or wrong, for that matter), the outcome remains the same. What was the point?
It is tempting to have big narrative moments, much like cutscenes, in which the party arrives too late as the village is burning or they are bullied by a too-powerful villain prone to monologuing. Use these sparingly, if at all.
In short: Don’t script the outcome!
Action, or inaction, may have a variety of fun, silly, positive, or negative consequences that ripple out from the scenario’s outcome.
In the example with the ruin and bandits, we’ve already discussed how leaving the bandits alone may cause them to show up in force later. What if the party slaughters the five bandits without asking for directions to the captive Mayor’s son? What if the party attacks the bandits and they sound an alarm? What if the high ranking bandit was the only one who knew where the prisoner was being kept? So many consequences! Moving on!
If the villain legitimately outmaneuvers the party and gets away, then a major consequence may be imminent danger to a nearby temple the villain intends to destroy. This leads to a new hook and a new scenario with new stakes.
You may need to pre-plan some possible consequences, but keep your mind open for unexpected consequences that occur organically due to the party’s choices.
A good scenario should have the following:
- An intriguing goal that is meaningful to your party
- A conflict that stands between the party and their goal or progression
- A balance of enemies and allies, if any at all
- A default outcome to fall back on should the party fail the goal or fail to engage
- An open-mind to roll with the outcome and consequences the party creates with their choices and actions (or inaction)
When scripting a scenario, don’t script the outcome, even if it sounds like the coolest thing in the universe to you.
As you get more familiar with the system you’re running, your party, and being a Dungeon Master/Game Master (GM) you will likely find you need fewer notes and less hardcoded information to run a scenario. Until then, it’s okay to rely on expansive notes to help as you build up your improv skills. Go ahead and script those lines of dialogue and description and NPC reactions.
Just don’t be afraid to go off-script. Let the scenario play out organically. Respond to what your players are doing and what their characters are saying — rather than rigidly staying true to the vision you had for the encounter. Your script is just an outline for the party to fill in with the epic details and, inevitably, those suckers are going to go off the rails with some harebrained scheme you hadn’t even vaguely considered. Or, worse, they just ask a question you forgot to write down the answer to. “Why did you kidnap the Mayor’s son? Who do you work for?!” … Woops.