RPG-a-Day 2021: Scenario

When I think of scenarios, I think of conventions. I think tightly focused, 3-4 hour-long sessions, usually with pre-generated characters and flexible, but straightforward, story arc.

I find scenario writing a very different exercise from prepping for my weekly campaign-style games. Most of our campaigns have been heavily serialized, with overarching stories that continue on from week to week. Even our more episodic adventures tend to take multiple sessions to complete. From a practical perspective, this means I don’t need to write the whole adventure in one go, and the story itself tends to evolve over time. If nothing else, I know that I’ve got a lot of runway with which to work.

With scenarios, I still have a story, but the runway is very short. I know I’ve got 3-4 hours in which to bring the scenario to a satisfying conclusion. That means the plot should be straightforward and easy for players to pick up; players won’t have a session to go fishing for clues. A good scenario should still be flexible – I’ve had ones that go in completely unexpected directions – but at the same time, everyone at the table comes to it knowing there’s a story to be found.

Another challenge with scenarios are characters. In my regular campaign, the players bring their own characters. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, but I’m not the one providing their motivation. With a scenario, that’s different.

For some games and scenarios, you can let the players handle it. If character creation is straightforward enough, you can allocate 15 minutes to start of the game for people to quickly build out their PCs. You can also invite people to bring their own characters which might work for a popular game like Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun but in my experience, it’s problematic. People come to the table with widely varying characters that may or may not be appropriate for the scenario, and power levels can vary greatly even within the same level.

What I typically do (and typically underestimate how long it will take) is build pre-gen characters. At its simplest, these can be barebones characters – just stats and feats, with no background – but I rarely go that route. I’m much more likely to build out six to eight characters, each with at least a limited background, motivations, and connections to other characters (and the plot). This helps jump-start role-playing at the table and makes for a more compelling scenario, but it’s time-consuming.

It’s even more time-consuming when I’m running a new game. Suddenly I’m not just learning the rules to run the game, but also to build the characters and understand how they’ll interact with those self-same rules. It helps develop a better understanding of the game, but it adds to development and writing time.

Truth be told though, it’s been years since I wrote a scenario. My last one was SG-13: Double Tap, a Savage Worlds-based one-shot set in the Stargate SG-1 universe that I ran at MEPACON 2017 (our local gaming convention).

I got gun shy about running convention scenarios after that – not because it went badly (folks really enjoyed it) but because it took so much time to put together.

And it wasn’t just the SG-13 scenario; I was working on two more adventures at the same time: a Pirates of the Spanish Main adventure for Savage Worlds and a Hollow Earth Expedition scenario. Those ended up not running, but I was prepping them up until the night before the con. Despite having written plenty of scenarios in the past, I completely underestimated how little time I’d have to work on the scenarios for this particular con. My daily life had changed from when my kids were young; we suddenly had all manner of additional commitments that ate into my scenario-writing time. It turned writing these adventures into a stress-filled slug.

That said … four years (and one pandemic) later, I’m itching to get back to game conventions in all their real-world glory … and get back to writing convention scenarios. There lots of games I want to play – Fate, Kids on Bikes, Monster of the Week, Alien, Tales from the Loop – that lend themselves to one-shot convention adventures.

I can see a few ways to make this easier (and more fun) for me:

  1. Focus on games that require less character prep. Lightweight games like Fate or Tales from the Loop would be far easier to
  2. Get lazy. Borrowing from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I’d scale back my scenario writing to just what I need to run it, relying more on improv at the table to carry the game forward.
  3. Run one game, not three. Maybe when the kids go to college I can go back to running three games in a weekend at conventions, but that won’t be for a while. For now, I need to find one game that I’m interested in and run that.

This post is part of RPG a Day 2021, a month-long celebration of role-playing games. Join the Facebook community to learn more or read other Nuketown posts in this series.

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A few of the role-playing games that were mentioned in this post. Credit: Ken Newquist.


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