Textual qualities of a scenario

So. I decided that before I can write an article on how to read a scenario, I must make sure I know what kind of text a scenario is.

A linear representation of something non-linear that will unfold into something linear

A text can generally unfold into two dimensions: space and time. A temporally oriented text is, by it’s nature, linear: you cannot go back in time, you can only follow it along. As a matter of fact, this is often one of the desirable qualities of such a text: a piece of music progresses, and from the progression from one sound to another arises the song we like to listen to.

A spatially oriented text, on the other hand, will not be linear. Think of a painting or a sculpture: you can go back and forth, viewing the same part of the text again and again, and no part necessarily comes before another.

Many spatial text are oriented in a way to emulate linearity, though. Think of a book: You open at one end and read it from one corner to the one exactly opposite – but you might open it in the middle, and let your eyes go in circles around the page. You’d miss some of what the book is though: the book is meant to capture language, and language is temporal.

Right. That was very scholary. I’ll try to cut it out, and talk more about roleplaying games.

A roleplaying game is, by definition, temporal. You start when you sit down at the table, and end it when you get up again (LARP and semi-larp aside). This is part of the enjoyment: your story progresses in a linear fashion, with high points and low points. And part of the enjoyment is seeing it unfold, not knowing what comes next. In other words, a roleplaying game is a linear thing.

So is the scenario document. The game master will receive a document, consisting of pages of texts. These are ordered in a linear fashion, starting with part one.

But the scenario itself is NOT linear. It contains several separate elements, and you will often have to go back and forth between different of these elements. For example, let’s say there’s a description of a scene in the game. The scene contains an NPC; the NPC is described in the NPC section. This NPC will react in one way if the PC’s did one thing in another scene, and in another if they did something else; this scene is described elsewhere. And the PC’s are of course described in the character handout – most likely at the back of the document. Finally, if there is a conflict involved, there might be some rules for handling these, just as there may be general guidelines for how the GM should run the scenario.

In some ways, portraying a scenario as a regular old text with a beginning and an end is not the optimal way to present it – and the best way to read the text is certainly not from beginning to end. Instead, a scenario is a hypertext, each section referencing and drawing upon several others. And in the reading, the GM must create a mental image of the scenario, so that he can guide the players in the creation of the linear text that is the actual game.

I think this is important to stress to someone who is not used to reading scenario’s: that reading from beginning to end is not the way to go at it. Instead, your reading should be goal oriented, going back and forth in the order YOU need in order to get a good feel for how the game is supposed to work. Of course, this will probably start with the beginning, looking at the table of contents and the scenariowright’s introduction. But then, it might be wise to skip to the description of the characters – either the handouts, or the GM’s description of them.

Am I right? Do you read scenario’s from the beginning to the end?

Also, can any of you come up with an example of a roleplaying game that is NOT linear?

And is there a way to present a scenario in a form that is non-linear, while still being able to communicate an entire scenario in enough detail for someone to run it?


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Kristoffer Apollo on December 31, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Good points, but I think you are somewhat confusing linearity for chronology. A scenario text needs some kind of structure in order to be intelligible for the reader – this is especially true because a scenario text is not prose or litterature but should rather be considered a manual (albeit a manual with the necessary flavour – scenario texts written like computer manuals will not be very succesful). So, the manual-like quality of a scenario text creates a need for structure – the GM (or player) reading it must be able to translate the text into a structure of play, and the text must support that translation.

    But that doesn’t mean that scenario should be written in a strictly chronological fashion (whether that be chronology of story or chronology of play, again two different things). So for example, if you’re writing a scenario without a strict linearity in scenes, you’re free to mix that part up as you see fit. On the other hand, if you’re using scenes, it’s much easier to write them in the order you’re envisioning that they will be played – and it’s probably also easier to understand for the GM in that way.

    But your goal should be to fit your writing to the structure of the game, not the structure of the story. You are, after all, supposed to be writing something for the GM to understand and use as he sees best, not to control his every move once he sits down with the players.

    By the way, an example of non-linear scenario writing is the classical D&D module. Typically written as a description of a dungeon with monsters and so on – and with the assumption that the players are always free to turn left or right at the next junction.


  2. Interesting, that you should just happen to mention D&D-adventures, Kristoffer, as I just yesterday were playing an old 80’s scenario (B7 Rahasia), and I could not help notice how I was skipping back and forth in the text much like reading a Sværd & Trolddom-novel except that it was the players choosing the way through the dungeon – and the text was structured along the numbered rooms of the dungeon, that more less represented logical or obvious paths through the dungeon (except for some areas, that contained short cuts and teleporters).
    Interestingly various elements of the back story and the plot are revealed at specific locations, and not in the introductory text, nor in any appendix. In other words you cannot read the back story or the whole of the plot, unless you jump into various points during the reading of the scenario (and you cannot identify these easily).
    The curious thing about the old (A)D&D scenarios is that you never really can put the whole story together from the reading of the introduction and the introductory background, and that you as the GM are offered bits and pieces – often a few more than the players, but no much – and from these the whole story is pieced together. As the GM you too has to piece the story together.


  3. Kristoffer, I think we agree. But let me elaborate a little:

    I distinguish here between the actual role playing game we sit down and play, and the scenario, i.e. the text that the GM is looking at. The actual game is chronological/linear: it can be recounted as “first we did x, then we did y…” etc. Several things may happen at once, but they can all be put onto a timeline.
    The Scenario, meanwhile, is precisely like a manual, just like you say. Now, I would claim that a manual is also a non-linear thing put in linear f
    orm: you might imagine that there is a cloud of information that is “how to operate x”, with all the different parts interlocking and branching off. This makes it different from, say, a novel, where you have something linear in a linear form: a narrative in a text that starts on page one.
    In a way, you might say that the role playing game is a narrative in verbal form, while the scenario is the manual on how to assemble the narrative.

    The D&D dungeon modules are good examples: you have a set of instructions on what to do in different situations that might arise, without an obvious chronology between them. But when you play, the players will certainly experience linearity: first we did this, then we did that. And it’s more than likely that a story will emerge, that THIS happened BECAUSE we went here, then there.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that there IS a structure to a scenario text, but that this structure is not necessarily linear. It’s a point to both writers and readers. Writers should write the game so it’s easy to jump from relevant bit to relevant bit, maybe with references, perhaps with repeats of important information – and not do as the writers of the D&D modules Morten is talking of, hiding important bits of story where only the cover-to-cover reader will make sense of it. Readers should liberate themselves from a mindset that tells them they should be reading from page one on, and instead, they should allow themselves to skip back and forth, reading in a way that suits them, and which helps them understand the scenario.


  4. Posted by Kristoffer Apollo on January 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Yes, I think we agree, more or less.

    I would, however, argue that a good scenario text by default must have some kind of linearity to it, i.e. it must be written in a way that facilitates reading it in a logical, intuitive flow. And in most (all?) cases, I would assume that the best way to structure it is to build it over the desired structure of the game, because that will make sense to the GM. At least as long as we’re discussing texts that are meant to be read in printed copies where you can’t use actual hypertext. Of course the text should use references whenever relevant, facilitating reading back-and-forth, but that is only one of the techniques I’ll use to create a good, useful scenario text.

    By the way, my preferred way of reading scenarios is to first read them cover-to-cover, and then read selected parts once again, skipping around, to focus my preparation as GM.


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