Scene-based adventure structure

Here are posts I wrote on The Hobbit and Over the Garden and how they are examples of a scene-based structure for an adventure.

I’m using Labyrinth as a basis for what constitutes a scene-based adventure, but here goes:

  • Set-piece scenes with challenges, allies, and rewards of their own. They’re highly interactable scenarios.
  • These scenes are strung together by a “pressurized context” like a ticking clock, a final battle, or an avoidable fate.
  • The order, number, and content of the scenes only serves the flavor of the game and the needs of the table.
  • The scenes impact the finale of the game/the fate of the PCs in varying capacities. Some scenes are incredible influential, others less so.

Thoughts on this? Anyone know of other adventures that do a similar thing?


Hi DreamingDragonslayer,

What do you mean exactly by “scene” here? Because your remarks – like the clocks and the set-pieces scenarios – are valid for location-based adventures as well.


I agree with @LordPersi, these four points could just as easily describe a standard dungeon!

But, based on context, I imagine what you’re really after is the linear structure. (Ben Milton’s Labyrinth has some weird structural stuff going on, but it’s close enough to a linear structure.)

I think linear structure is more common in sorry games. Someone more familiar with story games might produce more examples, but Gumshoe and Wanderhome spring to mind.

More linear is what I’m going for. Where the “what do you do?” is more important than the “which (encounter/scene/room) do you choose?”

My question would be: How much does what I do moment-to-moment in scene A impact what scene B is about?

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Hi! I have only suggestions for old modules to look at that do things with “scenes.” The oldest explicitly “scene-based” adventures I can think of were from the early '80s and they emulated specific films. Avalon Hill’s James Bond 007 had adventures that came in neat little boxes with kits of clues and fictional dossiers, and the plots basically shadowed the movies that they represented. The same was even more so for the Indiana Jones RPG by TSR, where the modules, packaged like D&D modules, were exact reproductions of the films, in which the players played the heroes of the films.

After that, the next thing that comes to mind is the early Ars Magica module called The Stormrider.

There were plenty of other linear adventures in the times of old, of course (I think of Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors as a near-linear adventure with many of its scenes illustrated in that picture book that comes with it), but I’m thinking of ones you might look at that rely explicitly on “scenes” to structure things.

It seems to appear in adventure publications with emulation of films.

I don’t know if this addresses what you are getting at, but you asked if we know of other adventures that do similar things.

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Usually the scenes are self-contained, but can relate back to the conclusion of the adventure. In The Hobbit example, dealing well or poorly with the trolls doesn’t directly impact the scene directly after it, but it does determine whether or not the trolls show up for the final battle.

It seems to appear in adventure publications with emulation of films.

Maybe this is a clue in this little puzzle. Very interesting…

Question for everyone: is there a film/TV show that would do this well for you? If you had to make X into a scene-based adventure, which would you use? What aspects lend themselves better to a more linear design?

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I mean, I see this approach a lot in the most recent modules for D&D. Fewer details on the environment and more on the options in terms of actions/consequences. But what I do not like is that they are quite a railroad.

  • The order, number, and content of the scenes only serves the flavor of the game and the needs of the table.

I guess that you have in mind a more graph network approach with such scenes?
I.e. Imagine a scene as a knot of the network.


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I think it may be useful to decide how linear you want it to be.

A while back I wrote a blog post about the time before sandboxes and railroads (and internet consensus), when linear adventures were considered a legitimate option.

One thing that seemed odd in hindsight was that dungeons were considered (by Ken Rolston, at least) to be linear adventures.

However linear you want it to be, Rolston provided three diagrams for “ideal types” of scenarios, which I included in the blog post.

I’m going to keep thinking about your query.

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So my proposed adventure structure doesn’t super fit any of those. More like:


(Just to keep with @LordPersi making diagrams)
So the start is set (just like with any other adventure), but scenes beyond that aren’t. The order is largely up to the GM, switching up the order or adding and removing scenes without any HUGE consequence. They’re self-contained, but can (and often should) tie to the adventure’s context in some way. Context like:

-“We’re running out of time! If we don’t get past all these challenges, bad things will happen!” (Labyrinth).
-“We need to defeat these baddies now, otherwise they might come back for the final battle or meet us at our destination!” (The Hobbit).
-“Let’s complete the challenges so we don’t run out of hope and become lost to the woods!” (Over the Garden Wall).

The ending is then the big question that drives the game. Because it’s the end, it has the most weight to it. Players could die at the end, major impact should be felt. Big victory or big defeat.

“Will our heroes be able to…?”

I guess it also helps that Labyrinth and Over the Garden Wall are set in such amorphous locations.

“You keep wandering in the maze/woods when you next come across…”

You seem to have a very specific idea in your head.

I don’t think The Hobbit or Over the Garden Wall are very helpful examples, because I can think of any number of ways to adapt those works of fiction into RPGs. And, if I recall correctly, Labyrinth doesn’t let the GM choose the order of scenes, the dice do that.

It seems to me that the key thing you’re looking for is “the players don’t decide where to go, the GM decides where the PCs end up.” I think, to make that work, you would need a scenario in which the PCs (a) have no means of knowing what is ahead of them and (b) have a single direction they’re trying to go, like “head west.”

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This structure that you have sketched is an interesting one. If I’m reading it rightly, the endgame is accessible to the players at all times after at least one scene or location. But, presumably, they know that they can continue to explore, presumably to build up resources, allies, magical objects, keys, or whatever, to make the endgame more likely to turn out successfully.

The other factor unknown to us discussants (and maybe to the Referee!) is the time available. This pattern can be expanded or reduced like an accordion.

It reminds me of some old-time quest video games, in which the boss villain is visible, in some way, but nobody would go up to fight it until they’d built up whatever qualities are available through lateral excursions.

I think this would work for a fantasy RPG setting. In Rolston’s classification, it’d be a multi-option format, but one with special expandable/compressible properties.

Am I understanding your goal in this response to your diagram?

Also, as an aside, have you ever seen the flow chart for chase scenes in the old game Top Secret? One flow chart could be used for any spy-movie action chase scene. I wonder if it sparks anything with you, as you are thinking about scene structure. Basically, in this chase scene flow chart, players would not be able (especially in the thick of action) to discern the recurring patterns, but the possibilities are nevertheless not infinite. It’s an aid to Referees, of course.


A game that does something like this is Rhapsody of Blood in that the end of the adventure is going to be a big boss fight, but the more mini bosses you defeat beforehand the better your chances of defeating the big boss.

if I recall correctly, Labyrinth doesn’t let the GM choose the order of scenes, the dice do that.

That’s true, it doesn’t. From experience, it doesn’t matter to the players whether the GM is rolling them or choosing them. The play of each scene is so rewarding and enjoyable in itself. From the player’s side, it’s pretty much the same either way. And I’ve done the reading for each scenario to know which speeds up the pace and slows it down, which is more likely to lead to combat and such. When rolling, you can go from intense to intense or slow to slow. Picking is more intentional, provided you read them ahead of time.

That’s a good point: no means of knowing what’s ahead and/or a single direction.

  • Lost in the woods in Cairn.
  • Aboard a sprawling spaceship in Mothership.
  • Going west in a West Marches, towards more dangers and higher rewards.

GMs then narrate the previous scene out and then provide the next scene.

  • “After another few hours of wandering you come to a moss dwarf campsite.”
  • “The complex series of left and right turns in the metal corridors leads you to a large room with a pulsing purple egg on a console.”
  • “You push on as the sun goes down, seeing the first of the Thunderspire Mountains. Up on the road ahead, a tree seems to have been cut down to prevent passage.”

If I’m reading it rightly, the endgame is accessible to the players at all times after at least one scene or location.

It could be. For the adventures I’ve talked about that’s not an option for the players, but the GM. You could easily run Labyrinth as a one-shot for example, the GM just tightens the constraints. “You’re already near the end of the Labyrinth with only 4 hours to spare. Here’s the scene. Go!”

But I hadn’t even thought to give players that option to “hit the button” that triggers the finale. It makes me think of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where Ganon is almost always visible in the distance, but you’re not ready. You can charge at any time, but you better get some better weapons at least.

Huh. That’d probably be pretty empowering for players.

It would be nice in the case of those adventures that the GM also have some kind of “pressure release valve” for ending the campaign. Say players just adventure forever and avoid dealing with the adventure-ending “big bad.” The GM might have the option to make things worse, increasing the pressure, or just force the ending by having Ganon leave his castle, for example.

But yes, special expandable and compressible properties, allowing for GMs to add their own material to the adventure to make it their own and suit the needs of the table.

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It’s funny that you say it’s “empowering the players.” In a lot of sandbox RPG scenarios, the players already have the option to fight the bad guy right away, if they so choose.

From that perspective, the whole structure you’re proposing is disempowering the players—they can’t choose where to go!—in order to give the GM more leeway in curating the experience.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, mind you. I happen to like plenty of videogames with linear storylines. With young players, especially, it might be good to take some control away for a smoother experience.


Tim, I think a lot of Sam’s advice and ideas (which I follow with high interest) has to be understood in the context of running games for much-youngsters, as you note at the end of your remarks there. You’re right: empowering youngster players doesn’t work the same way it does for, say, college kids–not in my experience, at least. We can talk about that, which might be fun (or not).

Also, in “sandbox” scenarios, the Big Bad is not typically right there at the near end of the “West Marches.” If I remember rightly, the West Marches idea was set up so that distance from home was equivalent to or proportional to levels of dungeon. But then again, the pure idea of a “sandbox” game is that there is no Ultimate Villain or One Obvious Quest.

You’re right, though, that if the metaphorical accordion of distance to the Endgame is in the hands of the Referee, that may disempower the players, in a manner of speaking. I just don’t know if players will be aware of that, if the referee is a good stage magician. What do you think?


It’s true and it think the focus then would be on designing scenes that really sing. High potential energy, high replayability between groups, good tables to fuel things.

I think of one scene in Labyrinth that has a corridor with a huge bird’s nest stuck in the middle of it, directly in your path. There are items in the nest, including a large egg. How do you deal with it? Do you stick around to find everything? What about when the mother comes back? Great scene. Anything could come before or after that.

Electric Bastionland at any level (the city, underground, deep country) could do this pretty well I think as far as the amorphous-ness of a place.

Yes, I agree: younger players and stage magician. I check both of those boxes. Also a need for highly-replayable, easy-to-remember adventures.

Just to keep things clean, scene-based adventures have these properties:

  • Set-piece scenes with challenges, allies, and rewards of their own and are highly interactable.
  • These scenes strung together by a “pressurized context” like a ticking clock, a final battle, or an avoidable fate.
  • The order, number, and content of the scenes only serves the flavor of the game and the needs of the table.
  • The scenes impact the finale of the game of the PCs in varying capacities. Some scenes are influential, others less so.
  • Players can sometimes decide to go forwards or backwards between scenes (which comes with consequences), but the order of scenes is largely up to the GM or the dice as the adventure demands.
  • The locations of these adventures are amorphous, large, unnavigable areas that allow for little to no points of reference, like the woods, a maze, a city, the wilderness, underground, the sea, psychedelic space.
  • Some scene-based adventures allow players to trigger their conclusion when they believe themselves to be ready or (on a meta-level) when the campaign is drawing to a close.