Scene-based Adventure Structure and The Hobbit

Labyrinth has proven to me that you a scene that impacts the end of the adventure and increases the stakes. In that game, you’re given 13 hours.

Fail a puzzle or challenge in a scene? Lose an hour.

Waste time or wait too long? Lose an hour.

Party gets incapacitated? Lose an hour.

If you lose all 13 hours, you’re lost to the Labyrinth. You don’t remember what you came to save and wander as an aimless soul. PERFECT consequence for a maze-based scenario. YOU become one of the many directionless NPCs you’ve encountered. Didn’t you ever wonder what was off about them?

Now you know. (I haven’t actually seen Labyrinth. I have no clue if that’s canon. Just a pet theory.)

The structure of scenes nested in the larger adventure works so well. Each scene has its own stakes, but the stakes also tie back to the larger adventure. Each scene matters. What’s in the scene doesn’t matter as much to the overall structure, but instead infuse the game with flavor… scenes are the meat of the game.

Scene context matters to make an adventure cohesive. Something something strict records of time to make things meaningful. Time is just another form of context.

Making scenes tie back to the adventure’s premise and conclusion is a powerful way to demonstrate impact for both the short-term and long-term.

Let’s use this knowledge.

Application

The Hobbit is a series of scenes, each of which could be stripped out and told as a bedtime story. “Ooh, tell us the one about the spiders!” “No, the elves!” “Gollum! Do the Gollum one!” Bilbo even does this in The Fellowship movie, telling the youngins about his encounter with the trolls. Do you think he opened with “well, there once was this Smaug guy and I heard about from Gandalf while back in the Shire…”

Naw.

Each scene is very much stand-alone, strung together by… By what?

Let’s try this as a hypothesis: What the scenes all pointed to the final confrontation in the form of The Battle of the Five Armies?

Here, like this. I’ll show you.

An Unexpected Party

Challenge: None. This is just a chance for people to introduce themselves.

Impact: The adventure begins.

Roast Mutton

Challenge: Trolls. They hungry.

Impact: Succeed, trolls are no more. Fail, the trolls show up to the final confrontation. They’re clearly gold-hungry and would love to enact revenge on “the meal that got away.”

A Short Rest

Challenge: Rivendell. Puzzle of the map.

Impact: Succeed, you discover the secret of the Lonely Mountain. Fail, the secret is undiscovered.

Note: This scene relates to another scene, not the final confrontation. Not all scenes have to do that. BUT, the impact of this scene will still be felt later on. The payout is still there.

Over Hill and Under Hill

Challenge: Captured by goblins!

Impact: Succeed/Fail, the goblin king will not/will show up to lead the goblin horde in the final confrontation.

Riddles in the Dark

Andy who?

Challenge: That Gollum creature won’t show you the way out.

Impact: Succeed, you obtain a magical ring. Fail, you escape but only barely.

Note: Just like “A Short Rest” this scene doesn’t relate back to the final confrontation. Instead, this scene gives the opportunity for a unique challenge and a unique reward. It’s self-contained.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Challenge: Goblins and wolves!

Impact: Succeed, the wolves are defeated. Fail, the wolves will show up to the final confrontation and you need to be saved by eagles, more or less annoyed. They’ll likely show up late to the final confrontation because of their annoyance…

Queer Lodgings

Challenge: Beorn’s standards for courtesy.

Impact: Succeed, Beorn will show up in bear form to the final confrontation. Fail, he’s busy that day, probably keeping bees and still cleaning up after those troublesome guests.

Flies and Spiders

Challenge: Spiders!

Impact: Succeed, the spiders are no more. Fail, they will, you guessed it, show up to the final confrontation.

Barrels Out of the Bond

Challenge: The prison of the wood-elves.

Impact: Succeed, you will arrive the secret entrance on Durin’s Day. Fail, you do not arrive on time.

A Warm Welcome

Challenge: The goodwill of the people of Lake-town

Impact: Succeed, you’re well-provisioned. Fail, you’re on your own.

On the Doorstep

Challenge: Where is the secret door?

Impact: Succeed, make use of the secret entrance and catch Smaug napping. Fail, he’ll smell/hear you coming.

Inside Information

Challenge: Word-games with Smaug

Impact: Succeed, Smaug unintentionally gives away the secret about his weakness. Fail, Smaug leaves in a rage and takes revenge on the men of Laketown.

Note: To me, this feels like a success-with-consequence in the book. “Yay, he leaves! No, the town!”

Not at Home

Challenge: None.

Impact: This scene shows the impact of the party’s actions. At the table, this might just be a narrated series of vignettes from the GM.

Fire and Water

Challenge: None.

Impact: This scene shows the impact of the party’s actions. At the table, this might just be a narrated series of vignettes from the GM.

The Gathering of the Clouds

Challenge: Is the party ready for the final confrontation?

Impact: Succeed, prepared for the final confrontation. Fail, be unprepared.

A Thief in the Night

Challenge: Bard and the Elvenking are upset.

Impact: Succeed, win them over. Fail, the final confrontation will be fought on TWO fronts.

The Clouds Burst

Challenge: THE FINAL CONFRONTATION!

Impact: Does the party succeed or fail? Do you keep the treasure? Play to find out!

The Return Journey / The Final Stage

Challenge: None. This is the epilogue.

Impact: Closure.


Conclusion

So, the consequences in The Hobbit never had to be death, in any of the scenes. Failure in most of the scenes meant that the final confrontation would be more difficult. Success meant less difficult.

Some consequences in relation to the final confrontation are pretty easy to sus out: trolls, goblin king, spiders, Beorn. They either will or won’t be at the final confrontation because of your actions, while other scenes, like A Short Rest + Riddles in the Dark, could be self-contained with challenges and impacts that don’t influence the final confrontation.

So each scene has its own challenges and impact, eventually leading to the end of the adventure. Then the GM can release the floodgates of permanent consequences for the last scene. Because after this, game is over.

This structure really lends itself well to flexibility. Did there need to be a chapter with spiders? What if a swarm of bats caused the company trouble at some point? Scenes could easily be added or removed, allowing for more or less time adventuring before sweeping all the impacts into one last scene that could, really and truly, go either way.

Let the record of scenes stand and feel the impact. Let players say “glad we killed the goblin king when we did. Could you imagine The Battle of the Five Armies if it were led by THIS guy?”

Forget Azog or Bolg or whoever they had in the live-action films. We all know the measure of a goblin king is the size of his mouth and the sharpness of his teef.

9 thoughts on “Scene-based Adventure Structure and The Hobbit

  1. In response to a question on Discord:

    To me, the opposite [of this structure] would be a continuous structure where each scene would tie directly to the next. “They did A, so then B would happen, therefore C.” With the scene-based structure, nearly any scene could be added or removed without a real jarring sensation. You can cut from self-contained scene to self-contained scene but still give later scenes (in this example, the last, climatic scene) high impact and making the whole thing cohesive. The structure is the context, rather than previous events or actions or the current location, etc,.

  2. What do you call success or failure? In the book if the trolls weren’t overcome then the dwarves would be dinner. No final confrontation. Same with the spiders.

    It seems like no matter what the players do they get away and win the day. Where is the danger? Where is the sense of dread that if we fail all will be lost? The only consequence is a possible loss of income.

    Thats where story based adventures seem to fall over. You either somehow make make it through or its game over with no way to continue without breaking immersion. A sandbox or mission based adventure could see the whole party wiped out and still continue with a new one. The new party starts the mission again with changes brought about by the original party, maybe they even find the dead bodies and some of their gear.

    1. The context is that the party is bilbo, if they are wiped out you could assume that thorin is dead and thats the end as thorin is the whole reason they are going.

      If the party is in place of the dwarves then possibly a new party could take over somehow but surly they wouldn’t run into exactly the same scenes as the first party.

    2. “In the book if the trolls weren’t overcome then the dwarves would be dinner.” That is one state of failure. Another could be that only one dwarf gets eaten. Or they don’t find the trolls’ treasure. Or the bagged dwarves are snatched and placed into the caves of the trolls and they have to figure out how to escape. There’s more than one failure state even in games where PCs are more likely to die.

      Playing with Youngers: Dealing with Deathlessness

      What if the failure state was that the party is saved by Gandalf? Seems to happen a bit. Does that break immersion in Tolkien’s world? Maybe.

      “It seems like no matter what the players do they get away and win the day.” That’s the importance of the final scene. The make-or-break success and failure states are there instead of at every step of the adventure.

      You know what breaks my immersion? Pretending to be a different person after another just died. A person in the same world with the same or similar goal/mission, but with different knowledge. For a better preservation of immersion you should just never play in the same universe again after your first character dies. But we make concessions in order to play the game.

      Movies make concessions. It is very Very VERY rare that the main character dies in Act I of a story. Yet we’re gripped to watch anyways. Sure they could die, but we know they won’t. So what gives? Viewer are often more interested in seeing where things go and how people change than whether or not they live or die. And you can’t see where things go and how people change if your point of view, your character, is dead.

      If people dying at every step suits your immersion more, read more Martin and less Tolkien.

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