Scene-based Adventure Structure and Over the Garden Wall

We examined non-death consequences in the context of The Hobbit. Now let’s do the same for this wonderful mini-series, just in time for Spook-season.

Now remember, we’re looking to impact the END of the adventure, building consequences and stakes throughout the scenes (or in this case, episodes).

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. The scenes also don’t need to be in a strict order, meaning scenes can be rearranged, added, and removed based on the pace, mood, and preferences of the table. Pretty empowering stuff for the GM.

Scene context matters to make an adventure cohesive. 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.

Alright, let’s do it.

Over the Garden Wall (spoilers, yo)

Two boys wandering in the woods. As they wander, they meet other characters, solve problems, and escape dangers. Yet over time the larger mystery is revealed: the boys are losing hope and turning into trees as a part of the curse of the forest. It’s a race against time. But the Labyrinth RPG already does that, so let’s focus on the more emotional bits:

Hope and despair.

That’s ultimately what the show is about.

Keep the lantern lit, keep hope alive, and you stay.

Otherwise, become one with the wild.


The party begins with 3 hope. Hope decreases when one or more characters are taken out of the action, flee a scene, or learn a terrible truth. Run out of hope, become lost forever. As the party goes down in hope, they start to show signs of despair.

Help NPCs and solve problems to move on to the next scene.

Greg and Wirt are our PCs. Beatrice and other characters are NPCs.

The Old Grist Mill

Events: Greg and Wirt find shelter with the help of the Woodsman. A monster attacks the mill!

Impact: The boys defeat the dog-monster with some clever use of candy and their environment. Nice! No change in hope. Had the monster knocked one or both of them out, there would’ve been a decrease, for sure.

Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee

Events: Go to Pottsfield. Make a mess of things.

Impact: Beatrice joins the party! A few hours of manual labor to straighten things out. Nothing that changes hope. The boys leave this misunderstanding.

Schooltown Follies

Events: The school lacks funding… and there’s that wild gorilla on the loose…

Impact: The boys help the school raise funds! Greg leads the group in that catchy song. 🙂

Songs of the Dark Lantern

Events: Go to the tavern and learn more about their situation. Wirt makes a fool of himself with a failed song and learns more about the beast. Wirt rescues Beatrice.

Impact: Fred the horse joins the party. Learning of the peril of the woods reduces hope to 2. Had the boys gotten hurt trying to rescue Beatrice, there would’ve been another decrease in hope.

Mad Love

Events: At Endicott Manor, the boys are looking for more resources. Need that money. Some character stuff as Wirt and Beatrice learn about each other. Greg helps Endicott and his neighbor get together.

Impact: Fred stays behind. No change as they solved the ghost problem!

Lullaby in Frogland

Events: Sneak aboard the ferry to get to Adelaide’s. Found out by the security! Play some music. Sing the title song. Sleep in the mud. Find out that Beatrice is a traitor!

Impact: Lose 1 Hope for the betrayal. Down to 1!

The Ringing of the Bell

Events: Auntie Whispers and Lorna’s house. Try to escape with Lorna. Oh no! SHE’S the wicked monster! Clever thinking with the bell banishes the monster.

Impact: No change in hope, though Lorna’s monster could’ve dealt some damage.

Babes in the Wood

Events: Wirt takes a nap for this scene, allowing Greg to save cloud city in a solo session!

Impact: No change in hope. But the GM tells Greg’s player that if he sacrifices himself, Wirt will go free. And with only 1 hope left, it looks like that might be a good option…

Into the Unknown

Events: Flashback. Sets everything in place for the finale.

Impact: No change.

Note: This is just a cool storytelling technique. Flashbacks to backgrounds make for a much more palatable session than “Alright, let me tell you my deal and trauma and context for each item I have.” Boooooooooring!

The Unknown

Events: Wirt saves Greg, almost forsaking their last hope.

Impact: The beast is defeated, the mystery is solved. The boys go home. Resolution out.


Now did I just overlay some haphazard mechanics just to demonstrate how this might work while manipulating any love you might have for this show? Did I also change the mechanics to fit the contours of the narrative? Yes. Yes I did.

But see the value in a mechanic that unifies these scenes into the “decrease in hope” mechanic. Each scene can impact the end, by decreasing hope or keeping it stable. Each scene can add or subtract NPC allies or resources. All of it points to the finale.

And starting with the end in mind is something more RPGs should have as a focus. Too often these games try the “let’s just play forever” approach to things, which can lead to burnout and sputtering towards the ultimate anticlimax of scheduling issues.

You could also change this up. What if each character had their own pool of hope? What if the resource was instead called humanity and you played as sorcerers, fighting against the dark magic that eats at each magic-user’s soul? What if you played a cyberpunk where you had to resist your artificial augments that make you “more machine than man?” There’s potential here.

Here’s some more Over the Garden Wall goodness in the form of a spark table and a meditation on forest-y weirdness. Use Cairn? Into the Wyrd and Wild? Babes in the Wood?

Up to you.

Happy fall, folks!

Hey look! It’s Patrick Stuart’s Goose-Gold and Goblins!

How the gentle wind,

Beckons through the leaves,

As autumn colors fall.

Dancing in a swirl,

Of golden memories,

The loveliest lies of all.

Get more on Patreon here.

2 thoughts on “Scene-based Adventure Structure and Over the Garden Wall

  1. I have a couple games forthcoming that play with this kind of stuff. Heretic and Liege. One is about a team of government agents who investigate paranormal incidents; but there’s a traitor in the team. The other is about a monastic militant order who ride horses and/or motorcycles and dish out vigilante action to those they label as wrongdoers. Both have a type of “usage die” mechanic similar to your Hope idea, in each case the mechanic is tailored to a central theme of the game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.