D&D 4E Pemertonian Scene-Framing; A Good Approach to D&D 4e

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From http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?333362-Fixing-the-Fighter/page45&p=6073774#post6073774

This is an approach to GMing which I got from Pemerton's discussion of how he runs his games. I've used it in my last two 4e campaigns (one ongoing), albeit initially without full awareness of what I was doing. I've been finding that for 4e it seems to work better than the traditional (more gamist-challenge in process-simulated environment) style I use in my other FRPGs such as Pathfinder Beginner Box or Labyrinth Lord.

My idea of GM-led Pemertonian scene-framing:

1)GM sets up scene that derives from prior events but is framed to be interesting - as opposed to process-simulation where scenes are not 'framed' but derive from procedural generation, eg random encounters, d% event tables.
2)Resolution of the scene is left entirely open and up to the players - as opposed to hard railroading where there is a required scene resolution. And
3) Future scenes are largely determined by players' choice/action in past scenes, as opposed to linear AP style play where scenes are pre-written along the set continuum of the adventure. But in looping round to #1 the GM is guided more by what would be a cool/interesting/fun result than by Simulation concerns - though for a D&D world the two may not be hugely different.

The way I've been doing Pemertonian scene-framing it mostly resembles Sandbox play quite closely, with occasional elements of AP style linear play where I'm using a linear adventure (Heathen, Orcs of Stonefang Pass) more or less as written. But I try to open up those adventures for more of a Pemertonian approach, eg I tweaked the dramatic climax of Heathen to create more of a Narrativist style dramatic moment that raised questions of actual moral choice for the PCs, and I inserted a dragon into Stonefang Pass that led to a great dramatic moment when a player 'stepped on up' and talked it down.

One difference between Pemertonian subjective scene-framing I use in 4e and the kind of objective content generation I used in eg my Pathfinder Beginner Box game is that in the scene-framing approach the encounters are subjectively tailored - when my 4e Forgotten Realms Loudwater group met an Ettin, it was because I thought an Ettin would be a good encounter for them (there was foreshadowing of its presence and they could have avoided it, mind you) in all the circumstances. It was a tailored encounter.
Whereas when my PBB group met a Gray Ooze, it was because that was what the system & environment generated - it was a status quo encounter.

IME, the two are often not very different in-play, but over time tailored encounters lead to a much lower lethality level and less of a revolving door of PCs. I still kill PCs in Loudwater - first session TPK, another 2 temporary & 3 perma-deaths in the 32 sessions since - and scenes can be framed as "today is a good day to die", as at the climax of my Southlands campaign where the PCs had repeatedly screwed up and were left making a hopeless last stand at the bridge against a thousand Horde Ghouls and their Necromancer overlord (note that they chose to make the last stand, to give their allies time to evacuate the doomed town). But the general level of random PC death with scene-framing is much lower than with status-quo Simulation, tends to come at moments of dramatic climax*, and so often feels dramatically appropriate when it does occur.

*There was that one time both GM (me) and player screwed up what should have been a low-lethality encounter- I levelled up an encounter with wolves by stupidly making them all Elites; the Wizard player won Init, stepped forward in front of her allies and cast Burning Hands on the whole pack in round 1... *ouch*. :devil:

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First Post
Er.. I don't get it? What you describe doesn't sound particularly unique. In almost any system I can set a scene, presumably with some tasks or challenges to be overcome, leave it up to the players to decide how they do this and taking notes so that I can adapt future scenes accordingly. Is it the explicit 'scene' device, as opposed to continual play? Is it the explicit declaration of overcoming simulation concerns by what is more fun? The outcomes you describe (choosing an encounter non-randomly, lowered lethality) are simply good planning, I fail to see how the scene-framing you describe implicitly results in these outcomes.


First Post
I'm also rather baffled as to what the choice to replace DMing with published adventures and encounter tables has to do with the actual mechanics of the game.
I wouldn't recommend using either of the above regardless of system.


I'm also rather baffled as to what the choice to replace DMing with published adventures and encounter tables has to do with the actual mechanics of the game.
I wouldn't recommend using either of the above regardless of system.

Well, I could have written "Gygaxian Sandboxing: a good approach for 1e AD&D (or Pathfinder Beginner Box)" and talked about how random encounter tables, status-quo environment-based encounters, and process-based play (random wandering monster tables, event tables etc) are good in Exploratory play, creating a robust objective-feeling simulated environment that supports the Gamist challenge. I could have talked about how IME this is the best approach to take with those systems.

As for published adventures, I use those in all my games, 1e or 4e etc - generally works well for me.

The part that's confusing me about calling it Pmertonian is that in my experience not working this way is a distinguishing feature of D&D as against other mainstream RPGs.

The only "non-Pmertonian" games other than D&D I can think of are (a) storygames (and generally GMless), (b) retroclones (like Labyrinth Lord or Pathfinder), or (c) games from the late 70s/early 80s or otherwise incredibly strongly influenced by D&D. (I'm not sure whether Dungeonworld fits category b or c - it's not quite a retroclone but is undoubtedly massively D&D influenced).


Most of my online conversations with [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] on scene framing have been in the context of skill challenges, where he advocates "strong scene framing" by the GM to convey the overall situation and shift the players into thinking about how to resolve it thru the skill challenge lens.

Seeing it applied to the rest of the game is interesting. I think setting up random tables & good scene framing (GM best judgment as you describe it) as being at odds, however, is inaccurate. Scene framing occurs *after* the random table roll. So, you'd roll up your gray ooze as normal, and if you didn't have another random table for "Circumstances of the Encounter/Monster Activity", you'd think about how you want to use the gray ooze....let's say as a trap (or better yet at the bottom of a pit trap)... and then frame the scene to get the players feeling edgy and claustrophobic/paranoid as they explore a dungeon, with faint foreshadowing of the gray ooze.



Pardon me for being confused...but isn't this simply good storytelling? It's not the railraoding conception of storytelling wherein everything is decided in advance and players are playing through a history, but...and maybe this is just because this is how I've always played....so let me see if I can interpret what you're saying.

Instead of saying "You're travling through the woods and a wild wolf pack appears!" You're saying "You're traveling through the woods, it's well known to be the domain of dangerous wolf packs and it's starting to get late, you should consider resting for the night *ominous howl in distance*."

It's just a method for getting player engagement right? This is how I've always run my games. Same goes for tailoring monsters to my players. If I'm going to bother to run a fight at all, I'm going to run a fight that is worth the effort of breaking out the dice for. I agree that tailored encounters are much less likely to lead to player death or TPK, because a tailored encounter has certain expectations about the level of challenge it should hold for players. So I know in advance if a tailored encounter is going to be a highly difficult fight, a moderate fight, or an easy fight. And honestly I think that's a great thing, because then when my players do succeed or if they fail, I can reevaluate if I tailored it properly.

Hmmmm...I'll try to my hand at explaining the differences between scene-framing and open world sandboxing gaming. Its really all about geology; pressure and time.

In a scene-framed scenario (session, adventure, campaign), your first order of business is to put genre/trope-relevant pressure and adversity on your players' characters as you zoom in on their protagonism. Everything else is derivative of that function. When you compose and apply that pressure properly, natural player decision-points will be an outgrowth of that pressure. That will in turn exert pressure back upon you and close the feedback loop. This will continue until you have an outcome that is emergent from that process. These are closed systems of DM pressure, player response via decision-points inherent to those pressures, mechanical resolution of that interchange, and a framework whereby the ultimate gradient of success/failure is derived by those things + the narrative context. The next closed system will relate to, or be an outright byproduct of, the former closed system(s). This playstyle primarily stresses granularity and focus of intensity on the pressure spectrum by zooming in on these scenes. The zoom-out on the transition between these scenes causes the temporal resolution to be less granular and intense. That is by design. Pacing is faster and is a product of the resolution of their protagonism which is central to the narrative. Remember the "Skip the guard scene and get to the fun?" Its axiomatic of scene-framed gaming.

Eg; Dungeon Chase Scene > Mechanical resolution equals failure but the context opens it up to either a deadly combat with the chasers...or something...maybe more interesting and sinister - PCs "get away" by barricading themselves into a chamber that is the nesting grounds/hatchery of something like the Alien >

Nest Conflict Scene > Resolution of that scene is a success which leads to a calamity within the structure of the dungeon and PCs escape to wilderness with their claimed prize >

Fast Forward two days to the scene where PCs do reconnaissance on the prospective buyer to find out his trustworthiness/authenticity >

Prospective Buyer Reconnaissance Scene resolves itself with success...context says the PCs find intelligence in his manner house, leading to the discovery that he is a proxy for a demon worshipping cult who needs the relic for a ritual to summon a powerful demon...He is supposed to make the purchase and blow up the ship...slaying the PCs and everyone in it (no witnesses to the transaction). PCs play it cool and decide to use this information to their advantage >

Fast forward to tomorrow evening where PCs meet the proxy buyer in the common room/hold of a sailing ship turned tavern >

Queue Social Conflict; Wooing the Buyer Scene. The PCs use their information to disarm the powder-keg traps placed beforehand (successfully). They go on to reveal that they know the reasoning for the relic purchase and want to give it to him and the cult for a different price than money; they want to be inducted as they worship the same demon! Massive success! They will get a meeting with the Cult Leader (Abyssal Imperator) so he can confirm their veracity/sincerity and induct them at the Summons Scene >

Queue Induction Scene With the Abyssal Imperator > Things go awkwardly. This is a failure. We can go several ways with this one, but perhaps the most fun (and with the most context given the contextual arrangement of the checks/narrative outcomes) is the Grand Demonator successfully ruses them into thinking they have legitimately been inducted. They are dangerous and he doesn't want conflict under these circumstances. Many powerful allies show up at the induction so if the PCs are thinking of an assassination attempt, it will be an extremely difficult encounter. He is going to use them as a sacrifice to the summoned demon tomorrow to earn favor with the entire cult on-hand.

Now we have a likely Assassination Attempt Scene that will take place between this last scene and the Demon Summoning Scene. Due to that failure, it will be an extremely difficult challenge with mechanical ramifications and narrative implications that will emerge from its resolution. Assuming that challenge is resolved in a way that doesn't result in the Imperator's death, then we either have another intermediary scene, but more likely a Fast Forward to Demon Summoning Scene >

Demon Summoning Scene is a conflict whereby the PCs "want" to stop the summons before the Ritual is completed and kill the cult leader. Depending on PC decision-points, this is going to likely turn out to be an extremely difficult (lethal) combat encounter with an intertwined challenge to interrupt the ritual.

Conversely, (as everyone knows), in an open world sandbox scenario (session, adventure, campaign), your first order of business is to "build a thriving world external to the PCs" and create hooks/color. You then, in play, invoke the hooks, color and play out the processes of that built world (external to the PCs) and let the PCs experience it at their own anarchic leisure or focused intent; let them see, smell, taste, touch. They may or may not be protagonists but the world is certainly not zoomed in on their protagonism if they are, in fact, the heroes of the "show." Temporal resolution is a granular and intense thing. Pacing is "slower" and the narrative is less (or not at all) "PC-protagonism-centered". They'll be plenty of moments with no pressure at all. In fact, much of each session may be pressure-neutral. They'll talk to plenty of blokes who have nothing to do with any running theme or genre-relevance. Its just to invoke the color of and saturate the players with the texture of "a living world" (specifically external to their protagonism). They'll do plenty of activities that have nothing to do with pressure and adversity and their protagonism will not be expressed. They might get hired for this or that job, see this crying couple in the Ye Ole Tavern, talk to them and find out they were robbed on the road and lost all of their preciouses, etc etc. Nothing is closed. Everything is open and everything is an outgrowth of the PCs "playing around with all of this stuff and seeing what happens" framework. It is not derivative of the function of constant DM themed/genre pressure and adversity and the PC's decision points (and the feedback loop) nor is the narrative and pacing central to the PC's default status as protagonists/heroes/stars of the show. That is by design. Remember the "Skip the guard scene and get to the fun?" Skip the guard scene and get to the fun? WTF? That is anathema to open-world sandbox gaming.

That is each at their extreme along the spectrum. You can have a game in-between (some call it "incoherent"). That probably makes no sense or is tldr but oh well. That's my best, sincere effort.
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