"Your scenarios don't have plots!"
"Does it really matter?"
"Mmm... no, not really."
(-Ziv W., a former fellow player of mine and Roee A., our GM)
I know this may sound a bit revolutionary to some of you, but the the plot doesn't have to be the focus of every good scenario. Take a deep breath and read that sentence again - the plot doesn't have to be the focus of every good scenario. As far as I'm concerned, a scenario (or adventure, if you prefer using that term) is a form of art, and as such there is room under the sun for different kinds and tones on scenarios. In this article I will attempt to describe some of them and outline how they could be created. Obviously, all these types described below are artificial categories I just made up. I don't believe that there actually are real scenarios that are 100% Character Driven Scenarios or 100% System Driven Scenarios with absolutely no regard to the plot. Every real scenario would probably incorporate characteristics of most, if not all, the types listed below.
The most common type of scenario. The focus of the scenario is the plot itself, and the character's progression towards the conclusion, step by step. Plot Driven Scenarios come in all forms, shapes, colors and sizes and can vary from detective scenarios, through diplomacy and intrigue scenarios up to dungeon exploring hack and slash scenarios. A scenario where the characters need to find who stole the Empress' diamond crown and they reveal his identity step by step, a scenario where the characters need to formalize a peace treaty between two rival kingdoms and they gradually unveil layer after layer of personal interests and shady politics and even a scenario where the characters clear dungeon level after dungeon level on their quest to rescue the princess are all good examples of Plot Driven Scenarios. The main advantage of these scenarios is that they can easily work with any troupe of characters and any campaign setting, and even if they don't they can be easily adapted so they will. Most off-the-shelf bought scenarios are Plot Driven Scenarios, especially those belonging to relatively generic systems such as HERO or D&D.
The step-sister of the Plot Driven Scenario. The focus of the scenario is in how it and its long term consequences fit into the campaign. These types of scenarios are usually written by GMs who have a campaign that has been running for some time now, with a long-term metaplot. The genre of Campaign Driven Scenarios can vary greatly, just like in Plot Driven Scenarios. The main advantage of these scenarios are the diversity they allow the GM, while allowing the GM to keep some sort of continuity between scenarios which give the players the feeling that their actions have consequences and they are not operating in thin air. For example, one scenario could be a typical dungeon hacking scenario which ends with the characters saving the princess from the clutches of the horrid dragon, while The next scenario could be a "who done it" style detective scenario where the princess is murdered after returning to the palace and the suspicion naturally falls on the last people to see the princess alive - the characters.
The Twist Driven Scenario is another step sister of the Plot Driven Scenario. In fact, a Twist Driven Scenario is simply a Plot Driven Scenario that hints to the way it will end in every possible opportunity, right up to its surprising end which would be completely different. For instance, if we return to the dungeon from the previous paragraph, the characters make their way through the dungeon and encounter blood drops and shreds of the princess' dress every step they make. Eventually, they reach the last room of the dungeon and find the princess, who wasn't kidnapped at all but who ran away from home, in the middle of a strip-poker game with the goblins that inhabit the dungeon.
First of all, it is important to understand the difference between a Campaign Setting and a Campaign. A Campaign Setting (or Campaign World, as some prefer to call it), is the sum of characteristics of the imaginary world the characters operate in including geography, demographics, races, magic, history and prices in your nearest McWizard's. Dragonlance, Middle Earth, Mythic Europe, Ærth and The World of Darkness are all fine examples of Campaign Settings. A Campaign is the long term plot (or metaplot) that the characters are involved in. The First Lance War and The Time of Judgment are good examples for Campaigns.
Campaign Setting Driven Scenarios don't deal with the GM's specific Campaign, but rather with the special characteristics of the Campaign Setting. Most of these scenarios are introduction scenarios designed to introduce the Campaign Setting to new players and to spark their imagination for the upcoming Campaign. These kind of scenarios can usually be found as official introduction scenarios of the given Campaign Setting or in conventions targeting new players.
System Driven Scenarios are a lower form of introduction scenarios. These scenarios are designed to introduce the novice players (and usually GM too) to the game mechanics themselves step by step. They usually consist of a series of encounters with a faint connection between them who's sole purpose is to present the rules of the game in a logical learning order to the players. Because of this reason and because the rules for combat usually take up a sizable section of the rulebook, these scenarios consist of more combat encounters than diplomacy and roleplaying situations. For example, a System Driven Scenario designed to introduce the Foam Loving Dragon Overlords game (which deals with dragons and their addiction to bubble-baths) could tell the story of how a winged monkey steels the character's lemon-mint scented soap. It could consist, for example, a short aerial pursuit to learn the rules for flight, followed by a combat scene when the characters catch the monkey to learn the rules for the dragon's fire breath and a happy return to the bubble bath that awaits the characters at home to learn the rules for saving throws against split scales.
Character Driven Scenarios deal with one of the most important parts of roleplaying - the characters and the relationships between them. These scenarios are built on interesting and unique characters and on the complex relationships between them. These scenarios usually emphasize roleplaying and will put the characters in situations where they are forced to deal with their own personal moral conflicts and with the opinions and beliefs of the other members of the troupe, which have a tendency to be opposed to their own. The plot itself is no more than a way to connect these scenes together, not a goal on its own right. The main problem with these kind of scenarios is that they work only (or almost only) with the pre-created characters that come with the scenario, and are almost useless to play with other characters. For this reason, these kind of scenarios can be found mainly in time-limited games in conventions (where the GM can't be bothered with letting every player create his own character and simply creates all of them in advance) or in campaigns that have been running for some time and the GM knows every character to the utmost details.
To summarize, as I said in the beginning of this article, these are made up definitions, and every scenario you encounter will probably incorporate elements of more than one of these categories. One the other hand, I hope I made my point that the plot is only one aspect of the scenario, and even a scenario with virtually no plot could be fun to play.
In other words - don't be afraid to try something different.
This article first appeared in issue #3 of The Orc.