A scene is a self-contained situation that happens in a particular place. Scenes are opportunities for players to exercise agency in the fiction. When you construct a scene, you should be able to answer the following questions about it:
- If the PCs don't do anything, what will happen? (Call to action)
- What can they do here? Who or what can they interact with? (Meaningful choices)
- Why does it matter that they're here? (Stakes)
- What stands in their way from getting what they want out of the scene? (Conflict)
In addition to answering these questions, you want a scene to yield three adventure hooks, which are clues that point to other scenes to be explored in the adventure.
Types of Scenes
Most scenes in an adventure are exploratory, meaning they exist in a fixed place in space and time within the adventure, and stay put until the party decides to engage with them. All scenes should have at least three adventure hooks that point to other scenes (except bookends).
The other kinds of scenes you can create help you exert some control over how players navigate the adventure without taking away their agency.
The most common and easiest to create. These occur in some place and at some time (the church at night; the docks in the morning). They generally don't go anywhere and their contents don't dramatically change based on what the players do outside the scene. Exploratory scenes are always passive in nature and wait for PCs to come to them.
Floating scenes are often structured as events that unfold: the party passes through a shady part of town and they find a damsel in distress being assaulted by ruffians; they are about to leave town and are surrounded by the king's men who want them arrested for treason; they discover a strange traveling merchant on the road to the obsidian tower. You hold floating scenes in your back pocket so you can be proactive about distributing certain adventure hooks. Floating scenes always come to PCs by way of GM fiat.
In their simplest form, gated scenes remain hidden from PCs until an adventure hook from another scene reveals them. In Monsters in Merovia, for example, there are only a few adventure hooks that point to the villain's secret ritual chamber, and this ritual chamber is entirely optional for them to discover. Alternatively, gated scenes are inaccessible until the PCs do certain things in the fiction that change the state of the scene (they're heavily guarded, they're physically inaccessible without a key, or they're incomplete when first discovered). For example, if the PCs go to the Old Mill too early in Monsters in Merovia, the villain is not yet there to prepare the final ritual, because the PCs do not yet pose a threat to him/her; instead, the PCs discover adventure hooks that point to their secret ritual chamber.
Variable scenes have different contents depending on what adventure hooks the PCs have discovered throughout the course of the adventure, or the contents vary based on when the PCs come to the scene, or how they come to the scene. Such scenes are rare because it's not advisable to employ if-this-then-that redundancy in the construction of scenes; ideally when you write a variable scene, you want to be able to "rearrange the furniture" into no more than two or three configurations, so you aren't wasting prep. In Monsters in Merovia, the church can be treated as a variable scene because it either plays out the druid Stahl's fiery sermon late at night, or contains the NPC for a later downtime in his private sanctum, but the adventure hooks it yields are the same.
Doorways are the scenes that kick off an adventure. Such scenes usually have more than three adventure hooks to be discovered so as to give PCs a lay of the land. Usually, adventure hooks do not point back to doorways (unless the doorway scene is also variable or gated). In a one-shot or a short with only one adventure to be had, you pick the doorway scene and start the players in it; in a campaign where there are multiple adventures, a doorway scene in one adventure may contain a bunch of hooks that lead solely into another adventure.
Finally, bookends are unique in that they do not contain adventure hooks. These scenes serve as conclusions to one-shots or shorts, but they can alternatively yield rewards that enhance the PCs' progression through the adventure. For example, finding the secret ritual chamber of the villain in Monsters in Merovia better equips the PCs with tactical knowledge to use against him/her, but the scene that contains the ritual chamber provides no other adventure hooks to other scenes, and of course is gated because it's secret. Similarly, a random encounter without adventure hooks can be thought of as a bookend scene that "floats" throughout the adventure.