The Subtle Gap You Should Close for Better Storytelling
When A Door Is Not Just a Door — The Technique of Transitions
How your players go from one Room to the next will make or break your 5 Room Dungeon designs.
If players have no choice, then that gets frustrating fast.
If you give players choice, then what if they take an unexpected turn and your adventure is kiboshed?
I think of this tricky space between Rooms as Transitions. The gap between when one encounter ends and how the next one begins.
Transitions get deep, subtle, and nuanced as you navigate between directed play (“you must go here”) and freedom (“do what you want but I really hope you go this way and don’t break my adventure”).
But if you learn how to think about Transitions and design them, you can find an interesting middle ground that’s not faux choices (players figure this out eventually) or over-designed (wasted time on prep).
What Is a Room Transition?
Welcome to Exits & Entrances, the exciting game of Transitions.
Let’s say the PCs just completed Room #1. What now? Where do they go next?
Do they go to Room #2? Or Room #5? Or an unexpected encounter outside your planned adventure?
Do they take a door? Hop on their flying carpet? Ask an NPC what to do next?
At some point each Room you and your players will be faced with the question, What now?
How your players answer that becomes your Transition to the next encounter.
The Door Is Not Just a Door
A simple Transition you are already familiar with is a door. Walk through the door and you trigger the next Room. Easy peasy.
Doors let you physically constrain your 5 Room Dungeon. You control where the next door leads, so you control what Room triggers next.
You might get tricky and offer more than one door.
Players might choose to listen at each door, check it for traps, and examine its qualities.
You are now in full Transition mode. It’s a combination of going through an exit (the next Room’s entrance) and playing through that exit.
Does that make sense?
A door is never just a door. Therefore, a Transition is never just an exit.
A Transition is one of your ultimate gaming experiences.
Think about it for a second. You are in front of a closed door. The questions pile up. Where does it lead? What dangers lie behind it? What rewards await you?
Transitions represent the leap into the unknown. It’s a big deal.
That’s why a door is not just a door. It’s a renewed Call To Adventure. It’s a commitment. And it’s a juicy risk.
From a design perspective, we have the opportunity to get players emotionally engaged. The unknown gets them excited, nervous, and worried. You can play up your Transition with teasing details like blood spatter, dusty footprints, and weird noises. Metaphorically, you can do this with every type of Transition, not just physical doors.
So when you think about your adventure’s Transitions, don’t waste any opportunity to recognize a Transition moment and to play it out in an exciting way.
What Are Some Types of Room Transitions?
We just covered doors. Included in the doors category are all manner of physical barriers. The thing with doors, though, is they are a binary type of Transition. The door is open or closed. You know what’s behind it with certainty or you don’t. Doors are a spike of drama.
Other types of doors are magic portals, lifting the lid, opening the book. Any kind of binary moment that leads to the next encounter.
I call this category of Transition Gates.
Paths are also Transitions. A path takes characters from A to B over time. A number of things can happen during Path Transitions.
With Gates, once you open one the Transition is done. But with Paths, there’s a cool point of no return where, prior, characters can still go back. This point of no return gives you great gameplay that takes place in three phases:
Phase I: Build-Up. As the next Room gets closer players must assess the details and descriptions you’re providing. They still have a choice to go back. This choice is where the fun lies.
Amp up the signal here to make it more and more difficult to decide whether the characters should proceed or how they should prepare for the next Room.
Build the uncertainty.
Phase II: The Point of No Return. Here you describe the transition. You tell players why they can’t go back now, it’s too late.
This is a peak story beat moment.
For example, the creature awakens and will chase the characters if they flee now, or a character decides to speak and the whole crowd is looking and waiting to hear what they have to say.
Phase III: Consequences. The next Room triggers. The uncertainty becomes the known. And now players must deal with their decision.
You can also add consequences prior to the next room, such as triggering a new Danger or Amplifying or Intensifying a Danger. This lets players know to treat your future Transitions seriously. It tells them it’s not just about going from A to B, it’s how they go from A to B that affects their future-selves.
Sometimes Path Transitions are so full of details, player choices, and character actions they feel like great encounters unto themselves. That’s fantastic. It means you are squeezing good gaming from the opportunity of Transitions, which is the whole point of the Transitions technique.
The third type of Transition involves something happening to the characters that triggers the next Room for them. This often removes player choice, but only for a little while.
For example, an ambush, a trap that drops characters into a different 5 Room Dungeon, or an NPC who bumps into a PC and starts an argument.
In each of those examples you the GM triggered the Transition and decided the terms.
Event Transitions come in handy when players get stalled, when Adventure pacing needs a tweak, or for session time management (e.g., setting up a cliffhanger or kicking off a session with a bang).
Use Followthrough and Context to help assuage potential feelings of railroading.
Followthrough means your Event forces a Room to trigger as a result of prior player choices and character actions. If players can see the Event foisted upon them as a consequence to previous gameplay, they’ll see the Event as an interesting story development. Success.
Context means the circumstances justify the Event in players’ minds. Players always have a checklist running in their minds about what they feel is fair gameplay, good story, and relevant to their character.
Stage the Event to tick off these boxes well and you set up a Context where players will forgive you taking their choices away for a time and transitioning to the next Room on your terms instead of theirs.
For example, if you allow characters’ perception checks to notice foes waiting to ambush them, then players will accept the Event transition.
Taking a step back, no pun intended, if players had a previous choice of route A that is slow and route B that’s a lot faster but rife with rumours about ambushes, then when players choose route B your Event Transition has even more relevance because of Context and Followthrough.
Test & Tweak Transitions for Better Stories
A door is not just a door. It’s a big opportunity for us to tell a better story by creating mystery and excitement.
When considering your adventure design, or even the next encounter during play, think ahead about your Transitions. Celebrate them, enhance them, and turn them into fun gameplay.
Keep your game fresh by mixing up Transition types.
Think of Transitions in terms of Gates, Paths, and Events to help design them better.
I believe awkward Transitions, or failing to think about them at all, is the demise of what otherwise would be great adventures. Before you lies an opportunity to improve your GMing. You can test and tweak your Transitions, or you can ignore them. What do you do?