Target Rich Environments – Making Set Pieces Pop

Often, TTRPG one-shots or sessions coalesce around big set-piece scenes, where players need to achieve multiple goals and spend significant amounts of time – a party where they need to find the murderer, a train they need to rob, a castle they need to conquer or defend, an abandoned village they need to exorcise of ghosts. 

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These are often difficult to prep – you can over-think or over-simplify them, and either can be frustrating to run. Likewise, you can often end up railroading players if you try and prep thoroughly for one of these scenes, as you sketch out the various sub-scenes that could feature. I’ve got a technique that can help with that – design such scenes as a Target Rich Environment.

Be Clear About Goals

What are the PCs trying to do in this zone? They might need to accumulate clues (in which case write out a list of clues independent of sources as well as tying up likely ways they can get them), or they might just need to find somebody or something hidden. Think about where it is and why it is hard to find.

Big Open Spaces, Multiple NPCs

Give yourself an overview of the space the scene will take place in – even if it’s just with a map, it’ll give you an idea of how it can fit for the players. There should be multiple ‘zones’ within the scene, so that PCs can split up effectively (so at your party, you might have the bar, the dance floor, mingling with the guests, and backrooms with the staff) – and have a good number of NPCs lightly sketched who they can interact with. 

Lots of Targets

Give the players lots of options of stuff to do, and lots of plot-related hooks that can be pursued multiple ways. To paraphrase from The Alexandrian’s Three-Clue-Rule, work out at least three ways each vital piece of information or goal could be achieved, and sketch out what that might look like in-game: is it a social challenge, a skill check, or some sort of longer skill challenge?

Narrow Down The Start

As the PCs arrive in the environment, you want to spur them into action straight away – so give them at least two options that you explicitly present to them (do you mingle with the socialites at the bar and try and work out what the gossip is, or go straight to the dancefloor to try and ingratiate yourself with the princess and her party, or something else?) Giving concrete options helps prevent decision paralysis and keeps the pace up – and gives you the best of both worlds for sandbox/linear play.

Descriptions and Moments

Now that you’ve got a rough structure for the scene, add some pithy descriptive touches for each of the areas. I like to do this as bullet points, as they’re easy to scan and incorporate into descriptions without too much hassle. Moments – things that can be witnesses that serve as background flavour – also help to make the scene sing. Credit to Trophy as the first game I saw them in, although other Gauntlet publications like The Between also make use of them.

In summary, give your set pieces a little more thought  – and prep – than usual, and you can make truly memorable scenes for your one-shot or ongoing TTRPG game. Have you had any memorable target-rich environments in your games? Are there any good examples in published adventures? Let me know in the comments.