What is a Scenario?
Defining scenarios can be a little tricky because the term encompasses a wide variety of games. For many people, this variety is one of the best things about scenarios!
This is my definition of a scenario:
“A scenario is a narrative, in-person game with a specific fictional premise that employs limited but extremely focused game mechanics that are custom-fit to themes of the game and provide a sensory play experience.”
As a game designer, scenarios offer the greatest freedom to challenge assumptions about play in many exciting ways because nothing is implied about which techniques are used, or what kinds of subjects can be approached. And because scenarios are so focused, not only are no two alike (more or less), but they are less time consuming to create; which means there are more and more new scenarios - and new scenario authors - each year. There is alway new stuff to explore!
The Essential Elements
Game: a structured form of play undertaken for enjoyment or enrichment.
Narrative: players create fiction as they play.
In-Person: play usually requires more than one player, and they play face-to-face (though sometimes other techniques are explored).
Specific Premise: the scenario presents situations, characters, subjects, themes and tone up front.
Focused Mechanics: game mechanics support and explore the stated theme and tone of the scenario first and foremost; there are no extraneous play elements that comprise or distract from the stated premise.
Sensory Experience: play is designed to be experienced comprehensively with the goal of creating an emotionally potent play experience whether it be happy, sad, scary, reflective, or otherwise.
Few features are universally true of all scenarios. Many scenarios make use of roleplaying as a means of creating fiction. Many scenarios are live-action or semi-live, in which players move about the play space in real time, or are played out in a sequence of scenes. Many scenarios use dramatic resolution to mediate fictional conflicts in game. Many scenarios explore serious social issues or express lived experiences. But then again, some use other techniques to build fiction, some take place around a table or through some digital means, some employ resolution mechanics, and some are very silly.
You’ll recognize pretty much every element from other kinds of games, media, and entertainment. Scenarios are like...
Improv and Theater because players are portraying characters without a script, but are different because there are game rules guiding player decisions and interactions.
Film and Literature because they follow specific characters and stories - which often have a message and are quite moving - but are different because everyone is making up the details as they go.
Escape Rooms because you are interacting with a play environment in real time with other players, but are different because there is a strong narrative element to play.
Murder Mystery Dinner Theater because of the strong narrative premise and participant interaction, but are different because there isn’t any secret information or hidden plots to discover.
Make Believe because everyone is lost in their imagination and are playing pretend very loosely, but are different because there is a bit more structure and may explore some more serious subjects.
Story Games and RPGs because players are telling stories together and roleplaying characters, but are different because they are less complicated and are typically have specific situations, themes, subjects, and play styles; nobody has to create a whole bunch of content before play.
Freeform and Larp because play is live or semi-live and is highly sensory, but are different because they are transparent about what’s going on, take only a few hours to play, and because they explore subjects that are stated up front. It’s true that many freeform games and Nordic larps are also scenarios; there is a lot of overlap with these traditions! In fact, the term “scenario” was first used in Scandinavian gaming communities to describe focused roleplaying games and chamber larps. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.
Lizzie Stark, primary author of the blog Leaving Mundania, has posted some very useful articles that introduce freeform, American freeform, larp, Nordic larp, and jeepform if you are interested in reading about these styles in greater detail.
There are several events at which scenarios and similar games are played.