This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
In Encounters vs. Scenes – RPG Terminology and Philosophy, Rick Neal talks about the differing implications of the terms “encounter” and “scene” as employed in the game books for White Wolf games and D&D:
I really started to notice it starting in 3E D&D, and it’s become even more prevalent in 4E. Adventures for D&D are breaking down to a collection of encounters. That’s the way the DMG addresses adventure creation, that’s the way the majority of the published adventures are written, and that’s the way I’ve been thinking about creating adventures.
He quotes the 4E DMG:
An encounter is a single scene in an ongoing drama, when the player characters come up against something that impedes their progress.
. . . and White Wolf’s SAS Guide:
Each scene is built as a discrete game encounter (or a closely-tied collection of game encounters) for the troupe to play through.
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that D&D 3.5 didn’t present quite as clear-cut a focus on combat encounters in its explanation of what constitutes an “adventure”, there’s some merit to the notion that the choice of terminology in a game’s rulebooks is very important. I just don’t think it’s important in exactly the way Rick Neal assumes — and I think it isn’t as important for how an adventure can play out as some other factors.
More important than the term used for something like the interactive waypoints in a game session, adventure, plotline, or campaign is the design of the system. My (A)D&D games have used “encounters” more like what the guy describes as “scenes” since before the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade was even published. I’ve been prone to modifying the system with house rules to help support that style of play (among other reasons), but I’ve never felt a particular need to trade the term “encounter” for “scene” in those games. When I’ve felt compelled to change terminology, such as I described in New Attributes, (Mostly) Old Rules, it has been as an accompaniment to altering what the rules whose terms have been changed actually mean.
The greater importance of the choice of terms such as “scene” or “encounter” is the social effect. Notice that, with the significant focus on “storytelling” terminology rather than “roleplaying” terminology, the old-school World of Darkness games produced a far more acting-oriented approach in its gaming community. The flavor of a game’s community is going to be influenced by the game’s marketing — and all that flavor text, including the choice of Official Terms™ sprinkled throughout that flavor text, is part of that marketing. Whereas D&D grew out of a combat-oriented tactical miniatures wargaming tradition, and its terminology reflected that history, Mark Rein-Hagen together with White Wolf consciously sought to engender a very different perspective on how the game is played, and intentionally selected terminology that would foster such a perspective.
As a result, D&D’s place in the gaming world only evolved toward a more roleplaying approach to gaming at the insistence in changing trends in the gaming community, and its designers have even fought against that community influence (as I feel 4E is an example), while V:tM aimed to land on the far side of where the gaming community sat, and drag it further in that direction.
I believe that tended to have a stronger effect on who played each game than on how people played a given game once they committed themselves to it, however. As the terms’ implications are described in Encounters vs. Scenes, that meant that encounter oriented gamers gravitated toward D&D, while scene oriented gamers gravitated toward WoD games — not so much that gamers found themselves pushed into either an encounter oriented approach or a scene oriented approach based on what game they played. When such acquiescence to pressure did occur, I believe it was more peer pressure from other people already playing the game, who invited a new player into their groups, than it was the terminology in the books shaping the way people approached gaming. Regardless of what terms are used in each game’s books, I have seen people take a more scene oriented approach to D&D and other people take a more encounter oriented approach to V:tM many times, with no hint that they even noticed the implications of the terms used in the books if those implications didn’t fit with their personal styles.
Of course, the differentiation of my New Attributes, (Mostly) Old Rules approach to terminology changes from the encounter vs. scene change in terminology is nebulous and very heuristic. It’s possible I’m imagining a greater point of differentiation there than actually exists.