Friday, July 13, 2018

GM 101: Building Meaningful Encounters

D&D bar fight!
There is little doubt that combat encounters with fantastic creatures is a core focus in Dungeons & Dragons and its like. Often times, this contact may involve the judicious use of deadly force, but not always. Non-combat encounters also make up a large portion of the game.

When building encounters, present them in such a way that they don’t automatically result in a fight to the death. Encounters, as a general rule, should serve some larger purpose or meaning within the game beyond just rolling dice and killing orcs.

So as a GM, when you design an encounter, ask yourself, “What is the story goal?”

D&D can get old if it is only about breaking in to monster lairs, killing the inhabitants, and looting the bodies. It can be so much more than kick-in-the-door combat. Figure out what the players want (as well as their PCs). Figure out what their potential foes or rivals want. The resulting conflict may not always be a violent one. Consider the type of encounters these ideas can encompass, and then build your adventure from that point of view. Here are a few ideas that expand the encounters beyond just "kill everything standing".

Countdown Clock

Red Wizards performing a ritual
Timers are a common types of encounters found in RPGs. There isn’t always a literal clock counting down, but the action can revolve around a build up to a particular event and the efforts of the PCs to stop whatever happens at the culmination of the timer. The timer may be a single encounter, or it may involve events over the course of several sessions. For the purpose of this discussion, we are focusing on a single encounter.

Perhaps villagers are being held hostage and they need an expeditious rescue. Perhaps the PCs need to convince the Admiral not to fire upon an approaching vessels and start a war that could cause numerous deaths. Perhaps cultists are performing a ceremony that will raise some ancient doom.

Whatever it may be, countdown encounters ratchet up tension because the players know they have a limited time in which to succeed. The consequences of failure may also be known, which can also create additional urgency and tension. Villagers will be eaten. War will be declared. Something wicked this way comes.

Hold the Line

This is just a variation of the countdown timer, but in reverse. Instead of the PCs preventing some event, they are instead stalling for time to allow something to occur. Perhaps, they need to hold the top of the wall, repelling invading orcs until reinforcements arrive. Or they are being chased and need to keep ahead of or hold off the pursuers for just long enough. Similar to the countdown, consequences of failure may be known (or at least guessed) to raise the stakes.

Jedi holding the bridge


A variation of the Hold the Line encounter, an Escort is getting someone or something from point A to point B without harm or capture. Enemies might sneak in to steal, or outright attack the group.

Capture the McGuffin

Pillagers rushing the village
This shares elements with other Countdown encounters. The PCs are attempting to claim an item or get to a person before their rivals do. This could consist of a series of puzzles, traps, or other death-maze mysteries to be solved, like Indiana Jones. It could be a sporting competition (Quidditch), or direct, violent conflict with rivals (arena combat, blood bowl, etc). Whatever the scenario of the encounter, it should be obvious that if the players fail, the enemy will succeed at attaining the goal, and whatever repercussions that might entail.

Investigate a Mystery

This is often a non-combat encounter, but can sometimes result in armed conflict. The party is looking for evidence of missing NPCs, or perhaps some other wrongdoing. They may be asking about recent rumors, questioning a witness, or searching a location for clues involving in the mystery they are investigating.

Final Thoughts

When building an adventure for your players, don’t think about creating combats for the sake of combat. Figure out what the story goal is, and work from there. Consider the options for encounters to be resolved in ways that don’t end in armed conflict. Consider the motivations of the players (and their PCs) as well as the motivations of the rivals/foes/enemies… While these motivations may be in conflict, that may not mean a fight to the death. The conflict is over when the goal is achieved by one side or the other and does not necessarily imply the total destruction of one side or the other.

What fun objectives have you set up for encounters in your game? Share in the comments!

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