This is part 4 in a series:
Encounters are not limited to monsters, battles and big bad evil guys. An encounter is anything that forces choices and decisions on your players. The Characters may encounter a sage, or seer that gives them important information. An encounter with a belligerent port official could lead to customs inspections and some awkward questions or an encounter with some roadside witches could offer up a prophesy or dooming that throws the characters’ future into doubt.
A well crafted encounter adds a lot of flavour to a game. A simple fight between the characters and some goons can be used to set the tone of the adventure. An encounter where the characters suddenly cross paths with half a dozen low power goons is probably a bit boring. These are frequently used to wear down a party, use up resources, inflict a few minor injuries. All with the intent of making arrival at the final big scene more dramatic and to make that final scene more of a knife edge as to whether victory is assured.
The actual encounters along the way can consume a huge amount time in playing them out, when the characters survival is never really in doubt. Some role-playing games are never safe, critical successes, or failures can result in a character death. Others are more forgiving and as soon as a power gap appears between character and minor monsters, the result is never in doubt.
At this point, all these minor combat encounters are doing is eating into your players valuable, and limited gaming time. If you want to have these skirmishes to wear them down and use up resources, make the encounters count and make them memorable.
Resorting to a basic fantasy trope just for illustrative purposes, the same holds for stormtroopers, deranged cultists or yellow-bellied cattle rustlers. Your party of intrepid adventurers encounters 8 zombies. The six characters are slightly outnumbered and take a hit or two in the first round before they cut down half the undead, two rounds later the fight is over and the characters took a couple of minor hits. what the characters learned is that it is likely that they are going to encounter more undead.
Now we try and run the same encounter again but with a bit more forethought. This time we will place the encounter at an intersection. Out of the dark shamble four zombies, The characters go into their combat formation, and engage the zombies, but as battle is joined two more come out of the dark from the left. Suddenly the characters are all set up incorrectly, they have to split their force to cover two fronts. As the third round starts, two more zombies shamble out of the right hand passage. Now the characters have zombies front, left and right, focus on the front and they have two flanks being threatened, split their force and some of the less combat capable characters will need to fight. It also creates questions. Are there more zombies and where will they come from?
The difference is, on one level, that the first encounter said “here are some baddies, you are tougher than them, they are no threat, go roll some dice.” The second version said “here is a situation that should be easy but it is getting out of control and it could get worse at any second.” In purely game mechanical terms the second encounter is actually easier, The characters are never outnumbered. The first time around the zombies had an overlap and could attack a few characters two against one. The second time, this never happened. The characters always had equal or greater numbers.
Another difference is that the second encounter utilised terrain to the zombies advantage, a lack of light hid their numbers and the crossroad meeting of paths allowed them to meet from front, left and right. A simple crossroads made the encounter much more interesting.
When you are planning this kind of adventure, be it a dungeon delve, a raid on a stockade or boarding a starship, there is normally a destination in mind where the end of level boss is going to be encountered. It could be the necromancer at the top of the tower, the demon in the lowest dungeon level or the starship commander on the bridge. Between the start and the final showdown you have a map.
Traditionally you will place your encounters on the map, sprinkle in some random encounters so not everything is waiting in its room to be killed and you have your dungeon/tower/starship.
I suggest you forget placing encounters on the map. Why create stuff in places no one is going to go? Why not design five exciting encounters, each of which poses different questions of the characters, and you place the encounters in the characters way, at the right time.
One encounter could be a pair of armed door guards. They could be stationed at any door. They cannot retreat because there is a locked door behind them. Their sole purpose is the prevent entry. How they react is dependent on them and the situation. The players will see the problem as there are armed guards between them and the door, they have to get to the door but probably don’t want to alert everyone on the far side of the door or get pinned down long enough for reinforcements to arrive. We already have lots of decisions that the characters need to make.
Another encounter we place at a location that involves the third dimension. It could be a balcony, a gantry or that cradle thing that always spells disaster for skyscraper window cleaners in action movies. The goal here is that having foes above the characters, makes cover more difficult, it makes strategic movement harder. It is so common to put minis on a table and everything takes place on that flat plane. A three-dimensional encounter will make the player have to think, their ‘usual’ battle plan probably will not serve them.
In a third encounter, we introduce an ‘innocent’ into the battle. It could be a hostage or a non-combatant. Anything that makes using that heavy machine gun or fireball, not an option and also gives the bad guys leverage. It is not enough to grind their way through the fight, and the characters have to protect the innocent from the bad guys. The heroes may be armed and armored but Vicky the villager and Barny bystander are not.
This is where the sticky notes come in. Rather than dotting encounters all over your map, half of which may never be used, create just the ones that create the feeling you want from this adventure. As I said above, five exciting encounters should be enough. Think about how long a battle takes in your game. You know how long a session you are likely to play. Use the two to set up an exciting session. If you know you have time for three encounters, give them the three but the third places them right on a cliff hanger moment, at a great place to finish the session. The second session you run the remaining two encounters and the final big battle.
This is an example of an encounter note. You can see that the number of orcs encountered is relative to the number of characters. If the party is four characters, there are eight orcs, six characters, twelve orcs. The number in the trees is always two. There is always going to be a minimum of one character so we know there can be two orcs.
In addition to the basic encounter, this one uses terrain, cover, and height advantage, it also has a very brief reminder of the game mechanic for these conditions. The note also includes the combat stats for the orcs, everything needed to run the encounter. (The stats are from 3Deep)
With a page full of encounters like this, you can order, re-order and discard encounters as the session unfolds. Anything you don’t use you can save for later or use in an entirely different adventure.
Encounters you know will not be wasted are worth putting that little bit more effort into. Make them a bit different, challenge characters and your players will thank you for it.
Encounters are the perfect candidate for the PinPoint Process. Encounters are what make role-playing games challenging and fun to play. You want to run the most entertaining, thrilling, challenging encounters you can. Your players what to play through the best and most exciting encounters. Wasting your creativity on encounters that will never will never be played is pointless. Crafting the best possible encounters and then placing them in the path of the characters means that every encounter you write will be used.