Building interesting and breathtaking encounters is not something that comes natural. It takes years of practice and hundreds upon hundreds of mistakes and failures. However, there are a few handy tricks and tools you can use to make it all come alive.
One of the most interesting and most exciting encounter I’ve ever played was against a Marilith. I was playing a ranger and the group had been exploring a castle. We found an elevator leading down into mines beneath the castle. The elevator had to be operated manually, through series of strength checks. We happened to find the six armed demon in the mines. Since we were low level characters we fled, of course. We thought we had escaped when we reached the elevator and started pulling ourselves upwards.
The damn Marilith started climbing up the elevator shaft, to our dismay, screaming foul litanies at us, hungry for blood. We pulled and pulled, sweat pouring down our faces, and those not busy pulling the ropes let arrows and spells rain down on the demon, but to no avail. We luckily passed strength check after strength check and found our way through darkened corridors, till we stood on the castle’s balcony, with sheer drop. Thunder rolled across the darkened night sky, lightning cracked as the six armed demon crashed through the door and found us standing, ready to make our last stand.
“You keep running,” my character grunted, “I’ll keep the demon long enough for you to escape.” The rest of the party didn’t need any more reasoning, they immediately turned and ran. The Marilith drew sword, axe and daggers and slithered closer. “Turn back to whatever hell you came from, demon, begone from the place,” my character shouted. He held his magical axe with both hands and charged.
Needless to say the combat was short. I might have as well put my character sheet through a paper shredder, it would’ve had similar effect. However, the encounter had us players all standing, shouting across the table and celebrating each passed strength check, every hit and every success we made.
What made this encounter so great was not the fact that we were up against a creature way above our pay grade. It was the combination of great storytelling and superb use of environmental factors.
Building great encounters
You enter a 30’x40′ room. A goblin sorcerer stands in the far corner, along with his retinue of three goblin warriors. What do you do?
An encounter is so much more than just the sum of the monsters or villains the PCs need to fight. An encounter is everything that can have and has effect in the fight, be it weather conditions, terrain, NPCs or other complications. Adding complications to encounters can make them a whole lot more interesting and force the PCs to use different tactics in each encounter. That alone can also help you make each character shine.
An encounter can go from being good to being great by simply adding environmental features to it, e.g. by saying that the room with the goblin sorcerer and it’s lackeys is mere 6 feet high, which could incur a disadvantage on any participant using a large weapon or forcing tall characters to bend their head, could change the encounter dramatically.
Encounters should also take into account the antagonists’ planning, their wisdom, charisma and intelligence. Fighting against creatures with animal intelligence should be straight-forward and simple, the enemies’ actions should be primarily based on instinct. As the enemies get more intelligent, the more dangerous the encounter becomes and the more the villains know how to use the environment to their advantage. High intelligence villains know when to fold them and when to hold them, so to speak, and use advanced tactics to reach their objectives.
I recommend reading through Chapter 5 of Dungeon Master’s Guide (5E), since it has some great information on dungeon hazards, weather, traps and other complications that can make an encounter a whole lot more interesting.
Make every roll count
You feel the rope slip through your hands. Frantically you grab it even tighter, feeling the rope burn your fingers, and you barely manage to hold on.
One of the worst feeling I get as a game master, is when the players don’t feel threatened or start to believe that they can take on whatever I bring. However, it’s not their fault, it’s mine since it’s my job to build encounters that challenge them and offer them opportunities to be heroic, feel heroic and act like heroes. After all, isn’t that why we all begin role playing?
Therefore every roll in an encounter should count and have implications. You need to make sure that there are actions, reactions and consequences of every action and the players need to know what these are.
I’m not saying that every roll should be deadly. Things don’t need to be as dramatic as that. But as you add more hazards and complications to encounters, you can also add more diverse rolls to the encounter. Instead of just having attack rolls, damage rolls and saving throws, you could add skill rolls and ability checks, and even let the PCs Passive Perception play a role. Time could also play a factor, e.g. the PCs only have 10 rounds to complete a puzzle so they can escape a chamber that is filling up with water.
By adding e.g. skill checks and different complications to an encounter you not only make it more interesting (and deadlier) but also force the players to rethink their strategies. When every roll counts and has either beneficial or detrimental effect on something and rolls are more than just whether a PC hits a monster, you can bring more depth to each encounter and make them more fun to play.
A way out
Every encounter needs a way out for the PCs. There come times when I overestimate the strength a group, their tactical ability or even their knowledge of the game and system. Then of course there are the moments when the dice gods decide to punish the whole group and the players seemingly can’t get a d20 to roll above 5.
The most unfair encounters I’ve ever DMed or played had nothing to do with monster’s CR or encounter level, it had to do with the encounter design. And the most flawed encounters I’ve experienced don’t have any means for the PCs to escape if things go south.
Make sure that your players always know that running away is an option, that disengaging from combat is always an option. By doing that you minimise the chance of the players feeling without a choice, railroaded or being treated unfairly.
Despite the fact that my ranger was only 5th level, fighting a demon with more than double as many hit dice, I never felt that we were being treated unfairly or didn’t stand a chance. In fact, making the choice to stand and fight, foolish as it was, made me even like the encounter more.
Breathing life to encounters
You enter a low-ceiling room. The flagstones are covered with lichen and a rotten smell fills the air, you can almost taste the foul smell in your mouth. In the far corner stand strange green skinned creatures dressed in loincloths, one of which has a crown made of multi-coloured feathers and broken nose, stares at you. It points a strange wand at you, the air crackles with energy and the creatures hisses in a broken Common: “What are ye pale-skins doing here?”
As a game master it is your role to make every encounter come alive. In many published modules you only get the most basic facts and it’s up to you to breath more life into each encounter.
Storytelling in role playing games is subject to the same “rules” as any other storytelling and a good start is to appeal to all senses. Therefore we need to make sure that our descriptions take sight, hearing, smell, touch and smell into account.
Show, don’t tell
There’s a huge difference between showing and telling. What made the Marilith encounter so great was the fact that the game master planted each image of the demon squarely in our mind, by simply showing us through brilliant use of words over and over again details of the demon. In fact, it was like he was playing a puzzle, each round he handed a new piece of it to us.
As game masters we need to keep the difference between the two in mind. Through showing the encounter, the antagonists or the environment, you empower the players to make their own assumptions. If you simply state: The goblin with the crown is a sorcerer, you remove that empowerment from the game. This is something I often witness rookie game masters do and, dear god, how often I also did this.
By saying: “In the far corner stand strange green skinned creatures, one of which has a crown made of multi-coloured feathers and a broken nose, stares at you. It points a strange wand at you, the air crackles with energy and the creatures hisses in a broken Common: “What are ye pale-skins doing here?” you show the players what their PCs encounter. It’s up to them to assume what kind of creature this is, what class is might have and to speculate on if the items are magical.
Pars pro toto
Through showing you can captivate the players’ imagination and make them feel more part of the narrative. The encounter with the Marilith has lived with me for more than two decades and is rooted so firmly in my memory, it’s almost as if I was there myself. The trick that the game master used that night was in fact quite simple. He never went overboard in his descriptions, but instead spent more time describing single features each round.
The first round the snake woman glared at us, her serpentine eyes mere slits. The second round she hissed at us, speaking in guttural language none of us understood. The third round she coiled her snake-like body and sprang at us.
If we use the same method for the goblin sorcerer, in the next round the PCs might notice it’s gnarled hands, in the round there after they could smell the musky stench emitting from it etc.
If you read through your favourite novel you’ll probably notice that this is a method that many authors use to show the reader what’s happening. They slowly build a picture, piece by piece and sometimes even let just one piece speak for the whole picture, i.e. Pars pro toto.
When you use Pars pro toto you need to make sure that what you choose the sole piece to show conveys enough for the player’s to make the right assumptions, e.g. it matters whether you show the goblin sorcerer’s gnarled hands, its feather crown or its strange wand. You need to show the piece that counts the most and has the most effect on the game.
Make it fun
Role playing is a social activity and it’s supposed to be fun for all participants. It’s our job as game masters to make sure that every encounter is fun and by keeping the encounter diverse, introducing new environments, new hazards and new complications to the players, you keep them on their toes. If you always throw straight balls at them, it can quickly get boring. You need to throw occasional curved ball at them and even sometimes use different kind of balls. That will make the game more interesting and more fun.