Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck

May 7, 2013

1: Dramatic Questions are Not Just Questions with Exclamation Points

The dramatic question is the alpha and the omega of every encounter, the beginning and the end. I mean that figuratively and literally (and literarily too, ha ha ha). Every encounter begins by posing a dramatic question and it ends when the players have an answer to that question.

A dramatic question is just statement of the heroes’ current objective in the scene rephrased into a yes-or-no question:

  • “Does Indiana Jones escape from the collapsing Hovito temple?”
  • “Can Indiana Jones escape from the horde of Hovito warriors?”
  • “Will Indiana Jones get the headpiece of the Staff of Kings from Marion Ravenwood?”
  • “Does Indiana Jones recover the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi convoy?”

The dramatic question tells us (the audience) what is at stake in the scene. Why is the scene important? Why is it worth playing? What is it we need to find out in this scene? And when we have the answer to that question, the scene is over. When Indy drives away with the Ark, we know the answer is yes and the scene is finished. There is nothing left to find out.

An encounter in a role-playing works exactly like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, except for two important details. First, the heroes usually aren’t nearly as cool as Indiana Jones. Second, the audience and the heroes are actually the same people. So, when I say that an encounter ends when the audience knows the answer to the dramatic question, I mean that it ends when the players know the answer to the dramatic question.

Thinking about dramatic questions is a very powerful thing. In order to demonstrate how powerful it is, allow me to explain why your combat encounters suck.

Why Your Combat Encounter Suck (Part 1)

“The heroes are traveling through a cave, trying to reach some Underdark city with an unpronounceable name to deliver medicine. Suddenly, a giant spider drops from the ceiling and attacks the party.”

You, being a hypothetically bad DM, didn’t stop to think about the dramatic question. You just wanted to see a fight with a giant spider, so you dropped one in the path of the heroes. And now, the heroes and the spider will fight until one side is dead and the adventure can continue. You’ll make sure of that.

I, being the brilliant DM who understand dramatic questions, realize that the dramatic question in this scene is “can the party safely pass through the cave and continue their journey?” That is what is at stake. There is no reason, in this scene, for the party to care whether the spider lives or dies. So, when the cleric in my party immobilizes the spider and the party flees past the spider and into the tunnels beyond it, I realize that my encounter is over.

So, you ignored the dramatic question, so a default question took over. “Can the party kill the spider?” I did not. I figured out the action question and thought about what was really at stake. That opened me to more solutions. My party could have killed the spider. But they didn’t have to. I focused on what was really at stake. So I never ran the risk of a combat running on too long and getting borning.

More importantly, suppose I was building that encounter before the game. And suppose I really did want a life or death struggle with a giant spider. I would have realized that my dramatic question was not necessarily going to give me that. I would have recognized that I needed to build the encounter differently to make sure the party cared about killing the spider.

Dramatic questions give your encounters meaning and tell you why the encounter is important. As long as the dramatic question remains unanswered (in the minds of the players), the scene is tense and exciting. Once the question has been answered, the scene has no more tension and excitement. It becomes boring. That is why fights become boring once it becomes obvious the heroes have won (or lost).

Dramatic questions also help you, the DM, determine the intention that goes along with every action. Knowing what is at stake and why the players care, you know what they are trying to do. So, knowing the dramatic question helps you adjudicate actions.

Dramatic questions also tell you when an encounter isn’t exciting or interesting enough to bother with. If the question is not interesting, the encounter won’t be either. Think about the number of times this dramatic question has been played with dice rolls at people’s tables: “do the players manage to locate an inn in town?” Has it ever been exciting? The answer is no. No, it has not.

And, as already mentioned, dramatic questions tell you when the encounter is over and what that ending has to look like. The ending of the encounter must answer tell the players the answer to the question with certainty.

Posing the Dramatic Question

I said that an encounter begins by posing a dramatic question. That doesn’t mean you should start every encounter by stating it out loud. But it does mean you should state the question in your head at the start of every encounter. In fact, you damn well better do just that. From now on, you are not allowed to run an encounter without first stating the dramatic question in your head.

When you design an encounter, or even when you read one before running the game, though, you should also state the dramatic question to yourself. Just make sure you do it again once the encounter actually starts. Remember the dramatic question is a statement of the players’ actual objectives and goals in that scene. The players may approach an encounter with different goals than you originally planned on.

Even if you are improvising a scene, start by stating the dramatic question to yourself. You are not allowed to ever run an encounter without stating the dramatic question to yourself in your head. If you can’t state the dramatic question, you can’t explain why the players should care about the scene and you don’t know how the scene should end. How the f$&% can you actually run a scene like that? You can’t.

If a scene comes out of nowhere and you aren’t sure what the players hope to accomplish, ask them!

Player: “We go back and confront Herbert the Cultist.”
DM (realizing he has no idea why the party wants to talk to Herbert): “Okay. What is it you want to know from Herbert?”
Player: “We think he knows where the Secret Tower of Secrecy is and we’re going to make him tell us.”
DM: “Oh! Well, you return to the Cult of the Mucous-Covered Fish and find Herbert hard at work…”

Remember that the players must always be uncertain about the answer to the dramatic question, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. If Herbert the Cultist has no idea where the Secret Tower of Secrecy is, there is no way the players can learn it. The answer to the question: “can the heroes learn the location of the Secret Tower of Secrecy” is no, in this case. But until the players know that, the scene is a good one.

If you are struggling to pose a dramatic question, imagine a reality television show announcer setting up your encounter.

“Deep in the Underdark, a group of heroes struggles to bring medicine to a plague-ridden city. But their path takes them through the lair of a deadly giant spider. Can the heroes safely pass through the cave? Find out, in tonight’s thrilling encounter!”

But never, never, never try to run or build an encounter unless you can pose the dramatic question.

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22 Responses to Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck

  1. JohnnyBravo on May 8, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Another excellent contribution in an already engaging series of articles, Angry.

    It made me reflect on my last session so specifically. I actually had a “three hungry trolls ambush the PC’s” encounter simply because I thought… they should fight three hungry trolls. Keeping the drama in the dramatic question will satisfy players more than anything, at least (I can fortunately say) with my group.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. thehydradm on May 8, 2013 at 2:30 am

    This reminds me of the things I had learned all from disparate sources.

    Microscope RPG tells you to ask questions when you do scenes – as soon as the question is resolved the scene is instantly over. If you thought it should keep going? Obviously a new question needs answering and that’s just a new scene. Swap scene for encounter? You’ve got your article right here, at least part of it.

    Dungeon World, too, teaches you to ask questions and then use the answers in a more general way. But a question could be “how will the players get to the tower of doom past all these orcs?” as easily as it could be “what does the archwizard’s staff do that’s so special?”, and again we’re right back to scene questions that need an answer.

    I’m wondering what sorts of questions you could use within this methodology, though, to deal with “the encounter as a resource drain” as epitomized by whatever old school D&D thing is the new hotness these days. It’s obviously rather gamey to have an encounter specifically for the purpose of taking the wind from the party’s sails, but it seems like you can run a good RPG with encounters of that kind, while this methodology makes it seem like it’d be hard to manage that. Any ideas there?

    • TheAngryDM on May 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      You’re dead on the money… an encounter that exists solely to drain the resources of the party is a sucky, sucky encounter. Just not for the reasons you think.

      There is nothing inherently WRONG with encounters that drain resources. After all, it does create a meaningful choice – how many resources does the party expend to deal with the current encounter and how many do they save for their future plans. But DMs screw that up any number of ways. First of all, they forget to make it a choice at all. It is interesting to create an encounter the party WANTS to confront but doesn’t WANT to spend the resources on. It is less interesting to create an encounter where the party just has an encounter jump on them and can’t avoid it. It is even less interesting when they are trapped in the encounter because the DM has decided it must be a combat played to the end and so it will be a combat played to the end.

      Remember that, when the party is trying to acheive a goal in a given amount of time, their goal is to waste as little time as possible. If their goal is to defeat something powerful, their goal is to be as strong as possible when they face it. That means, a smart party will want to avoid all distractions and attrition. A smart party will be looking for ways to avoid or evade those encounters. The DM who drops a combat in front of the party to bleed its resources needs to consider that the party probably wants to engage it as little as possible and allow them to find ways to avoid or circumvent it. The dramatic question becomes “can the party continue their journey safely” not “can the party kill the thingy.”

      But even if you acknowledge all of that, you still can’t run a good encounter without a dramatic question and a source of conflict. Many “attrition” encounters are about fighting something because it is there. And those are BAD encounters. There is nothing wrong with an encounter that is makes the party decide how many resources to waste, but the party still needs a reason to care about the outcome and the DM needs to understand the party’s real goals and leave it up to the party to decide how to handle it.

      Now, all of this is a little above encounter design. This is now getting into adventure design: how a DM strings encounters together. And I’ll get there. I promise. But when I do get there, I am not going to ever say it is okay to ignore these four things. Even an encounter that basically just wastes some random number of resources needs to be a good encounter.

      I mean, look at it like this: you have a choice of using a good encounter or a bad encounter to waste resources. Given the choice, which would you rather populate your game with?

  3. Alphastream on May 8, 2013 at 3:13 am

    Excellent stuff. I am curious what you are considering when you describe ‘structure’, and whether you favor any particular approaches.

    This sounds overly simple, but I tend to use the word “story” when I think about the structure of a scene. I try to think through the possible narratives and what would help create that. Movies such as Indiana Jones are great examples… you have these insects (or green slime) all over the release lever for the trap, a reason to split the party (maybe that key they need is slowly sinking into a vat of green slime), a death trap (spikes from the ceiling on the group not trying to get the key), and maybe an interesting monster. I like to think about how the scene could start, draw in PCs, create those nail-biting conflict, and get resolved in various ways. I also include in this things such as terrain. Having a secret door or a hill as a vantage point can create a nice narrative for the PC that uses that terrain to influence the encounter.

    With skill-heavy scenes I like to also tell a tale. In a city, searching for information, there might be a choice of factions that could provide the information. The choice drives the next event, plus conflict with one or more other factions, creating other events. The structure starts to feel like chapters in a book, though some chapters might not be visited and the order (or participants) can change. It keeps things exciting and provides a variety of experiences.

    I’m not sure if this resembles what you were considering for structure.

    • TheAngryDM on May 8, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for the response. No, I don’t favor any particular structure. In fact, favoring a structure is dangerous. Because the structure is only as good as what it has to model or do. So, DMs should feel free to invent new structures as they need them to perform specific tasks and the structure will be based on the DMs tolerance for complexity and managing moving pieces.

      You and I aren’t really thinking any differently. A scene really is the smallest thing that can be considered a complete story. It starts with something that has to be done, fixed, resolved, solved, or whatever (a dramatic question) but between the heroes and the resolution is one or conflicts that have to be dealt with. A scene deals with a single question and the conflicts in the way of that resolution. A novel (like an adventure) has many scenes and many questions that all add up to resolve one big honking issue. What you are thinking of in terms of terrain and slimes and trapped gates, I call sources of conflict and decision points. And the reason I do that is because if you start using terms like terrain, obstacle, monster, or whatever, you start to forget all of the other things that can serve the same purpose. In a social interaction scene, the fact that the NPC is important and powerful and will respond poorly to being insulted serves the same purpose as a pit or wall in a combat. Dark Sun would not be the campaign it was if not for the acknolwegdement of the intangible force of Nature as something that can be vengeful and drive conflict.

      And yet, despite all the literary terminology, I do not use the word “story.” And I don’t for two important reasons. First of all, DMs cannot write or plan stories. A story encompasses the actions of the protagonists, which the DM cannot plan. At best, the DM can plan a plot, a sequence of events.

      Secondly, I do not use “story” to remind myself that, as much as a good D&D game might, in the end, resemble a book or movie, the differences between the two media are quite significant. A lot of things change when you assume, for instance, that the audience for the story are also the protagonists in the story (as the player-characters are) and that the story itself is being built up organically. Certain story tools become less efficient or impossible to use. If interactive storytelling is going to mature as a medium (in RPGs and video games, for example), we need to start building our own rules and structures instead of piggybacking off books and movies.

      But that is me making a semantic mountain out of a molehill. After all, even if I refuse to use the word “story,” I’m still talking about the same ideas and structures you are. In the next part (and the part thereafter) of this series when I start applying these tools to encounter building, I hope you’ll see that.

  4. The Story Game GM on May 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Very systematic approach. I like it. I wish I’d read this a year ago, but sometimes lessons must be learned by screwing up.

    It also makes me wonder if you’ve found the definition of a “story game”. You can run many games very badly while still following all of their rules; most story games integrate a part of what you’ve written here and about Actions into their DMing advice or even the rules, like the dramatic questions required for a front in Apocalypse or Dungeon World. So a story game would be a game that you cannot play as written without following at least a few of your rules.

    I respect your reasons for wanting to avoid the term “story.” I do wonder, though, what a game would look like that was structured so as to mandate following your advice. Admittedly, nothing is foolproof.

    What books had the greatest influence on your thinking here, if any?

    • The Angry DM on May 8, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Story games, at least as you’ve defined them on your site, are not my cup of tea. I have nothing against them as occasional diversions, but they are not where I want to spend my time developing longer, deeper stories. I own Dungeon World (both the initial release that was at GenCon 2011 and the Kickstarted one), but I haven’t run or played it, so I can’t judge it except to say that it really didn’t grab me.

      Personally, I am not sure I would want to play a game that mandated the use of these ideas and built them into the rules. I think they belong firmly in the place of advice about world and story building, not in the mechanics of the game. That said, I think it is a major flaw that many RPGs do not discuss these concepts and I think a lot of mainstream RPGs could do a much, MUCH better job of helping new DMs figure out how to run and build games.

      • The Story Game GM on May 9, 2013 at 4:29 pm

        I agree. I have nothing to compare the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guides to, as that is the only game with an explicit “Dungeon Master’s Guide” book that I’ve ever run. It helped me immensely. But it did emphasize proper usage of the rules over “how do you run a roleplaying game?” information.

        Was there a previous edition Dungeon Master’s Guide or another book that helped you organize your thoughts this way, or is this primarily the result of years and years in the trenches? People talk about the 3.5 DMG being very good; I wouldn’t know.

        You’ve already got a PDF, but once you get through Adventure Design and Campaign Design, you’ll have a genuine ebook. Might be worth getting it edited, laid out, and sold. I know I’d give a copy to anyone who I knew was starting out as a GM – and there’s plenty that veterans might not have thought about explicitly.

        • Mediaprophet on June 27, 2013 at 8:59 am

          Believe it or not, Dungeon Master for Dummies (crazy, I know!) is actually a decent book. I’ve been running various games for decades, and it wasn’t a lot of new information, but it really covers the basics well.

  5. Mediaprophet on May 20, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I posted a discussion on this to Run a Game. I added a little about transparency for the players, and broke down the different steps.

    The “I Win” button is a system problem more often than a GM or Player problem. One — perhaps the main — reason I like 4e over 3rd edition is that 3rd edition D&D or Pathfinder comes with “I Win” buttons at every spell level. Murder mystery? Speak with Dead. Treacherous cliff? Spider Climb. Missing maguffin? Locate object. 4th edition has them, too; but they’re rituals and not as common or powerful; and they cost money — meaning the PCs will try other solutions before pressing “I Win” even if they have access to it.

    I agree that the GM just has to roll with it, but it’s not the only option. Another valid alternative is to step out of game and ask the players. “OK, your character wants to solve the problem in one fell swoop, and has the ability to do so. But do you as a player want to play out the situation, or just get on to the next thing?” Or to ask the table “Which would be more interesting to you guys? Magically solving the murder in the time it takes to cast Speak with Dead or going through finding clues, figuring out what they mean, interviewing townsfolk, and so on?”

    • The Angry DM on May 20, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      No, these are not system problems, except insofar as that any system that includes magic or supernatural powers breaks the rules of reality (which is the point of them). In fact, all of the problems you just cited, are all created by a DM who does not understand the system he or she is running.

      If the players have access to Speak with Dead and the DM decides to run a mystery in which the murder victim’s body is accessible and can identify the killer, the DM wrote a bad adventure. If the DM decides to build an encounter around a cliff and the cliff is all there is when the party has spider climb, the DM planned a bad encounter and better throw a treacherous storm or a winged flock of death harpies or something. And if you, as a DM, cannot deal with that stuff, you need to run a different system because you don’t know how to work with the one you’ve got.

      A murder victim is like any other witness. Maybe he didn’t see everything. Or maybe he doesn’t remember properly. Or maybe he says something the party doesn’t understand until after they’ve investigated further. You have to be pretty close to locate the object, so maybe that only helps near the end of the mission after the players have tracked the stolen object to the right neighborhood. Whatever.

      Stepping out of the game to say “yeah, you guys figured it out but let’s pretend you didn’t for the sake of a more interesting story” is, in my opinion, awful advice. I’m sorry if that sounds a little heavy-handed, but I am not good at sugarcoating. It is like the director of a movie stepping on screen and saying “yeah, I screwed this scene up and we all know it so let’s just pretend I didn’t and move on.” Worse, it sends a message to the players that when they really do come up with something clever and outsmart the game and the DM, the DM is going to take that away from them and force them to find the solution the DM wants to see. That is saying their cleverness doesn’t matter and that their victories will not be rewarded. At that point, why should your players even try?

      Long story short: (1) A DM should know what the players are capable of in the system he or she is running and if he/she can’t keep up with that, he/she needs to pick a different system. (2) A DM should absolutely never, ever step out from the behind the curtain and rob the players of a victory for the sake of telling a more interesting story. That DM is better served letting that story conclude with the players cheering and high-fiving, learning from the experience, and starting a NEW, interesting story.

      • Mediaprophet on May 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

        Tomato, tomahto. If I have to bend all over to run a murder mystery in one game but not another, it is not a DM problem.

        Sometimes the four other players at the table wanted to play out a puzzle, but the guy with the wizard wanted to steal the glory with a spell the dm forgot he had. Is that the dm’s fault? Yes. He chose the system, so he should deal with it. But can he ask the other players if they want to have an OOC say in how the story goes? I think that’s fair.

        • The Angry DM on May 20, 2013 at 11:46 pm

          If a DM insists on running a game system which makes the types of games he and his players want difficult – when a DM continues to try to pound a square peg into a round hole – there is a problem with the DM. The DM is missing key brain lobes. And I have no sympathy.

          Saying a system is broken because you are trying to do something it really doesn’t handle well is like using a microwave to remove fleas from your cat. I’m sorry your cat is dead, but I really can’t point any fingers at the microwave.

          And, as far as jumping out of character to invalidate an “I win” button? If you want to run your game that way, it is your game. I can’t stop you and I won’t try. But I will not call that good advice and I don’t want people walking away from my site thinking it is. I think it is a very bad precedent to set.

          At this point, we will have to agree to disagree.

  6. Carl Klutzke on June 27, 2013 at 5:06 am

    Excellent stuff. Thank you for writing this. I eagerly await the promised article on encounter design.

  7. [...] the fourth part in my ongoing series: Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System. In the last part (Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck), I told you all about four things that… well… you know. Actually, I wrote that article [...]

  8. The Morning After… | Epic Heroes on December 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    […] rule, beginning, climax, conclusion. I don’t, it’s just not my cup of tea. I do three dramatic questions (thanks Angry DM!) for the session. If you’ve never done this, it’s probably best to […]

  9. […] I paused to read a few blogs (I’ve been reading lots of blogs lately) when I happened upon this amazing article by The Angry DM.  If you have not read it you should stop right now and go read it.  It’s […]

  10. […] Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck […]

  11. derp on April 23, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Hello Angry, I recently discovered your website, and I must say I love your advice. Lets just say you have a new fan in me.

    That being said, onto the real question that led me to post this message. You mentionned in this article how sometimes you have to resolve the encounter whenever the dramatic question is answered, to avoid boring everyone. This is great advice, but what do you do when the dramatic question is answered, but the PCs don’t want to hear any of it? That is, sometimes, the PCs will get into a losing fight. After a while, it’s clear they can’t win, but they refuse to give up, leading them into an overly long battle that will most likely kill them. The dramatic question is resolved long before the end -no, they won’t reach the other side if the cave-, but they can’t, or won’t, see it. To use a golf metaphor, they send a ball into the bushes, and keep on searching until after dark.
    What do you do when it happens? How do you make sure it doesn’t happen?

    • Colin on July 12, 2014 at 3:56 am

      What are the consequences of them failing to face the ‘reality’ of the situation. If their failure to change directions has no cost, why would they change course?

      When my son was little, he used to ask over and over for a toy I wasn’t going to buy for him. Here is how I put a stop to that behavior:
      Son: Can I have it? Huh, can I?
      Dad: No, but why don’t you empty the dishwasher and ask me again?
      Son: Chore’s done, Dad. Can I have it now?
      Dad: No, but why don’t you ask me again after you set the table for dinner?
      Lather, rinse, repeat.

      Very quickly, he learned to face the reality of the situation.

      In RPG terms, escalate the cost of failure. But remember to allow for them maneuvering room to change course.

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  13. Chorcon on August 10, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    I love your articles. I’ve just stumbled across them tonight, and I’ve been reading non-stop!
    I sincerely believe your writing will help me as a DM in the time to come, and I figured I can help you back. I quote you below.


    It is time to ski off the cliff that is encounter building. Yes, you read that correctly. Encounter building is like skiing off a cliff. I’m just not quite sure how.

    The way I read it, running the encounter is skiing. What you do when you build the encounter, is building the cliff. That is bad@ss! Not only are you skiing of a cliff, you MAKE the cliff first!

    As a final note; Thanks a lot for your articles. I love reading them. Keep them coming. You are Awesome. Thank you.

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