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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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