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

May 7, 2013

3: Decision Points – How Even a Good Encounter Can Suck If It Isn’t Good

An encounter begins by posing a dramatic question and it ends when the players know the answer to the dramatic question. But the players are prevented from answering the dramatic question until one or more conflicts have been resolved. Got all that? Good. But I lied. We can’t talk about decision points yet. We need to talk about the end of encounters first. Because encounters are like fish. If you keep them around for too long past their expiration date, they really start to stink.

Keeping Encounters from Overstaying their Welcome

The dramatic question describes what’s at stake in an encounter and why the players care about the encounter. As long as the answer is uncertain, the encounter is tense, exciting, and engaging. So what do you think happens when the answer becomes certain? Did you say “the opposite of tension, excitement, and engagement?” Congratulations, Captain F$&%ing Obvious.

As a DM, it is your job to recognize when the dramatic question has been answered or when all sources of conflict have been resolved or invalidated so that nothing is preventing the question from being answered. When that happens, the encounter is over. And when the encounter is over, you must end it. No matter what.

Ending the encounter is as easy as removing any remaining sources of conflict and telling the players the answer to the dramatic question. You can use whatever tricks you like. Assume the next hit on any monster kills the monster, allow the monsters to run away, narrate a wrap up (you easily defeat the remaining orc warriors and then you can continue on your way), tell the players they “realize the king is no longer listening and there is probably nothing further they can say to him right now that will change his mind,” play the Final Fantasy victory fanfare or that “you lose” tuba music from the Price is Right. It doesn’t matter how you do it.

“But what if you end an encounter too early and let the players win (or lose) unfairly, Angry? Shouldn’t I run every scene right down to the last, bloody action?” I hear what you are saying. And it sounds like this: “waggghhhh whiney whiney herp derp waaaaahhhhhh.” I just spent how many pages telling you that dramatic questions are what make people care about encounters and you’re saying you want to run encounters without them? If you want to run boring encounters no one cares about, run the encounters as long as want. Don’t let me stop you from running s$&% games. Idiot. Eventually, the players will realize the encounter is long over and they’ll wonder why the hell their time and resources are being wasted on proving it.

It is always better to end an encounter too early and firmly answer the dramatic question than let the encounter drag on past the point of fun. And eventually, you’re going to do just that. You’re going to end an encounter too early. Usually, you’ll do that because your dramatic question does not match the party’s dramatic question, which happens sometimes. It happened to me last Saturday.

My heroes got ambushed by some wolves and goblins in a forest and they pretty soundly beat up most of the baddies such that they could continue on their way. So, I sent the remaining goblin crashing away into the woods, fleeing for its life. And the heroes decided the encounter was not over and gave chase.

Let me tell you what I did not do. I did not say “oh gosh, I must have ended the encounter early. I will continue to run this pointless combat until the players decide they are done.” You never, ever let the players drag the encounter on after you decide it is done, even though you might be wrong. The reason why is this: you ended it at the wrong time. That means you did not know what the dramatic question really was. And you never run an encounter without knowing the dramatic question. So, if you keep running an encounter after you admit you had the wrong dramatic question, you will never know when to end it. Never let the players keep an encounter open after you decide it is over.

Instead, when the party’s chatter indicated they wanted to chase down the goblin, capture it alive, and interrogate it, I started a new encounter with the question “can the party capture the goblin?” And I assumed the source of conflict was “the goblin is afraid the heroes are going to kill it and wants to escape them.” And notice that, if the party could somehow have convinced the goblin that they weren’t going to kill it, that would have resolved the conflict. The goblin would have stopped running and they could have captured it.

See? That is the power I have with my understanding of Dramatic Questions and Sources of Conflict and Ending Encounters when they End. It is like having a superpower that let’s me waste five hours every week preparing to waste another five hours of every week watching my creating work get trampled by a bunch of ungrateful fools.

The point is: when you think the players should know the answer to the dramatic question, your instincts are almost always right. End the encounter however you have to. Do not let the players keep it open. But, by all means, open new encounters if the players create them.

Decision Points: The Reason We Play This Stupid Game

You know those moments when you look at one of your players and say “what do you do now?” That is a decision point. And decision points are the start of actions. Without decision points, there are no actions. And without actions, there is no RPG.

But the mere presence of decision points is not enough to make an encounter fun and interesting. If a player reaches a decision point and has few or no practical, useful options, the player effectively has no decision point.

For example, imagine a combat in which the wizard has run out of spells. All he has left is a crossbow he isn’t very good at shooting. Effectively, the wizard has run out of decision points. Aside from scampering away from monsters and firing off crossbow bolts, the wizard has no choices.

And keep in mind that the player’s perception is what is important. If it is the first fight of the day and the party is confronting a small group of kobolds on their way to fight a big dragon, the wizard might have decided to hold back all his big spells. Once he has used up the magic missiles he’s allotted to this fight, he’s run out of decision points.

When a player is out of decision points, either because there is nothing left to decide or because the number of useful, practical options has become severely limited, that player is about three die rolls from losing interest in the encounter completely. The fun of rolling dice and hoping things work out doesn’t last long.

When a player performs the same action multiple times in an encounter, especially if they preface it with a phrase like “I guess I’ll do this,” or “well, this is all I can do,” in their mind, they have run out of decision points.

It is easy to mistake some things for decision points that really aren’t. When a player has to react to something with a specific skill or saving throw or defense, that is not an action. The player didn’t decide anything. Even if the player gets to choose between one or two defenses or responses, that is still not a decision. It is too limited.

Likewise, when a player is given the choice of whether to continue to do something or stop doing it, that isn’t an action. The decision to act was already made. The decision to not stop acting, especially when the action is working, is a non-decision. It isn’t an action. That is why those locks that take three lockpicking checks to open are stupid. And why the desert survival encounters and following the tracks encounters fall flat too.

True decision points only occur when something changes. If you could say “the situation is the same, now what do you do,” that is not a decision point. Players act in response to stimuli, in response to things that happen in the game world. This will become incredibly important in the next article when I’m going to be showing you how to build encounters.

An encounter can survive one or two heroes running out of decision points for a little while. Not every person at the table will always have something to contribute in every scene, and chasing that particular tail will just run a DM in circles. You need to accept that sometimes one will be bored so the other four can have a great time. That is okay as long as it is a different one every time and everyone gets some fun stuff to do (this will be a big topic in adventure building).

But when the majority of the heroes have run out of decision points, you have three “turns” (combat rounds, passes of die rolling, whatever) to resolve the encounter before it sucks. And once again, we’re back in “ending the encounter early” territory. End the damned thing.

The Time Limit and Extending the Encounter

This is a little bit of a digression, but it is worth talking about. First, know this: EVERY encounter has a time limit. That time limit is created by decision points. From the moment you start running the encounter, the encounter hemorrhages decision points until the encounter becomes boring.

Think of it like a game of golf (because I’m so f$&%ing adept at sports metaphors). Assume the point of every swing of the golf stick (or whatever it is called) is to move your ball closer to what we golfists call “the hole” and to end up in a good spot from which to take your next swing. On the first swing, there are a lot of different places you can aim for that get you closer to the hole that are also good positions to take your next shot from. But as you get closer and closer to the hole, the number of places to aim for gets smaller and smaller until, at last, there is only one useful place to aim for: the hole itself.

All encounters – combats, social interactions, chase scenes, desert navigations – they all work like a game of golf. Once the players settle in, choose a strategy and start making progress, the number of choices starts to dwindle. In combat, people settle into their positions, the number of targets steadily decreases, options are closed off, players are forced to respond to emergencies, and so on, until it comes down to one player making the last attack against the last target.

You can fight this. You can add new things to respond to, new stimuli, new decisions. But that’s like trying to stop the tide from going out. Now, once in a while, it is fun to fight the current. But too much of it makes your encounters suck for the same reason that playing golf with someone who hits the ball in random directions and takes twenty swings to get on the green starts to suck. It is overly long, frustrating, and there is no sense that things are ever going to end.

You might have noticed a running theme at this point: end your encounters early instead of letting them become sucky. When the dramatic question is resolved, end the encounter. When the conflicts are over, end the encounter. And when the heroes are out of decision points, end the f$&%ing encounter.

It is absolutely always better to end an encounter early than it is to let the encounter turn boring.

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32 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.

  14. Hunyock on September 10, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    hiya Angry – love the articles. I understand the theory of forming the dramatic question, but I’m struggling with the nuts and bolts of implementing it. How do you convey the dramatic question to the players? Or do you? Is this an exercise to make the DM think through a scene so they can run it in a more realistic/dramatic manner? Or is this a means to explain/describe the encounter to the players?

    • TheAngryDM on September 10, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      I talk more about that when I set up the chase scene in http://angrydm.com/2013/07/how-to-build-awesome-encounters/ . But to give you the gist of it…

      The dramatic question isn’t something you directly say. You shouldn’t have to. It might inform the way you present the situation, but it is mostly a tool for you. For example, if you want to set up the spider lair as “fight to the death,” you have the spiders drop down and attack the PCs immediately. “Roll initiative.” But if you want to set them as wary and protecting their lair, they drop down and hover near their egg sacs, looking threatening but not approaching. That tells the players what is at stake.

      Ultimately, your narration is like a spotlight. The dramatic question tells you where to shine it and how brightly.

      • Hunyock on September 11, 2014 at 1:32 pm

        Ah, yep – it just clicked for me. Thanks for clarifying. Just getting back into gaming after 20 years and needless to say my DM skills are rusty. Liking what I’m seeing from the new 5e, but I haven’t played with anything since 2e.

    • Jon on September 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      I like to say you have to trade mystery for suspense.

      Say you have a scenario where there’s an owlbear den in the old ruin of some standing stones the PCs need to search to find a clue. You can just have the territorial owlbear attack them at the standing stones, or you can warn them ahead of time and improve your encounter dramatically.

      “Those of you trained in Nature notice the telltale spoor of an owlbear — a territorial bear with the talons and beak of an owl that could tear you all apart if it got the drop on you. Can you find a way to investigate the ruined standing stones without being devoured by a seven foot bear with talons and a beak?”

      So you’ve “spoiled” the mystery of the owlbear, but you’ve gained a degree of suspense and anticipation, and made the situation more of a conflict than just a combat.

      What’s not realistic is a group of armed adventures getting jumped every five minutes by monsters who want to fight them to the death for no reason. Adding some more motivation for the owlbear (and for the PCs) not only broadens the scope of what they might do to overcome the challenge, it adds some verisimilitude to the world, raises the suspense level, and avoids the grind of repetitive fights to the death where every encounter ends with a pile of dead monsters.

      • Hunyock on September 11, 2014 at 1:33 pm

        Great example Jon, I like the way you worded it. Thanks.

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  19. Frank on October 29, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    I have a question for you on the dramatic question. I recently finished up a game session where the PC’s Dramatic question was can I capture the thingy. The things dramatic question how ever was can I delay this group long enough for my comrades to get away. (it was resigned to the fact that it would die in the process) It needed to last a certain number of rounds for his comrades to get down the tunnel and collapse it after them. The thingy succeeded in this and his comrades got away. However the PC’s where still having a tough time capturing it.

    In this case the things dramatic question had been answered yet the PC’s had not. Would you effectively stop the encounter and just let the PC’s capture him even though they where not sure they would succeed at capturing due to the fact that his question had been answered or would you continue the encounter till the PC’s knew their answer of can we capture this guy alive?

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