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.