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

May 7, 2013

4: Structures and Scoreboards – Because You CAN Win D&D

An encounter is a series of actions that answer a dramatic question, usually after resolving one or more conflicts. And we’ve covered dramatic questions, conflicts, and we’ve talked about decision points as the soil in which the seeds of actions are planted. But I promised four things, and that is only three things. The fourth thing is structure.

In an encounter, you need to know when the dramatic question has been answered (one way or the other) and you need to know when conflicts have been resolved. And when you start adding multiple conflicts and start bringing your sources of conflict into conflicts, you need to keep track of all of that too. When have the heroes sufficiently answered the dramatic question? When can you say, with certainty, the King will not give in to the party’s demands? How do you know when the orc’s desire to survive outweighs it’s desire to kill and eat the heroes?

Sometimes it is fairly easy. When the party leaves the spider cave, one way or the other, the conflict is resolved and the dramatic question is answered. When the dragon is dead, the conflict is definitely resolved. But other times, it can be extremely difficult. And that is when some games try to step in and provide a universal framework for resolving encounters, like skill challenges, challenge scenes, progress tracks, and so forth. I won’t say these tools aren’t useful, but the idea that any universal framework for all encounters could possibly exist is bulls#&$. And some of them are downright atrocious and focus on entirely the wrong things (counting successes and failures as the measure of progress can f$&% right off).

You cannot build a single, universal framework for all encounters of every type. And trying to hamfistedly cram encounters into universal frameworks ruins good encounters.

But still, structure is often useful. So, what are you to do?

Well, first of all, ask yourself if you really need a structure in a given encounter (whether you are building it or running it). Can you wing it? And if you aren’t sure, give it a try. The only way to get better at improvising is to improvise. Make decisions based on the player’s actions and your understanding of the world and the things that live in it. This is where a solid understanding of a consistent world comes in really handy. If you know that orcs would rather die in combat than be branded cowards, you can guess their ferocity will almost always outweigh their survival.

If that doesn’t work, trying asking yourself if there is any obvious thing that will tell you whether the dramatic question has been answered or whether a conflict has been resolved? If the party is no longer in the spider’s cave, the dramatic question has been resolved. Likewise, keep an eye out for the party deciding the encounter is over. If the party snatches the thing and then makes a run for it, and the dramatic question is about whether the party ends up with the thing, it is probably best to wrap up the encounter (especially because “running away from the monsters” is not exactly loaded with decision points). If the party is trying to end an encounter, that’s a giveaway that it is over.

Any encounter with a “capture the flag” or “cross the finish line” component is easy enough to judge. When the party has captured the flagged or crossed the finish line, don’t prolong it. And you really don’t need any more structure than just knowing where the flag is or where the finish line is.

But then you have the nebulous encounters like social interactions and combats with complex goals. These are tricky, tricky things. Any structure you impose should almost always be unique to the encounter because every encounter treats different things as important. In fact, part of the art of encounter building is giving the DM running the encounter a good structure or scoreboard (even if that DM is you, the same DM who built the encounter). And, in future articles, I will have a lot to say about structuring encounters.

But if you desperately need a quick, handy structure that you can pull out of your a#&, you can do what I do. Figure out what things are important or what things are in conflict and give them a score from one to ten, but don’t start them at one or ten.

The orcs begin with a ferocity of eight and a fear of two. Each time something happens that makes them want to run away or leave, increase the fear score. Each time something happens to make them more dedicated to killing the party, increase the ferocity score. If the fear ever equals the ferocity, the orcs flee.

The party has a head start of seven distance units over the ogre that is chasing them. The ogre, being faster, reduces the distance every round by one. Each thing the party does to slow down or evade the ogre increases the distance by one. When the distance is zero, the ogre catches the party. When the distance is ten, the ogre gets bored and tired and gives up the chase.

It is pretty easy to create measurable “things,” stick them on a ten point scale, and just increase or decrease them whenever it seems right. And that sort of “on the fly” encounter structure can help you improvise good encounters.

You can even create new scores in response to player actions. If one of the players successful intimidates an orc, you can create a “fear” score, push it up, and tell the party “the orc looks around at his allies nervously and their resolve seems to be shaken. They keep the fight up, but it’s clear they are losing confidence.” That way, the party realizes that you are now keeping score and can take advantage of that, if they want to.

Structure helps, but it is not absolutely necessary in every encounter. It is a tool to help you track progress. Nothing more. And sometimes, it can get in your way and ruin your encounters in an unexpected way.

The Dreaded “I Win” Button

Sometimes, DMs get a little confused about structures and scores. Sometimes, they forget that those things are just tools to help DMs figure out when an encounter is getting close to ending. The only reason monsters have hit points is to help the DM know when the monster is so beat up that it should probably just drop dead. But lots of DMs think hit points are the point of the encounter. You know better.

Eventually, a player is going to attempt an action that, if successful, will resolve all remaining conflicts or answer the dramatic question with certainty. Sometimes, this action won’t even require a die roll. The wizard might summon an earth elemental with a monster summoning spell to batter down a wooden door. There really isn’t much chance that is going to fail, is there?

But DMs have this knee-jerk response to players trying to press “I win” buttons too early in an encounter. I know they do. I’ve done several highly unscientific polls on Twitter to prove it. And it is there. And it is completely asinine.

Once again, let’s look at golfing. If you are a golfist, and you manage to drive the ball from the starting line to the hole in one swing, we don’t complain that you didn’t make enough swings. We don’t tell you the game was too short. Or boring. We tell you that you did an amazing thing and we give you high fives. I assume golfists get high fives. Everyone likes high fives. We even have a special name for it.

If you are running your game properly, and a player drives the ball off the tee and scores a slam dunk, you have to give them the two-point conversion. If you don’t speak sportsball, basically, if your players find a way to win the encounter in a single action, even one without a die roll, they won the encounter. If you can’t stomach that, you can’t stomach being a DM.

The only reason to deny a properly declared action with the intent of answering a dramatic question that you have determined can succeed is because you are more interested in your “points” and “structures” and “scoreboards” and “hit points” than you are in running a role-playing game.

Never, ever convince yourself that scorekeeping is more important than playing the game.

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