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

May 7, 2013

Running an Encounter Like a Motherf$&%ing Boss

In all of this drivel about encounters, you might have noticed a distinct lack of any reference to skill checks and initiative rolls or any other mechanical, system-related crap. That’s because I already taught you to handle the important parts in Five Simple Rules… and Adjudicating Actions… You Know how to deal with actions. Encounters are just ways of putting actions together in a specific shape. You handle the actions themselves the way you handle all actions: Intention, Approach, Outcomes, Consequences. But now you understand that the Intention is related to answering a Dramatic Quesion, usually by resolving a particular Conflict. And you know that the Outcomes, therefore, should bring the players closer to answering the Dramatic Question, either in the affirmative or the negative. That concept is important. Remember, the dramatic question tells us why we care about the encounter. So, if an action doesn’t move us toward an answer to the dramatic question (positive or negative), we probably don’t care about the action. That is what DMs actually mean when they talk about actions that move the story forward. The problem is that most DMs forget that moving toward a negative answer is also moving forward, provided the adventure is built the right way.

The point is, all of this s$&% works together and builds on one other. An encounter tells you how to start and end an encounter. But the encounter itself is just a container for actions. But actions originate from the players. An action cannot happen unless a player decides on it first. So a DM can’t build around actions. We can only build dramatic questions and sources of conflict and make sure there are decision points and some sort of structure or scoreboard.

Now, you can try to plan for actions. You can write pages and pages of contigencies for what to do if the players go here or do that or find this or bluff that or whatever. But what a waste. Building proper encounters using the truly important questions is easier and quicker, and you can adjudicate actions at the table within each encounter to handle pretty much everything.

So, in this framework, how do you run an encounter at the table?

First, you identify the dramatic question. Remember that the dramatic question is a statement of the party’s actual objectives at this moment, rephrased as a yes-or-no question.

Next, identify the sources of conflict. Remember, a source of conflict isn’t just a thing, it is a reason why the thing will somehow prevent the heroes from answering the dramatic question.

Ask yourself if you need a structure or scoreboard. If you can get by without one, do so. Otherwise, figure out what you need to measure and how to measure it. If all else fails, assign those things a score somewhere between one and ten and figure out what happens when it drops to zero or goes up to ten.

Now, tell the players what is going on. Narrate the opening of the scene. Describe what is happening and mention whatever the thing is that the dramatic question is all about (the far exit, the thing they want to grab, the person who is in danger). Pick out the obvious sources of conflict and describe them as well. I’ll do a whole article about describing scenes someday. I promise.

Now, ask the players what they do. Either in initiative order or outside of it, depending on whether you are running a combat or a scene with a series of short, quick actions. Adjudicate each action like you know how to do.

After each action, check to see if the players should now know the answer to the dramatic question and check to see if all of the conflicts have been resolved. If either is the case, narrate the end of the scene and make sure you call attention to the answer to the dramatic question. Otherwise, ask for another action and see where that one takes you.

Keep an eye out for any players who’ve run out of decision points. Are they repeating the same action over and over again? Are they sounding resigned to certain actions? If so, imagine yourself playing their character and see how many useful, practical options you have. Actions, not just reactions or continuations of ongoing actions. If the player is truly out of options, you’ve got three die rolls before they are gone from the encounter. And if there are too many players in that state, you’d better start wrapping up the encounter.

And that’s it.

Figure Out the Dramatic Question, Sources of Conflict, and Structure; Adjudicate All the Actions, but Watch for the End of the Encounter; then End the Encounter. That is how you run an encounter like a motherf$&%ing boss.

Come back for the next part and I’ll tell you how to build awesome encounters.

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