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

May 7, 2013

(Hey! Angry here. Before we get started, I am trying something new. This is a LOOOOOONNNGGG article. But it is brilliant and amazingly useful for anyone building or running encounters. It just might be a bit of a chore sitting and reading it here on my site. Want to download a PDF copy and read it on some other device at your leisure? Well, go ahead and Download this Article as a PDF! You’re f$&%ing welcome!)

Welcome to the third part in my increasingly inaccurately named series: Getting the Most of Your Skill System. In the first two parts (Five Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System and Adjudicating Actions like a Motherf$&%ing Boss), I told you everything I could think of about handling every action your players might throw at you. And you might be thinking you have everything you need to run a role-playing game. An RPG is basically just a string of actions in a mostly logical sequence. Well, you aren’t crazy to think that, but DMs wear two hats. The stylish fedora of running the game and the practical accountant’s visor of planning the game (Fun Fact of the Day: it is called a green eyeshade or dealer’s visor).

But Twitter buddy @clampclontoller wants to try on his accounting visor. “Angry,” he said to me, “your brilliant articles about skills and actions changed my life. I’m running better games, my players love me, and I even won the lottery. I gave a copy of your articles to my friend, but he didn’t read them. The next day, his cat left him and his children developed hairy foreheads due to a glandular condition.” He went on like that for a while. It was embarrassing, really. But ultimately, he got around to asking a question: “I want to write a chase scene based on your Five Simple Rules. How would you do that?”

Well, @Clampclontoller, the answer is that I would not build a chase scene using my Five Simple Rules. Thanks for asking. I hope you all enjoyed this article. Goodbye.

Okay. I guess you deserve more of an answer than that. As I hinted, Five Simple Rules… and Adjudicating Actions… are all about the rakish fedora of game runnery. But building an encounter is not something you do while wearing a fedora. You need to put your visor on. We would need a completely different article for that. Maybe two. But who could write them?

All right, I’ll do it.

The Beginning of a Whole New Article! Or Two!

Once you understand how to resolve actions, you can keep the game rolling along without swerving out of control and smashing into a tree. And for some DMs, that is enough. They are content to improvise an entire game out of reacting to what the players do and say.

But, to butcher a sports metaphor, action resolution is the bunny slope of DMing. Sure, you are technically skiing, but you can’t do any of the really cool tricks unless you can catch some air. You need ramps and moguls and cliffs to ski off of (I assume skiers ski off cliffs). And bunny slopes don’t have ramps and cliffs. Just bunnies. And hitting a bunny doesn’t get you enough hang time to do anything good with.

And even if you do want to rely heavily on improvisation, you can think more than one move ahead of the players if you understand how to plan and structure games. Improvisation is not about operating without a plan, it is about planning and executing at the same time.

So, whether you are an improviser or a planner or (like most people) a little of both, now that you can get yourself down the bunny slope of DMing without breaking any bones, it is time to take the next step. 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.

I’m going to break this into two parts. In this first part, I’m going to explain four key concepts that lie at the heart of every encounter (even combat encounters) and explain how understanding those concepts will help you run better encounters. In the second part, I’m going to use those concepts (and a few other bits and pieces) to build a chase scene for @Clampclontoller.

But, before I can even start talking about any of that, I need to tell you what the hell the word ‘encounter’ even means!

Just What the Hell is an Encounter?

I could tell you that an ‘encounter’ is similar to a ‘scene’ in a movie or book. In fact, I’m going to. An ‘encounter’ is similar to a ‘scene’ in a movie or book. In fact, a lot of DMs use the words ‘encounter’ and ‘scene’ interchangeably. And you probably have some sense of what a scene is because I assume you’ve watched a movie or read a book at some point. But if I asked you to define a scene, you’d probably struggle a bit. It is one of those things you have a vague sense of, but can’t really define.

Let’s tackle this from a different direction. An RPG is just a big ole pile of actions, right? And when I say action, I mean an entire action that starts with a player’s decision to act and ends with a resolution (sing along: intention, approach, outcome, consequences). But you can string certain sequences of actions together those sequences are called encounters. You can also string a bunch of encounters together into an adventure. And you can string bunches of adventures together into a campaign. You could also talk about acts and arcs if you really want to get fancy.

So, there is this structural hierarchy (look at that fancy phrase!) in most RPGs:

Action – Encounter – (Act) – Adventure – (Arc) – Campaign

Some RPGs fiddle with the names of the elements or shift some elements around, but, few RPGs actually change the actual structure. And that’s good. Because the structure is useful.

When you are wearing your Fedora of Game Runnery, you may be working with individual actions, but you are always fitting those actions together into the overall structure of the game. The actions happen within an encounter and the encounters link together into an adventure. See?

And when you are wearing your Green Eyeshade of Game Plannery, you can’t work with individual actions. Actions always start with a player’s decision. So, you have to work with the higher level structures: Encounters, Adventures, and Campaigns.

But none of this DMing theory wankery tells us what an encounter is. It just tells us that it is bigger than an action, smaller than a adventure, and it is the primary structure DMs work with when planning games.

So, Just What The Hell is an Encounter? For Real, This Time

An encounter is a sequence of actions that answer a dramatic question by resolving one or more conflicts.

I know that sounds like a bunch of liberal arts, literary bull#&$ that should be discussed by people who are serving you a latte, but don’t worry. I’m not going soft. That is a useful, powerful definition that will help you run better games.

So, let’s start digging into that definition like a squirrel digging up a precious bone.

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