How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters!

July 23, 2013

The Primary Source of Conflict: Because the PCs Can’t Always Get What They Want

We have a seed, a dramatic question, and a hook, and that leads us naturally to the primary source of conflict. In fact, sometimes it is easier to decide on a primary source of conflict before you create a hook. The order of the steps here matter less and less the deeper into the process you go. I prefer to come up with the hook first because that usually shines a spotlight right on the primary source of conflict.

The primary source of conflict is the most obvious source of conflict, the first one the PCs will see, and the one they will be most focused on resolving somehow. In the caves above, the spiders and their desire to eat the PCs or defend their lair represent the primary sources of conflict (remember a source of conflict needs a reason to oppose the PCs or else there is no conflict). The primary source of conflict is usually visible in the hook. In fact, the call to action in the hook is usually a call to resolve the primary conflict.

Keep in mind that we haven’t done any stats or mechanics yet and that is by design. Game mechanics and statistics are the last thing you want to worry about. Stats and mechanics are not encounters. Usually, they are simply sources of conflict. And they aren’t even that. A stat block, by itself, is not a source of conflict because a stat block has no reason to oppose the heroes. At this point, we just want to identify the primary source of conflict: what is it and why is it opposing the PCs.

Ongoing Example: The Chase

Well, this is easy. Just by looking at the hook you can see the primary source of conflict: the assassin wants to escape. In fact, I’m going to overstate the case a little. The assassin will do anything to escape.

One of the big secrets of designing encounters and adventures that I am trying to sneakily reveal is that word choice is tremendously important. And the choices you make change the way you see the things you’re designing. The assassin who will do anything to escape is much more dangerous than the assassin who simply wants to escape. He is desperate. This desperation will become very important later.

Remember, every word you write down needs to serve a good purpose. Get used to reading the things you write carefully and asking why you chose one word over another.

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26 Responses to How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters!

  1. JohnnyBravo on July 24, 2013 at 12:09 am

    As the Twitter friend in question, all I can say is a million thank yous for decoding the Chase Conundrum as I call it. This outline is logical, efficient and action-packed allowing for numerous decision points (see, I’m learning!) that allow the PC’s to shine.

    Whereas I was fearing opening the next session with a scene that could turn out humdrum, I’m now excited as hell to throw them into the fray. It will take me about 5 minutes to port this into our homebrew setting and have them run wild with it (rim shot here).

    Your posts make anyone who reads them a better DM – simple as that. Thanks for the help!

  2. Face on July 24, 2013 at 2:39 am

    Brilliant stuff sir! Absolutely amazing. Whilst I will attempt to create awesome encounters like this, I’m certainly going to be using this one at the start of the next adventure!

  3. Andy on July 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Killer stuff here. I’ll definitely be using this. I’m running 13th Age organized play in August, and the encounters for Crown of the Lich King are a bit, ah, sparse. This’ll help me pull them into something much more coherent, I think.

  4. GoldDragon on July 24, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Well damn. I’ve been DMing for a hella long time, and I do some of this stuff subconsciously, but this is a very impressive layout of how to do it. Color me impressed, I’ll be keeping up on your future posts, and reading up on your older ones too.

  5. Alphastream on July 25, 2013 at 4:18 am

    Fun read with lots of good ideas! It is really cool to see your process.

    I’m a bit more cinematic up front. In any complex encounter I tend to picture scenes in my mind. If it is a chase, I’ll probably think of Indiana Jones chase scenes, James bond chase scenes, classic cop movie chase scenes, etc. This works well for me because I often like anything like a skill challenge to play out across several scenes. I’ll jot down the various scene ideas and then think about how they can work together.

    With chase scenes I tend to shy away from any transparent meta-mechanic, such as using minis and squares to represent the distance. I find that too often this ends up derailed when a PC comes up with a really clever idea or uses a spell I hadn’t considered. (“Wait, I know they are headed toward the Mage Tower and I was there last week, so I can teleport there!”) Instead, I like a more obscure system where I hold the cards and can more easily adjust for cool player ideas (like teleport). I also like to keep a library of ideas. With a chase scene I would consider the mechanics in the Dungeon Magazine “Cross-City Race” adventure in issue 176, for example.

    In the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign we tried several types of chase scenes. One was a chariot chase (AOA1-3). In this one, a series of scenes each created conflict. The resolution was sometimes similar to a part of a skill challenge, but could include other elements. The adventure actually began in media res, borrowing from a Living Spycraft adventure I liked, which started off with PCs in a car already in motion, chasing another car. The DM pretty much paints the scene, then asks, “which one of you is driving?” Classic! I of course had to steal that. I then added a series of scenes, starting with the defiler on the enemy chariot firing lighting on a rock pillar and sending it crashing toward the PCs’ chariot. This helps PCs quickly take on roles (driver, co-pilot, etc.) and start working together to handle the situation. Checks are made and damage, if any, administered (including to mounts and vehicle). A series of scenes followed, each different and cinematic. One I played with a lot before finding the final version was a giant spider that drops down onto the PCs’ chariot. PCs can use damage or checks to drive it off, then resume the check. As I usually do, we ditched the max failure concept of 4E skill challenges and instead number of failures determined the placement of the chariots in the next scene (a combat aboard the moving chariots). Fail enough scenes and the PCs’ chariot is up against the rocks and the enemy can easily shove them against the wall and cause damage. Succeed and that situation is reversed.

    We also did a cross-city chase in AOA6-1, where PCs learned of someone heading to a particular place and raced to get there first. We took the city-state of Nibenay and provided neat open scenes for various city locations. It doubled as a way to provide players with the culture, architecture, and other characteristics of the city. In AOA6-2 we had a hunt, and PCs raced to escape the city-state of Gulg before hunters could get them. But, if they chose differently they might first start as hunters and then get to escape. Our author came up with a really interesting way of adding map pieces to the table as the PCs moved forward. It sounds strange but really worked well.

    I also like noting how other systems handle these kinds of encounters. Spycraft had a neat system where each side chose a strategy (each had a cool narrative concept, such as redlining an engine), a table was consulted, bonus or penalty administered, and then each side rolls skill checks. This was done until the prey escaped or was caught. It actually was a very imaginative experience for players, and of course the DM would describe what was happening in cool detail.

    The Ashes of Athas adventures can be ordered for free, should any readers want a copy. Just send me a private message on my Wizards page (accessible through the link on my name above).

    • TheAngryDM on July 25, 2013 at 9:22 am

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and pointing to those resources. It is great to search for ideas, but remember that this article isn’t really about chase scenes. It is about helping new DMs learn to think about building ANY encounter. The chase scene was just a running example given by Johnny Bravo (http://twitter.com/clamclontoller). Honestly, it is not what I would have chosen, but it works.

      With regards to visual aids, who gives a crap if the visual aid sometimes get derailed (I refuse to agree with “all too often”). If it gets derailed, throw it away. It took me five minutes with a marker to do that awesome diagram. Five wasted minutes is no big deal. Use visual aids if they are going to increase the tension and help the players visualize the scene. Just don’t let them become the scene.

      Allow me to rant. Not against you, Alphastream, but you got me close enough to a rant topic that the DM Rage takes over. People need to hear this:

      there is an attitude amongst DMs that I have noticed online that if something MIGHT go unused or might have to put aside, it isn’t worth doing at all. I HATE this idea. It is a bad lesson. It might not rain, so don’t bring an umbrella. Your kid might not poop so don’t bring an extra diaper. You might not get shot breaking into that crack house, so don’t wear your bullet proof vest.

      “Your players might go in a different direction from what you planned, so don’t ever prep anything” is the greatest, most extreme version of that attitude and it is f$&%ing moronic. Being a DM… being a good DM… means accepting that sometimes, stuff is going to go unused. Sometimes something you worked on will be discarded, ignored, or destroyed.

      Build the f$&%ing visual aid if you want a visual aid. Visual aids are fun and add drama. Players like them. The moment it no longer serves its purpose, throw it away. Oh well. Gone. Done.

      • Calvin on November 24, 2014 at 2:29 pm

        It’s over a year later, but I wonder what your opinion on reusing the unused stuff is? Like, if the party never even encountered that pit full of snakes, what if I put a huge pit of snakes in the next dungeon?

        I can see how it might encourage laziness, but if the PCs somehow missed the pit of snakes the last 5 times, they have never seen a pit of snakes, so do you think it’s okay to keep putting pits of snakes in places until they’ve already seen/passed that particular challenge?

  6. Alphastream on July 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Well, for good or ill, my comment is really about chase scenes. My point is that artificial systems, such as “I’ll create a grid, we’ll place our minis on it, and each square is 5′ distance, and when you make a check you advance between 1-2 squares”, are risky. We are creating a new system, and there is a reason why RPG systems need extensive playtesting. A single spell or unexpected idea can render the system invalid. I recall one of the Paizo Adventure Path series we converted to 4E, where the Shaman had a power that basically rendered a competition (and its special mechanic) invalid. The shaman just auto-won. And the concept was for this to be a big cool scene. To me, that’s an example of focusing too much on a new mechanic over using what the RPG already provides and using that (and storytelling, and visuals) effectively.

    For example, with 4E, the movement rules don’t work particularly well for chases. Nothing is random. We have fixed movement and a few things that can change it (monk class, race, specific powers). Vehicle movement is even more fixed. It would likely be boring to just move around a map in initiative. That’s where the visuals can really help. We can envision what we want to see (dealing with crowds in a market, sudden appearance of a construction zone, 3 nuns carrying a large glass window, etc.) and think on how that can all weave together more as a story and series of events using normal rules and less as a need to create a new system. Moreover, a focus on a substystem can force everyone to play a mini-meta-game, instead of using imaginative play. Players stop seeing the busy market and start seeing “I need to get a +X to speed, so I’ll use tactic Y”.

    When I talk about visual scenes, I’m talking about the DM imagining a scene and then working to create that. For example, I might think about a rooftop portion of the chase where a plank of wood is laid across two buildings. We can start with that visual and do a lot of things with it to make it fun. Sure, players can make different decisions (scale down the building, dimension door across), but they still enjoy that scene and react to it.

    • TheAngryDM on July 25, 2013 at 12:46 pm

      Which is why I very clearly say several times “do not explain the visual aid, do not put the focus on it, do not allow the subsystem to become the game.” It only becomes the focus if you let it. Be we need to beat this mountain back down to the molehill it really is.

      As for the rest, I don’t have a playtesting team. I don’t get the chance to try everything out before I run it. I’m a real DM, not an ivory tower game designer writing for everybody. And that is who I am talking to. But I’m damned well not going to be afraid of the rules. I think what I’ve said is good enough: “identify only the new mechanics you absolutely need, make them as small as possible, only let them do what you need them to do, remember they are for you only, visual aids help, but they are only aids, and so on.” But I am not going to tell people to be afraid of breaking their game. If I was afraid I might break my game because I don’t playtest everything I do, I wouldn’t be here. And I won’t tell other people to be afraid of the game either. Play! Fiddle! Futz! Experiment! Make it look cool! Make it feel cool! Be careful in these specific spots because there are no railings and its a long fall, but if you want to play on the edge, play on the edge! That is how people become better DMs.

      So, I have to disagree. I think what I’ve said is enough for people to make informed decisions. Beyond that, go, play, and have fun. If your game gets broken, you can fix it. Nothing you do at the table can’t be undone or fixed.

      • TheAngryDM on July 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm

        I was being funny… that was not meant to be a dig at you as an “ivory tower game designer.” I was talking about companies publishing products like D&D 4E who CAN playtest the s$&% out of everything. I just can’t do that. I have to wing it.

        • Alphastream on July 25, 2013 at 1:33 pm

          Dude, if I really thought I was anything like an “ivory tower game designer”… I would need to be taken out back and flogged. Okay, I did go to Duke, considered by some to be an ‘ivory tower’ school, so I’ll accept “ivory tower adventure writer”. ;-)

  7. Alphastream on July 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Thinking on this more, the approach I tend to use for a chase scene is really the same as for any encounter. I like to visualize why this will be cool and how it will be cinematic, thrilling, or compelling. The spider example could really be part of a chase scene. You are chasing someone and coming around the corner you find the spider room. There are two exits, and one of them is near the spiders, which so far have not taken action. Players might look for clues (which way did the prey go?), might try to learn about the exits (is the one by the spiders a shortcut?), might try to learn about the spiders (will they attack anyone going near them?), or might just choose a door and plunge through it. That’s cool stuff. But, for me, it starts with my brain picturing a dungeon room, two doors, spiders, and choices.

    By picturing it in my mind I’m then forced to look at the words I write on paper and whether they will capture that scene and make it rich and compelling. One of the tests I give myself is whether I think the players would tell the story of the encounter. “This one time, we were chasing this villain, and we run around the corner into this room. There are two exits, and one is near all these nasty spiders. So, what we did was…”

    • TheAngryDM on July 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      Eh. Cinematic, thrilling, and compelling are fun words! They mean the same as “awesome!” They are useless words. There is no value in them as advice. What makes a scene compelling? Dramatic weight: a question that needs answering. How do players get compelled: a solid hook and a call to action. What’s thrilling? Uncertainty and lots of different ways things could play out. Decision points and action resolution.

      As for cinematic: I will never understand why anyone who plays video games or table-top RPGs ever considers this word a complement. A piece of cinema is two hours of completely non-interactive flashing lights. I don’t want my games cinematic. I want players in my games to interact! To participate! To make choices! Fortunately, cinematic isn’t a useful word for instruction anyway.

      Truth is, cinema is about spectacle. Flash in the pan. But people won’t care if you don’t draw them in. Nobody gave a crap about the spectacle in the Star Wars prequels because they weren’t drawn in. They didn’t care. There was no emotional weight. Emotional weight and engagement don’t come from spectacle. They come from creating a scene that matters (dramatic questions), showing what matters and creating a need to act (a hook), then inviting the players to resolve the question through their own free will (decisions).

      Visual scenes? Cinema? Thrills? You can have all that and still build a crappy encounter no one cares about. It is a lot harder to build a bad encounter if you focus on drama, hooks, and decisions.

      • Alphastream on July 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm

        I’m fine with your perspective. I like how you break things down. But, not everyone thinks the same way. Some people are more visual. “Cinematic” for me, is what pulls me out of static situations (enemy in a room here to steal an artifact) and into the compelling (a chamber overgrown with vines, idols constantly whispering horrors, floor tiles marked with ancient runes, a gem-encrusted scepter upon a step-pyramid pedestal, a single shaft of light upon it, the villain at the opposite side, racing to get to it first, the PCs clutching a torn bit of paper with clues and dire warnings regarding this chamber…). Those visual elements then compel me create a great encounter. It isn’t spectacle, because cinematic also includes motivation. The moment in the movie where the hero has to make a critical decision. The novel where mid-way through the battle some event happens to shake up the odds. I approach the design visually.

        • Bryantology on October 8, 2013 at 11:02 pm

          I think you missed the point. All the cinematics in the world aren’t what makes a scene compelling. They are window dressing. They add to movies/books/rpgs/etc. What makes an encounter compelling is the fact that the audience cares about the outcome. No-one cares about what happens SOLELY BASED on the cinematography. The cinematography ADDS to the enjoyment, if done well.
          It’s not a perspective. Great storytelling is based on conflicts and resolutions.

  8. Aaron Dykstra on July 28, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I like how you put this together. I have run a couple of different types of skill based encounters which have fallen into two camps, D&D4e rule book way and the Rodrigo Major Spoilers way. In general, I have definitely preferred the Major Spoiler’s way of handling the skill challenges, but I was not really setting up the framework in such a way where the players felt they had a choice, just that they were moving forward. If I had to summarize your article, “Your skill encounters will be measured by player choice.” This is absolutely perfect in terms of timing. I will be going back to my “Tail the bad guys” challenge and reworking it as a series of choice based events made up small set pieces based on locations they must pass through (which reminds me of every Assassin’s Creed tail missions).

  9. Jaist on August 3, 2013 at 7:02 am

    “ongoing example: the chase
    The dramatic question here is pretty easy: can the heroes catch the assassin before he escapes. Now, reading that over, notice that I have made two assumptions.”

    I think you made another assumption there, that the PC’s will want to give chase.

    What the hell do you do when they don’t take the most obvious hints?
    huh, kings dead? assassin ( yes, they picked up on that word instead of the obvious dragon bit)? wow, that means there’s an assassins school in town, wizards make great assassins! LETS GO BURN DOWN THE LIBRARY.
    If I write 2 possible scenarios, my PC’s will ALWAYS choose neither and do something totally psychopathic.
    how do you plan an adventure for these psychopaths? pretty much every dungeon I have run for my party has ended in me having to retool the entire flavour of the thing due to cluelessness, maliciousness and missed hints.

    I write my encounters to have at least 2 alternate conditions. I call these success and failure or reward and punishment. If the PC’s do something smart, in character or to alignment then they get the reward, if they don’t then usually it means the monsters get an advantage. No matter what the story always moves forward.

  10. thegamespusher on October 10, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Awesome. Just awesome. I have to stop myself from waffling about the way I run things vs how you do — let’s just say I’m in the process of changing the way I DM and largely because of articles like yours. This page of yours is just fantastic.

    I have a specific question though: Why do you make the PC that wants to take a shortcut do two skill checks? It seems to me, either they know the shortcut or they get lost. Isn’t the second skill check “hitting X to continue” ?

    Ok, so it could fail. But why not just bundle it into the first check? You’ve probably covered this. I’ve read prior articles, but it’s a lot of material :)

    • James on February 14, 2014 at 2:55 pm

      My guess is that in both situations there is a chance of interesting failure. For the first roll, the PC can fail to know of any shortcuts, and the chase continues as planned. For the second roll, the PC is seeing if he gets to the bridge in time, and if he fails, he is out of the race. While it feels like a “Press X to continue” scenario, it differs severely in the fact that if it is failed, that person is out of the scene. In the “Press X to Continue” scenario, there is no punishment for failure, so nothing preventing PCs from continually pressing X until they succeed.

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