The Orc and the Pie: Your Encounter is Complete
Technically, putting aside all of the mechanics and statistics you might need to make it happen in the game, your encounter might be finished now. You actually have everything you absolutely need to create a good dramatic scene. Dramatic question, hook, source of conflict.
If you follow this link, you will see the World’s Shortest Adventure, flippantly tossed off by Monte Cook: http://www.instantdungeon.com/node/4 (link opens in new tab). Notice that this “adventure” is actually a single encounter. It asks a dramatic question (can the PCs obtain the pie), poses that question to the players with the hook (there is a pie in the room but there is an orc in the way), and presents a source of conflict (the orc wants to protect his pie). It isn’t quite phrased exactly that way, but all of the elements are there and there isn’t anything else.
Frankly, if you check out the spider caves above, you have some complete encounters right there. Just print out some spider stat blocks, map out the rooms, and you’re done. So, why is there still so much to this article?
Because complete is not the same as good. If you follow only the steps above, you will have a complete encounter. And you can run that encounter with some mechanical window dressing and everyone will probably have a good time most of the time. And that is why most Dungeon Master books kind of stop here when they talk about how to build encounters.
But I’m not most Dungeon Masters. I don’t settle for complete. I want greatness. And that means I have to take it to the next level. I’ve got to worry about how the encounter is going to end. I’ve got to think about structure elements. And I’ve got to keep an eye on decision points.
And that is really where encounter building becomes anarchy. Because from here on out it becomes a process of thinking about what you’ve written, spotting the problems, and fixing them. Write, examine, tweak, examine, add, examine, subtract, think, fix, massage, fondle, think. From here on out, building the encounter is like fondling a tree. You heard me.
My point is this: from here on, it is impossible to do things in any sort of step-by-step, guided way. So, I’m going to begin by identifying two major questions that you need to worry about and then talk about ways to fix those specific problems. Don’t try to follow things in order when you are building encounters from here, though. Just fiddle, question, and play. And fondle.