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How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters!

July 23, 2013

How the Hell Will You Know When the Encounter is Over?

Now that you have the skeleton of an encounter to fondle, you need to see if it will work or not. The first thing to ask is “how can the encounter end?” Well, it ends when the dramatic question has been answered, right? But what will that look like?

For example, take the “spiders want to kill and eat the party.” The dramatic question is “do the PCs survive the spider ambush?” How will you know when the question has been answered? Well, if the PCs kill all the spiders or drive them off or escape from them, the answer is yes. If the PCs are all dead, the answer is no. And those are the obvious ways the encounter could end. It is always possible the PCs will discover some outcome you didn’t conceive of (“I don’t know how you did it, but you have managed to befriend the spiders… somehow”), but that is part of the “joy” (sarcastic quotes) of running a game. Let those happen when they happen. All you have to worry about is the obvious, likely outcomes.

Alternatively, the “spiders want to defend their lair” has different possible outcomes. The dramatic question is “can the PCs reach the far side of the spider cave safely?” If the PCs end up on the other side of the cave, the answer is yes. If the PCs are all dead or if the PCs were forced to retreat, the answer is no. Again, those are the obvious, likely outcomes.

There are two reasons to worry about the ending now. First, so you can make sure that you are okay with the likely outcomes? Do you like those possibilities? Can you handle them? Notice, in the first encounter, the only possible failure is that the PCs end up dead. Is that okay? There is no right or wrong answer here. It depends on the group. But if you don’t want that possible outcome, now is the time to figure out how to get rid of it. Perhaps the spiders leave the PCs alive and strung up in spider cocoons for later consumption. The PCs can escape, but that means you might want to write another encounter that gives them the opportunity to do so.

The other reason to worry about the ending is so that you can make sure you will know when the encounter is over. You never want an encounter to overstay its welcome. In the spider encounters, it is easy to tell when all the spiders are dead or all the PCs are dead. The most obtuse DM can work out when something is dead (hopefully). It is also pretty easy to tell when the party has left the cave (one way or the other). But how will you know when the spiders are driven off? This is where structure elements enter the picture. Remember when I talked about them in the last article (plug, plug, plug)? Well, this is where you identify things that need some sort of mechanic or structure or method of keeping score. You don’t have to be concerned about figuring out exactly what that structure is yet, but you should identify the bits of mechanics you need. “I need something to tell me when the spiders are driven off.”

Structure elements are very important for avoiding what I like to call “The Encounter that Wouldn’t Die.” Players hate to admit defeat and DMs hate to tell players “give it up, guys, you failed.” So, you end up with the unending social interaction where the players just keep repeating the same things over and over again or the scene where the players just keep “trying one more thing” even though the encounter was been robbed of all excitement an hour ago. Structure elements allow you, the DM, to decide when the players have failed and remind you to tell the players so and stop the encounter.

Finally, note that sometimes you will have an encounter in which you already know the answer to the dramatic question. Let’s take a very simple one. Question: “Can the PCs obtain the treasure safely from the treasure chest.” Hook: “There is a treasure chest. It probably has treasure inside.” Primary Conflict: “There is an arrow trap that shoots anyone who opens the chest.” Really, assuming the party buys into the hook (they decide to open the chest), either they will discover and disarm the trap or else someone will get shot with an arrow and get hurt. It probably won’t be lethal unless the PC is already gravely injured. So, there is no doubt that, if the heroes take the hook, they will end up with the treasure. Another example is an interrogation in which the heroes are seeking information that the subject does not have. No amount of interrogation can get the information. These are fine. They happen sometimes. Some DM’s run all of their games based on the assumption that the players can’t fail. They always know what the answer to the dramatic question will be. That is fine. It isn’t my thing, but there is nothing inherently flawed about an encounter structured in that way. What matters is that the players are uncertain about how the question will be answered. So, if you discover that there really are no possible “yes” answers or no possible “no” answers to your dramatic question, don’t panic. You didn’t screw up. Of course, if there are no possible answers are all, you may find that encounter tricky to run.

Ongoing Example: The Chase

So, how will The Chase end? The question is “can the heroes capture the assassin before he escapes.” Either the assassin ends up captured, or he escapes. Seems simple, right? Well, not entirely. As long as the party can see the assassin, chase the assassin, or even search every single street, avenue, alley, and doorway for the assassin, they will keep up the hunt. And then The Chase will turn into The Encounter that Wouldn’t Die. The question is: how can the assassin get away.

Firstly, I need to assume the assassin has a goal in mind. I need a finish line. If he reaches the finish line ahead of the party, he vanishes. For example, suppose he is running for a tavern where he knows the owner will hide him. If he gets there with any sort of lead on the party, he can disappear into a secret room and be assured the tavern keeper will hide him. That doesn’t prevent the party from turning the place upside down or interrogating the landlord, of course, but those are different encounters.

Secondly, if he gets far enough away from the party, he can hide. He can vanish into the crowd or disappear into a maze of back alleys. At that point, the party might have a chance to hunt him down and search the area, but if they can’t find his hiding spot within a reasonable amount of time, he’s escaped.

So, my encounter will need two things. First, it needs a finish line and some way to know when the assassin has crossed it. Second, it needs a way to know how much of a lead the assassin has on the party. That is all I need to know for now.

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