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How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters!

July 23, 2013

Do You Have Enough Decision Points?

As I noted in THE LAST ARTICLE (remember how I wrote an article before this one?! Do you?!), the more complex an encounter, the more decision points it needs. When an encounter runs out of decision points, it becomes boring. At that point, if the encounter is still going, you have a problem. Nothing will destroy an encounter as efficiently as not having enough decision points. If you’ve done everything else really well, but you want to turn your encounter to s$&%, ignore this step and go with what you’ve got.

Decisions points are spots where the players are asked to choose how to resolve the encounter. Every time you ask the player “what do yo do,” you have a decision point. However, if there is only one useful thing to do (or the player THINKS there is only one useful thing to do), it doesn’t count as a decision point. “The lock is almost picked, you’ll need to pick it just a little more, what do you do?” That? THAT IS NOT A DECISION!!! THAT IS A DM ASKING A PLAYER TO “PRESS X TO CONTINUE!”

Decision points come in two general flavors. Either a player can choose which particular conflict to resolve OR the player can choose how to resolve a particular conflict. Choosing which conflict to resolve occurs when a player chooses which enemy to target or decides whether to try and get through the gate or scale the castle wall. Choosing how to resolve a particular conflict occurs when a player chooses what spell or attack to use on a particular enemy or whether to bribe the guard, fight the guard, or sneak past the guard. Complex encounters utilize both types, but some encounters focus more on one type than another. I like to call encounters that focus primarily on choosing which conflicts to resolve “Mazes” and encounters that focus on how to resolve a given conflict “Obstacle Courses.” Hopefully, it is obvious why.

Now, combat encounters are pretty loaded with decision points already. If an encounter is planned as a combat, or if it might become one, you are covered for decision points. Most RPG systems are pretty good at making sure combat is loaded with decisions. I will talk more about designing good combat encounters though. There are some techniques that definitely help. Likewise, most social interactions, by their nature, are chock full of decisions. Each time a player opens their mouth, they have a near infinite number of possible choices for what to say. And you can bet your sweet bippy I will be talking about social interaction encounters, possibly in the very next article I write.

So, that leaves us with the messy, ugly, non-combat, non-interaction encounters (NCNIs) as well as the parts of mixed encounters that don’t involve talking to things or killing things. If you’ve ever wondered why most DMs seem to instinctively shy away from those encounters, the reason is because they are very hard to create and there is no good, universal format. If you jump down to the comment section to point out D&D 4E skill challenges, by the way, I will hit you. There is no GOOD universal format. The reason is because every encounter has different needs and X successes before 3 failures with arbitrary action restrictions doesn’t serve all those needs by a long shot. If you like skill challenges, as implemented in 4E, fine and dandy. Me, I want more than they can give me. And I want you to want more too so I can give you the more I want you to want. Got it?

Look at your encounter and try to imagine the different ways it might play out. How many times will different players have to choose between multiple options, either by choosing between different sources of conflict or choosing how to resolve a particular conflict? And how many of those decisions are obvious? How many do you explicitly call attention to? Remember, if the players don’t think they have options, the choice doesn’t count as a decision point.

Let’s look at the spiders who just want to defend their cave. How many decision points are in that encounter? First the party has to decide how to pursue their goal. They could kill the spiders or they could sneak around the room and try to avoid them or they could bolt for the far exit past the spiders. That is one decision point with three pretty obvious options. Now, follow each of those options. If the party tries to fight, that opens a combat and we don’t have to worry. There will be a lot of decision points. But if the party tries to sneak around the room, if they succeed, they have no more decisions to make. Likewise, if they sprint for the far side, apart from possibly trying to slow or distract the spiders, there aren’t any more decisions there. If the party gets caught sneaking or sprinting, they will have to choose a strategy, but otherwise, that’s it for decisions. So, this encounter has as few as one decision point and, apart from the combat, as many as two.

So, how many decision points are enough? It depends. Remember that once an encounter has run out of decision points, it should be finished in two or three dice rolls or people will get bored with it. If you have only one decision point to start with, you shouldn’t expect each player to roll dice more than two or three times before the encounter is over. Given the spider cave encounter, that isn’t unreasonable. So, it works.

But there is also the question of how much weight you want the encounter to have. Do you want it to feel big and important or do you want it to feel like a minor victory? Do you want it to feel like the players finished a level? Do you want it to feel like the players rescued the princess? Or do you want it to feel like the players stomped on a goomba? The more decision points you have, the bigger and grander and more complicated the encounter feels.

Non-combat, non-interaction encounters tend to move faster and have fewer decisions than combats or interactions, but they still feel pretty substantial as long as they are run well. One or two decisions and a few die rolls feels about as significant as a combat against a minor foe. Thus, avoiding the spiders with stealth seems to feel as big as beating them in a fight, at least to most players. That means, a well run encounter with between five and ten decision points is a pretty grand and weighty scene.

As a brief aside, there is a myth that you absolutely always want to engage all of the players in every scene and you should strive to give each player something to do in every encounter. This is complete bulls$&% and it will lead you building encounters that feel forced and contrived and sometimes even annoying your players. You’ll never pull it off anytime anyway, so you’ll just be chasing your own tail. Because most NCNI encounters don’t last too long anyway and because you are building encounters with a good dramatic questions and strong hooks, most players who are not directly involved will still be invested in the outcome. They will find ways to contribute if they want to, but they will happily sit for ten minutes to see how the other PCs resolve things. In fact, distracting them with pointless asides just so they have something to do may just upset them. If you mix up your encounters and allow plenty of freedom in how they are resolved, all of your players will remain engaged even if they aren’t always in every spotlight every time. Trust me.

Ongoing Example: The Chase

If I ran The Chase right now, how many decision points would it have? Well, the party can decide to run after the assassin and try to tackle him. And that’s about it.

See what I mean about how a good-looking encounter can fall apart. This exciting seeming encounter actually has nothing to do. I can call upon players to make some sort of endurance-type check to keep up the chase and a strength-based check to tackle the assassin if they get close, but as it stands right now, there is nothing for the players to decide to do other than deciding to engage in the encounter itself. That is going to need to be fixed.

I should point out that I want this scene to feel “big and important,” whatever that means. I have decided (arbitrarily), that this encounter is supposed to start off my adventure and my game session. I want it to feel exciting and to draw the players into a mystery. So I really do want to have more than five decision points.

Incidentally, the limited number of decision points is a problem with many NCNI encounters and chase scenes are among the most problematic of them all. Another encounter type that always creates trouble is the “crossing the wilderness” scene which almost always come down to “roll to not starve, now fight a wandering monster.”

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