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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21 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.

  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.

  11. […] How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters by The Angry DM […]

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  13. Episode 156: Encounters | Idle Red Hands on June 8, 2014 at 6:03 am

    […] In another Lyal-less episode, Chris and Wayne discuss encounters (both random and planned). Should encounters in RPGs be balanced, or should they follow the fiction of the setting? How to plan encounters, and how to make them interesting, balanced or not. This episode was inspired, in part, by an awesome (and angry)  article by the Angry DM. […]

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