How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters!

July 23, 2013

Upping the Decision Point Ante

So, you have a promising encounter except that your heroes have nothing to do. How do you fix that? Obviously, you need to add decision points. Fortunately, that is pretty easy. Most decision points are created by sources of conflict, so you can either add new sources of conflict or have your existing sources of conflict do things to complicate the situation.

But not all conflicts are created equally. Some sources of conflict don’t really involve decisions. For example:

Dramatic Question: “can the heroes safely get the treasure”
Hook: “there is treasure and you want it”
Source of Conflict: “there is a wide pit blocking the path to the treasure”

A pit is a nice obstacle. Heroes can jump it, climb down one side and up the other, build a bridge, teleport, fly, they have lots of options. It is a nice, open-ended conflict. Lots of ways to handle it. It is still just one decision, but one with a lot of freedom. Now, imagine I add a locked steel gate on the other side. If the heroes are low-level enough or weak enough, their only option may be to pick the lock. Therefore, I haven’t added a decision point here. They have no obvious choice but to pick the lock. It is just an obstacle. Of course, at higher levels or with more tools, they may have more options. Remember that decision points only exist if the players THINK they have options.

Be aware also that adding options to an existing source of conflict doesn’t actually add decision points. If I add thick vines hanging over the pit or a secret door that allows the party to get around the pit, I haven’t added any decision points. They just have more obvious options to deal with the one decision point they have.

Most decision points should be focused on actions the heroes can take to resolve a conflict or pursue the dramatic question. It is important to make sure that at least some of the decisions the heroes have to make are about how they can bring about victory, not just about how to avoid defeat. That can often be tricky. The heroes should be resolving conflicts, not attempting to avoid being resolved by conflicts.

There is a special kind of decision point that needs to be mentioned: the dilemma. A dilemma occurs when a decision requires a hero to choose between multiple goals – usually a personal goal and the goal represented by the dramatic question. For example, suppose it turns out that the captive will not speak unless violently coerced. The party wants the information, but the party cleric is both lawful and good. In terms of the encounter, the decision to use torture or not use torture is pretty simple. However, adding in a personal goal (the goal to behave as a lawful and good person would) complicates that. In that case, the cleric must choose between getting the information and keeping to his vows. Dilemmas do not have to be about morality, they simply have to pit two things a character desperately wants against one another and force the player to choose.

Once you have decided that you need to add decision points to an encounter, things get pretty chaotic. You can either add new sources of conflict that create decisions or have existing sources of conflict take actions that force decisions. The more complex the encounter, the more you want to mix things up. In point of fact, building an encounter is a lot like building a dungeon. You have a start point and an end point and you want to put rooms full of encounters between the beginning and the end. Some of the rooms might offer multiple exits. Others simply force the PCs to confront obstacles and decide how to deal with them. Some dungeons are mazes that need to be navigated. Others are linear obstacle courses. Many have elements of both. A really well-built, complex NCNI encounter can actually be mapped like a dungeon (or a flowchart if you prefer because you’re BORING!).

Finally, remember that if you want the players to know they have an option, you have to tell them. Players are stupid and confused by subtlety. A secret door does not, generally, count as an option unless the players have a compelling reason to search for one. I am not saying that you need to tell your PCs to search for secret doors. That’d be pretty dumb considering the word “secret” in the name. What I’m saying is that the secret door should always be the THIRD option, never the SECOND when you’re trying to create decision points. That way, heroes who never think to search for secret doors still have a choice, but the players who do search find an easier way to their goal.

Ongoing Example: The Chase

Watch how complicated this can get! This, right here is the real meat and potatoes of encounter building. This is where the magic happens. Pay attention. This will be pretty frenetic.

My primary source of conflict is the desperate assassin who will do anything to escape. But that alone doesn’t lend itself to any actions other than just running after him. Right away, I need something the players can actively DO to close the gap and gain some ground. If I’m chugging along running away and heroes are chugging along behind me, what can they do to close the gap. And I don’t mean what might CERTAIN heroes be able to do (a wizard can throw a grease spell, sure). Well, the heroes can push harder than me, right? They can sprint. Like Will Smith chasing down the cephalapoid on foot, right? Just crank. Go all out. But I can’t let them do that all the time, right? Or else there is no decision. So, first thing is that I’m going to give them some kind of limited ability to sprint. Maybe they need a clear, straight run to sprint. And maybe sprinting too much will exhaust them. I will have to tell them about this option as soon as the chase starts so they know it exists. Otherwise, they might assume they are running at top speed all the time anyway and not bother.

Fine. So that is one thing they can do during the chase. But that isn’t enough. When to sprint is really just an extended single decision point. I’ve seen movies, what else might players do to get an advantage. Well, if I am running through crowded streets (I’ve decided some of the streets are crowded), someone chasing me could go for the high ground. Rooftop chases are classic. So, a hero can climb up onto the roofs of the city to keep an eye on me and to have more open ground. Of course, the acrobatic hero will need to make jumps and aerial maneuvers and risks falling, injuring himself, and being taken out of the chase, but that’s the way it goes.

What else? Well, you know that thing in movies where it looks like the crook has gotten away and then, all of the sudden, the cop’s partner who disappeared at the beginning of the chase and we forgot about, suddenly that guy bursts out and tackles the crook? Well, that is damned cool. Why can’t we give THAT option. How could a player pull that off? Well, in order to take a short cut, the player has to be able to predict where the assassin is going to go. Maybe the assassin is taking off in a particular direction, perhaps toward a crime-ridden, dangerous neighborhood where he knows he has friends to hide him. Someone who knows the city and makes a skill check (like Local Knowledge or Streetwise) might be able to guess where he is going. Let’s assume the players know the city since @Clampclontoller didn’t say they don’t. That guy could slip away at the beginning of the chase, navigate a shortcut, and… well, if there is a chokepoint along the route… he could spring a trap there. So, let’s suppose the districts of the city have walls or rivers or something between them. If the assassin wants to get to Crimetown, he has to go over the Crimetown Bridge. If someone can beat him there, they get a chance to tackle him.

Now, that is not something the players might think off. So, if none of them asks about it in the first round of the chase, I will call for the Street Knowledge Local Wise whatever check on the second round and, anyone who succeeds gets the prediction (he’s probably heading to Crimetown where he might have friends to hide or defend him, there’s only one good way using the Crimetown Bridge). At that point, the players might ask about shortcuts or alternate routes and, if they don’t, well they can still chase the guy.

So, now we have chasing with sprinting, stalking on the roof tops, and outflanking the guy. But those are all really just one decision. Three different approaches to bring about the same thing. Plus, the players now have enough elements to play with that they could be more clever. For example, if they get someone on the rooftops, they could drop back and stop chasing, hoping the rooftop guy can stalk him stealthily. Or if one or two of them discover the alternate route, the rest could drop back and hope the shortcut pans out. Hell, they could all take the alternate route. I could call the encounter done at this point and it’d be okay (as long as I resolve it in three die rolls or so), but let’s not stop there. One decision with a few obvious paths and a bunch of clever alternatives is neat, but lets try to drag this out. We’re still playing with just one main source of conflict: the assassin who wants desperately to escape. Can we add some more?

Well, damn straight we can. We have a whole city to play with. The city is full of sources of conflict. A crowded market that slows down anyone who is trying to force their way through the crowd, for example. Let’s say the chase starts and immediately the assassin tries to lose the heroes in the crowded market. There are lots of ways any ground-based chasers might clear a way through the crowd. If the assassin is slowed down, but the heroes can do something to mitigate the crowd (a strong character ‘clearing a path’; a charismatic character screaming orders to move or using a bluff to scare the crowd away; a wizard firing spells into the crowd to injure, kill, or disperse citizens (don’t look at me, some players think like that); and so on).

But the market keeps people from sprinting. So, the whole chase can’t happen in the market. What if the chase actually passes through a couple of different neighborhoods like an obstacle course (an obstacle course, imagine that *wink*). So, we start off and the guy bolts into the market. The PCs can follow, try to gain the rooftops, or have a chance to guess his route and cut him off. Then, those following can mitigate the crowd while those above close some distance. Now, we’ll go to a nice a straight run. A connecting sidestreet, not too crowded with few outlets. Followers can sprint if they want to try to close the distance. Maybe a follower decides to take a shot with a ranged weapon (losing a lot of ground) or throw a spell in the clear street (also losing a lot of ground). A good spell or difficult ranged attack could end the chase. Then, well, maybe our assassin gets desperate.

The next street is a work street filled with laborers unloading carts. As the assassin runs past, he draws a long knife and rakes a cart horse in the flank. The horse tears free of its harness, panics, and charges down the street, injuring people in the crowd and barrelling toward the PCs. Maybe the PCs try to run past it, but maybe someone tries to control the horse to protect the crowd, taking themselves out of the race to do the right thing. Or maybe someone gets the idea to jump onto the horse (or another one) and use the horse to keep up the chase. We won’t mention that idea explicitly. Something a clever player might think of.

Now, we’ll add a short interlude of chasing down a winding side street with no real obstacles or diversions, but no straight line of sight. The assassin just keeps running. No one can really do anything here. It is more of a pause in the action. But it gives the players a chance to think. I’ve been demanding a bunch of quick decisions from them. A few seconds where they can sit back and listen to some flavor text helps keep them involved.

Now, we have the bridge to Crimetown. And this is a big spot. The shortcut hero gets their one chance to stop the Chase. And then everyone is funneled down the bridge. The bridge is another nice straightaway, but a little too crowded to make ranged attacks or spells, but it will let people sprint and close the distance again. More importantly, the river is too wide to jump. Why? Because the guy on the roof has been doing nothing but keeping up with the assassin, making occasional acrobatic-type checks at my direction. I need to get him down. Remember that “three die rolls without a decision point?” He ran his three actions out and now he needs to come down. Remember that episode of the Tick where they “run out of rooftops?” There you go.

Meanwhile, if they don’t end the chase here (and it is possible they will), then the assassin will punish them. Suppose he does the horse trick again, only worse. He slashes someone and shoves them over the rail into the river. The person thrashes in the water, but the stunned citizens just gawp and shout. No one jumps in. Even if the PCs did not do anything to stop the horse, they will likely save the hapless innocent.

Beyond the bridge, we’ll put another open street and a straightaway. Let people try to sprint again, give someone an opportunity to get up onto the Crimetown rooftops, let someone take a shot with a bow or a spell.

And then, we’ll go for the home stretch. Much more in his element, the assassin bolts into the back alleys and he knows the alleys. If he has any sort of decent lead at this point, he is going to try to evade. This isn’t really a decision point. It is more of an obstacle. He’ll try the old turn a corner, then dart into a hiding place and hope everyone bolts past. If that succeeds, he escapes. If not, the heroes turn around and can pick up the chase once more. Someone on the roof might have an easier time spotting him, call out his location, or do the sneaky stalker thing.

Then, one more street with a thick crowd for the PCs to dodge through (criminals, urchins, and beggars). If the PCs don’t catch the assassin here, he ducks into the Scumm and Villainy Bar and Grill, into the secret room, and the bartender tries to cover for him. But that’s another encounter.

Now, there is an encounter LOADED with decision points.

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29 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 ( 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?

        • bigjeff5 on January 26, 2015 at 9:03 pm

          It’s not lazy, you had to put the work into it in the first place. Why not use it somewhere else that fits? I mean, don’t try to force an encounter where it doesn’t belong, but definitely use it.

          I think it’s so awesome I’ve started keeping a collection of encounter frameworks. Just remove the details and keep the structure, and when your players happen to trigger a scene like that (especially if they’ve gone off the rails), all you have to do is change the names, places, and maybe some stats (if you’ve bothered to include any) and boom! Ready made action packed sequence!

          Think about it – what’s the difference between a chase scene involving orcs and wizards and warriors, and a chase scene involving aliens and Jedi and soldiers? Nothing but the flavor, really. What makes the hook interesting and the action exciting is all exactly the same. I could seriously run Angry DM’s Orc Chase scene right now, as is, in the FFG Star Wars system. The changes I’d need to make are so minor I could make them on the fly. Change the species involved, put them all on speeders, give the Assassin some basic stats, and away we go.

          If the scene can be run in an entirely different system with almost no effort, then it’s perfectly reasonable to think you could change the details a bit (which you haven’t even exposed to your players, for heaven’s sake!) and use it.

          You can even change a bit more and still keep the structure. For example, instead of an assassin it’s a thief, and he stole the monk’s holy symbol that the party was hired to safeguard. You’ll have to re-evaluate the Dramatic Question and the sources of conflict now, but for the most part they just scale differently. The thief is probably going to be less desperate than the assassin; nobody died so there isn’t a vengeance aspect, etc. Still, once you’ve got a framework, you can tweak things a bit and come up with a half dozen encounters from one basic seed.

          That just sounds like good time management to me.

  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.

    • bigjeff5 on January 26, 2015 at 10:44 pm

      Don’t try to predict what your players are going to do. Just manage motivations and expectations of the NPCs, and act accordingly to whatever they do. Your NPCs decide that burning down the library in response to an assassination attempt is an appropriate action because they’ve never heard of logic? That’s when the town guard (all 50 of them) shows up and arrests the party for burning down the library. You’ve lost the chase scene, but you’ve still got a huge source of conflict. Just figure out the new dramatic question and continue from there. That specific example is a perfect setup for more goodness too. “Will the party be arrested?” An arrest encounter, practically writing itself here. “Will the party go to prison?” Trial encounter, a bit more complicated, but a perfect spot for the 1-10 scale mechanic thing. “Will the party survive prison?” There’s a prison encounter, which could then lead into a (not so) heroic escape encounter. The whole town is going to be angry with them, so if they ever come back to this town again you’ve got encounter hooks just begging to be made there.

      The people I play with can be like your players, and that’s really the way games we play tend to run. One is predictably sociopathic. His first response to “The gate guard stops you and asks what your purpose is in the city” is “I’m going to try to sneak behind him and backstab him.” I mean, wtf on so many levels. First, wtf? He’s only asking for basic information. Any response is fine, a “just passing through, only staying for the night” just gets a head nod and a “carry on”. There is literally no reason to attack the dude. It’s not like the player is playing a sociopath, he’s playing a standard mercenary type adventurer. Besides that, the guard sees you standing right in front of him. How the hell are you going to sneak around him?

      If your players aren’t interested in the hooks you’re dropping for them, then either your hooks are lacking (which honestly, mine certainly are), or you and your players aren’t on the same page about what kind of game you want to play. I ran a super hero game for a while where that happened. I wanted to play classic, silver age heroic superheroes, but my players all liked anti-heroes. The very first scene all of the “super heroes” performed a coup de gras on their supervillain counterparts. I mean, wtf? It’s not even like the villains were causing trouble either. The “heroes” attacked first. I had to seriously adjust my expectations, and fast! I basically turned it from a super hero vs super villain game into a super villain vs super villain game. Even though the players considered themselves heroes, I certainly didn’t, and the people of the city they were in certainly wouldn’t either. We got a pretty good story out of it, with the “heroes” on the run from the cops while trying to prove that the evil mastermind was an evil mastermind, and therefore clearing (ish) their name. Meanwhile, the leader of the villains was garnering a ton of sympathy and good will with the general populace as the “heroes” attack his home and businesses. It worked out pretty well.

  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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  18. leshrac on January 10, 2015 at 5:56 am

    “The President has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?”

    How about *that* for a hook?

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