Adventure Builder Workshop: Encounters

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 20, 2010

A great campaign is comprised of many elements and villains, locations, story, and henchmen are all required to bring things together. However, it’s the individual encounters that allow you to weave the story together. Encounters are the meat and potatoes, and are often the most memorable aspect of the entire campaign.

This is the fifth installment of the Adventure Builder Workshop, based on the seminar presented by Wizards of the Coast at GenCon this year.

To read the complete series visit the following articles:

Encounters are where the action happens. With some combat encounters taking hours to complete it is vital that your design decisions function properly within the context of your campaign. The points illustrated below won’t tell you how to design a killer combat encounter that’s guaranteed to challenge your players; what you will find instead are a series of questions designed to motivate you as the DM to build encounters that make sense.

When we consider encounters in Dungeons & Dragons we tackle them from two points of view:

  • Combat encounters
  • Non-combat encounters

Combat Encounters

At this point in your adventure design you have a great villain, an intriguing campaign, some unique locations and a few henchmen to help out your villain. What you need now is to fill the gaps. Combat encounters don’t exist just to let your players try out new powers. Nor are they just opportunities to roll as many dice as possible. As much as players might enjoy these two things, as a DM you need to think beyond these elements.

Combat encounters serve a purpose in the story. One of the things I love about 4e is that random encounters are gone. While some miss this element of the game, I do not. Some combat encounters can take several hours to play through. As a player I’m motivated by the story and how combat intersects with the story. Combat encounters are intended to provide high points in the drama, providing players with action and the chance to be heroic. Random encounters fulfill some of these requirements, but by their very nature they fail to advance the story.

New to D&D with 4e was the mechanic of the extended rest. While this mechanic existed in previous editions (spellcasters have always needed a full night’s sleep in order to get their spells back) it is now required for all classes. The trick is determining how many combat encounters players can contend with before being able to take an extended rest. Every DM is going to have their own preference and much of that will be determined by the group of players they have before them. My advice is to break up combat encounters by interposing some non-combat encounters. Additionally, ensure that you are varying the difficultly of the encounters. Fast encounters are ok and can challenge your players just as much as a long drawn out slugfest.

When you are considering your monster mix use elites and solo’s sparingly. These monsters are special and in many cases rare. Additionally, they often tend to be the only monster your players might face in a given encounter. Fighting only one monster can get boring fast; doing so frequently can take some of the action and drama out of a combat encounter.

In the previous entry of this series I wrote on henchman. These NPCs should be used in combat encounters to indicate major story points. When the henchman shows up your players know it’s for real and that this combat will have repercussions. Don’t be afraid to have your henchman killed; just ensure you are doing so at the right dramatic moment.

Combat should push the story forward. At the end of the combat the players should be one step closer to a goal and it should feel that way. Use effective narration to help you illustrate these moments. Finally, make sure your players are being challenged. You don’t need to kill characters every week, but keep them on their toes and let them know you’re not going to be pulling any punches.

Non-combat Encounters

Skill challenge were introduced with 4e D&D as a new mechanic for using skills in a structured way. It is probably the least used, most misunderstood, and hated new set of rules in D&D. We at Dungeon’s Master love them and you can view some samples on our skill challenge page. Skill challenges are also just one way you can handle non-combat encounters.

Non-combat encounters serve the same purpose of combat encounters; they should drive the story forward. Every non-combat encounter should in some way illuminate the greater story or assist the players in reaching their ultimate goal. The main purpose of the encounter is to try to communicate story points to the players. While often times narration serves this purpose, by putting story points into an encounter the experience becomes interactive.

Non-combat encounters fill a variety of roles from exploration to role playing. You can use the skill challenge mechanic or not, depending on the gravity of the situation. For more insight read our article on when a skill check vs. a skill challenge is required.

Areas of the adventure that don’t have a combat encounter should serve a purpose. Don’t have your players discover a room or engage in what feels like a major plot point but isn’t. As an example no one likes to wait for the doctor in the waiting room for 20 minutes, be called into the examination room and then wait for another 20 minutes. Make sure the areas and spaces you subject your players to have a point.

What advice do you have for crafting combat and non-combat encounters? Do you feel random encounters deserve a prominent place in the game?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sunyaku September 20, 2010 at 12:53 pm

I’ve always liked the idea of random encounters, whether it’s combat, stumbling onto a forgotten structure/cave/lair, or meeting a traveling NPC… but I agree these elements can be very distracting from campaign storyline.

In my campaign, if the PCs decide to roam the countryside or travel to a nearby town to meet the inhabitants or do some shopping, you can bet I’ll be rolling behind the screen to see if they encounter something along the way. I enjoy preparing a few level/area appropriate gems in advance for times like this– but I don’t force them on the players… they only come up if they’re wandering, and if the right numbers are rolled.

If they never come up, no worries. They’re generic, scalable and easily portable. They’ll find use in a later campaign, side-quest encounter, etc. etc. sometime down the road.

2 Wimwick September 20, 2010 at 1:12 pm

@ Sunyaku
Great feedback, my main issue with random encounters is the time factor. Combat in 4e generally takes longer, as a result I want combat that means something towards the general story. I may be in the minority on that one, but that’s ok.

3 Lahrs September 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm

I agree Wimwick, longer battles make random encounters much less desirable. If my players are roaming the country side, there should be some risk, so I try my best to make it a plot device. A few months ago, my party was wondering the countryside in search of an artifact. They had made a few wrong turns and were lost, after a time I needed a random encounter, so I threw in a group of ten hob-goblin minions dancing around a fresh catch. The battle went very fast (being all minions) and they rescued a few NPCs, one of which took them home for a good night sleep (in the barn) and then pointed them to the road. A bit deus ex machina, but they had to help someone to get the information, met a new NPC, hit a random encounter but went through it quick enough not to bog the game down.

I think next random encounter is going to be rough, but throwing in a few quick and easy ones shouldn’t be something to fear.

Unfortunately, I have not mastered the skill challenge yet, but I would like to add it in more often in my campaign. I like the idea of non-combat encounters.

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