Blurring the Line Between Encounters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 28, 2011

Generally the definition of what constitutes an encounter is not something that is up for debate. During an encounter the PCs engage a bunch of monsters, perform a skill challenge, or some combination of the two. When the encounter is over the PCs have the opportunity to take a short, 5-minute rest after which they regain encounter powers, heal wounds by expending healing surges and move one step closer to achieving a milestone.

In a recent game we ran into a situation where this standard definition of encounter was questioned. As the DM I choose to make a few calls on the fly to keep the action moving. Afterwards the group spent a lot of time discussing whether or not we handled the situation correctly. The intent was not to critique the DM or the calls made at the time; rather we wanted to lay some groundwork just in case we ever found ourselves in a similar situation again.

After describing the situation to a few other DMs, I learned that our situation was not as unique as we thought and a lot of other groups had experienced similar circumstances themselves. As it turned out, no one was sure what the correct course of action was. Knowing that this situation might occur again at our table and that it may happen at your table (if it hasn’t already) I’m putting this conundrum to you, our readers. I’ll explain what happened and how we handled the situation. I’m looking for you input and feedback on our rulings.

The PCs were facing a series of encounters in which they had to fight and destroy four greater elemental forces. Battling each elemental was in itself a balanced encounter for the party. During the first battle the party used daily powers, encounter powers and other resources that provided a huge edge (mostly in the form of various resistances). With some lucky rolls and solid tactics they defeated the first elemental creature easily, taking minimal damage and expending almost no healing magic.

Rather than rest, they choose to move on and battle the next elemental creature immediately. They were willing to forgo the benefits of a short rest since they didn’t need healing and used so few encounter powers. Many of the characters had beneficial powers that lasted until the end of the encounter. The players felt that if they moved on right away, without resting, the powers should continue to last into the next fight. If they didn’t rest, they believed that the encounter wasn’t over.

The question I faced as the DM was whether or not to allow the powers in effect to carry forward into the next fight. If their powers that were currently activated didn’t specifically state that it expired after a certain time limit they believed it should remain active until they took a short rest. The debate got even more complicated when some powers stated they lasted until the end of the encounter while others required a minor action to sustain.

My feeling as the DM was that if the PCs wanted to continue on without resting that was totally up to them. I agreed that by forgoing the short rest and foregoing the benefits that entailed the least I could do was let them keep their effects in place (as long as they continued to maintain them as the powers required).

So the next combat began only a few rounds later. The party again defeated the elemental creature with far less difficulty than I expected (especially since it was a balanced encounter). The daily powers still in effect made a huge difference and continued providing the PCs with a big edge. After two consecutive fights without a rest they were still in pretty good shape. So good in fact that they wanted to push on and fight the next creature without taking a rest.

Since I’d already allowed them to do this once and receive the benefits of the ongoing effects I didn’t have any reason to disallow it now. So into the third fight they went. During this battle one of the players asked if they’d achieved a milestone and therefore another action point. Good question.

They had indeed defeated two combat encounters in a row, so normally I’d say yes. But because they didn’t rest and because they were still taking advantage of powers and abilities that clearly said they should only last until the end of the encounter, I wasn’t sure if I could rightfully say they’d hit a milestone.

Considering how much fun we were all having and how cool it was that the party had now gone into their third fight without any rest I decided that they had indeed hit the milestone and earned the action point. Afterwards I found a section in the DMG about Milestones (pg #123) that states “If the characters complete multiple encounters without resting, they reach milestones.” So it turns out this was indeed the correct ruling.

By the end of the third battle the party finally decided that the need for rest (and healing) outweighed any benefits of proceeding immediately. They let everything active dissipate and took at short rest. They regained their encounter powers and healed their wounds.

When they finally went up against the last elemental creature it was a lot more difficult than each of the previous three fights. The absence of their ongoing beneficial effects (most of which provided resistances) they found this battle was tough. They still emerged victorious but they expended a lot of resources in the process.

The discussion that followed the game focused mainly on whether or not they should have been allowed to carryover effects from one fight to the next. In this case the decision to use a couple of key daily powers early made all the difference. By having them carryover it was like getting to use these daily powers three times in one day. The players felt that this made their PCs considerably more powerful then characters of their level normally are (and they were right).

The more I thought about it as the DM the more I think I made the right call in letting them carry forward their active effects. The whole session was just a fortunate series of circumstances for the PC. It was the combination of all of these factors that made them seem so powerful: a) the PCs actually had powers that would end up being that beneficial, b) they chose to use them in the fight against the first opponent, c) they took so little damage during the first and second fights, and d) they had the flash of insight to move on without resting.

The likelihood of such a prefect set of circumstances happening again is extremely unlikely. In this case the PCs had the opportunity to demonstrate their superiority and feel truly heroic. As the DM I said yes and they result was an awesome night of D&D.

Since this battle we’ve had a few other opportunities to continue on without resting and we’ve taken them. However, none of these circumstances have led to anything as great as that one night. In fact, the benefits of carry on with powers in effect from the first fight have not tipped the scales since then. The party ended up having a very difficult time defeating the second consecutive encounter in all subsequent scenarios.

In one case we actually fled or else we would have lost PCs. Had we rested before the second fight we would have had a reasonable shot at victory. Our arrogance and greed almost lead to our deaths.

So the question still remains as to whether or not this was the correct call. Is an encounter over when the combat is over, regardless of whether or not the PCs choose to rest? Or are benefits that last until the end of an encounter in effect until the PCs rest – regardless of how many combat situations they take on before resting?

Considering how rarely the PCs will want to go into the next fight without resting and the limited number of powers that could reasonably still be in effect during subsequent fights, I’m sticking with my original ruling. I believe that the encounter isn’t over until the PCs rest for purposes of determining when powers stop working.

Do you agree with me or not? Have you ever faced this situation? How did the DM in your game rule it? If they ruled like I did, how did the subsequent encounter go? Did the powers still in effect give the PCs an edge that made the subsequent encounter too easy? I invite you to join the discussion in the comments below.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gaptooth February 28, 2011 at 10:15 am

For me, an “encounter” is equal to a scene. The need for a new scene signals that the current scene is over. If it seems reasonable to have several fights in one scene, I’d be willing to count it as a single encounter. If there’s a significant change in location, time, or situation, I’d call it a new scene and a new encounter regardless of whether the characters have benefited from a rest or not.
Gaptooth´s last blog post ..Stunt dice- A tool for lightning combat and fiction-rich role-playing in D&D

2 Ceti February 28, 2011 at 10:36 am

We’ve done that on rare occasion. but only when the encounters were close to each other.

The ability to uphold the daily powers balance out with the drain on encounter powers (especially healing / second wind).

3 Sully February 28, 2011 at 10:37 am

You definitely made the right call. The rule of awesome should always prevail in a game like 4e D&D.
Sully´s last blog post ..D&ampD the CCG- Old School Inspiration- Deck of Many Things

4 Captain Spud February 28, 2011 at 11:47 am

I’d rule the way you did– if they’re willing to take the drawbacks of not formally ending the encounter, they should get the benefits of it to compensate. Extending the encounter is rarely going to be a purely advantageous thing, so I’d have no problem with leaving that as one option in the party’s arsenal.

Another option I’ve used in the past is to let players take a “half rest”. Let’s say I’ve planned two encounters in separate rooms of a building. I’d planned for the players to pause after the first to heal, loot, recharge, and cautiously approach the next room. But there’s a time crunch on (ie, a bad guy escaped into the next room when they entered this one), so they have three options from a narrative point of view, depending on how quickly they want to move:

1) They can take time to completely secure and search the current room, catch their breaths, and patch their wounds. They risk letting the bad guy get more distance between him and them, but get the benefit of a full short rest.

2) They can barrel straight into the next fight, giving them no rest, but keeping encounter buffs running. I might also reward their bravery and tenacity with bonus action points or a surprise round, but only if they’re doing it from a narrative point of view (“Push forward before he can escape!”) and not just from a mechanical “let’s keep our buffs running” attitude..

3) As a compromise between those two options, they can move quickly but cautiously– taking, say, thirty seconds to catch their breath and peek around the door before diving in. In this situation, I’d let them take a “half rest”– they can spend surges until they’re not bloodied anymore, and each player can recharge one encounter attack power and one encounter utility power. They can forego one of these recharges to keep an effect from the previous fight going. Taking this kind of rest depends on them not dilly-dallying– no looting, no long discussions. Just a “let’s go”, a quick pause before the next door to peek in, and then a 1-2-3-GO.

Basically, we play it by ear; the party decides on a level of urgency based purely on in-character factors, and I grant or deny full or partial rest accordingly.
Captain Spud´s last blog post ..Vice Scrutator Faberge Egg

5 Dixon Trimline February 28, 2011 at 11:55 am

My initial knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) would have been to punish the players, telling them, “Fine, all your powers end, AND you don’t get the benefits of a short rest.” But the more I read and the more I thought, I concluded that your decision was exactly right. Bravo for clear thinking!

6 Brian Engard February 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I think there’s a limit you can hit when sustaining encounter-long effects over multiple encounters gets a little silly and is clearly a violation of the intent of the rules; the general guideline is one encounter of five minutes, whichever comes first. However, i don’t think you hit that limit if everyone at the table was having a good time and it didn’t break anyone’s suspension of disbelief.
Brian Engard´s last blog post ..Intent Precedes Mechanics

7 TheHairyDM February 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

It states somewhere, I think in the DMG that encounter effects shoild last untill the end of the encounter, or for five minuits. So if the PCs keep going through multible encounters they should keep stances, rages, etc. for aprox 50 rounds, but the Rule of Cool should extend that a bit.

8 Alton February 28, 2011 at 2:28 pm

First of all the goal of the game is to have fun.

I think you ruled well. WotC states that printed modules and such are guidelines for a DM to follow. If the players are in no need for a rest, then why should they take one. If they do not take one, then the encounter is not over, so if the encounter is not over, then their powers are not expended. It’s a vicious cirlce, but it works. Your players worked hard not to get hit, worked hard not to take damage, so why penalize them. They are taking great risks in continuing to adventure after any fight so please them and let them continue, let them have fun. If it was an excellent evening then you and your players have done their jobs correctly. Bravo!

I made a ruling once, that since the players were attacked while attempting to take a short rest, that any daily powers they had active at the time could be used in the battle.
Alton´s last blog post ..Etiquette at the Table- Tips to Acting Like a True Player

9 maverick0023 February 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I was always under the belief that a power lasted until the end of the encounter or 5 minutes, which ever came first.

So if they kept pushing on only taking a couple rounds between fights (isn’t a round only 6 seconds or was that a old edition?) then I would assume the powers would stay in effect.

The short and easier answer of course is what was fun for your group, just do that.

I would have ruled the exact same way you did though, be that helpful or not ;p

10 C'nor (Outermost_Toe) February 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm

What I’d do there would depend on how long the time between fights was. If it’s a few minutes, then okay, but probably not if it’s an hour or so, unless it requires some sort of upkeep.
C’nor (Outermost_Toe)´s last blog post ..Notes on Adaptation

11 JSchuler February 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I think you made the right call on the carry-over, but the wrong call on the action point. Notice what you said: “Afterwards I found a section in the DMG about Milestones (pg #123) that states “If the characters complete multiple encounters without resting, they reach milestones.” So it turns out this was indeed the correct ruling.”

Emphasis here: “multiple encounters.”

In order for their powers to continue from one fight to the next, those fights would all have to be considered one huge encounter. Thus, they did not meet the requirement to gain an action point, as they were still on the single encounter. So, due to your past ruling that the next fights were just rolling into the first encounter, allowing them to continue using those powers, your action point ruling was wrong according to what you quoted, as there were no “multiple encounters.”

Now, if it worked for you and you were happy with the outcome, and your players don’t abuse this method for future encounters, great. Otherwise, I’d stick to a consistent interpretation to force them to deal with the consequences: it’s either one encounter with several parts so they get their dailies that can last the whole way through, or it’s multiple encounters so they can reach milestones.

12 Camelot February 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm

My first reaction would be to rule, “It takes five minutes to get to the next encounter anyway, so your powers wear out and you can spend healing surges.” You sound like you had a lot of fun by not doing that, though. Even if the balance was disturbed, if you had fun, it’s all right. This is the kind of decision that I’d let the players make. Do their characters keep barging onward? In that case, yeah, it’s the same encounter.

HOWEVER, I think you misread the DMG about milestones. The very next sentence after the one about “multiple encounters without resting” says, “‘Reaching a milestone’ means completing two encounters without taking an extended rest.” Without that short rest, no action points are gained and the whole thing counts as one encounter. Of course, then it says that if they defeat an encounter four levels higher than them, it can count as two encounters for milestones, so it’s really up to the DM’s choice.

I think you made the right choice to let them pull it off. Of course, if you had told them their powers wear off, that would have probably been the right choice too!
Camelot´s last blog post ..Raised Character Theme

13 JR February 28, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I think carrying through to a second combat segments (without the benefits of regaining powers, but keeping the buffs) is a no-brainer. If they choose to carry to the third slate of monsters, I would adapt something like the monster “Recharge (5/6)” rule.

Each player who is the source of an ongoing buff, or who is still missing an encounter power that he burned in the first combat segment, rolls a d6 along with any saving throws. If they get a 5 or 6, the ongoing buff expires *but* they get back the use of the encounter power that created it. (If there is no ongoing buff, then a 5 or 6 lets them recharge an encounter power spent during the first fight).

If you expect to put your players through a gauntlet like this, you can plan ahead, but it’s likely that you’ll end up not remembering which encounter powers were burned during which segments of the fight. Best to play by the Rule of Awesome then, and when they successfully hit their “recharge” roll in the third fight, they can regain a single encounter power of their choice.

I have forced my players to succeed at a short skill challenge in order to successfully take even a five minute rest in an active dungeon. Heal checks can make patching people up easier/faster; Endurance checks can help players ignore the stuff that doesn’t reeeally need bandaging; Perception checks can secure a perimeter; Insight or Dungeoneering or Stealth can be used to find a place that isn’t exposed to scrutiny.

14 Soklemon February 28, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I think that you handled the issue beautifully!

Although, after the second fight, I may have called for Saving Throws to keep some of the powers active. (Narratively, due to strain on whatever is powering them)

15 Syrsuro February 28, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I would have also allowed them to extend the encounter – to a degree.

But I would also point out that encounter powers generally end at the end of the encounter or after five minutes (if the encounter should extend beyond that time). So they can’t extend an encounter forever (on the other hand, five minutes is a long time in combat rounds).

Secondly, I’d require them to be actively pursuing their goals – essentially they have to keep their adrenaline up – to extend the encounter. Resting does not have to be intentional – it can be brought on by inactivity (which also stops that ‘one guy’ from saying “Well, I don’t need a rest so I’m going to extend the last encounter to keep my power going while the rest of the party rests”.

With that in mind, I’d let them rush from one encounter to another (as long as they are in close proximity) – not just in the described situation, but generally whenever the situation allows. One advantage of this (to them) is that they can keep stances up, daily powers activated, etc. This is balanced by the disadvantage of their not being able to regain encounter powers, healing, etc. which might have been used.

In fact, I’d be tempted to go a step further – perhaps if they rush from one encounter to the next I’d give them a slight advantage in the next encounter (catching the opponent unprepared, etc.). This seems like a good general rule and a good way to tempt the party into over-extending themselves.

As for milestones – No, they have not earned a milestone at any point during these chained encounters. They may have been intended as multiple encounters, but the party chose to make them into a single encounter and will not be earning any action points mid-way through the encounter (unless they decide to stop and take a rest). On the other hand, you always have the option to give out a milestone after one very difficult encounter rather than after two typical ones – and thus they should reach a milestone once they finally do stop and take a rest, whether that be after (what was planned as) two, three or however many encounters.


16 TheClone March 1, 2011 at 2:27 am

To me your ruling seems to be okay. Isn’t there even a rule that says how long encounter powers last outside a fight? Something like 5 minutes? So that might be helpful. If the fights really are close up (like the few rounds you mention), you can keep all those effects. If there is a wider gap (like 5 minutes ingame time) the effects run out. Maybe a good rule of thumb is, that if you can play th gap keeping the initiative order, keep the effects. If not, the expire. Take keeping up the initiative order as keeping the combat tension and thus keeping their combat stances (read: lingering power effects). If you and/or the players feel to break out of acting turnwise, the combat tension has faded and thus the lingering power effects. That’s my try at explaining how long those powers linger as a simulationist. As a rules lawyer, stick to the 5 minutes ingame time.
TheClone´s last blog post ..“Read an RPG Book in Public Week” startet heute

17 Leonine Roar March 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Ameron, yeah, this “fuzzy” part of the 4e game comes up more often than you think for us all. It’s the nature of the inherent conflict in the game of playability vs. believability.

The game’s more playable and balanced if everyone gets to rest and refresh themselves often.

The game’s also less believable and dramatic if you just allow each rest to happen without consequence in the adventure and handwave time’s importance in the game.

Your situation felt like the party actively shaped the first set of three “encounters” into a single 3-wave monster encounter, and then rested before your final encounter. I would have called the whole thing two encounters for milestone purposes. For persistent effects, I would have allowed them to continue through the first 3 “waves” like you did.
Leonine Roar´s last blog post ..Monsters – Real or Imagined

18 Sunyaku March 1, 2011 at 8:43 pm

I think you made the right decision, if only to combat any tendency your players might normally have toward the “8 minute work day”.

To some degree, I think decisions like this would come down to a time/distance element. If the characters are moving over very short distances, like room to room, I can definitely see allowing their effects to persist. Characters could feasibly travel around such a small area within a few rounds (as if the encounter had not ended at all).

If they had to travel a significant distance, however, I would argue that effects cannot persist. To put a hard, hard number on it, I would say the clock cannot exceed the following:

[5 minutes (short rest) X 60 seconds]/6 seconds per round = 50 rounds.

50 rounds X 5 spaces (generally the lowest movement in a group) X 2 (double move) X 5ft per space = ~2500 ft… or about 1/2 mile… or about 750 meters… If the next encounter is not within that distance, then I think the players are forced to take a short rest.

But now that I’m thinking about this… this math does get skewed when players have alternate modes of travel available to them… *sigh*
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..Heroes of Shadow- Shadowfell Traps- Terrain- Hazards 1

19 Rian Q. March 2, 2011 at 11:32 pm

I believe that an encounter ends when there are both no threats to the party and everyone has put away their weapons. If they plan to go straight to another one that’s close by, I’ll let them retain their “until the end of the encounter” effects. It’s not odd for me to run an entire hostile area as one massive encounter however, in fact, it’s how I run dungeons since it means I don’t have to roll initiative as much.

20 Ameron March 3, 2011 at 11:05 am

I want to begin by thanking everyone for their comments. This article has created a lot more discussion than I anticipated. Some really excellent comments were left above. I’d like to apologize for not jumping back into the discussion earlier. With my broken arm it’s been tough just to get the articles written.

A lot of the comments touched on similar points so rather than reply to each individual comment as I usually do, allow me to speak to all the comments as a collective. If there’s something specific that I don’t comment on, please let me know and I’ll chime in again.

5 Minutes and done
Although I couldn’t find it in the official rules, I agree that encounter powers shouldn’t stay active beyond five minutes, regardless of whether or not the party rests.

In the game I described in the article there was maybe two rounds between the end of the first combat and the beginning of the second combat. Just long enough for the players to decide if advancing was worth the risk. Between the second and third combat there was only one round.

So all told, the three fights probably lasted 10 rounds each (maximum) with a few rounds to actually get from one to the next. So form the player POV only a few minutes passed – certainly not five minutes.

Had the party needed to travel through a dungeon or into other rooms of a castle to reach the subsequent encounters (and thereby spend time moving rater than fighting) then I’d have to agree with the comments that power fade after five minutes. No argument here.

Along with the 5 minute max I’d also think that most parties wouldn’t be able to go for more than three consecutive encounters before fatigue overwhelms them. So in addition to the 5 minute time limit I’d like push to make three the maximum number of encounters the PCs could conceivably go before the DM forces them to rest.

Pushing onwards may make for an interesting challenge, but I don’t’ think I’d allow it in my game unless the circumstances absolutely demanded it.

Rule of Cool
There seems to be a pretty even split on whether or not each scene was actually an encounter. Likewise with my decisions to award actions points after the second fight. At the end of the day, I feel that I did what was most entertaining and exciting for the players at the time. I’m pretty sure I’d do the same thing in similar circumstances, but I agree that there is certainly room for debate on this ruling. As many of you commented, the goal is to have fun and as the DM it’s my job to determine when it’s necessary to bend the rules in order to obtain the most enjoyable outcome.

Half Rest
Captain Spud shared his house rule for a half rest. I love it. I think it’s balanced and allows the action to continue even when the party is completely drained. They may not be able to spare 5 minutes for a full short rest, but the idea of a half rest with partial healing and partial recharges make perfect sense to me.

Encounter Design and the DM’s Expectations
A few comments suggested that things might be handled differently depending on the players’ foreknowledge of the situation. I want to be clear that in the adventure described above the PCs were well aware that the expectation was for them to rest between fights. They understood that advancing without resting might be a bad idea. Their choice to continue was an informed decision.

Although in retrospect I could have (and maybe should have) designed this as one big encounter with multiple waves, this was not the case. Each creature was a solo and was the same level as the party or higher. The creatures each had home field advantage and made use of terrain to its maximum effect against the PCs. They just happened to play it smart and emerged victorious.

I don’t like the idea of forcing a party into consecutive fights without a chance to rest. On the rare occasions when I design encounters like that I make sure that the two combined encounters are balanced and take into account that the party will be resource depleted.

21 Leonine Roar March 3, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Ameron, like I had touched on above, part of what’s cool here from the Encounter Design perspective is that the party actively and fundamentally changed the nature of the encounter or encounters they interacted with – the challenge level and the timing. Reminds me of how you can do the same thing sometimes in the Dragon Age video game, for example.

That’s what’s so interesting about this to me. While it raises some concerns about encounter balance for sure, it also creates some great cinematic and believable tension. It reminds me of all the choice a party really has in RPGs, and reminds me of the more organic encounter and adventure design ideas Robert Schwalb has been kicking around the last month or so. Great food for thought.
Leonine Roar´s last blog post ..The Leonine 12- D&D’s Top Blogs & Creative Minds

22 Mike March 4, 2011 at 9:15 am

You really faced a dilemma with your call, and I can see why you went the way you did. I also would have ruled that within reason the party could carry over their effects from one opponent to the next. Unlike the you and apparently the majority, I would not have called them separate encounters but one long encounter( at the players decision not the DM’s), as such I would not have allowed them to gain any milestones. You gain a milestone at the end of an encounter not at the end of combating one monster. Whether it was intended to be one encounter or a series of 4 is irrelevant as the party turned it into one long encounter instead of the multiple you had intended, as such they were not entitled to a milestone until they ended their encounter.

23 Sully March 11, 2011 at 6:19 pm

I was brushing up on my rules knowledge today and thought of this discussion when I came across this passage on Page 190 of the Essentials Rules Compendium, which states: “Effects that last ‘until the end of the encounter’ never carry over from one encounter to another, as long as those encounters are separated by a short rest. Such effects actually last about 5 minutes, if no rest intervenes after their use. Thus, if adventurers use them outside of combat, or plow through multiple encounters without taking a short rest, they enjoy their effects for the full five minutes.”

That seems to imply that they should still count as multiple encounters for the sake of achieving milestones and earning additional action points.
Sully´s last blog post ..Islands in the Sky- Verys Hiladian

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