Design Encounters That Reward Cooperative Play

by Dantracker (Kenneth McNay) on October 19, 2011

D&D has always been a game where players work together to accomplish a common goal rather than compete against each other for a prize. It is a game where the DM provides a backdrop for character conflict. Players are likewise not competing against the DM. Instead everyone should collaborate to create a great story and a fun experience.

In order to provide a backdrop where players can develop their characters, we need to let go of the tendency to design encounters to challenge the party’s damage output. The story should advance by developing such themes as characters actively helping others, conquering foes, and overcoming afflictions or wounds. If we use valid rewards for contributing to a team effort this will inspire others to reciprocate.

Encounter Design

A potent choice in the adventure is that of encounter design. The scene’s success depends on the purpose of the encounter, the goals of the PCs and the conflict that arises from those who oppose them. Present below are three encounter designs that shy away from rewarding damage output in favor of rewarding the contribution of other elements and roles.

1. Challenge group objectives

The first encounter type relies on team choices with short deliberation. Draw on the assets and associates of PCs. Threaten the people, places and things they value with devastating monsters and natural or magical disasters. The encounter relies on whether or not the PCs are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to help others. In some cases they will face impossible odds to protect the things they care about the most.

The key to driving the story forward – how PCs respond to the threat – is the setup. Will they willingly hold off the foe while a key NPC escapes? Will they leave behind a town under siege to fulfill other urgent quests? Reward the players and characters for making difficult decisions rather than successfully defeating the opposition.

The key to resolving the climactic scene in which we learn what was sacrificed and what was saved, is the pay-off. The pay-off could be one of many things. Perhaps the death of a key NPC hero puts a relic of inestimable value into the hands of the party. Maybe during the PCs’ attempt to rescue someone they are rewarded with information that will help them accomplish their goals more easily. An important pay-off, particularly for those not using the XP system, could be a chance to level-up sooner than expected. If the campaign lacks magic items, a divine boon may be a worthy reward. The pay-off should reward the character growth and not just be a material gain.

2. Challenge group tactics

The second encounter type relies on controlling the enemy or inspiring allies. Controllers that focus on hindering the enemy or leaders that focus on enabling the team illustrate a unique difference on the battlefield which should give significant concern to opposition. The purpose of the opposition should include the surrender clause as the team works cooperatively to conquer. When NPCs realize the party has eliminated their effectiveness, the battle is over regardless of how many monsters still stand.

The key to driving the story in this case are the choices that dynamically swing the fate of combat toward the PCs’ inevitable success. Will the PCs risk spreading their efforts for shock and awe, or maintain focused fire according to common advice? Can they demoralize the foes by showing a united front, or do they display caution as they combine attacks against a single enemy? Reward players and characters that work creatively and cooperatively to hinder the enemy and aid each other rather than ensuring all enemies are brought to zero hit points.

3. Challenge group cohesion

The third encounter type relies on mutual support and endurance. Defenders who never falter and strikers who are always set up for a key attack should strike fear in the heart of opposition. The nurturing and facilitating team members prevent failure and resist enemy advance. The purpose of the opposition should include the retreat clause against a team which cannot be defeated.

This encounter type drives the story forward by displaying a functional team that enemies must overcome through guile and planning. It encourages team members to watch each other’s backs. Can the party manage the incoming enemy force? Will they support each other, or engage in the slow slugfest of exhausting resources? Reward players and characters that work jointly to stand against the tide of opposition rather than using every power.

Players’ Strategy Guide

This opposes tactical guidance for players. A DM will have to watch carefully to reward decision-making without overloading the party with a list of runaway enemies. Additionally, players will tire of too much escapism on the part of monsters. The above encounter types should be sprinkled in among the general encounters a party faces. I recommend these encounter types to remind players of the larger scope of the game – cooperative teamwork.

How often do you allow enemies to surrender or flee? How likely are the PCs to find this a satisfying conclusion to an encounter? What other rewards would you recommend for these kinds of encounters and this kind of cooperative play-style?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alphastream October 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Awesome ideas! I really like these. It would be great to see these taken a step further as encounter sketches with some mechanical basis.

2 Kenneth McNay October 20, 2011 at 7:30 am

thanks. the first encounter type might get some examples in time. it is based on my perspective of Kobayashi Maru.

My encounters group of players is having a very difficult time dealing with group tactics and group cohesion. It seems no one wants to follow the advice and counsel of other players. They rarely work well together. The group also prefers to target the largest apparent NPC combatant in hopes of scaring others, but don’t really assess the threats accurately.

Ameron will post his report later; I’ll post some comments from my game last night. The group saw an opportunity and grabbed it, but it was a terrible decision and the party has used extensive resources, the shaman was killed outright, and one other party member nearly died. They showed no group tactics and no cohesion (well, one aspect of cohesion happened).

It was made worse that some players were goading each other into progressively more foolish risks.

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