Roleplaying Resources

Creating Good Encounters


Design general descriptions and encounters before the game.

Usually when GMs prepare for a game they work out the main plot encounters and so forth which are going to happen, with a general notion of when they'll happen. This is definitely a useful thing to do! However, I've also found it very useful to design some bits of description and minor encounters which can be inserted anywhere in the game. They can be used whenever you need time to think, when you need something to do right now, or just to enhance the imagery of your game world.


Work out some generic descriptions of the weather. Make them as detailed and evocative as possible, and use them to enhance or contrast the mood of the game. eg. “The rain pours down onto the darkened cobblestones and drips from the eaves of the small wooden houses. You see no one but a few huddled beggars as you make your way to xyz.” Try to describe light sources, smells, sensations and noises, appeal to all the senses. Insert these whenever you want to make the gameworld seem more vivid, or to evoke a mood.

Work out some generic descriptions of the location of the game world. Devise and note down in point form some basic imagery for your game world - eg. descriptions of the city the game is set in, or the mountain range they are passing through. Include people and animals and minor, mundane mishaps (broken cart wheels, fallen trees on the road etc.). Insert these whenever the PCs are moving around in the world frame. Have them reflect the state of affairs (has there just been a war? Is there famine? Is the market bursting with goods? Are their a lot of soldiers around? etc.)

Devise generic NPCs. Invent a series of normal people of different ages, genders and social classes. Give them names, physical descriptions and a couple personality traits. Wheel them out when the PCs talk to someone you didn't expect them to, or put them around the place to demonstrate the reality of the PCs actions (eg. the inhabitants of the house they break into). Again, have their situations and concerns reflect the mood/theme/events of the game world. Or for something different have it contrast.

Devise minor encounters. For example, the PCs could be robbed by a common thief, or come across a “domestic dispute”, or a lost child. These events can be inserted to illustrate all sorts of points about the nature of the world, or to take up some time when you need to think, or to break up the more important events of the story. They can be used to add interest to the unexpected actions of the PCs. Make sure they are simple and mundane, otherwise you defeat their purpose of giving you time to think, or of reflecting the normal events of the game world.

All of these things can be devised without the exact context in mind, and then inserted in wherever you like. Their advantage over just making things up on the spot is that they will fit better with your game world, they will be more complex and you can use them as a subtle way of controlling the mood of the game. They will also look pre-planned, which helps to keep the players from trying to pin point the “real plot” and then pursuing it to the exclusion of all else.

The interest in character traits is in the breach.

In most stories the heroes make mistakes, they have fatal flaws, and they must overcome difficulties. Part of the interest in stories comes from the development of the main characters, and their movement from one point to another - which is usually the result of the characters changing and learning from mistakes.In gaming many PCs become quite static, the PCs resist change and the characters start to seem two dimensional. This is frustrating for both the player and the GM.

As a GM it can be important to remember that the PCs are clinging to their concepts for a reason. When players create concepts they usually have in mind a series of events which will challenge and highlight their character traits, in my experience they will cling to these traits until they have been sufficiently highlighted, and then they will move on.

As far as I can see, one of the best ways to highlight character traits is to give the PCs the opportunity to be “forced” to break them. (I use the quotation marks because they don't necessarily want to be forced into a corner as players, but they may like to roleplay their characters out of corners created by the character's personality.)

For example if one of the PCs is always polite, the player is probably thinking about how freaky they would be when they finally snap and get angry. They don't want them to be angry all the time, but they probably would be grateful for an excuse to have that character's self control waver briefly - try giving them something to get really pissed at. Or, perhaps one of the characters is very callous and cold. The player might be interested in seeing what would happen if they were presented with something they cared about (eg. the assassin rescuing the small child).

Remember, the same goes for NPCs. They will seem much more interesting if they occasionally break established character traits. For example, Darth Vader was so cool because he eventually decided that he wasn't evil, and saved Luke. Additionally, endless action movies have been based on the idea of the good, kind normal guy who goes nuts and takes horrible bloody revenge on the people who've pissed him off (usually by killing his family or something). Both of these concepts are interesting because they break the pre established character traits.

Ultimately, some players will reject or fail to see these chances to express their characters (the polite PC might never snap, the assassin might kill the child) but many will jump wholeheartedly on the chance to express that element of their concept. Some players will make these opportunities all on their own (wouldn't we all like more of them!) but most will need these opportunities to be presented, and once they have expressed this element of their character to their satisfaction the character will probably become much more dynamic.

Set up events before they occur.

This tip sort of relates to the last one. Many stories rely on a breach of the normal state of affairs - this only works well when you set up what the normal situation is in the first place. For example, we see Conan's village before it is raided by Fulsa Doom (or however you spell it!), all peaceful and happy. This gives us something to prepare the coming carnage to. To breach something, you must demonstrate what it's normally like first.

You also need to set things up to create tension. Give hints as to coming events so that there is some kind of build up. I always used to get really annoyed when no one found the terrible war/sudden death of ruler/other large event shocking. They just bounced along happily. For something to have impact you need to build up to it. Use prophesies, hints, and small clues to allude to the coming large event. Have NPCs fear it for a while. Wait until the PCs fear it before having it happen. The Shadow War in Babylon 5 would have been far less interesting if the story had started with it, and without all the hints and dire predictions.

Finally, you need to set up the normal way of doing things, and why it is so incredibly dangerous to do it some other way. That way when the PCs invariably chose to do it the dangerous way it will seem cool and challenging. Try showing what happens to an NPC who does it the dangerous way (something bad!), or have NPCs talk about what they think would happen. Try to make it so that the players really think their characters could get seriously fried doing something the wrong way. That way when they choose to do it, it will be more intense and rewarding

10. Make The Monsters MONSTERS!

From: Nahuris

How many times have you seen an encounter go like this:

“As you are walking through the woods you come across some goblins. There are about a dozen of them and they are charging you. What do you do?”

The players of course attack, and in a few rounds or less, the goblins are gone. The players don't think twice about it and the GM obviously planned the goblins as cannon fodder. The question should be, why?

If the sole purpose of goblins is to provide cannon fodder for the PCs, why does the species even exist? Shouldn't they all be wiped out by now? Let's look at skeletons. In most game systems that have them they are considered weak easy kills for the PCs. The question again is why? Too many GMs use helpless cannon fodder encounters to liven up a dull or empty section of the session. Would it not be better if we could give our players encounters that challenged them to think about their options?

Let's look at that goblin encounter again. We have twelve goblins. These goblins are survivors in a culture that eats the weak among itself. Why would they just blindly line up to be killed? They wouldn't of course. Let's try something a little different…….. Let's give about six of those goblins spears. We will give four more short bows and short swords as back-up weapons. And we will give the remaining two a combination of a javelin and a battle axe.

Now we know that goblins have some superior senses compared to humans. So, they should be able to stalk the players a little. Now we look at tactics. Goblins are listed as cunning, and they are not totally stupid. We have the goblins with the bows open on the party first. As the party is turning to deal with them, the javelin-armed goblins launch next from a flank. Now confused and vulnerable, the PCs are attacked from the rear with the spear-armed goblins. As the players deal with them, the archers are off on a flank continuing to shoot and the axe-armed ones are moving up on a flank or rear of the party.

Yes, a well experienced party will still be able to deal with it, but it is also an encounter that they will remember.

The tricks to making encounters more dangerous are as follows:

1) Keep the players guessing as to the number of opponents they are facing (“sand people always travel single file to hide their numbers” from Obi Wan Kenobi).

2) Try to keep the party guessing as to what they are facing. The original archers in the above encounter could have been dark elves for all the party knew.

3) Don't give away too much information. I know of few people who, in the middle of being fired upon, will stand there trying to count opponents and guess at what they are.

4) Have a backup plan. Have the above axe-armed goblins only attack for one round and then start to run. If the spear- armed ones are already in retreat, the party may divide to chase them all. This is even better because then the PCs' strength is divided. And no matter how strong, the individual strength of the players is always less than the combined whole.

The goblins could lead the party into pit traps and other nasty surprises. This encounter could be used as the foundation of a whole new campaign. Imagine the party having to escape from a whole tribe of goblins, minus some of their magical goodies. This encounter style also helps if your group has managed to accumulate too much treasure and you need to trim some of it away. Better yet, how did the goblins learn these tactics anyway?

Now back to those skeletons. Let's look at what a skeleton really is….. When you think of it, the undead are really pretty nasty. They are a reminder of our own mortality and a promise that even death won't always allow you to rest in peace. It is a form of slavery that goes way beyond mere physical freedom. To quote from Games Workshop's Vampire Counts book, one vampire lord was listed as saying to a town he was attacking, “You can serve me in life or you can serve me in death. How you choose is immaterial to me.” An undead master doesn't care if you are unhappy as an undead, only that you obey. The undead tend to attack in waves. Horrible unending waves. It doesn't matter how many you kill, or how badly you hurt them, they keep coming.

To simulate this to your players, try being more descriptive when giving combat results. Shultz the Strong hits a zombie with his sword, but it's not enough damage to drop it in one round. Instead of giving him the “OK, you hurt it”, try “your blow opens a great gaping wound in its torso. This would have dropped any mortal opponent, but obviously this rotting corpse is possessed of supernatural stamina.” The player is now guessing if he can stop these things. And if he does drop one in one hit, don't ignore it. Give your players the following “Gorin's blow shears the rotting carcass in half, but even down, the corpse still seems to have unnatural vitality as it still twitches and thrashes about.” The players begin to panic, can we stop these things? And suddenly the quest to go bash Kronk the evil necromancer is a little less certain.

Another trick I once tried on a party was the second chance skeletons. They were normal skeletons well within the norm for the game I was running, except for one thing. If they were killed, on the round following their first death, they got back up at half their starting hit points. When killed the second time, they were gone for good.

In the first round, my players dropped five of them. Everyone was saying things like “ho hum, another batch of skeletons, let's get this over with.” Then at the beginning of the second round, those five started to get back up. It takes a full round for them to reform during which they cannot attack and the players received a bonus to hit them. My players never tried, they broke from the encounter terrified that they had just stumbled onto some really powerful necromancer's lair with regenerating skeletons. They immediately reorganized their group, hired two additional NPC warriors at an extravagant amount to assist them and went back a lot more carefully. Of course, the final encounter was a lot more fun for everyone as they were expecting an all-powerful lich and got a wizard barely able to cast a fireball, with a magic item that allowed him to raise the skeletons at a rate of four per day.

However, because they had attacked the first time when he only had about a dozen of them, and then left for ten days to get help, he had had time to really get ready for the PCs. And my players found out that an opponent doesn't have to be really powerful to be a challenge.

I really hope that this helps those GMs out there that are having trouble with their players getting bored. It is not the power of the encounter but how it's played. And next time the party sees what they think are only a couple of minotaurs, they may think twice before rushing them. And isn't that what all of us GM's hope for?