Hello students. This week, new faculty member Andrew Young (@ThatOneGM aka that guy with the voices on Lawful and Orderly) brings us an article about encounter design. Enjoy.
Encounter design is perhaps one of the most important aspects of being a game master, whether you prepare ahead of time or design on the fly. Encounter design include combat, social, and environmental encounters, and I’m going to touch on each of these encounter types and offer a few pieces of advice for designing engaging encounters.
Combat encounters are perhaps the simplest encounter type to design for, but they’re also one of the most important. Many games revolve around combat encounters, and players will expect them to be engaging. Here are three tips for designing combat encounters.
- Avoid random encounters. Encounters that are unexpected by the players are fine, but even unexpected combat encounters should still support the story. Each combat should progress the story in some way, however small. Deliberate combat encounters that flow with the story will help give your game session cohesion.
- Used mixed groups of combatants. In most cases, combat encounters can be made much more dynamic by using multiple different enemy types. Use enemies of different levels of power and complexity in order to give the players additional room to strategize. Using mixed combatants also makes encounters feel more distinct. Even when an encounter includes an especially powerful enemy, including a few very weak enemies can keep the encounter from being too straightforward.
- Give everyone something to do. An encounter in which the combatants use the same moves over and over again is unlikely to be very engaging. PCs almost always have a host of interesting abilities to use. Try to make sure that those abilities are viable as often as possible. Characters with fewer mechanics (including the enemies) can be given extra options through interactive environments. Turning a steam valve to fire pressurized rivets at an enemy is more engaging than using the crossbow for a third turn in a row, (even if the two have similar mechanical outcomes).
Social encounters are difficult to design because even when games include social mechanics, players and GMs often resolve social encounters through role-play conversation. These encounters can be especially tricky for GMs who have difficulty making things up on the fly. Here are three tips for designing interesting (and less stressful) social encounters.
- Give each NPC an agenda. NPCs who want something make much more three-dimensional characters than those who exist solely as tools for exposition. Avoid grand agendas when possible. Even someone who wants to “become queen of the land” has simpler steps in their agenda at any given time, like “find blackmail on a noble” or “subtly spread the news of my royal lineage.” If you know what your NPC wants, it’ll be easier to determine how they react.
- Focus the conversation on the PCs. Not much makes a social encounter less engaging for the players than watching two or more NPCs talk to each other without involving the PCs. If two NPCs have to have a discussion, it is better to narrate it (the captain of the guard argues with the king about the defense of the walls) than to roleplay it out by yourself. Try to avoid even narrating NPC-to-NPC discussion by making PCs integral to conversations or simply having NPCs ask the PCs what they think on the subject.
- Know what you want the players to learn. Unlike combat encounters—where the goal is often for the PCs to survive and defeat or drive off the enemies—social encounters are often designed to deliver information to the players in an engaging way. If so, you should know exactly what information you want to pass on during a social encounter, and decide whether or not it’s ok if the players miss out on it. If there is crucial information, consider giving it to multiple NPCs, or at the very least, having multiple NPCs point in the right direction for players to access the information they need to have.
Environmental encounters can be easily overlooked and if they are included, they can easily swing from too simple to too complex. However, with careful design, these encounters can be as engaging as combat or social encounters. Here are three tips for designing engaging environmental encounters.
- Use puzzles carefully. Puzzles can make great environmental encounters, but they can also become impassable roadblocks if the players aren’t able to figure out the trick. If you intend to use a puzzle as an environmental encounter, ensure that it can be approached from multiple angles. You could give the puzzle it multiple correct solutions, you could place additional hints around the area, or you could allow PCs to bypass the puzzle in some other way and move on, perhaps giving them the chance to come back and solve it at a later time.
- Don’t oversimplify non-puzzle encounters. If you present your players with an environmental encounter that is not a puzzle, then it is important to make sure that it still presents a complex challenge. An encounter that can be overcome with a single, uncomplicated mechanical action (such as a skill check), is likely too simple. You could use a series of related mechanics for the encounter, or you could add layers of complexity to a single mechanical action so that it stands out from the average usage.
- Make the environment reactive. Static environments don’t make engaging encounters. In a world with magic or other fantastical elements, the environment could be active and/or sentient, opposing the PCs without being vulnerable to combat tactics. But even normal environments can be reactive. The PCs’ actions could change the environment, making things more difficult or simply changing the situation. In this way, the encounter can develop based on the PCs’ actions, which keeps players actively thinking about their decisions.
This is not a guide to building the perfect encounter, and these tips may not work for every GM and group of players. However, keeping these points in mind will help you develop encounters that will be more engaging to you and your group.
Good luck and good gaming.