Encounters are the soul of many RPGs. They’re the meat and potatoes of several rulesets, the undeniable focus of systems like D&D5e and Pathfinder. Take a look at most fantasy rulebooks, and chances are their cover is depicting some sort of encounter. Dungeons, graveyards, city streets, outer planes. The sky (and beyond) is the limit, so why do you make boring encounters? Oh come on now, don’t pull that face; we’ve all done it. Define a room that’s about 30ft squared, add a couple of doors, maybe a pillar here and there, throw some appropriately statted enemies in and you’ve got an encounter, right? Wrong. What you have defined, is the RPG equivalent of the Street Fighter IV training stage. It is a waste. It won’t be featuring on the cover of your favourite roleplaying game’s rulebook. Here’s some questions to ask yourself for each encounter to try and avoid recreating that training stage.
How is the space of the encounter represented mechanically?
So, picture in your mind that 30ft squared room again. Let’s say it’s a room in a castle, and the players are making their way to some fiendish baron to sort them out. The room was a guard’s dining area, and so the floor is littered with cutlery, food and plates from when the players burst in. How do we reflect this fact in the encounter? Do we just give the players an opening description, give them the room as I just described it, tell them there’s six guards in there with weapons drawn and tell them to roll initiative? Perhaps, but in all likelihood they’ll have forgotten where they are by the end of the second round. If you’re playing in person, using more generic tiles/terrain, more likely it’ll be by the end of the first round. If we want the image to stick in our player’s heads, we have to give them mechanical reasons for that. So the question then becomes, how can we better represent this space in the rules of the game? Well, we might say that certain regions are difficult terrain — surfaces coated in slop and gruel might represent a challenge to traverse, so characters might have to spend twice as long to ensure they don’t fall over. That’s a start, but quite a few things are difficult terrain, and I find that just slowing people down isn’t terribly enjoyable. How about a 5-10% chance of them falling over when they run across a square that’s covered in food? So they roll a D20, and on a 1 or a 2, they fall prone. That might be a bit slapstick for your tastes, but as long as that chance is manageable (aka, they can move around the squares covered in slop, or can jump to avoid it), it should be grand.
How about a couple of the guards at the back have drawn crossbows, and kicked over a table to give themselves cover? When they do this, they scatter more of the food/slop onto the ground, and cause more difficulty in crossing the room. In doing this, we tell the players that they’re also able to do that (there’s nothing special about the guards ability to kick over tables), but we’re also mechanically reminding them of where the encounter is taking place. Naturally, these are factors that we’ll need to take into account when talking about the difficulty of the encounter (two crossbow wielding guards in a well-defended position is going to be a higher difficulty than them standing point blank). How about as a last addition, we add a bubbling cauldron of stew in the middle of the room, that was in the process of being ladled out when the players burst in. A smart player might see this as an opportunity to throw or shove a guard into it, and we might say that the cauldron causes 1d6 or 2d6 fire damage from when they fall into the scolding fluid.
This might all seem a bit simple, but in the process of doing this, we’ve created an encounter that is firmly tied to its location. There are mechanical elements at play that are attached to unique circumstances of the space, and we reward players for keeping a narrative picture in their head. The idea of setup and payoff is one that appears throughout fiction, and one that we can apply here. We setup the bubbling cauldron by describing it when they enter the room — taking care not to lampshade its existence too strongly, otherwise it becomes more of a DM instruction than a player revelation. An engaged and imaginative player then correctly positions that part of the description as a mechanical opportunity. That player might then take actions to enable themselves to use that opportunity as it has been given, maybe they run for the pot, maybe they grab hold of the nearest guard and start making their way over to it. We achieve payoff when the player takes the appropriate action, in this case throwing/shoving the guard into the cauldron, and we give them a mechanical benefit (2d6 fire damage) for doing so. Everyone wins in this scenario, apart from the guard. The player is happy, because they now feel like they’re playing in a complex world where opportunities are available to them beyond purely swinging a sword, and they’ve done something cool. The DM is happy because a player has paid attention to the world and the space, and has utilized a tool that we made available to them.
I believe I’ve said this before, but the ability to interact in complex ways with a game environment is one of the stand-out features of tabletop play, that videogames have not even come close to touching. By thinking about how our encounter spaces impact the game mechanically, we not only ensure that our players must keep the image of that space in their head during play, but we give them opportunities to exploit that space to their ends. It also gives the DM opportunities to demonstrate intelligent behaviours from their adversaries. If the players aren’t making use of that bubbling cauldron of slop, what’s to say a guard doesn’t try and throw one of the players into it?
What are the stakes?
There are a few RPG systems that ask you to setup the stakes for any roll that you do. In a nutshell, what is the price of failure here? What do the players stand to lose, and what do they stand to gain? However, this is not purely a question that we need to answer for the outcomes of rolls — I think this is a question that we should be asking for each of our encounters. In a lot of cases, the stakes are going to be ‘the lives of the players’. The expectation from our players is normally going to be that if they “fail” an encounter, their characters will be slain or captured. This is normally enforced by the system that we’re playing, but it is distinctly boring to have that be the only thing on the line. What am I talking about here? Let’s set up a room:
Now deep in the bowels of Baron Unspeakable's horrid abode, you open an iron door to an active and bustling foundry. Iron chains hang from the ceiling, while large buckets of molten metal are carried aloft by churning machinery. A collection of soot-stained metalworkers carrying forge tools work on orange-hot bars, while clanking conveyor belts haul scrap into a scorching furnace below. As you enter, several of them pick up these half-finished weapons, and wield them with grim intent.
So far, so good. We’ve got an interesting environment, with plenty of opportunity for peril, and plenty of opportunity for complex interactions. Maybe the players manage to divert one of those buckets to dump its contents over a metalworker? Maybe one of the metalworkers attempts the same, and the players have to make a save to avoid being horribly scorched? However, the stakes are still the same as last time: their lives. Let’s add a sentence or two that will completely change the energy of this encounter…
A glint catches your eye from one of the conveyor belts at the back of the room. It looks like a large, radiant metal sword has been thrown in amongst the scrap metal, and is slowly making its way into the furnace.
Ho ho, oh boy. Most players will fall into one of two camps here: one camp will treat that sword like it’s an additional bonus — if the chance to get it arises, then they’ll take it, otherwise no sweat. The other camp will attempt to get that sword no matter what, even if it possibly imperils the entire party. The lesson here is that there are things that matter to players beyond just life and death scenarios, they just have to be established properly. A world in which the players are up to their armpits in fantastically powerful magical swords won’t be the best atmosphere for the scenario above, but one where loot has been somewhat scarce, and the party is absolutely jonesing for a power boost? They’ll kill themselves going for it. Again, this is a case of setups and payoffs. We setup the scene by describing how this incredibly dangerous environment (a foundry full of sharp weapons and hazards) holds a potential reward for them. We introduce tension by demonstrating how this potential reward is in jeopardy (the fall into the furnace), and how the player party will have to act quickly to acquire an additional reward for completing the encounter. The payoff is where they either get the sword, or watch as it falls into the foundry and is destroyed. Now we have multiple layers of failure state, beyond the ones given to us by player death — some players who manage to survive the encounter, but lose the sword, will consider that a failure. Perhaps they begin to think about how they can stop the sword from falling into the foundry by using their toolkits, and the environment around them.
The idea here is to think about how we can affect the party in ways that isn’t simply reducing their health. Taking away their items is normally a sure-fire way to piss someone off, but destroying potential loot is far more acceptable to most. If the players are particularly attached to an NPC, what happens when that NPC is put into a dangerous situation and they have to choose between their own safety, and that of the NPCs? What about a location they like? They’re fighting in a house where the walls are on fire, and they have to choose between extinguishing the flames and causing damage as normal. Your mileage will vary on these things, and you might have players that are extremely unhappy with a location they’ve spent time and effort on being burned to the ground. I think the DM’s role here is to find interesting ways to add stakes to encounters that go above and beyond ‘fight or die’. Videogames typically have that and only that, but we can do better.
How does this encounter differ from the one before or after?
In my mind, there’s two sorts of bad encounter. There’s the kind of encounter where the players feel frustrated by what they’re experiencing. A classic example of this is most invisible enemy encounters in D&D5e — a heady mix of fairly abysmal rules when it comes to invisibility, and a feeling of “throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks” with regard to defeating it. There are ways of avoiding this, but some of the worst encounters I’ve ever run have used invisibility enemies, and I’d never do one without being very sure that what I’ve included makes it much less painless. The second type of bad encounter is the pedestrian encounter — an encounter that is extremely forgettable, that is only included for the sake of having one. Well, we’ve been playing for a few hours this session and we’ve yet to have a swordfight, so we’re going to have one. I’ll throw in some generic, level-appropriate enemies, we’ll bring out a 20×20 ft. space, and the next hour will be spent rolling combat dice. Now, there are some campaign settings where this sort of encounter feels unavoidable. If you’re playing a sandbox-style one, you’re probably going to have random encounter tables, and you’ll probably want regular encounters for travel. This is mostly because, as the DM, a sandbox-style experience is going to be player driven — you’re not going to be able to say, we’ll have an encounter on X mountain because you’re not going to know if they’re going to that mountain. What you ARE able to say, is “if they go to a mountain, we can have this kind of encounter”.
I’m digressing here. My hot take here is that there is nothing more damaging to a RPG session than a pedestrian encounter. When you’re in the more freeform modes of play (exploration, downtime) that D&D5e and Pathfinder offer you, there’s a chance for players to jump in when they so desire. A DM in these situations can (and should) be shunting the spotlight around to keep everyone engaged and active. When you’re enslaved to the turn order however, a player knows that when their turn has passed, it’s going to be a while before they get to act again. Their brain drifts onto other things, maybe they look at their phone. The turn comes back to them: “sorry what was the last thing that happened?”. They have to spend time looking at the game state and then taking their turn, during which the other players are possibly undergoing the same process. This sucks for everyone at the table. So the question becomes “what makes an encounter pedestrian?”. Apart from ignoring the points above that we’ve already covered, I’d say that the fastest way of doing it is by having the same sort of encounter play out again. Imagine in our dining room scenario, the party moves on through the next doorway, and they’re in another room with four or five guards. How is this meaningfully different from the previous encounter? We have to think of ways to keep it different, and if we can’t think of a way, then it’s better to not have an encounter at all. If you can’t think of a way to make an entire castle’s worth of encounters interesting, then don’t have an entire castle’s worth.
If the concern is that you’re playing an XP-based system, and you need the players to be a certain level for some content, then you can always use other mechanisms of granting XP. Pathfinder 2e enables the DM to grant arbitrary XP based on ‘accomplishments’, which are vague enough in scope that you can give them for basically anything. Again, I would rather give my players 120XP for absolutely nonsense reasons, rather than have them play an encounter for the sake of giving them that XP. So, we have to find a way of keeping each encounter fresh, and distinct from the encounters adjacent to it. In our case, perhaps after the Dining Room is a corridor through to some sort of alchemical laboratory? Perhaps this room has been enchanted with some haywire magic, and each round causes the room to flip the characters from floor to ceiling? Maybe it’s a room that suppresses fire, or even amplifies it, adding +1d6 damage? The ability to customise monsters, monster composition in encounters, and the encounter space gives us enormous scope to come up with various distinct kinds — the main limitation is going to be your ability to come up with them. Again, if you’re slow to design encounters, this isn’t a reason to create several that are very similar. It’s a reason to take more time between sessions for prep, it’s a reason to find alternative mechanisms to grant players the rewards you wanted to give them through encounters. If you’re playing a combat-based RPG, you’re going to want your players to remember your encounters, otherwise they’re not going to remember a large percentage of the game.
Where is the motion?
This one might seem a bit esoteric at face value, but bear with me here. I think the difference between a good encounter and a great encounter is a source of motion. Again, one of the worst experiences you can have in a combat-focused RPG is the sense that you’re all stood around a monster swinging your wiffle-bats at it, and chipping away at a health bar. This is again, MMO videogame shite. We can do better. Let’s take a look at the D&D Monster Manual
Apart from the fact that this is extremely good art, the art is absolutely packed to the gills with motion. The beholder is literally bearing down on them, occupying almost all of the space. We see the dwarf, tilting his body away possibly to strike, or possibly in fear. We see a fighter (?) throwing their hand up, having either delivered a blow, or readying a mighty swing. This image is absolutely PACKED with motion, even in the environment.
This is what we want our encounters to be. Fluid. Dynamic. Changeable. If we have slow enemies, we never want them to feel static or statue-like, we want them to feel inexorable. If we have fast enemies, we want them to demonstrate that: have them move around, jump over obstacles, scrabble over walls. If something has climb, make it climb. It something has burrow, make it burrow. If something’s a swarm, give it something to swarm over or out of. If your players are walking into a room, and there’s just a whole pile of spiders sat in the middle of it, that’s some distinctly MMO nonsense. Have them enter the room, weapons raised, then realise in horror that the shadows in the corners are actually countless piles of the bastards. Now, D&D5e has mechanics that make this fluid motion more difficult (because of the prevalence of opportunity attacks), but you should still do it. Have the enemies eat opportunity damage sometimes, because it’s worth it to maintain that feeling of energy and momentum to the encounter. If your enemies are moving, your melee players are moving. If your ranged players don’t have a reason to move, give them a goddamned reason to move. My favourite style of motion for this is the ‘slowly collapsing room’, where you have sections of a room slowly fall down, meaning that the players have to pay attention to the space, but also spend valuable time moving or getting uncomfortably close to the enemies. If players aren’t having to make difficult decisions when it comes to not moving, or moving and possibly putting themselves in danger, then you’re missing a trick.
In our dining room example, the source of motion is going to come from the tumbling piles of food and the characters falling over. We want that encounter to turn into something resembling Glastonbury, where slop covered swordsman fight in the remains of a shepherd’s pie. We want our guards to be tripping, shoving, attempting to throw them into cauldrons. In our foundry/smelting room example, our motion is going to come from the machinery — the buckets of molten metal, the conveyor belts, etc. We want our players to be evaluating if where they’re standing right now is the best place, and we probably don’t want that to be more than one turn in a row. We want buckets of molten metal falling from the chains, spreading hazardous surfaces across the floor. We want characters getting nailbitingly close to the edges that could send them into the roiling fire below. I watched a critique from a well-known Youtuber who said that they couldn’t understand why anyone would ever not use the three action variant of magic missile in Pathfinder 2e (where moving costs an action, so the caster is electing to stand still). This is a person who is playing encounters that largely involve people standing still, throwing hands and magic at each other. If you don’t have a reason why anyone would ever want to cast a lower power version of a spell to have the ability to move, I have three words for you. Slowly. Falling. Ceiling. I can count those reasons in D6s of bludgeoning damage.
If you’re sat there, thinking to yourself “but I want to set an encounter in a forest, and I don’t know where that sort of motion is going to occur”, then I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. Speaking of which.
Am I putting setting/worldbuilding before gameplay?
Let me deliver unto you one last steaming hot take. Every encounter should be designed in terms of what is fun and interesting first, and in terms of your world/setting/campaign material second. What do I mean by this? Well, if you’re intending to set your campaign in a gigantic desert, and you don’t have enough ways of mechanically making that desert fun and engaging when it comes to encounters, then you shouldn’t set it in a desert! If your approach to designing the baron’s castle is thinking in terms of which a castle should historically have to be accurate, then working out how to make that fun and interesting afterwards, you’re going to end up with a boring session/campaign. I don’t particularly care if it “makes sense” that a castle would have three consecutive rooms of guards before anything of value, or if the alchemist’s stuff really should be in a different building — we want to make something that is fun and engaging first, then create narrative reasons to allow for that. Maybe the alchemist is best buds with the Baron? Maybe there’s very few guards because it’s a bank holiday, and they’re all down at Ed’s Easy Diner. Does this mean that there’s probably going to be plot-holes or nitpicks that people can make? Absolutely. I’d rather have a campaign that people can nitpick holes in, but ultimately still thoroughly enjoyed, over a campaign that never got off the ground because there was a complete lack of engagement.
If you think it’s fun to have an encounter with flying enemies inside the castle, then design that encounter and figure out a way of fitting it in. Note that I’m not saying you should have an absolute wacko-universe where gargantuan dragons come flying out of cupboards, what I’m saying is that your first intent should be to create an engaging encounter. I’ll forgive a cupboard dragon if the fight afterwards is the greatest goddamn thing I’ve ever played. You’ve got to find a way of making your desert campaign ‘pop’ when it comes to mechanics and gameplay — if you can’t, then it doesn’t matter how good your desert lore and worldbuilding is, it’ll die before the start of the fourth session. I don’t play your worldbuilding, I don’t play your maps or your homebrew languages; I play the game as it stands before me. Give me a thousand cupboard dragons over one day trawling a mechanically dull and unengaging desert.
I got a bit rambly towards the end there, but there you go. Some questions to ask yourself.