Compelling Encounters
Encounter design principles and making things interesting.
By: archmagi1

One of the core concepts for many RPG’s is the fact that you fight things. A party of heroes delves through an ancient dungeon, hoping to square off against that dragon, or they find their path through the lair to meet the goblins, or they run afoul of Lonestar on their latest Run. At some point, there is combat, and making those combats fun and memorable should be one of your goals as you grow in your ability to GM.

The Boring Fight

The inevitable boring fight. You kick open a door and three dire rats are stationed 10’ apart in an echelon attack formation. Initiative starts, and little else occurs until all the rats (or the party) are kaput. These are the backbone of many a dungeon, and for some groups and players, they’re exactly what the doctor ordered. Quick, dirty, and devoid of minutiae, these fights serve as little more than resource burners or XP donors.

Boring fights, however, can be spruced up to become compelling with only a few gentle touches. Your party kicks open that same door, but instead of three formation ready battle rats, they see the goblins’ refuse room. Piles of trash (by goblin standards) litter the room, making the place difficult terrain. The party begins to cross the room, chasing rats and cockroaches from their dens as they go; however, half way across the room, they attract the attention of a dog sized rat, and his feral screams lure out his two buddies.

What have we done here? Two very simple steps, actually. First, we apply a set dressing. In this case, that set dressing is a refuse pile. There is no need to go all out and describe the various fecal decorations, or half rotted corpses littering the pile; simply stating that there are knee high mounds of trash covering the floors should be able to push the set dressing point far enough for your players to envision the room. The second step was to apply a dramatic entrance or tactics to the situation. The big rat assesses the party as a threat to its trash kingdom when they’re halfway across the room, and when his buddies emerge, they’re likely to come from other places in the room. We just turned a boring doorway choke-point fight into a three flank surrounded encounter.

Set Dressing

Again, set dressing can be as detailed as you want to make it, but in my time honored tradition of minimalism, describing only what you need to describe should be plenty for your party to imagine what the room looks like. Delving through an tide cavern will typically have very little set dressing, however when you get to the end and see that aquatic dragon’s pile of loot atop an island, you’ve given yourself a moment to add enough set dressing to fill the last few half flooded, smooth cave wall reefclaw encounters.

Here is a good time to mention one of my favorite tools in my GM’s toolbox: a thesaurus. There are only so many words in the english language to describe an ‘evil statue,’ and pulling out that book can allow you to whip out phrases like ‘pernicious sculpture’ and keep yourself from entering the land of redundant phrasing. On that regard, though, remember to keep yourself in check, otherwise your players are gonna start razzing you about reading the thesaurus too often.

I recently played in a game of Rise of the Runelords, and the very first combat encounter in that adventure path (spoilers) has the party square off against a number of goblins who are singing a little goblin song about killing dogs, burning babies, and eating you (the party). This encounter becomes instantly memorable. A few fights later, you’re introduced to the fight as one of the goblins proceeds to brain a prized hunting dog. Yes, both of these fights aren’t really tactically difficult, or strategically compelling, but their set dressing gives them the flavor to make them stick with the player.

Finding the point where set dressing is enough, however, will vary between your gaming groups (and even within the players within the groups themselves). Hell, the required amount of set dressing will even increase between the actual type of game. A more story and role play heavy system, like WoD or Storyteller, would need the GM to invest more time and creativity into describing an encounter, whereas combat heavy systems like D&D or Pathfinder need much less to satisfy the average player.

Dramatic Strategery

Unbeknownst to most folks, much of the television we watch is actually a drama. Yes a good portion of it is set within a comedic shell, but in the end there are cliffhangers, romance, tension, foreshadowing, and that little theatrical magic spell that makes a viewer feel invested in the show. Applying dramatic concepts to your encounters helps make them compelling in the eyes of the player. Typically we can do this with either entrances or strategies.

Dramatic entrances are a pretty simple thing to nail down. Rather than the boring “open the door, enemy is combat ready,” we have adjusted the dire rats to come out during the party’s traverse of the room. Adding that bit of “trash kingdom” or other set dressing helps stage the entrance. Now the party finds itself suddenly surrounded. A pretty dramatic turn of events, particularly if those sudden enemies happened to be a bit more dangerous than dire rats.

Imagine your antagonist. Are you going to have him sit in room G7 all day, every day, with his staff of power pointed toward the door, just waiting for the heroes to come kill him? Not typically, he is the antagonist after all. His job is to antagonize the party. The party swings open G7’s door only to find… an empty room. Big Bad Evil Guy is out today. Oh well, the party loots the room, but when they get back to G2, he’s back! Also he has his two trollhound pets at either side of him, blood dripping from their mouths after their recent hunt.

A bit of drama on both sides, as the antagonist is aghast to see Monty Haul carrying out his princess canopy bed frame, but at the same time, the party is slightly off foot fighting the boss of the dungeon one quarter of the way back out. An epic fight ensues over the fate of the princess canopy bed frame, and whether the party can sell it for 80% or 70% back at town being the ultimate stakes.

Drama can also be injected into an encounter through strategy. A common strategy is the ‘living dungeon’ strategy, where the dungeon reacts to your presence. You set off a barrel of explosive gun powder in room L4? That trio of bugbears in L6 grabs their swords and sets off to investigate. Living dungeons are a fun thing for GM’s and players, but depending on your dungeon planning (or that of the module’s designer), it may just not be a feasible event.

Get familiar with the monsters you’re employing in the fights. Those three bugbears in L6 are level 4 fighters. Theres a lot of feat room there for you to customize these fellows to be a deadly combination. One is a tripping specialist, one is an attack of opportunity machine, and the third is a high AC tank, and now they’re a dramatic team poised to surprise you as the first party member enters the room with their ace tactics.

Lets go back and look at the dire rats again. The new encounter has the three rats popping out at three points in the room, essentially surrounding the party. If the party is low of enough level that these rats are a real challenge, this just got serious. The same fight could play out with those three dire rats without the party batting an eye, but your dramatic placement of enemy forces added a bit of gravitas to the fight that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Putting It Together

Ok, so now you’ve got the basic idea of how to add some compelling flair to the encounter, whether its through set dressing or dramatic strategy, and need to figure out exactly how to throw this against your players. Here is where real encounter design actually starts; that first part was just making a pretty fight.

Encounters, whether they’re meant as compelling events or XP farms, should always move the plot forward. If your party is invading the lair of some murderous goblins, you need to be aware of where they’re at and remind them from time to time. A fight against four goblins in a makeshift kitchen with all the drama and set dressing applied can be made more compelling by adding an unconscious prisoner, dangling on a roasting spit. It also subtly (or not so subtly) nudges the party toward the right thing to do: get rid of this goblin menace.

Pushing the plot, or investing the heroes can be a simple thing. Sometimes its a clear motivation, but when you as the GM give these little compelling nudges that make these fights seem richer, you get your players on board, and can orchestrate your grand story. Keep your mind toward what this arc of the story accomplishes, and try to spread a bit of that mojo throughout your fights, and you’ll like what comes out.