GM Basics: Encounters

Great DnD encounters need to be something more than just difficult obstacles. In this GM Basics article we’ll show you some tips on how to design an encounter that your players will love!

Encounters can be usefully understood as sequences of minor objectives/obstacles, or major objectives with multiple phases. In this way, any individual objective or obstacle can be broken up to make it a longer encounter. Crossing a river can be designed as a quick, individual obstacle that requires one of three attempt options (ABC+s) accompanied by their consequences. Alternatively, crossing the same river can be a dynamic and exciting encounter if broken up into phases. Just like the ABC+s of individual objectives need to be unique in some way, each phase of an encounter should be distinct. You can do this either by coming up with a fresh objective/obstacle for each phase or by changing the circumstances/environment in such a way that it tweaks or alters the previous set of ABC+s available. Let’s try it with the river example:

River Crossing Encounter
Phase One:

  • First third of the river, moderate current with stepping stones
  • PCs can:
    • A – forcefully wade through current
    • B – balance and hop over stepping stones, or
    • C+

Phase Two: 

  • Middle of the river, stronger current but with no stepping stones
  • PCs who waded in Phase A can:
    • A – swim forward with head above water (difficult current)
    • B – dive underwater to crawl across the riverbed (easier current but must hold breath), or
    • C+
  • PCs whobalancedonstepping stones can:
    • A – long-jump and try and reach opposite shallows (difficult jump but avoids strong current)
    • B – dive underwater to crawl across riverbed (easy jump, easier current, but must hold breath), or
    • C+

Phase Three: 

  • Far side of river, large bear emerging to drink/fish (has not seen PCs yet)
  • PCs can:
    • A – confront the bear (combat, intimidation, etc.)
    • B – risk wading back into the river to move further downstream (same options as Phase Two), or
    • C+

Often, a PC failing any of their attempted actions can transition into a new set of ABC+ options for them to overcome the consequences – getting washed down river might bring them to overhanging vines or a passing log. Innovative C+ actions can also generate additional ABC+s, but sometimes they can effectively bypass multiple phases at once – a flight ability or finding a bridge upriver, for example, skips over the three “sections” of our sample river. Don’t worry about PCs hopping through multiple encounter phases once in a while. Congratulate their creativity if they’ve earned it! Instead, whip up some new phases on the fly to keep things compelling – make the bridge guarded by “tax”-collecting bandits or have a religious anti-magic fanatic taking a stroll on the opposing shore. As you get to know your players capabilities, however, it’ll become easier to design encounters that they won’t be so easily able to circumvent.

It’s important to remember that, from the GM side of the table, combat encounters are not very different from non-combat encounters. In order for them to be exciting they need to have multiple phases, each with its unique set of decisions for players to make. While there are many different types of combat encounters that have specific challenges and objectives associated with them (ambushes vs siege battles vs non-lethal captures etc.), most combats can be built around three templated phases. These phases align nicely with the turns or rounds used in most combat systems and the tactical considerations for each:

Phase One: (Position)

  • In the first round of combat, terrain features are the focus
  • Players and enemies alike survey the types and locations of these features (enemies, cover, obstacles, hazards, and exits) and choose their starting position accordingly
  • Make sure every battlefield has slightly different types/orientations of these features

Phase Two: (Engagement)

  • In the middle rounds of combat, combat tactics and capabilities are the focus
  • Combatants are engaged in battle with both sides intent on victory
  • Engagement often lasts more than one round, so make sure each round is different somehow (add enemies, use/reveal different enemy abilities or tactics, change the terrain, etc.) otherwise your encounter will devolve into a boring battle of rock’em sock’em robots

Phase Three: (Conclusion)

  • In the final rounds of combat, motivations are the focus
  • One side has the clear upper hand, causing a change in tactics for the opponents
  • The losing side makes unique Final Actions (surrender, flight, death throes, desperate acts, etc.)
  • Plan in advance what the Final Actions will be for each group of enemies and when they will trigger (how close to defeat do they need to be)

These suggested Phases work well for your traditional head-to-head combats. You can, of course, always mix things up by changing them around or swapping out elements – make the pickpocket start the fight by begging for his life, then have him turn tail down an alley before finally pulling out a blaster! As long as you have multiple, distinct phases to keep your players guessing and re-assessing, your combat should be a success!

If you’d like tips on how to design specific types of encounters, leave a comment below or contact us! We’d be happy to help you think through specific encounter types!

Be sure to check out our other GM Basics: [x] [x] [x]

Image © 2015 Wizards. All Rights Reserved.

Read more GM Content!

Read more RPG Content!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *