In the same vein as our other articles on helping new Game masters figure out how to build their own worlds and settings, we’re going to be putting together a series of articles on how to put together your own encounters and how to link them together for building your own adventures and campaigns. We’re going to start at the small scale, and building low level encounters for your party. We prefer to express things in terminology for Dungeons and Dragons, but we try to remain system agnostic, this advice should help you build encounters for whatever game you’re planning to run.
The first thing you need to do before you start looking through the monster manual or crafting an NPC is to figure out what exactly is the point of this encounter? Is this a fight to the death with an eldritch abomination? A relaxing scene in a bar? Why is this encounter happening, and what is the expected interaction for your players? You can write the coolest scene ever that would be great in a movie, but if it doesn’t serve the purpose of the story you’re telling for your players, it isn’t going to be helpful.
So what is the encounter going to do for the players? (Do for them is perhaps unclear text, as it could drop them in a pit of acid or expose them to mortal peril). Is this a social interaction? Is this an exploration scene? Is it time for a fight? Each of these encounters operates differently, but you can use the same basic framework to put them together.
If the encounter you’re building is a social interaction where the PCs learn vital information related to other encounters that are coming down the story path, then you should decide how hard that information is to access. Likewise, a combat encounter has many ways of being rated. Exploring a new area presents a lot of different options for encounter design, and knowing what the area offers the players can help you decide how hard the encounter is supposed to be.
“The party has heard rumors that the mysterious Countess D’Ambrath has information about the secret fountain being used by the Glimmering Veil as a base of operations. She’s looking for a party of adventurers to use this information to deal with the Glimmering Veil.”
“While attending a ball at the home of the mysterious Countess D’Ambrath, one of the players overhears people chatting about the mysterious fountain and the Glimmering Veil. Could this be the cult they’ve been looking for?”
“After many long fought battles in the court of Lord Fregrach, the players discover that their old nemesis, the Countess D’Ambrath has information vital for them to succeed in their misison to root out the Cult of the Glimmering Veil. How are they going to earn her help?”
Each of these hooks describes a different scenario that the players have to interact with Countess D’ambrath. The elements of how helpful or hostile she is changes from hook to hook, but the core element of each encounter is the same. Countess D’Ambrath has information that the players need to advance the story and find the Cult of the Glimmering Veil.
“Your investigations into the Cult of the Glimmering Veil have led you to Castle Whitehall. This ancient, ruined fortress is renowned for its fountains and gardens. You need to find your way inside, but the doors are locked, and there doesn’t seem to be a way down.”
“The Storm has driven you through the night to Castle Whitehall. This ancient fortress is full of gardens and fountains, and you may be able to find a place to dry yourselves off and warm yourselves if you can find your way in.”
“The sound of horses behind you and the twang of a bowshot remind you that the Cult is hot in pursuit behind you. They’ve chased you all the way to Castle Whitehall. Perhaps you’ll find a place to hide from them among the fountains if you can find your way inside the fortress.”
Like the first example, each of these blurbs gives you some key information about the encounter. You know you’ve recently arrived at Castle Whitehall, and it’s an ancient fortress full of fountains. It’s also possibly the home of the Cult of the Glimmering Veil. The pacing and atmosphere are different in each blurb, but in the most basic terms, they all explain that the party is going to need to figure out a way into Castle Whitehall.
“Finally you’ve fought your way through the Cultists and their minions. You stand inside an underground garden of sand, filled with tiny gemstones. The sand begins to swirl and you can see the form of a creature taking shape inside the storm. An Efreet steps forward, ready to do battle in its lair.”
“You’ve managed to evade most of the cultists and other dangers inside Castle Whitehall. You happen upon a chamber dominated by a sand garden. The tiny gems call out to you, enticing you to pick one up. In an instant, a roar of flame fills the air around you and an Efreet steps forward, Flaming blade in hand. The word ‘Thief’ hisses from its mouth as it readies its blade.”
“You’ve been harrowed by the Cult of the Glimmering Veil throughout Castle Whitehall. You think you’ve finally found a safe place to hide. Looking around the room, you see a garden made of sand dominates it. You hear the heavy thump of locking bolts as the doors shut behind you, and you can see the laughing faces of the Cultists above you. The Efreet rises, ready to put your life at an end.”
This is most likely a combat encounter, and against a reasonably tough opponent. You as a DM have conveyed to your party that they are going to have to find a way to deal with the Efreet in its own lair. They know they’re going to have to deal with the Efreet to move the story forward, and that means it’s probably time to roll initiative.
Each one of these encounters can be described any number of different ways. As the Dungeon Master, you need to approach each encounter as a discrete story element for the players to interact with. Once you understand what you expect the players to take away from the encounter (Information in the first example, entrance to the Castle in the second, and beating an efreet into the ground in the third), you can start to construct the elements of the encounter that will help them meet your expectations.