encounters

Building Encounters: The Basics

Encounters in Dungeons and Dragons are the cornerstone of your game play. Whether you’re fighting goblins, disarming traps, or talking with NPCs, all of these events engage the players and facilitate fun. The encounters in your campaign go hand in hand with the quality of your campaign. Using your story’s outline to create encounters is certainly an important aspect of a good campaign. However, there’s more to creating a campaign’s worth of encounters than just sticking to your main story.

Combat and Role Play Encounters

Encounters come in two main varieties: Combat and Role Play. These are broad generalizations, but they work well for the purposes of planning. Combat encounters refer to any time you require the use of the game’s combat mechanics. These are your classic party vs. enemy physical fights and are arguably the most rules heavy part of the game. Role play, on the other hand, is a much more open experience for your players. Any activity where the players need  to overcome non-combat obstacles or gathering information falls into this category.

Combat

To build a good combat scenario, it’s a good idea to first answer the following questions:

  • Where is combat taking place?
  • Who/what are the players fighting?
  • Why are the players fighting?
  • What are the consequences or rewards of combat?

A combat encounter requires enemies to fight. Enemies can be anything from aboliths to zombies, but typically you should stick to your story or quest’s theme. If the region’s king tasks players to return an artifact from a haunted mausoleum, it would make sense to theme your enemies in different flavors of undead creatures. Skeletons, specters, and wraiths would all be viable candidates for a mausoleum fight.

Conversely, if the region’s king asks them to return an artifact from a hidden oasis in the desert, then the previously mentioned enemies would not make great thematic choices.

For any risk, there must be a reward. Most characters would be unwilling to put themselves in harm’s way for no reason. If nothing else, entice your players with fortune and glory. Make their brushes with death worth the risk, otherwise their characters are better off opening a safe tavern somewhere. Clearing out a dragon’s lair is the right and moral thing to do, but looting a hoard’s worth of gold might be a better motivator.

Putting it All Together: Combat Scenario

After listening to rumors from the swamp town of Mudbucket, your adventurers head out to the local bayou to investigate the disappearance of several locals and collect on a reward for more information. While trudging through the area, they come upon a group of Lizardfolk and their pet crocodile. Upon further inspection, the adventurers notice a dirty human who is bound and gagged. The Lizardfolk notice the adventurers and pull their weapons out and charge forward, ready to attack.

This scenario answers all the questions from above. The players know they’re traveling though a swamp, and are about to fight Lizardfolk and a crocodile. Players typically fight to keep living, but in this case they’re also fighting to free the tied up human. As with any fight, the consequence for losing is that they’ll either die or be captured by their enemies. However, if they defeat the Lizardfolk, they will have freed the human and will be able to collect on a reward offered by the town.

Be mindful about the enemies you choose to have your players fight. Players lose their suspension of disbelief when things are out of place. Don’t have arctic creatures in the desert unless a huge part of your story revolves around nature being out of whack. The more realistic and logical that you make your fights, the more immersed your players will be.

Role Play

Role play encounters are far more difficult to plan for than combat encounters. While combat encounters are pretty formulaic, the improvisation of role play will lead to more unexpected results than even the best DM can account for. At some point, your players will say or do something that you never anticipated.

These role play encounters can be anything: interrogating a captured enemy, convincing the enemies not to fight, gathering information through a normal conversation, or just haggling for a cheaper price. Luckily, improvisation skills are like a muscle; the more you work that muscle out, the easier it will be.

That’s not to say that you should go into all role play encounters completely unprepared. Think of a couple of directions that you believe your players will head. If you know they’re more likely to get physical first, have them outnumbered or outclassed. Players are often less likely to preform violent acts if they are in the middle of a heavily policed town.

Make your players flex their own improv muscles by making them talk their way out of situations. If your players like talking and compromise, think of ways that they can persuade your NPC to give them exactly what they want. What’s the perfect thing your players could say or offer to your NPC? Give hints while speaking as your NPC or describing the situation.

Role Play and Skill Checks

Players often start as lazy role players and will default to saying “my character does [x]”. As a DM, you have the power to get them to put in a little more effort. All you need to say is “And how do you do that? Describe it to me.” The player’s description will open up avenues to use skill checks. Here’s an example:

Player: My character asks the baron to give us access to the mine.

DM: How does she do that? What does she say?

Player: She says, “Oh, wise, glorious baron. Let us be an extension of your justice. Allow us access to the mine so we can slay those goblins and bring honor to your name. We will let the goblins know that you are not a man to be trifled with.”

DM: Great role playing! Roll a Persuasion check with advantage.

Do your best early on to encourage your players to role play. Giving advantage on a skill check or giving the players Inspiration dice are easy ways to reward good role play. Challenge your players to make their characters real, not just some numbers on a piece of paper. You didn’t spend all that time on backstories for nothing.

Traps and Puzzles

Traps in dungeons highlight some of the easiest non-combat encounters you can create. The most common traps are spot and disarm traps, like pits and snares. Do your players know to look for traps? If they find them, can they reasonably disarm them? These questions can be answered by a few dice rolls and do not rely on the players’ own knowledge, but serve to prompt their actions. Traps are also a great way to build suspense or urgency; a room filling with lava will certainly get your players moving to the next area of a dungeon.

Puzzles are an area of the game that many new players may not anticipate when they start. While almost everyone comes into D&D with expectation of fighting monsters and searching for loot, not everyone is ready for some in-depth thinking. It’s important to give enough clues to your players to solve these puzzles, especially if you want to avoid meta gaming. The smartest player in your group may be playing the dumbest character.

Find ways for these characters to interact with the puzzle and help the group while remaining in character. The easiest way is by using Perception checks to describe the puzzle and its mechanisms.

 Planning for Disaster

There’s always a chance that a role play encounter will directly lead to a combat encounter. If players are unable to persuade NPCs with words, they won’t hesitate to pull out their weapons to get what they want, even if it’s just the NPC’s boots. Players, especially new ones, are notorious for being murder hobos. Your major NPCs should have their own character stats or guards for this very reason.

It’s also a good idea to have multiple ways that your players can solve an issue. If a major story element hinges on the players getting information from an NPC, what happens if they decide to kill that NPC? Does the story hook end, or is there another way your players can find that information? Do your best to plan for disaster because players wrecking your story is an eventuality you won’t be able to avoid.

Difficulty and Challenge Rating

No matter what your players are fighting, you will need to know several aspects about your encounter. How many creatures there are, what their stats are, and how they act are all important variables to consider when creating an encounter. The party’s level and number of group members typically determines the number and type of creatures. For example, five goblins could be difficult for a level 1 group, but a level 6 group would wipe out those goblins with their eyes closed.

Choose your creatures appropriately to match the difficulty you want for your players. Also remember, most creatures act differently and independently from one another; read the Monster Manual to learn about how they behave and fight.

CR and How to Use It

Challenge rating, or CR, is used to determine the difficulty of an encounter. Each CR is based on a group of 4 well-rested adventurers who are equal to that level and able to defeat that enemy. For example, a party with four 5th-level characters could defeat a CR 5 monster without any deaths. Experience points awarded to the group for defeating an enemy and CR are directly correlated. When creating encounters, use the XP to determine the type and number of creatures, as CR is used as the “upper limit” of which monsters you should choose.

Be careful using CR as the only basis for balance. Your players may not be kitted out with magical weapons or divine powers, and CR doesn’t take this into account. Creatures can also have damage resistances or condition immunities, as well as party debuffs. As Matt Colville explains in his video Undead, Running the Game #45, not anticipating these issues can lead to a “death spiral” where the rate your party starts loosing accelerates as the battle goes on.

(Un)lucky dice roles can often determine these battles, but if you take the time to consider the mechanics and behaviors of the enemies rather than just the CR, then you’re guaranteed to have better balance and fewer issues. As with all things, getting really good at balance takes time and practice. Even an experienced DM might cause an accidental TPK.

Generators Are Your Friends

Encounter balance can be one of the trickiest aspects of D&D. If you’re a new DM or if you want to save time, don’t overlook using encounter generators like Kobold Fight Club or Goblinist RPG Tools. These sites will take a lot of the guess work out of balance. Simply enter the number of players, their character levels, how difficult you want the encounter, and the types of monsters.  Do be careful when using any kind of generator, though. These generators often calculate encounters using only CR/XP.

The Takeaway

Creating quality encounters in D&D is about more than just continuing the plot of your story. Whether you’re planning combat or role play events, there are many different aspects to take into account, such as difficulty, terrain and player motivation. CR and encounter generators are great tools to use when planning, but ultimately you’ll need to be mindful of the monster’s stats and behaviors. Encounters are the cornerstone of your adventures. Building them with thoughtfulness and care will make the experience easier for you and more enjoyable for your players.