The 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. Ultimately, the quality of your campaign is directly tied to the quality of the encounters within it. We’ll cover simple tricks for creating encounters for your game.
Combat and Puzzles
Encounters come in two main varieties: Combat and Puzzles. These are broad generalizations, but they work well for the purposes of planning. Combat encounters are anywhere you use the game’s combat mechanics. These are your standard fights and are arguably the most rules heavy part of the game. Puzzles, on the other hand, are much more open. Any activity where the players are overcoming non-combat obstacles or gathering information can fall into this group.
The parts of a combat encounter are broken into several pieces. To build a good scenario, you need to answer the following questions:
- Who/what are the players fighting?
- Where is combat taking place?
- What are the consequences or rewards of combat?
- Why are the players fighting?
Know Your Enemy
A combat encounter requires enemies to fight. Enemies can be anything you want them to be, but typically you should stick to your story or your quest’s theme. No matter what you are fighting, you will need to know how many creatures there are, what their stats are, and how they act. The number of creatures is typically something that can be decided based on the parties level. While 5 goblins could be hard for a level 1 group, a level 6 group wouldn’t bat an eye at that fight. Choose your creatures appropriately to match the difficulty you want for your players. Something that’s also important to remember is different creatures act differently from one another; read the Monster Manual to learn about how they behave and fight.
While often overlooked, terrain can be very important in combat. Think about where the fight is taking place. Players worry about how much space they have and if there is cover. Make sure to describe these things carefully for your players, or better yet use a battlemat to show your players exactly where everything is. Check out our article on building encounters for more details.
Description Informs Your Players
Each combat should present players with risks and rewards. Is there a high possibility of death? Are the monsters guarding piles of treasure? The descriptions you give help players decide how they are going to act and what is important for them in the fight. Describing one monster more than any other could signal that it’s more dangerous and change your player’s decisions. Under-describing a fight might lead your players to rush into situations that they should have planned for more carefully.
One of the biggest problems I usually see with new players in a combat encounter is knowing why they are fighting. Often this is just because the enemy struck first or looked intimidating. Without giving your players a clear reason to fight, you run the risk of them becoming murder hobos who just kill because that’s the easiest answer. Typically, your players should have very clear reasons why they’re fighting, and often you will get better outcomes if you make this clear to the players.
Once you answer the major questions here you can start to add polish to the encounter. Let’s create a simple example. I have chosen to have 6 goblins, in a cave, guarding treasure that the heroes were tasked with recovering. That answers our basic questions. Now we can look at the situation itself. This is essentially staging for the area.
Where do the goblins start when the players walk in the room? Are they around a fire in the center of the room or spread out? Are they on alert or are they not expecting the players? These questions help you set up a room and design a fun scenario that involves more than just hitting a goblin until it dies. Let’s look back at my example and fill in some details.
The cave is 40 feet across. The players enter from the south and see a room with a large, naturally formed pillar in the northwest and a pile of crates in the southeast. Their objective is clearly placed against the north wall with two goblins sleeping in front of it. Three more goblins can be seen sitting around a dim fire in the center of the room idly chatting. On a DC 15 investigation check the players can spot a lookout goblin with a shortbow sitting on a crevice in the top of the large pillar, about 25 feet up. The lookout will spot the party and alert the others if the players roll lower than a 12 on their stealth checks. Combat starts upon being spotted or after the players make an attack.
While this is a very simple example, you can see that it gives a lot more for the party to work with than “you see 6 goblins in a cave.” The most important thing here is that the players are given options. Players can try to be stealthy, or they can rush in on the goblins. They can attempt to take cover or opt for open combat. They can attempt to get the better of the sentry first, or simply deal with his supporting fire while they deal with the ground forces. This is what I would consider a minimal amount of effort that should be applied to a purposeful combat encounter.
If you wanted to go even further with building a great fight, you can add even more customization to your enemies. Give each goblin a different weapon that the players have to deal with. Make one goblin slightly stronger and another one more frail. Each detail you give provides information that the players can use to make interesting choices about how they want to play.
Puzzles are the area of the game that many new players do not fully consider when they start. While almost everyone comes into D&D with the expectation of fighting monsters and searching for loot, not everyone expects some in depth thinking.
Puzzles come in many flavors. Traps in dungeons highlight some of the easiest and most well-known. The most common of these are spot and disarm puzzles. Does the player 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. In this way puzzles become simple choices.
Other times puzzles can reach outside of the game. This might require the player to actually know how to solve something. We’ve used Sudokus in the past as puzzles to give the DM a breather while the players work through a simple logic game. Other times players might be confronted with a mechanism or puzzle box that requires thought on the level of the player, not necessarily of their character. These are not always good for every group, but most of the time these can be fun and let you buy some time to prepare the next room in a dungeon.
The third type of puzzle that players run into is the role play puzzle. This may be interrogating a captured enemy, convincing the enemies not to fight, or even just gathering information through a normal NPC conversation. While these are just normal role play, I would encourage you to think of them as encounters that the players have to successfully navigate.
Prep Puzzles For Your Players’ Style
No matter what kind of puzzle you may throw at your players, you will need to consider whether or not they can solve it. Traps can be so simple that they mislead a party. While this can be fun, sometimes it can lead to player frustration. If you give players a puzzle that they need to solve outside of the game, you many need to give your players hints in real life. This can be something you dole out based on the player’s stats or skill checks. For example, giving the higher intelligence character more hints than the lower intelligence character allows them to stay in character even if they wouldn’t be able to figure it out on their own.
When it comes to role play puzzles, you need to play these out with your group. They might not ask questions you were expecting and they could even turn hostile at the drop of a hat. Remember that you are their senses and you need to give them the appropriate hints to let them figure things out. This is different from giving things away. While the line can be subtle it is definitely one you will have to navigate as a DM.
To keep it simple, there’s no better puzzle than the standard pit trap. It’s just a large pit in floor on a path the adventures are on. While this may seem too simple on first glance, you would be surprised by how many solutions players will come up with to solve it. They will ask questions like ‘how far across is it?’ or ‘Can I jump across?’ and you can answer by asking them to make a perception or intelligence check. If they roll low on either you can say ‘You think you can jump it’ even if you know they can’t. This allows the players to consider their character and how they would play. A fighter might be confident with an answer like that, while a rogue might investigate further. Someone may use a rope as a safety harness while another player may drop a torch in the pit to see how far down it goes. All of these outcomes are great because they get the player to interact with the world they see through your descriptions.
For an NPC puzzle, I like to consider the riddle of the sphinx. This is of course a classic trope and story, but it gives us a good idea of how you can make a role play puzzle for your party. Put them in a room with a monster that will fight them if they don’t successfully answer some riddles. Give them boundaries like allowing them to ask three questions before they take a guess. Make them interact with the NPC and prepare for things to play out in different ways.
Building Encounters for a Dungeon
When building encounters around your dungeon you need to make some choices as to how they fit together. While it is possible to string together a bunch of random encounters to create a dungeon, that is not often the best practice. Most of the time your dungeon will have a theme or a logical setting. A cave, for example, is not likely to be full of the same traps as a tomb. You would expect to fight different monsters in the mountains than you would in a forest. These things are important when building encounters with cohesion.
Use Setting and Theme to Inform Your Players
To start building encounters that are all related, first it helps to establish your setting. By picking where your players will be, you can get a sense of what kind of creatures and traps you will be using. Typically enemies follow your setting and theme. A cave full of goblin encounters is a classic low level experience. In addition to goblins, you might find their pets, usually wolves, and other goblinoids like bugbears. A different example might be fighting a necromancer cult. Encounters there would feature acolytes, various undead, and perhaps magical creatures. Bosses in that setting may include a higher level necromancer or even a flesh golem depending on the encounters level. Setting allows your players to be immersed in the theme.
The theme and setting you build around is important for establishing cues for your players. When you have the same creatures in several encounters it lets your characters learn about them. In the first encounter you may establish that the enemies are weak against fire. Throughout the dungeon your players can use that knowledge to overcome creatures that might traditionally be too strong for them by exploiting that weakness. This can also create interesting puzzles as a player may need to ration out their fire based spells and attacks to deal with bigger, badder enemies. Cues like this help offer your players choice and let them feel smart for solving a puzzle.
Drop Some Loot, Drop a Hint
While using cues is a great way to link encounters, you can do even more. Perhaps an encounters loot has a key in it. What does the key go to? Later areas might have locked doors. You can even take and use the order in which players deal with encounters an important aspect of the setting. Perhaps the players beat a series of monsters guarding a switch. The switch might trigger something that makes a different encounter easier in a different room. Maybe one group of monsters uses poison, while another group guards antidotes for that poison. There are always simple ways to add cohesion to your encounters.
Rewards and Resting
Encounters should offer rewards, but we’re not suggesting you stuff each combat with gold and gear for your heroes. When an encounter is created, you should finish it with relevant rewards. Smugglers may have gold, but it’s likely they will also have trade goods or illegal items with them. Wild animals on the other hand shouldn’t have gold on them, but may offer a source of food for the party. Don’t spoil your players with rewards, but don’t give them nothing.
In some cases it does not make sense for there to be any traditional treasure in an encounter. When this happens, I like to offer a different kind of reward: resting. If your players have just fought through 4 encounters, it is likely that they will be ragged. Offering them a defensible place to rest can be a huge boon to them. It’s an important consideration. Resting itself can present it’s own dangers too and create a separate encounter all of it’s own.
Encounters are the cornerstone of your adventures. Creating encounters with thoughtfulness and care will make the experience easier for you and more enjoyable for your players. Remember that the key to great encounters is giving your players choice. Whether fighting enemies or solving puzzles, your players will appreciate the effort you put in to make truly great encounters.