You often know right from the start when an encounter stinks. It’s boring, or cliché, or maybe confusing. And the reason could be it’s the last encounter of the night and you’re tired, or the players went in a new direction and you’ve got nothing planned, or perhaps it just looked better on paper.
But you can fix things mid-game, on-the-fly, very easily.
Do you remember how you felt at the beginning of sessions that went great? Happy, enthusiastic, open-minded, imagination poised to pounce…. Encounters go very well when you feel like this.
And when you’re tired, confused, indecisive, frustrated or anxious, encounters often go very poorly.
So, what you need to do is snap out of that tired mood and get the imagination going again. First, you have to regroup. Then you need to inject some interest and excitement into the encounter–using any of the three technique examples detailed below.
Quite often encounters go poorly because you’re in a reactionary mode. You are doing all that you can just to keep up with the players and figuring out what’s going to happen next. And you have no spare brain power left to be creative, decisive or dynamic.
The solution is to take a break and regroup.
I used to think that it was better to keep forging ahead. A fast pace meant exciting play, right? But not at the expense of the quality of your storytelling. It’s far better to pause and resume refreshed (even in the middle of an encounter) than to keep pushing and do a poor job.
So, here are ideas of what you can do to regroup:
- Pause behind your screen for a minute and let your players chat amongst themselves, hopefully in-character.
- Get up and get a glass of water. Drink it in the kitchen where it is nice and quiet.
- Go outside for a few minutes. Perhaps take a walk to the store for some snacks.
- Take several, deep, slow breaths. Get that oxygen flowing to your brain again.
- Stretch your neck and shoulders with slow, extended movements.
While you’re taking your siesta (and take as much time as you need–even at the workplace you’re given breaks) take a pen and notepad with you.
What you want to do is come up with a quick game plan. You need to decide what’s happening currently and in the near future. When you’re tired it takes a lot of mental energy to create new details, events and rewards needed for any encounter–planned or not.
And, now that the players aren’t hounding you with questions and actions, you can take a relaxed, objective look at what’s going on around the PCs. You can determine many details with minimal effort without the pressure of gameplay on your shoulders.
Technique #1: Give Your Encounter A Hook
Call it what you will, but by ‘hook’ I’m talking about giving your encounter that unusual element which will spark an immediate interest in your players. If the players get interested you can feed off of that and become re-energized to GM a great encounter.
A hook is that special something that makes the encounter strange, new, exciting, puzzling or provoking:
- A fascinating location (on a narrow, crumbling bridge; above a massive spinning fan; on the roaring, pounding surf)
- It could assail one of the senses (strobing light caused by strange fungi, intense heat from a blazing fire, strange noises, weird lights, sudden temperature changes)
- A new NPC or monster enters
- A new danger appears
Technique #2: Give A Full Description
With your notepad, brainstorm a list of at least seven things about the encounter you’re in the middle of or about to begin:
- Wall decorations, floor coverings
- Exits, windows & openings
- Designs, art, architecture
- People, NPCs, monsters nearby or present
- Lighting, weather, climate
The problem with many botched encounters is that the GM is too distracted, tired or disorganized to give a full description of the area, events or beings present.
Players feed off of details. They’ll investigate what you present to them. And it’s easier elaborating on things you know about than it is constantly creating new stuff to elaborate on. So a good description gives your players plenty of options, which buys you time, and gives you breathing room to think.
Details also help spark ideas in your mind about the encounter or what’s going to happen next. A great trick for authors and GMs is to pull three random words out of the dictionary and start creating from there. But you already knew those words, didn’t you? So, what was the problem then? It’s the fact that when you can choose from everything it’s hard to choose anything. So, seven little details will give you seeds for thought and creativity.
And try to envision each detail and describe what you see in your mind’s eye. If you can work from a solid mental picture of things as you play you will find you have tremendous room left to think about other things.
Technique #3: Give The Encounter Purpose
If the encounter is important and relevant to the players then they won’t be bored. Whether your botched encounter was a wandering monster roll or a carefully planned scene that lost its wind, you just need to add that special something to give it importance and new blood.
- Character development: what do the characters need or want? Money, fame, new skills, more friends?
- Story development: can you add something to this encounter to help the characters on their quest, mission or goal?
- World development: add to this encounter so that it reveals something new, or perhaps an exciting secret, about the game world.
- Player treat: do your players have wish lists about things they’ve always wanted to do? If so, add one or more of those elements in and let them live their fantasy.
Decide what the purpose is going to be and then throw clues about that in your existing encounter to get things going again.
Returning To The Encounter
One final thing before you return to the game table. You need to figure out how to introduce any new elements you’ve created for your encounter without breaking the players’ sense of disbelief. It would be bad to return to the table and say “oh, I forgot to mention, there’s a dragon sitting on a horde of treasure in the middle of that cave.”
If the new things are minor, then when you return just tell your players that you would like to re-describe the scene to freshen their memories and include a few details you missed.
If the additions are major then you need to determine how to introduce them in a believable way.
- Secret door, panel, opening
- Crashes through the ceiling or up through the floor
- Cleverly hidden
- A new NPC enters, having heard the PCs
The purpose of the article was to give you some common sense advice for when you’ve botched an encounter and feel uninspired. Rather than blundering on (which, from experience, I’ve learned is a painful strategy) you should take a step back to collect yourself and become re-inspired.
Take a break, brainstorm ways to improve the encounter (i.e. a catchy hook, extra details, a purpose) and return with a basic plan. Allow the players to help you drive the encounter by giving them lots of details, a good description and/or a purpose to focus on. They’ll start asking you questions which will help you create an even better encounter.
And remember to take as many breaks as you need. With practice you’ll soon find that re-collecting yourself is an important and helpful exercise. Your players will not mind the short breaks if the game is made more exciting and challenging, so don’t worry about that.
Here are a couple of links to past issues of the RoleplayingTips.com weekly ezine that contain related information on encounters to help you out:
- Top 5 Ways To More Compelling Encounters
- Top 5 Ways To Use Encounters To Build A Compelling Campaign
- How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part I
- How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part II
- Hangings can be Fun
- Tips for GM’s, From a Player’s Perspective
- Make The New Player Welcome
- Flashback Fridays!
- Romance in RPGs
- Re-educating The Power Gamer
- Conversation Skills in an Action Game
- When It All Goes Wrong: DMing on the Fly
- 3 Ways To Make Life As GM Easier
- Free Will in Roleplaying
- Running Adventures with Little Preparation
- How To Fix Botched Encounters In Mid-Game