Adventure Building Tip: Must All Encounters Advance The Plot?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1114

RPT GM Joshua asks: “Do all encounters need to advance the plot?”

My answer is yes. But with a twist I’ll explain in today’s article.

A session is made up of encounters. Encounters make up adventures. Adventures make campaigns.

To speak about encounters I first need to speak about adventures.

That’s one level up.

We could also talk about encounter roles in campaigns — two levels up. But we’ll do that another day.

I can also only speak to what I aim to do for my adventures.

You might GM different, and have a different answer for Joshua.

What’s the Plot?

When it comes to adventure plots, I think in terms of:

  • Mission or Goal
  • Stakes
  • Rewards
  • Foes & Conflicts

What’s the win-state for players? That’s your Goal.

What’ll happen if the players fail to act or act and fail? That’s your Stakes.

What does accomplishing the Goal mean to the characters? That’s your Reward.

What stands in between the characters and their Goal and Reward? That’s your Foes & Conflicts.

The Plot is your Game Plan for how your players can achieve win-state.

Gameplay adds more details, options, and additions to each of these categories.

Cuidad del Desierto

For example, this is something I’ve been working on for my one of my campaigns.

The PCs quest to find a fresh source of water after their desert town’s supply goes foul.

A pack of air elemental-riding duergar in Mad Max gear claim the only water source within 50 miles as theirs.

If the town does not get fresh water in three days, people will start dying.

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Game Master POV

During gameplay, characters might spawn side plots. Their actions might draw other foes to the area. The party might lose a fight against their foes.

In this way, your plot becomes alive.

Because gameplay changes the Game Plan.

So I update my Plot after each session.

I start by curating my Session Logs – notes I make during sessions using Campaign Logger.

Then I update a Campaign Entry I call The Story So Far, which is a high-level summary (pun intended!) of the campaign played to date.

This helps me keep my different faction, villains, quests, and other plots straight.

Then I review my adventure plot Campaign Entry. If it’s out of whack because of the latest gameplay, I change it.

I write adventure plots as bullet lists. So, updating my plot is pretty quick – just changing or re-ordering bullets.

Then it’s figuring out my Session Plan for next session.

A Key Difference

I mention all this as context for one reason why I think every encounter advances the plot:

I do not have a stake in the Game Plan.

I have an adventure plot outlined.

It changes based on how the adventure unfolds.

Yet I do have a complete plot outlined, so I always know where I want to try to guide play without impinging on player agency.

And here’s a little secret.

I do not always plan connections ahead of time.

I might have 20 steps for my adventure’s Game Plan.

Sometimes I know how steps connect within two or three hops. And sometimes it’s a question mark I let gameplay inspire.

I really do not have to push with my thumb on gameplay to steer it where I want. I’m always excited to find out what happens next.

And here’s another little secret.

I do not spend energy worrying about how the adventure will finish.

When you do this, you get lured into pressing that thumb down so the game goes where you want. Along that path waits stress and frustration.

Instead, I focus all my energy on keeping the players and their characters interested in the adventure.

If players are interested and characters are following their muses, we’ll always find a way to the next step, and the next one, and ultimately to a finish.

Attention spent on motivation always pays the greatest dividends on GM energy given.

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Player POV

With all this now as a foundation, here’s why I believe all encounters are relevant to plot in my campaigns.

The players have a Goal.

It’s up to them how they complete it.

A well-designed adventure has constraints. My example has a time limit of 3 days.

Everything the players decided to do comes from a consideration of known constraints.

For example, if the party dawdles and is noisy, they might trigger a random encounter.

Random encounters risk reduced resources and lost time.

That’s a costly plot mistake. And they know it.

Even though you might think a random encounter has no relevance to the villain or chief agent that’s blocking win-state, it still affects the party’s ability to overcome obstacles, foes, and conflicts to win and get the biggest reward.

Even if your conflicts are all roleplay, politics, and intrigue, every encounter puts the characters in a potentially weaker or stronger position to achieve future win-state.

Whether it’s resources, clues, knowledge, or position, the party will be affected by any encounter spun up.

And for me it comes down to encounter design.

Whether you plan, outline, or improv your encounters, once they trigger you try to inject all ingredients possible for a cohesive, fun, and exciting gameplay experience.

Therefore, no encounter becomes meaningless.

Ensure they are packed with great gameplay, and the plot effect takes care of itself, whether directly or indirectly.

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RPGs Are Different — And It’s Awesome

I think other mediums skew this expectation for us.

We see every book, TV show, and movie as a linear, edited, and optimized plot.

Our beloved hobby is marvelously different.

Plots are not straight arrows guided by hindsight as in other entertainment formats.

Our plots are messier. Our stories wander. Characters halt progress or regress the plot. Players can even abandon the plot.

And so, I chose to read your question a certain way, Josh.

It might not have been the way you meant me to take it in, but I read it not as “Do all encounters need to advance the plot?” but as “Do all encounters advance the plot?”

For RPG, my approach is that all encounters do affect plot because they affect the characters and players in pursuit of their goal.

If all encounters affect plot, need becomes moot.

And if an encounter fails to affect characters or players, it’s a failed encounter we do not want.

And so, my belief is adventures designed this way help you have more fun at every game.

Make every encounter count.