Encounters Are Like My Favourite Zesty Game Food

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0735

How do you think your games? My favourite unit of thought for gameplay is encounters.

Encounters are like pizza. They are central to the meal. You might get pop, dips, chicken wings, and other add-ons, but the meal is all about the ‘za.

During sessions, we usually order four or five pizzas, each one different for variety and titillating the taste buds.

You can customize the hell out of pizza. From dough type to sauce to toppings. Size, shape, crust. Fold it, knife and fork it, or wedge it.

A great pizza isn’t just thrown together. It’s crafted, like art. You need fresh ingredients. You need to make the dough even and well-shaped on the pan. The sauce must reach all edges and have decent depth. The toppings should be spread for evenness and to please the eye when cooked. The cheese must be layered on just so.

Encounters shouldn’t just be thrown together either.

Trying to think about the entire game as one big, living, changing entity overwhelms me. And trying to see each detail from party formation to villain finale is more than I can formulate or predict.

I break complex things into logical chunks. The complex suddenly becomes simpler and understandable that way. I also get to observe how chunks interact so I can learn how to handle, design, and strategize about them better.

For example, my 5 Campaign Buckets I’ve written about before. They let me create, organize, and manage all game elements fast, especially when coupled with a good organization tool like a GM binder, Evernote, or Campaign Logger.

Thinking the game with encounters as the base gameplay unit gives me a strong handle on any campaign, adventure, or session.

Let’s revisit the Encounter Pyramid:

Every encounter needs a location. It’s the dough and crust that form the foundation of the encounter and hold sauce and toppings together. Location adds many tactical, logical, and thematic aspects to your encounter.

An encounter should have a layer of plot. Preferably one that ties into and progresses the campaign or adventure’s plot. Plot — some call it the dramatic question — is the zesty sauce. The stuff that ties the whole encounter together and makes PCs and players keen to game it. For example, Combat Missions make a perfect sauce for encounters.

Last, we come to our delicious toppings. These are the NPCs, items, and events, in addition to the round-by-round gameplay that happens as the encounter unfolds. We want fresh, active ingredients here.

That covers what’s in our base unit of gameplay. It’s a tasty part of the game to create and consume! In the future, I’ll talk about how I think about these at the session level. Meantime, I having a sudden craving for my favourite: pepperoni, pineapple, double cheese, and extra sauce. I guess that solves dinner for tonight.