How To Build Encounters On A Budget

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1210

Brief Word From Johnn

I just returned from a two week camping trip that was a great and relaxing time. I know I’m stressed when my notebook gathers dust and doesn’t get any new ideas. That was the story of my 2022 so far.

But after a few days sitting around reading and thinking, the dam burst and ideas started pouring out. I filled pages with all kinds of dumb, fun, and weird thoughts. It was great.

So it’s good to be back now, refreshed and raring to go. Which brings us to today’s tips by Jonathan. I get a lot of emails from GMs asking for help with their campaigns, adventures, and encounters. And one of the most common problems I see is making things too complicated.

Our goal as GMs should be to keep things SIMPLE and let the players screw it up, lol.

And that’s what today’s tips are about. How to create simple encounters so we stay sane while giving the players enough rope to get themselves into trouble. Let’s dive in.

I hope you have a game-full week!


How To Build Encounters on a Budget

By Jonathan Hardin,

I was spending too much time on parts of the adventure that would never happen. So I reminded myself of something I learned on a cooking show:

Budget your ingredients to a few in order to save time on the recipe.

So, how could I use this method when designing encounters?

I present to you: Encounter Building on a Budget

Gather your Ingredients

  • Title
  • Purpose
  • Hook
  • Goal
  • Problem


The title is a memorable definition of the encounter. I recommend giving it a shiny name, and better yet, a name that defines the setting in which the encounter unfolds.

Example: Starblood meets with the characters

Once you have the title, you can relate the other ingredients to it. Think of the title as your topic. To stay on topic during the encounter, refer to the fancy title.


The purpose is the type of encounter and why it belongs in your adventure. For simplicity of types, group encounters into three buckets: exploration, interaction, and combat.

Where No One Has Gone Before

Exploration encounters provide some attempt to discover. Success would mean the characters move on in the story with a handy piece of intel for later use. Failure would mean they either learn nothing and regret it later, or learn a lie that tricks them in future encounters.

It Is Who You Know

Interactions are ways in which the characters can engage with the people, places, and things of the world. The purposes are manifold, but include entertainment. Sometimes, it is simply pure fun to visit a new part of the world. The reward is learning about the setting. This reward is easy to obtain for the characters, and it looks a lot like the setting responding favorably towards the characters. Failure looks like the world responding with hostility towards the characters.

Place: A location provides dangerous challenges through things like weather, terrain, or even a mob that attempts to flush out the characters.

People: A single person or entity responds with hostility. This might look like a full combat, betrayal, or a plot to remove social status from the characters.

Things: An item the character interacts fails and the item’s hostility implies some condition is placed upon the characters. This could also look like money becoming a problem to the players in that everyone in the world wants what they have!

The important thing to remember about interactions is that they are interactive between the people around the game table. Determine the outcome “in character” between game master and player, or resolve it with dice. Choose which suits your table best.

Fight It Out

Combat encounters are simple, challenging, and hostile to character life and limb. They result in the characters succeeding to live another day, or suffering injury, capture, or death.


Now that you have selected the type of encounter, you can select a hook to place in front of the players. This is a hint or offer designed to lure players into buying into this encounter, so make it flashy. For simplicity, hooks can be observed or incited.

Observed Hooks

One of these things just doesn’t belong here! To make an observable hint, describe 3 features within a setting, but make one of those features seem out of place.

For example, at a royal party the characters enjoy some downtime after their last adventure. At the event, they see servants delivering drinks, fancy dresses and gowns, and a band playing in the corner. One of the musicians wears a tattered white robe and smokes a long pipe in between sessions. This oddity can draw the players into the interaction with Starblood, the witch.

Incited Hooks

An incited hook happens to the players — they don’t go looking for trouble, but trouble finds them. For example, Starblood directly approaches the characters at the party disguised as a server with drinks.

Use observable tempts to first lure the characters in so they experience the motion of choosing their own adventure. But if they fail to graph onto the encounter, you can have an incident deliver the encounter straight to them.

If chosen, this tempting hook begins the encounter, so refer to the player’s preferences as well as character bonds within the game to make it noticeable.


The next ingredient is the goal of the encounter. What reason do you have to place it within the adventure?

Goal: To determine if the characters will:

  1. Recall Starblood’s curse upon them
  2. Accept her quest to retrieve the bloodstone

Notice how I gave more than one goal to give a more varied outcome.

Establishing a clear goal in the encounter will anchor you during gametime. Because you already know what the goal of the encounter is, you can improvise around it and respond to any reactions from the players.


Finally, you can top off the encounter with a problem for the players to solve. Boring encounters only expose the players to information. Exciting encounters do that plus grant them a problem to solve. Now that you have exposed them to quests, discoveries and a rich world in which they can play, lay on the challenge.

Within this party, Starblood has bewitched a member of the event to stand above the balcony and prepare to mindlessly leap off the railing to a bloody death. Starblood prepares to kill an innocent if the players refuse to cooperate. Starblood also threatens to enact a complication of the curse upon one of the players from a previous encounter.

Many questions arise with this encounter:

  • Will the players accept the quest?
  • Will they realize Starblood has cursed one of their own?
  • Will the innocent NPC live or die?
  • How will the characters manage this encounter?

You get bonus points if you relate different character hooks into your encounter. For example:.

  • The innocent NPC – how do they know them?
  • The event – is it special to some of them?
  • The bloodstone Starblood wants – does one of them want it more?
  • Starblood’s Curse – who did she affect in the last encounter?
  • One of the drinks served – why is it special to a character?
  • The song the musicians are playing – is it a favorite of the character?

After a budgeted amount of time, I have a meaningful encounter for my players, sure to tempt and engage them, and entertain them for our next game. This whole process took me about 30 minutes. To keep this recipe simple, remember these five ingredients and go build an encounter!

May your story continue!