How To Detail An Encounter In Less Than A Minute: Dangers, Discoveries, Impressions
Here’s an encounter tip for you today, pulled out of my Adventure Building Master Game Plan, which launches later this year.
Once I get to the encounter building phase, I start digging into the details.
I’ve got a Campaign Game Plan created, and an Adventure Game Plan built, by the time I reach this stage.
Now it’s time for encounters.
To help make this prep item fast and fun, I create a table in Campaign Logger with three columns:
I fill the columns with at least three details each as I develop the encounter, as ideas come to me, and while I’m doing research.
The columns have a specific order.
I add Impressions last, based on what Dangers and Discoveries there are in the area. This ensures my opening description is complete.
I start with Dangers so I understand the encounter’s Conflict.
And then I work on Discoveries to make gameplay even more interesting.
Without risk, reward becomes meaningless.
Without challenge, characters can never test themselves.
And without conflict, encounters become boring.
We need Dangers for drama.
- NPC foes
- Villain’s minions
- Bad decisions
- Relationships going sour
- Losing something
- Something breaking
Dangers loop back to your plot so they have meaning for you as storyteller.
For example, the characters are investigating a lead. They want to see the banking details of a cultist. The bank manager poses an obstacle.
The Danger here is that the bank manager could destroy the records, call for security, or alert greater powers if what the PCs suspect is true.
I add all those Dangers to my table:
These come in three juicy flavours:
We think of these like they are exciting things to discover while the encounter plays out.
We could add a whole bunch of stuff to this column.
For example, there’s a silent alarm button under the bank manager’s top desk drawer. The bank manager could be undead. The ceiling has a camera and mic, plus a sleeping gas dispenser.
All these I file under Developments.
Rewards could be a lock box with passports and money, interesting files on the desk providing new leads, and interesting contact details on the manager’s phone.
Surprises could be the bank manager’s affiliation with the Syndicate revealed by neck tattoos and a healthy balance in an offshore account. I don’t categorize Discoveries. I just use Rewards, Developments, and Surprises to help me brainstorm.
I use this column to help me improvise encounter description and details.
Impressions are what the player characters sense during the first few seconds of the encounter.
I dislike boxed text in homebrew adventures. It’s faster for me to write a few detail keywords and then paraphrase them during the session.
Boxed text is rigid, and often doesn’t match the current context anyway.
For example, I won’t know if the PCs plan to hit the bank manager’s office during work hours, on the weekend as “cleaners”, or at night.
Flashlights during a break-and-entry would require a different description than a 3pm “loan appointment”.
The Impressions column makes me an Agile GM.
I’ll use anything of note in Dangers and Discoveries to feed Impressions as well.
A Simple Encounter Framework
I use the Dangers, Discoveries, Impressions method to quickly skeleton out encounters.
It takes just a minute to build out the table.
I keep the table handy for easy reference during the game.
As characters approach an encounter, I’ll review Discoveries first.
That’s a bit counterintuitive, but I find knowing these details helps me stage the encounter most effectively.
Discoveries are the raison d’etre of the encounter. They are the Why… for our encounters.
Next, I’ll skim Dangers for possible alertness, set up, and tactics.
And when the party triggers the encounter, I provide a description facilitated by Impressions, Discoveries, and Dangers.
This takes moments, because I am already familiar with the details having created all of them and put them in the reference table.
A quick skim helps me recall things and start the encounter without having to flip through pages or work from memory.
Try Dangers, Discoveries, Impressions yourself for encounter creation and let me know how it goes!