5 Ways To Intensify Your Encounters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1006

Awhile ago I ran an Encounter Intensify challenge as a way to help awesome RPT GMs practice my new Intensify Encounters method. I asked RPT GMs to make one of their encounters more intense and share how they did it.

Today I have five excellent examples from those GMs of how to ramp up the excitement and drama of your adventure encounters.

Recap: What Is Encounter Intensification?

We want adrenaline at the table. We want to players tripping out with nervousness and excitement as we amp up the pressure and make outcomes even more uncertain.

Intensify your encounters to make this happen.

Focus on Encounters

Your first draft of an encounter is often good.

But with a little extra oomph, we can make it intense.

We focus on encounters because intensity you might have created at the adventure, campaign, and milieu level gets diluted from gameplay stretching out over hours, days, and weeks.

The impending doom takes a backseat with initiative. The players’ hate for your villain fades as focus shifts away in the moment.

Encounters are tiny stories.

Adventures are just encounters stitched together. Campaigns are but a long series of encounters, played one at a time.

Encounters are the building blocks of your stories, so make your encounters count!

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5 Examples of Encounter Intensification

I’ve read through all the entries and today I share with you five of my favourites. I hope they serves as a kind of shortlist you can use to intensify your future encounters.

Fallen Foes Rise Again

From NekoSingh

A necrotic device in the area sends out a wave of dark energy, raising all fallen individuals.

They rise with just a single hit point.

The device is powered by a scrawled, complicated arcane formula.

Proper disarming of the arcane sigils is required. Failure results in a planar rift that allows access to the negative plane. From the plane will certainly come a horde of problems.

Johnn: Recycling foes gives players a sense of momentary hopelessness and urgency.

Hopelessness from realizing they have to fight their foes again. Urgency to find a solution to stop the recycling. Best played with a horde of weaker foes for bigger impact.

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Trap & Divide

From Locke

As my players assault a giant stronghold, the fall of a giant exposes a weakness in the floor, causing the PCs to fall into a sub-basement filled with monstrous and magic-tainted vermin.

Johnn: Consider splitting the party mid-encounter.

In Locke’s example, you could use failed dex saving throws, only some PCs in the shadow of the falling creature, or location of the hole to split the group.

Now PCs must battle on two fronts.

Create a trap that divides the party to make encounters more intense.

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Three-Way Standoff

From N. Clark

While fighting members of a criminal gang, the PCs draw the attention of local law enforcement.

The flatfoots have been paid off by the gang, but based on how the PCs interact with the enforcers, the lawmen will join forces with either the gangsters or the PCs.

Johnn: The interaction angle here is excellent. Waves of foes always intensify encounters. But making a risky and temporary alliance possible cranks up the uncertainty even more.

My favourite movie is The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. The three-way standoff at the end is just a fantastic, tension-filled scene. As we look into the eyes of each gunslinger, we wonder who’s going to shoot first, and who’s going to get shot down first.

A fantastic structure for nail-biting moments.

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Surprise Hazards

From Technik

While the party battles underground, a massive earthquake causes widespread cave-ins and dangers from above.

Johnn: I like hazards that players can’t spot or anticipate. The shock from surprise will get pulses pounding.

Bonus points if the hazard stems from previous character actions instead of pure GM fiat.

For example, destructive magic two encounters ago destabilized an area, making the earthquake happen.

I’m playing the fantastic board game Lisboa a lot. It’s game about three catastrophes that hit the Portuguese city in 1755 in rapid succession.

An earthquake turned most buildings into rubble. Forty minutes later, a tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown area. Then subsequent fires from knocked-over candles destroyed what was left.

Look for opportunities to put a triggered sequence like this together in rapid succession during encounters.

Round 1: The fireball destroys half the foes.

Round 3: A raging fire races through the area, causing choking smoke and spiking temperatures.

Round 5: Explosions from natural gas nearby knock combatants about.

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Deprive Their Senses

From Heysetch

A sudden blast of wind blows all the torches out.

Johnn: Anything you can do to add fog of war mid-encounter will scare players.

Describe things picked up by other senses made mysterious by the loss of the primary sense.

“In the sudden darkness the air grows rapidly colder. You hear scratching and shuffling sounds getting closer on your left and right. And now deep growl sends tremors through the flagstones beneath your feet!”

Hopefully these ideas inspire your next encounter design.
Start first with your initial encounter idea.
Then layer on an Encounter Intensifier to jack up the excitement!