How to Make Your Encounters More Intense
Static RPG encounters become predictable. We roll initiative. PCs choose their targets. Grind until the last hit point. However, there’s a concept I’ve penned in my 5 Room Dungeons book called Intensify. I’ll share it with you now so you can use the Intensify technique to make encounters come alive, surprise the PCs, and keep your players thoroughly entertained.
The technique is simple. At some point during the encounter things get worse for the characters.
You ramp up the danger so the encounter becomes more intense, more dramatic.
The best possible time to strike with more intensity is just when it looks like the PCs might lose. Perhaps the fighter is one hit away from turning the tide, but right now it’s touch-and-go. Or maybe the foes still clearly outnumber the party, but the mage has not yet brought her fireball online to clear out the weakened.
Like a master performer, you read the room, judge the situation, and wait for that perfect moment to intensify your encounter.
One way to Intensify is through Waves of Danger. The encounter is interrupted with a new threat the PCs must overcome. Perhaps there are multiple waves.
Here are five example Waves of Danger you can use to Intensify Your Encounters.
Minions Arrive to Help
Allies suddenly appear, but these are no friends of the PCs. Instead, they are servants and lackeys of the villain or stage boss.
Lots of options for you here, including how the minions arrive (mounted, teleported in, jumping down from above), which PCs are closest (and now vulnerable), and what kind of offence they bring (ranged, magic, teamwork).
Now the PCs battle on at least two fronts, and survival looks even more remote.
Innocents Are Put Into Jeopardy
A trope of many movie scenes. Hostages grabbed with an ultimatum: “Back away and leave or it’s to the Abyss for this one!”
Perhaps an area effect puts nearby onlookers hanging off crumbling debris, trapped behind an encroaching curtain of fire, or choking on poisonous gas.
Now the PCs must factor the blood of innocents into their actions.
Hazards Become More Threatening
There’s no reason terrain dangers must stay static.
Perhaps the razorgrass starts to undulate in scything motions once it tastes blood. Maybe the explosive swamp gas triggers pillars of flame. Or maybe the strong wind gusts now carry burning cinders or glass shards from previous round actions.
Trigger Your Random RPG Encounters Table
The old school rule is noises, light, and smells draw unwanted attention. Why not make this happen during the encounter as well as when the PCs are search, travel, or rest?
Get out your wandering monsters table and roll. Repeat in future encounters to encourage more party stealth, smarter tactics, and better planning.
A New Obstacle or Complication Arises
Think of this like a random event. What could suddenly happen to make matters more difficult for the party?
Does law enforcement arrive not caring about sides and just wanting peace restored? Maybe it’s an earthquake or flash flood.
Best case is a PC’s failure escalates. The greedy rogue sneaking off to check out the treasure chest unleashes a guardian. Or the fighter’s critical miss accidentally severs the rope bridge. Or the wizard’s deathstorm spell cracks the dam.
Try This Challenge
Next encounter, bring on a Wave of Danger to Intensify the game. Dislodge the players from their comfort zone as they assume all threats are known to them during round one. Make your encounters dynamic to keep players nervously looking about, hoping things don’t get worse.
Need more ideas?