What Makes Encounters Fun?

This is Part I of a series on How to Make Encounters Fun. Read Part II, Part III, and Part IV here.

What makes encounters a blast at your table?

For mine, I consider two audiences: the players, and YOU, the GM. Let’s talk about players first.

Our friends have many reasons to suffer through our villains, traps, and bad puns. And they keep coming back for more, so you are doing something right!

But when I plan for fun I look at three main things:

  • Earned Rewards
  • Advancing Character Arcs
  • What I (You) Bring To The Table

Earned Rewards

When we give players interesting options, players engage. They have things to noodle on, roleplay about, and team up against. Whether it’s bypassing a new kind of trap they’ve never seen before, convincing the (evil) local blacksmith to cut them a deal, or deciding whether to stay and guard the shire or take the fight to the dragon, such choices serve up player fun in spades.

Further, we should aim to offer interesting choices as much as possible. How many interesting choices do GMs offer usually? Maybe one or two really cunning ones each session? As a player, I usually get offered left or right, an open marketplace, or a hook. Good stuff, but not super original or engaging.

But what if we amped up our choices? Made them so interesting that players will throw dice at our screen grinning all the while as they wrestle with them?

And what if we served those up at least every encounter? Instead of a couple milquetoast options dropped into play each session, we instead stack diabolical decision points every encounter, or even several times an encounter?

Which brings us to the idea of earned rewards. If rewards came free, we wouldn’t value them. Without challenge and struggle, we do not change and what comes our way feels unearned. Some might even say that the missions, smart foes, and tough skill challenges ARE the fun.

But still, a chest of chocolate gold coins and gummy magic items at the other end of the crucible tastes oh so much sweeter when the characters (and players) had to sweat for it.

When we trigger thinking, teamwork, effort, and risk-taking to earn experience points, loot, and plot advancements, players will tell you they had the most fun at a game table in their lives.

And stacking interesting choices neck deep every session is a sure path for doing that.

Note that I’m not talking about dropping multiple choices onto the table at once. While that occasionally offers an interesting challenge, it usually just causes analysis paralysis. It also fractures party debate, as likely each player would advocate for a different choice, making consensus difficult.

Instead, even two-pronged choices like left or right can be enhanced by a GM into awesome gameplay that makes subsequent rewards feel earned, not given.

On Monday, I’ll share one of my favourite tools for creating — and even improvising — such diabolical choices. You can use this tool every encounter to stack up those fantastic gaming moments and make rewards feel not just earned, but well-deserved, to players who’ll breathe a sigh of satisfied relief once the drama and tension you’ve built up from the interesting choice have been resolved. Exciting!

Have a great weekend.

Oh, and before I forget, Wizards of Adventure, our monthly Q&A call happens tomorrow at 12pm Mountain time. Bring your questions and let’s help your world building, campaigns, adventures, and cunning encounters! You should get an email reminder tomorrow about an hour before.

If you are not a Wizard of Adventure yet and would like to join the call, it’s just $2 a month.

Click here for details.

Have more fun at every game!

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