7 Tips On Creating Awesome Encounters On The Fly
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #572
No matter how well you plan, you will need to create encounters on the fly at some point in your campaign. You can only predict so much. But that’s part of why GMing is so much fun. Thinking on your feet is a fun and great skill to learn.
However, we often face blank page syndrome when this happens. You’re put on the spot, feeling the pressures of story, performance and game weighing heavier as seconds tick by. And your mind goes blank. Your stomach knots and you become anxious, making it even harder to think smoothly on your feet.
The solution is to have a simple system for creating encounters on short notice. A framework you can step into to make filling in the blanks much easier. Replace the evil blank page with a useful recipe.
This gives your mind something tangible to work with, to form a great encounter around, like a pearl forms around a grain of sand.
How To Use Your Recipe
Create a recipe for yourself that works with your GMing style, game system and players. Today, I’m going to give you a recipe you can use right now, or tweak to suit your specific situation.
To use it, create a worksheet for yourself you can fill out on the fly. That’s the easiest method. Just call a break mid-game, find a quiet place for five minutes (or just duck down behind your GM screen) and run through your recipe.
You could also write the steps on a post-it or add it more formally to your screen or GM binder. You just need the framework laid out to put your mind at ease so you can get to work and quell the butterflies.
Avoid The Perfection Monster
A word of caution. Your recipe should not be a full encounter stat block or encounter layout. You don’t have time for that. You need to be quick coming up with ideas for the big pieces of your encounter, and then resume gameplay as fast as possible.
There’s a monster that’ll sabotage you every step of the way. It has a 1 in 1 chance of appearing for some of us, and 1 in 4 or more for those more lucky. 🙂 That monster is perfectionism.
And perfectionism kills creativity.
Good enough means you’ve got a good enough idea to start your encounter, and it has a bit of story or purpose to give players an experience more satisfying than an endless random monster generation machine would.
Don’t fret over details. Just launch as soon as you’ve got a piece in place for each part of your recipe.
Ok, ready for the recipe? Great, let’s go.
Draw A Map
Pen and paper work fastest here. Your goal is to:
- Get a rough idea of the encounter environment (outside or inside, terrain and obstacles)
- Determine the scale (is it a large battlefield or small room?)
- Figure out where the edges are
- Start thinking about where to place the threat
- Start thinking about the entrance
- Get a feel for exits
Make it a quick and dirty sketch. Something like this, this or this.
Unless a detailed 5′ grid plan is critical, just make a fast drawing. It will prove useful throughout the encounter and give you an instant Scroll Of Confidence.
Sketching maps fast is a skill. That means you can have fun and get some practice at the same time. Have you heard of Five Minute Maps? There’s a whole community you can chat and practice with, show off your work to, and get tips.
Five Minute Maps:
You should start participating in the #fridayfiveminutemaps challenge. It’s a great way to practice, and it only takes…you guessed it: 5 minutes. 🙂
If drawing maps is not your thing, there are a ton of maps posted online available for personal use. Search for rpg map or encounter map.
With map in hand, let’s go to the next step.
Create A Threat
Every encounter needs a conflict. The PCs must struggle against something to test themselves, to learn about themselves and to propel the story forward.
The easiest threat to prop up is foes to fight.
But be sure to mix things up with roleplaying and puzzle encounters. To create threats for these, think about what the stakes are and work from there.
For example, in an RP encounter, the stakes might be finding important information, making a new contact or defending reputation.
In a puzzle encounter, the stakes might be traps, getting blocked (causing delays or taking a more dangerous route) or running out of time.
Combats don’t need to be fights to the death. Stakes for fights might be capturing the flag (something of value), rescuing hostages or proving worth to a judger (the dragon gives the winning side free passage and enslaves the losers).
A great way to frame this up is, what’s at risk?
This becomes the purpose of the encounter, and it’ll transform your encounter from something meaningless to something that tells a story.
I cheat with this step in my games. I take a sheet of paper (or a document in MyInfo) and write out the character names before a session. Then I brainstorm threats that would be interesting to each PC or player. I also have a section for group threat ideas.
For example, if the group has a hated rival, that’s a great element to bring into any encounter. For such an important plot point, I’d avoid putting the rival himself into an unplanned encounter. But NPCs related to or hired by the rival are fair game. As are ongoing concerns of the rival.
For example, the PCs might enter a cavern and find a bunch of smuggled goods ready for transport. Then they learn the good are owned by the rival. But before the PCs can steal, destroy or sabotage the goods, hirelings appear.
I can keep this idea in my back pocket indefinitely. I can run it pretty much anywhere (turn the cavern into a clearing, room, wagon…) and anytime.
And I can turn this encounter stake into a combat, roleplaying or puzzle situation as needed. Combat is simple: the hirelings attack. Roleplay could take the form of the lead hireling being a non-combatant and trying to negotiate. The puzzle could be hinting the PCs might want to track the goods to their destination – perhaps they’ll finally learn where their rivals’ secret base is.
This cheat sheet of threat ideas bails me out of writer’s block. Consider making your own and adding to it frequently as inspiration strikes.
Add More Zombies
Time for the bonus round. It’s one thing to make up an encounter on the fly and run it smoothly. But imagine if you could run ad hoc encounters that are some of your best and most memorable on a consistent basis?
To do this requires one special element in your encounter. Try to think it up ahead of time, but if you get stumped, keep your eyes open for an opportunity as you run the encounter.
I call this step Add More Zombies, because it’s about taking the tension and drama of the encounter up a notch. A story gets better when tension escalates. Rising tension is a master storytelling technique because it makes things more and more uncomfortable for the players/audience.
Rising tension causes a compound effect on emotion. If you start out at your high water mark for tension and excitement, the audience will get accustomed to this and even jaded about it if the level flatlines for too long.
But if you make the tension one level, then you take it up a notch mid-encounter, you throw everyone for a loop. Instant drama and excitement! You rip players out of what they’ve become used to and have shaken things up. This causes a new burst of adrenaline.
And that’s what will make your ad hoc encounters so awesome. Employ this tactic whenever possible. And because you add the new threat or complication mid-encounter, you can get away with not knowing what it will be ahead of time. You can see how the encounter develops and listen to players for inspiration. Then bring it in on round two, three or four.
For combat encounters, you could bring in a second wave of foes, add traps to the CombatScape or give some foes a magic item or special ability.
For roleplaying encounters, you want to focus on secrets and leverage. Think soap operas here. The PCs might learn something surprising about the NPC or discover a secret about themselves. An NPC might try to trick them or blackmail them if negotiations are not going well. Or new NPCs might enter the scene, changing the entire conversation dynamic.
For a puzzle encounter, layer on another trap, add a puzzle within the puzzle (“Hey, there’s a secret message here!”) or suddenly raise the stakes (the deadline jumps forward or an innocent bystander walks in).
At the start of the encounter, you make the players think, “Ok, this is what we’re facing. I’ve created my comfort zone, or at least got a handle on where the edges and boundaries are here.” You play that out for a bit. Then you add more zombies and surprise everyone!
Not all zombies need to be threats. As mentioned above, learning something new and compelling gets pulses going faster. Any kind of Aha! moment makes encounters memorable. Humour gets everyone excited and engaged. And twists – my favourite – create incredible experiences.
For example, a character’s shiny new magic sword was made for an ancient orc king. The player just thinks the extra damage it does is nifty. He doesn’t know about the orc-based powers. Then the party encounters some orcs. One orc spots the sword, makes a successful history knowledge check, and realizes it’s the famed Claw of Yokgilug. He shouts to his comrades.
PCs who can speak orc exclaim, “Oh snap!” The PC with the sword is swarmed. If an orc wrests away the sword, he’ll think it’s a nifty blade too….
Simple twist, big impact, great gameplay.
I tackle Add More Zombies two ways. First, as you might guess, I keep a cheat sheet of ideas handy.
The orc tie-in could be attached to any object the PCs find. I could change orc to any race or foe type that has special meaning to the party or an individual PC.
The second method is taken out of a page from the Dungeoncraft column from Dragon Magazine.
It’s the Second Rule of Dungeoncraft: “Whenever you fill in a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.”
Only, I have tweaked it a bit: “Whenever you create something in the campaign, always devise at least one related secret.”
Do that, and soon your cheat sheet will be overflowing with Aha! moments and twists ready to unleash in ad hoc encounters.
Begin With The Reward
So far, we’ve covered the main pillars that hold up hasty encounters. We’ve got a location and some kind of conflict. As a bonus, we’ve got a great storytelling seed ready to deploy mid-encounter.
Before all that, I actually like to start with the reward. Rewards can be treasure, XP, magic items. Rewards can also be non-tangible things like making new friends, improving reputation and “winning” a piece of the story (like foiling a villain’s plans).
I like to start with a reward because it answers the biggest question players have when entering an encounter: “What’s in it for me?”
While a selfish question, it does not imply your players are bad people. Everyone asks this question all the time, and it’s just part of human nature. Maybe a nicer way to frame this would be, “How is this relevant to _” where you last part could be the player, their PC, the plot, the game world or even fun.
If you can shape an encounter so it answers this question well, you’ve got a killer encounter in the making. And that’s why I like to think about this first. It gets the quintessential question out of the way first: Why?
If you know the reward up front, you’ve instantly got a great hook. You can dangle this in front of reluctant PCs.
And if players have already committed to the encounter before you’ve revealed the reward, you can use it to Add More Zombies mid-encounter.
For example, the reward might simply be a random table roll in the back of your rule book. The result: 3,500 gp and two potions. You decide to put these in a small wood box in a cave.
If the PCs need motivation to enter the cave, you have the box open so the coins reflect teasingly in the PCs’ torchlight. Now you decide to put orcs in the cave. As you return to the game table with encounter ready to roll, you get a sudden idea to have the PCs spot an orc shovelling the gold into the box.
Imagine that! An orc with so much money he has to use a shovel. I think you just painted this encounter with a coat of awesome, my friend.
And if the PCs are going to enter the cave anyway, maybe you instead have the box sealed but it gets smashed open by a clumsy orc mid-battle. That’s a fun surprise! “The orc swings and misses you, Bruno. He stumbles into a small box and busts it open. Hundreds of shiny gold pieces flow out like a landslide of ‘Baby, I’m buying new armour when I get back to the keep!’ Also, two vials roll away, one to the corner and one between your feet.”
Another reason to generate the reward first is so you can place it strategically in the encounter. Would it make sense for the reward to be used by the foes, or do they leave the useful magic stuff in a pile in the corner just because?
Would the reward be visible or even obvious? “Good job defeating the orcs, guys. You see a pile of gold and two potions in the center of the cave. Yes, it was there the whole time.”
Maybe the reward could become part of the action. “Ok, orcs’ turn. One opens the box you spotted earlier and grabs two potions. He pounds one down and puts the other in his belt.” Now the PCs have to act fast to save the remaining potion for themselves.
Again, I maintain a list of ideas for rewards to cherry pick from when making encounters on the fly. This was a great suggestion from page 4 of Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.
(Related: 6 Ways To Help Your Players Develop Compelling Characters During Play, Instant Reward Cards, Making Magic Items Interesting, Minor Rewards Ideas, Alternative Forms Of Character Rewards.)
Create An Entrance
With the guts of the encounter worked out now, figure out how you will start the encounter.
How will it be triggered? Do you need a hook? If so, look to your reward and Add More Zombies for guidance.
(More tips: How To Create Powerful Plot Hooks, Part I, Part II.)
Is there more than one entrance on your map? This is a common GM gotcha. You orient the encounter to face one particular entrance, but then the players pick a different one. If that’s ok, great. But it’s worth going through this step just to make sure you don’t get caught with your pants down.
When I recently GM’d the Ghost Tower of Inverness, the players used a magic adamantine weapon to carve through rock and enter the heart of the adventure way before the plot wanted. The PCs were supposed to gather four keys to unlock the magic doors to gain access to the inner sanctum. One key and a few chop chops later, the PCs were in well ahead of schedule.
So think about how the PCs could find other entrances and be prepared to adjust the encounter as needed.
Another quick check: is your entrance hidden? You do not want the PCs to bypass your encounter because they can’t figure how to enter (five failed secret door checks anyone?) or didn’t notice it.
Think About Exits
Last, ponder the end game for the encounter. Both physical and metaphorical.
Check your map. Add exits if you want escape routes or for the adventure to continue via this encounter.
And ask yourself about possible endings. Is there anything unbalanced? What happens when the PCs win? What if they lose or retreat? What can screw up the larger picture?
Create Your Recipe
Ad hoc encounters can be stressful, but if you use a recipe each time to build them piece by piece in just a few minutes, you will gain practice and confidence. And as the sessions go by, you will need to rely on your recipe less often.
But you should aim for more than mere GM survival. You want more than getting through an encounter by winging it. Instead, shoot high. Create encounters that are even better than your planned ones.
Do this by creating helper tools, like cheat sheets tailored to your group and campaign, and random/reference charts.
Then follow your recipe to assemble the pieces.
In this article, for example, we made a great encounter. We’ve got PCs vs. orcs. In a cave. Full of smuggled goods headed to a rival. And one PC has the legendary Claw of Yokgilug and doesn’t know it. Treasure is being shovelled or revealed, and it’s in jeopardy.
This encounter has it all. Loot, mayhem, secrets, surprises and maybe a bit of humour.
The thing is, it takes practice putting together the disparate items on your cheats together into a fun encounter. After you put your recipe together, or just use the one from these tips, then do the following:
- Create a cheat sheet for rewards (per player + group ones).
- Create a table of interesting threats.
- Create a list for Add More Zombies – twists, secrets, surprises.
- Join me in #fridayfiveminutemaps for weekly sketch map practice.
- Create 10 encounters before next session using your recipe for practice and actual use. Give yourself a 15 minute deadline for the first 5, then a 7 minute deadline for the next five.
- Prep your lists for easy access in-game before next session
The more you do it, the better you get. So keep on GMing and working your recipe every chance you get so you become fast and confident making up encounters on the fly.
Brief Word From Johnn
The 3rd Annual Wayne Foundation charity bundle is now available. I just heard about this program and think it’s a wonderful idea. The proceeds go towards stopping child prostitution.
For $25 you receive over $200 of indie games and help kids out at the same time. More details here:
Do You Write? Putting Together a Writers’ Directory
Remember the artist’s directory I put together? It’s a listing of pro artists who subscribe to Roleplaying Tips and who are available for freelance work. I put the directory together because a couple of companies asked me if I knew anyone who could do art for their projects.
Now I’ve had a publisher ask me for writer references. So, I’m putting together a listing of RPT readers who offer freelance writing services.
If you are an RPG writer, new or experienced, and would like to be added to the directory, drop me a note.
Ad Hoc Encounters Tips
I wrote today’s article in response to a tip request from Derek L. He was asking for help coming up with impromptu encounters. Derek, I hope my tips help.
RPT readers, if you have any tips to share on how to come up with great encounters on the fly, please hit the reply button. Thanks!
Have a game-full week.