A Cracking Way To Conjure Compelling Encounters
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0797
The best way to start adventure planning is with conflict.
Conflict drives gameplay. When PCs must meet and beat something, you’re going to offer up choices, skill checks, attack rolls, and parleys. Roll the dice, say yes, keep the pace storming.
A problem I used to face was coming up with enough conflict, encounter, and plot ideas.
That sucks because it feels scary facing the void of “What happens next?” with your players looking expectantly at you and you’ve got no ideas.
I used to stall. If you visit the archives, I wrote a lot of tips about stalling in the old days. I’d draw out encounters and combats so they’d chew up session time because I had no inspired thoughts. Bleh.
Now I want to chew through encounters and adventures. More encounters equals more gameplay. More gameplay equals more fun! More gameplay also means more story gets told.
One awesome approach to solving this is to have an abundance of conflicts. Then just translate the conflicts into plots and encounters. You’ll never have to kill session time again.
To get this abundance, we use my favourite noggin’ poker — the “What if..” method. But today we use it specifically for conflict ideation.
Step 1. Make a List of Bad Guys
Start by creating a pool of sh*t disturbers. These foes will be your source of conflicts.
A bigger pool is better. It gives you more Primary and Secondary Agents to work with.
If stuck, create a wandering monster table. Each foe on that table can become a source of obstacles and dangers for your PCs.
If you are a Campaign Logger member, go to your Cast of Characters. That gives you an instant list of campaign-specific NPCs to use:
Step 2. Ask What if…
I scooped this approach from Ray Bradbury. You ask a question because it sets your brain on a quest for answers. It’s an open-ended question, prompting your noggin’ to start remembering, associating, and relating to create interesting answers. And the question itself will get you ideas better suited for encounter and plot seeds than asking how or why or when.
As answers come to you, write them down.
There are no bad answers in this step. Write them all down.
We’re going to tweak our What if… here though. I want you to ask it the following way instead, because I find it’s more useful for generating conflict-type answers:
What if the characters don’t stop X?
X is the bad guy.
Go through the names in your pool and write down the consequences of the PCs failing to block their foes.
You should aim for 2-5 consequences for each foe. That’s the secret of this technique, which I’ll get into a bit later.
So, what if the PCs don’t stop the Baron?
- Villagers begin to starve
- Bandits increase
- Monsters in the woods grow bolder and attack the village
- The Duke pays a visit to tax the Baron more
- Rival barons plot to attack their increasingly wealthy brother
From those five ideas you see a combo of instant encounter opportunities (emboldened monsters and bandits attack the PCs).
We also have some potential plot seeds (war or espionage). What do you do with those?
You throw them back into your What if… conflict generator! Keep doing that until you drill each plot seed down into actionable encounters. This is part of the reason why this technique can be so effective in giving you dozens of encounter hooks within minutes.
Step 3. Add an Action
But wait. I want to make one more enhancement to the What if… conflict question to help generate even better ideas for us. Add one extra bit to the question:
What if the characters don’t stop X from doing Y?
This will multiply your brainstorming fivefold.
First, it helps you get even more specific for thinking up conflicts, situations, and consequences (encounters).
Second, it lets you create multiple circumstances or situations per foe! Here’s how that works.
Create your pool of bad guys (X).
For each bad guy, think up 2-5 bad actions (Y).
Ask What if… for each combination.
Just five foes with five actions with five What if… answers gives you 125 encounter ideas!
For example, Y might be:
- Conspire with Z
What if the characters don’t stop the Baron’s men from exploring the tomb?
What if the characters don’t stop the Baron from assassinating the Duke?
What if the characters don’t stop the Baron from blocking both roads and setting up an exorbitant toll?
What if the characters don’t stop the Baron from poisoning the lake?
What if the characters don’t stop the Baron from conspiring with the Duchess to cause civil war between three other barons?
The questions themselves trigger adventure ideas. And the answers trigger multiple encounter seeds and plots ideas.
When an idea is still too vague, throw it back into the What if X does Y generator.
If you get stuck, and you have Campaign Logger, the tag autosuggest comes to the rescue for you.
First, a cool hack. Put all your Z action words into a Log Entry and tag them with the Plot tag. For example:
This will enable autosuggest when you start typing the Z part.
Create a new Log Entry. Start typing. “What if the characters don’t stop @”
Logger instantly brings up a list of NPCs from your campaign you can scroll through and select:
Type a letter to bring up a list of NPCs whose name starts with that letter for even faster scanning.
Then keep typing. “What if the characters don’t stop @Gholug from *”
The asterisk plot tag prompts Campaign Logger to bring up your list of Z bad guy action words for you. Just select one and keep typing!
And when you’re done, Campaign Logger links all your ideas to the specific NPCs you mention for fast in-game inspiration.
Also, Logger links your ideas to all the action words! Need a quick murder plot? Just filter for all *Murdering notes and scan the idea lists you’ve made.
The more session notes you log and the more campaign details you add to Campaign Logger, the more powerful the associations, linkages, and idea generation will be for you.
Before next session, spend 15 minutes brainstorming using the What if X does Y method.
Use existing people, places, and things from your campaign to create patterns, connections, and deeper plots.
Generate a bunch of ideas. Then simply pick the best ones to use as awesome encounter seeds.