Explosive Session Starts – Part III: The Encounter Pyramid

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0740

An Encounter Walkthrough Example

As this mini-series about kicking sessions off with excitement winds up, here’s a step-by-step walkthrough of planning my next explosive session start.

We’ve been talking about how to launch with instant energy and surfing that wave to have amazing sessions. It’s harder to wind up from a slow start than it is to keep pulses pounding after an explosive one.

Having written this series, I realize I’ve fallen into the bad habit of nonchalant session starts. Time to fix that, and here’s how I’m using Campaign Logger to do it.

We ended last Murder Hobos session with the PCs releasing yet another impending doom into the world. They failed to stop the summoning of the elder water elemental lord Olhydra and retreated back to the dungeon entrance.

I failed to get their decision on next actions. So, step one is to brainstorm their possible next actions:


It’s highly likely the PCs will choose to talk with lizard king Drexa to ask again about the missing abbess, Hellenrae. They mentioned that before and it’s a good, logical next choice.

I’m guessing here though. So I’m going to make the decision for them and will do a better job next time about ending on a cliffhanger or getting their decision on how next session will start.

As the PCs trundle up the stairs and re-enter the Fane of the Eye, I’m going to have Drexa there waiting for them. Bring the adventure to the PCs in this case.

I’m going to have Drexa bearing a message from the villain, trying to trick the PCs into entering a dangerous part of the dungeon.

Great idea. But not explosive.

So, round 1: Drexa says he knows where Hellenrae is and asks to parley.

Round 2: Zegdar crashes in with minotaur warriors screaming their battle yell, “Death to snakes!”

Now the PCs must choose sides, attack both sides, watch, or leave.

Likely, the PCs will keep Drexa alive long enough to learn what he knows. Meantime, Sskesh the lizardman shaman waits in the wings, looking for an opportunity to steal something valuable from the PCs and take it to the dangerous part of the dungeon to further lure the PCs there.

Here’s the encounter plan:


A nice set-up with roleplaying combined with action, and a good stake: What if the villain uses the lizardfolk to trick the PCs into entering the Black Geode? The stake is getting a clue on rescuing Hellenrae.

Let’s look at our Encounter Triangle for a quick test to see if this encounter is as good as it can be:

Who: Drexa, Sskesh, Zegdar, minions.

Plot: Hellenrae and villain influence thrown in as a bonus (if captured and made to talk, I can reveal the villain communicates to stage bosses via dream visions).

Where: By the waterfall.

The Who and Plot are great. But the location is under-developed in my opinion.

Let’s work on that quick.

First thought is if the PCs fall into the pool they’ll get sucked in by the water current and dragged back down into the Plunging Torrents dungeon level. Snakes and Ladders (no pun intended).

Second, the footing is slippery. Combatants can slip-slide into the pool.

Third, the lizardfolk are great swimmers. A few might dive into the pool and drag the PCs with them via grapple or grab them from the water.

Fourth, the waterfall is so loud you have to shout. It sprays mist everywhere.

Fifth, I can have something of interest floating in the water and taken by the waterfall. I don’t need to figure out what right now, I’ll ad lib it.

Here’s how the encounter is looking now:


All told, this took just a few minutes to whip up. Tagging made typing even faster, all names are 100% accurate and consistent, and I’ve even added to my Library for future re-use.

The waterfall is not only reusable, but the entire encounter itself I can quickly clone in Campaign Logger and reskin. It’s a template for “two factions fight, one has information the PCs want, on interesting terrain.” Swap out tags in seconds to make it relevant and different. Explosive session starts give you instant interest and energy you can surf the rest of the night. You only get one chance each session though. So give it your best shot.