How To Make Every Encounter Interesting
By Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1195
Here’s an interesting question about encounter building that WorldWibe asks on RPT’s Discord:
Is a dungeon-making philosophy that goes: “Every room should have something interesting in it, be it battle, treasure or lore” a good design-methodology?
Thanks for the great question!
A lot depends on your GMing style and player expectations.
But let me explain my approach in the hopes part or all of it might suit you.
Keep a Good Pace
First, consider your desired pacing.
Do you want the party sniffing, scratching, and tapping in every floorboard, nook, and cranny?
If we put something interesting everywhere, then we motivate players to search everywhere.
That soon creates Snoozeville.
So I prefer a sprinkling of interesting things throughout an adventure instead of a carpet.
And my encounter design goals most of the time involve:
- Reward players who pay attention
- Reward good ideas, good roleplay, and taking action
- Keep up a brisk pace
- If action, provide an interesting CombatScape
- If roleplay, provide interesting 3 Line NPCs
- If puzzle, provide clarity in detail and replies
- Hook as much detail to world, campaign, adventure, or Loop
Note these are encounter level goals. Adventures involve different aims. Likewise campaign and world tiers of GM thinking.
My encounter goals are also independent of how much I improvise.
If an encounter is 100% pre-planned, I still want to reward ideas, roleplay, and action.
I still want as quick a pace as possible by default (and slower for effect).
And I still want interesting environments, NPCs, and details.
The same is true with 100% improvised encounters.
But overall, I favour gameplay with a good, quick pace so lots of story emerges.
In my experience, we can flub a lot of our GMing during a session.
But ensuring the plot advances and getting that storytelling in helps everyone feel better about a session regardless of its GMing disasters.
So design (and answer your question WorldWibe) with pace in mind.
Provide Clear Signals
The 5 Room Dungeon structure means I need to make at least five encounters interesting.
They form a Critical Story Path through your adventure, regardless of whether your adventure is 5 encounters or a megadungeon.
Each Room in the 5RD framework has a special story purpose so that, when combined, turns you into Spielberg, Tolkein, Shakespeare.
So we’re really talking just non-5RD encounters.
The first thing I’ll do when players encounter a barren area is clearly describe that.
I will end my description with something like, “And you feel pretty confident there’s nothing of interest here.”
And I keep my word on that.
I explain to my players that I’ll let their characters automatically notice the obvious and somewhat occluded stuff unless the PCs are under duress.
I give out the things I need characters to find. There’s no point obfuscating that.
Then I give out details on somewhat hidden stuff to highly perceptive characters if those PCs aren’t distracted.
This lets my group relax about searching every five feet. They know I’ll tell them the obvious stuff and mild difficulty detection type stuff.
For well-hidden details I’ll wait for action to reveal those. Detect or trigger. Either outcome is ok with me.
So my players know where not to waste time and have trust I won’t screw them.
Observant players realize when the party’s distracted and will decide whether to pause and search.
This speeds pace up a lot.
It also makes the game more about discovery by making it easier for characters to get interesting details, which we want.
Provide clear signals on if there’s potentially interesting stuff to find and you’ll increase pace and fun at the same time.
But Wait, Let Me Contradict Myself
In true villain fashion, my final answer is yes, make every encounter interesting.
Let me explain the contradiction.
Since I made this four part video series with Sly Flourish (watch the first video here) I have given the concept of Situations a lot more effort.
Also as Sim Dungeon meets Spielberg.
That means there’s a greater context we can inherit to add choices, action, and story to every uninteresting encounter.
An empty room might truly have nothing of interest.
But what if it’s a way to slam a door in the face of dangerous pursuers, add more distance one must cover while bleeding out, or offer an area of reprieve?
Every moment of gameplay should reflect the party’s current Dramatic Situation.
I call GMs who are life-long learners and have a strong desire to improve their craft Wizards of Adventure.
And part of being a Wizard of Adventure is about mastering the moment.
By analyzing and synthesizing many details, we determine a current moment of action.
This is what I call the Dramatic Situation.
We harvest our knowledge of the game rules, our game world, the current adventure, our campaign, and other data sources.
We then fuse details these into our narrative of what’s happening now.
Then we find out what players do to see what happens next.
Take a moment to think about that.
We GMs are pretty awesome, eh?
It’s quite the thing to ask of a person.
“Why don’t you recollect details about an entire fictional world you made up, the story that’s been told for the last two years, five distinct protagonists and all their enemies and all other people in the area, and 546 pages of rules all at once?
“Too easy? No problem. You need to be a master of strategy and tactics too.
“Still too easy? No problem. There’s no script. You make it up as you go along!
“That’s right. You gotta mix rules, and dice math, and strategy, and imagination, and lore together to weave a fantastic story on-the-fly.”
You are amazing. We GMs are amazing.
I urge you to check out the video above where Mike and I talk more about how to turn 5 Room Dungeons into Situations to get more context on what I’m going on about here.
My Final Answer
Aim to GM with brisk pacing.
Allow automatic detail detection to give players good expectations and confidence while they explore.
And think in terms of situations, not isolated encounters.
Combine these three approaches to keep gameplay interesting without having to make every room interesting.
I hope this helps, WorldWibe.
Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.