Use This One Trick to Make Your Encounters Twice as Fun

Here’s something you can do to level-up your encounters. It takes only a minute, and it’s free.

Play the encounter through in your mind before it hits the table.

In helping GMs with their encounters over the years, I’ve discovered that almost no one does a mental playtest of the encounters they prep.

This is a lost opportunity. I get a number of crits from doing this:

  • It’s fast, free, and I can replay as often as I like
  • Catch Logic Bombs that would derail my design
  • Anticipate what actions the party will take
  • Anticipate what choices the players will make
  • Improve my CombatScape and 3-Round Combat Plans
  • Improve my monster design and NPC design
  • Improve treasure and rewards

However, the greatest benefit I get by playing an encounter through in my head is adding finishing touches that elevate gameplay.

For example, I have prepped an encounter for Basilica where dogmen try to extort the innkeeper for 100 gp a month “protection” money.

The first imaginary playtest made me realize the encounter’s trigger was weak. It needed the PCs to be at or near the inn. That’s a dependency I wanted to remove.

So I decided to have the innkeeper’s wife come running to the PCs for help wherever they happen to be in Fairehill. This allows me to pull the encounter trigger at will.

The next playtest revealed the encounter was boring. I like my combats, but I don’t make them the raison d’être of my gameplay. And my design was simply to defeat dogmen attacking the inn. Boring.

My tweaks to improve the encounter involved:

  • Adding NPC patrons as potential hostages, hindrances, and helpers.
  • A blazing fire burning in the fireplace.
  • A dogman or patron on round 2 will grab a burning log and try to brandish it, posing a great fire hazard.
  • The dogman pack leader has a letter with instructions to extort the inn. The letter is signed by Hadrack.
  • Researching the ambush rules, furniture, and cover, because the rogue gets extra damage when attacking unseen.
  • Outlining the patron NPCs quickly to given them some personality.
  • Wounding the innkeeper and a pot boy prior to the encounter to give the priest PC some folks to help out.
  • A better 3RCP for the pack leader, who’ll hang back in round one and order his pack to swarm the toughest foe so they get pack tactics bonuses.
  • A better “Combat Out” plan with the Pack Leader possibly trying to set the inn on fire so he can escape if battle goes against his pack.
  • Contents of dogmen pockets for later looting.

And after a third playtest, I re-arranged the furniture a bit, factored in external windows and a rear entrance the PCs might try using, and switched the letter’s signature from Hadrack to Alrrem. In truth, the letter is still from Hadrack, but he wants Alrrem to be blamed if the extortion attempt backfires.

Although it might seem like a waste of time, playing through key encounters using your imagination before sessions helps you solidify numerous details and polish your design until it gleams.

Try it out yourself, and see if your description, details, and GMing doesn’t improve for the encounters you practised in advance.

Have more fun at every game!

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