Building Encounters On The Fly
Roleplaying Tip GM Dario asks, “How do you create encounters on the fly? Do you just have the DM tables at hand, roll a d20 a few times and voilá? Or do you have a specific procedure?”
Thanks for the great question, Dario.
I have a few tools for improve encounters:
The first tool I deploy I call my GM Agenda, an idea scooped from Dungeon World.
I ask myself, what do I want to accomplish with this encounter? What’s my gameplay goal here?
This answer has great effect on the type of encounter I build on-the-fly and how I GM it. It ensures I’m making a conscious decision for my best attempt at great gameplay.
For example, I trigger encounters when the PCs get stumped or become passive and do not initiate gameplay.
Sometimes I want an encounter to help with plot guidance. I offer up hooks, clues, and suggestions via NPCs and other encounter elements if players are way off track getting closer to their objectives.
Pacing also triggers encounters. When I want to slow things down or stall because the session will end soon. A great example is Nick V’s tip, Let Players Relive Their Finest Moments to allow players to digest the game better and lift out more of your clues and hooks as a result.
GM tactics also cause encounters. I might attempt to deplete party resources a bit before a major encounter, for example.
The best encounter trigger, though, happens as a result of player choices and character actions. The party goes somewhere to do something with a purpose in mind.
Based on what triggers the unplanned encounter, I first form an idea of what I want the encounter to accomplish for the PCs, the session, the campaign, and the game in general.
Next, I mine my adventure for possible game pieces. Adventure or plot response is my first choice because it speaks to the core purpose of the game or campaign.
Tying the big picture stuff back into current gameplay keeps the plot moving forward, the players engaged with the plot, and the milieu rich with frequent touchpoints to its major elements.
Besides, there are enough times when the game goes sideways that any opportunity to inject the main adventure back into gameplay should be taken. 🙂
Another benefit to mining adventure parts for encounters is using stuff you’ve already planned for. Even just reskinning something can help you out.
If you use a curated approach to wandering monsters, draw heavily from this tool in your GM Toolbox.
By curated, if you have not read my thoughts on wandering monsters before, I mean listing out NPCs, beasts, and situations from your adventure, campaign, and setting as possible encounters when the PCs roam.
Draw from all corners of your sandbox so your game feels deep, cohesive, and on-theme.
Such a resource offers instant inspiration anytime you need it.
Whether it’s a table or generator, gather resources to bail you out when needed.
One approach here might be to consider what you struggle with most when improvising. Encounter seeds? NPC names? Treasure?
Build tables to shore up your weak spots.
This is one of the main reasons we added built-in random generators to Campaign Logger.
When you get stuck at any stage in the GMing PiXiE lifecycle — Prepping the game, Experiencing the game through gameplay, and Evaluating the game for kaizen — use Campaign Logger’s generators to fill in what you need so you don’t lose your train of thought or gameplay momentum.
Back Pocket Encounters
Another trick I have involves creating 2-5 drag & drop encounters and keeping them in reserve.
These encounters have minimal dependencies so I can drop them into most emergency situations. I often use these for stalling, but I try to integrate plot and GM Agenda as much as possible on-the-fly.
I try to have a couple combat encounters and a couple roleplay encounters ready before each session.
And I review these encounters every few sessions to account for character progression and relevance.
All the tools above offer encounter seeds. And to make an improve encounter as good as possible I use a checklist. I try to tick off all items on the checklist:
- GM Agenda — Why is this encounter worth precious game time?
- Premise — What’s the hook? What’s the dramatic question?
- Conflict — Conflict drives great gameplay. I want players to face an obstacle, foe, or challenge and to have to roll some dice!
- Stakes — What happens if the PCs win the encounter? What happens if they lose?
- Location — How can I make the location special? How does the encounter change because of the interesting location?
- Build-Up — How does the encounter trigger? What would PCs sense or detect in advance? How can I create drama and tension as the encounter gets closer to triggering?
The last one is very important because encounters often fail before they begin with heavy-handed GMing.
GM: You are suddenly surrounded. What do you do?
Players: Wait! We didn’t hear them approach? What about the wizard’s owl familiar on overwatch? What about the scout? Dude, this isn’t fair.
Ensure the encounter follows good GM practices.
The funny thing with the checklist, I’ve found at least, is it become automatic after awhile. And you tend to fill it in as the encounter plays out! It’s a leap of faith, but more often than not I’m rewarded.
It’s not luck when things seem to serendipitously fall into place without planning. There are so many details involved with our games, from characters to world to campaign to players roleplaying to all your monster books. And there are even more pools of details in your session logs, game idea notes, and so on!
I believe it’s no accident when improve encounter details start to mesh during play. Players think you are a wizard. You feel wonderment and excited. Everyone has fun.
GM Toolbox: Improve Encounters
There’s my long-winded answer, Dario. I hope it helps.
Add any or all of these tools to your GM Toolbox to create good encounters on-the-fly:
- GM Agenda
- Adventure Response
- Sandbox Encounters
- Random Generators
- Back Pocket Encounters
- The Checklist