A3 Series • #3
The basis of any campaign is the encounters that players will face. I am not referring just to combat encounters. All events that pit the players against elements in the story are encounters. This could be a friendly interaction with an NPC, dealing with a trap, or having to manage an element of the environment. Encounters in this broad definition are the action elements of the story that require the players to use the skills, attributes, and equipment of their characters to overcome the challenges provided in the encounter. Successfully navigating an encounter provides the GM with the opportunity to reward play with treasure, knowledge, and experience point given to the characters. The risks are the character could lose possessions, make a new enemy, suffer injuries, or even lose their life. I’ll expand more on each type of encounter (combat, social, and environmental) and some of my experience as it relates to each one.
Combat encounters are what we typically think of when the word encounter is used. Foes are generated, and players are expected to fight the foes. While that concept is straightforward, making encounters challenging, while not creating a scenario that is going to kill off the entire party, can sometimes be a delicate balance. Various systems use concepts such as Challenge Ratings to help guide you in creating a balanced encounter for your party. While this is a helpful guide, there are a lot of variables you have to take into account when you look at the party make-up and adjust accordingly.
Another aspect of the combat encounter you should take into account is whether you are designing a single, stand-alone combat encounter or a “grind”? By a grinding scenario I am talking about your typical dungeon crawl where the party faces a number of smaller challenges that are designed to be relatively easy to defeat but drain the party resources. When the party faces the final encounter, they will be below their full strength. Spells and potions will be expended, ammunition will be drained, powers will have already been activated and utilized, and characters will be injured. All of this creates a more difficult situation.
Of the two, I find the single encounter boss is harder to balance. With the ‘dungeon crawl’ model you (the GM) have more opportunities to “cheat”. Did the party have bad luck and become injured? Place some healing potions (or medpacs or whatever the setting uses) to allow them to recover. Put a more powerful (or fully charged) weapon or wand or ammunition after an encounter to give them a bit more of an edge as they move on. With less powerful encounters spread out you have the opportunity to react to how the party is doing and balance out the final encounter.
With a single encounter against a powerful creature, skill rolls can make the outcome swing one way or another very quickly. Such outcomes can be disappointing on both sides of the GM screen. I recommend pre-planning some ‘cheats’ to help mitigate some of the rolls. If the party has some great initial dice rolls, perhaps the creature could have used a potion or activated a shield that resisted a portion of the damage done. If the creature is winning the battle, perhaps it retreats while it is ahead, sparing the party. Or has a “fumble” (this is why GM’s roll dice behind the screen) which gives the party a chance to recover. I generally try to have a plan, again based on the skills of the party, to help swing these battles one way or the other as the situation calls for it in order to keep the battle as the exciting climax it is supposed to be.
One other type of combat encounter that is used is random encounters. Random encounters should never be random. Even if you are using a random encounter generator (provided in a module), roll them ahead of time and have them prepared so that when the encounter should occur (whether it is at a designated spot or at a designated game time), you have it ready to go. Don’t disrupt the pace of the game by having to look up or read through the instructions of a random encounter you roll up during the game.
Social encounters can be just as important (and as deadly) as any combat encounter and gives the players a chance to show off their development (or suffer the consequences of not developing) those social skills in the game. While these types tend to be skipped over or ‘box-texted,’ social encounter can present a unique set of challenges that should not be so quickly dismissed. Language and culture barriers are great examples of this. As a skill or as a spell, Comprehend Languages lets you understand what is being said, but that does not necessarily translate cultural references. For example, the German phrase “mit ihm konnte man Pferde stehlen” literally translates to “with him you could steal a horse,” the real meaning is that “he is a great guy.” This is an example of how, with a bit of planning, you can create some mischief and challenges in these encounters. These encounters can give the opportunity for the group to gain valuable information to help along the plot or hinder the progress if the encounter goes badly. In many ways these are even more challenging then combat encounters, but they also can be more rewarding. If done well these types of encounters can be the most remembered part of the campaign.
One GM I played with allowed the group to find out information about what to expect in the dungeon we were going to explore using social encounters. Talking with older people of the town or village, finding information about previous adventures who had challenged the dungeon to see what they had faced, or by doing research in places that held ancient texts. Skipping this step made the dungeon far more dangerous as we would not be prepared for the beasts that we would encounter or would be missing some valuable piece of information needed to bypass a trap or solve a riddle. Making social encounters both challenging and rewarding develops the “role” aspect of role-playing and allows the players to get more into their characters.
The third type of encounters is environmental. By this I mean something to do with the surrounding area rather than a person or creature. Weather is an often-underutilized tool for the GM. Want to keep the party in town a little longer? The day they are preparing to leave a massive thunderstorm rolls through. Storms can also be used to encourage the group into ruins or that dark cave.
Well-designed encounters that challenge the party work to overcome them make for the stories that will be told and re-told by the players long after the game is over. As the GM you should know the capabilities of the characters and design encounters that force the party to use their strengths and sometimes take advantage of their weakness. Design them to challenge, but not defeat, the players and you will have as much fun as the players watching the encounters play themselves out.