How-To DM: Building Encounters – Design

by yourdorkmaterials

A Moon Druid, a Barbarian, a Rogue, a Monk and a Wizard walk into a cave…sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it? But a party like this can be a nightmare to build challenging encounters for. The Druid and Barbarian effectively have twice (or even three times at low levels) the hit points of the squishies. You could take out the Druid and Barbarian with any number of low level control spells…but then they  just have to sit there probably paralyzed, taking critical hits, while the rest of the party gets slaughtered (which is hardly fun for anyone, even me).

Party of 6 underdark RPG adventuring party (152) | Fantasy artwork,  Dungeons and dragons classes, Character art

Or maybe you have a group of experienced players who know how to fight as a team, so the Druid entangles your Horde of Evil while the Wizard nukes them from afar and your Rogue snipes them…and your Monk and Barbarian sit back and eat a sandwich or something.

Personally, building fun encounters that are challenging and rewarding for each of my players can an exercise in frustration. Too easy, and your players get bored and usually go a-murder hoboing. Too hard, and they get frustrated and disengage. If every fight turns into an episode of Hold Person vs. the Barbarian, then that player can easily think your picking on them (because you are).

Ultimately, none of this is fun for anyone.

This turned out to be a much bigger subject than I originally thought. So, this week, I’d like to discuss some ideas on the philosophy (for lack of a better term) of designing encounters, and, next week, we’ll look at some practical tips on the mechanics of encounter design in Part Two. In Part Three, I’ll post an actual encounter I designed based on these principles.

So, let’s talk about tips on designing encounters in this week’s How To DM!

Free D&D Random Encounter Table for Levels 5-10 - The DM Lair

What Do You Want from the Encounter?: I never kill PCs due to bad luck with a math rock. I’ve implemented rules for maiming to add more interesting (IMO) consequences. However, I have no problem killing them due to their own poor planning, bad decisions, and all-round questionable judgement.

So, I always start with trying to devise a purpose for an encounter. What am I trying to accomplish as a DM? More importantly, what are my Foes trying to accomplish by opposing the players?

I mean, why are the Kobolds attacking the party? Why not just hide in their tunnels until the PCs get frustrated and leave? Are they trying to kill the party, or just delay them? Would they really risk open battle, or are they trying to lure them away from the children? I find that establishing solid goals for my Foes helps me greatly with establishing clear Victory Conditions (more on that below), and these, in turn, push me creatively to come up with more interesting challenges for my players beyond “I walk up and cast Fist twice on that kobold bastard!”

D&D Monsters — Kobolds Mounted for Combat – Nerdarchy

From a meta-game perspective, I also find that having a game purpose for an encounter can lead to some very interesting places. Do I want to put some fear into the party? Do I want to force a hard decision on them? Or do I need to work on breaking the player’s “video game” mentality (more on that below too).

To me, these kind of decisions have led to some of my best, most fun game moments (according to my players anyway) while also pushing me as a DM to become more creative with my games (which makes DMing tons more fun for me).

Neverwinter on Steam

Breaking the Video Game Mentality: I don’t know any RPG players – no matter how old – that also don’t play RPG video games. This hobby sort of sinks into your skin, and you can always find a screen when you can’t find a table.

But this also leads to a very specific mentality that most players have to unlearn when they come to the table which I like to call “Death or Glory Syndrome” – which I guess is a form of murder-hoboism.

How many times have you built a deliberately unbalanced encounter where the PCs are obviously outmatched…and they stubbornly stand their ground and fight to the death anyway because they’re not accustomed to “losing”.

In a video game, you either win and progress, or you lose and respawn. But, even if you are very generous with raising PCs, there is no respawning in an a TTRPG when they’re all lying broken on the ground asking themselves, “Why did I sass that dragon?”.

In a very real sense, breaking them of this mind-set helps protect the game that you’ve worked so hard to develop. I always talk about this during a Session 0 (and, if your not having a Session 0, you really should consider it) to establish expectations…but they never really listen. So, especially early on, I specifically design encounters to reinforce the next two points.

Building 1st Level Combat Encounters: Sly Flourish

Creating Victory Conditions: The great thing that TTRPGs have that video games don’t is the ability to implement multiple solutions to the same problem. In fact, video games that try to implement that level of freedom turn it into a major selling point, right? But, ultimately, the games are limited to their scripting.

Our games are scripted too, but we can build in as much player freedom as we want and change things on the fly more effectively than the most sophisticated video game.

So, I always build in as many victory conditions for both my players and my foes that: a) make logical, consistent sense, and b) speak to my purposes for the encounter.

This way my players can “win” without painting the village square in the blood of its inhabitants and also “lose” without a TPK.

I also find this really helps me manage the chaos of large encounters, or the inevitable fickleness of the dice gods, on the fly without my players even knowing it.

Which leads me to my last point (and bless you for your patience if you’re still reading this…)

Adventure Party | Fantasy artwork, Fantasy, Dnd art

Sometimes They Gotta Leg It: Always give them a way out – both your players and your Foes. After all, even psychopaths rarely fight to the death. This goes for your Foes too.

But it’s up to us to teach our PCs that this is an option for them. Give them plenty of hints, especially in the beginning of the campaign. Be flexible in your rulings when they try to run. You don’t have to make the Foes pursue them every time.

I’ve found doing this helps me manage encounters more effectively, with much less stress, which is always a bonus.

What tips, tricks and advice do you folks have? Put them in the comments below, so we can all share in the info. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for another installment on How To DM!

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