A Small Guide to Encounter Creation - Myth-Weavers

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A Small Guide to Encounter Creation

A Small Guide to Encounter Creation

Okay, fine. Most.
Every game has them.
Encounters aren't just battles with the Undying Horde, but are also that meeting with Lord Vetinari, getting past that Pendulum Scythe trap, and outwitting the lich lord.

Bland vanilla encounters are all too easy to make, so here are some tips to make each encounter unique.

Tip #1Add terrain.
Terrain will change any encounter. If the characters are outside, add some trees, rocks, or a river, and make sure the enemies use the terrain to its fullest. Have them hide behind rocks, snipe from the trees, or launch ranged attacks from the other side of the river, making them hard to reach by the tanks of the party. From there you could set up an ambush, rather a normal encounter, or let the PC's detect the enemies, and make a preemptive strike.
If the characters are in a dungeon, pits, ledges, acid, lava, and continual traps can add hazards to bypass during battle, where enemies can gain advantage, making the characters think.
Alternatively, have the characters be defending something, taking the place of the enemies. So, they get to use the terrain to their advantage.

Tip #2Make monsters with class levels, or advanced monsters.
Rather than letting your characters battle three vanilla minotaurs, establish some heirarchy in the enemy ranks. Give one minotaur a level in fighter, or advance it a few HD. Doing this for any monster will make any encounter a bit harder. It'll keep the PC's on their toes once the kobolds hanging back start to summon monsters, and send fireballs into the fray, or when the gnoll tribe leader can rage.

Tip #3Make use of treasure.
When you have treasure for an encounter, and there are weapons, armor, potions, magic items, or the like within the treasure, and a monster in the encounter is capable of using it, give it to them. It makes the encounter a little harder, and a little more interesting, if only because the PC's will call dibs on the items mid-battle. It will also give them another little boost to complete the battle - that fighter really wants that
Yes, I realize this can't happen. Just like a rapier of bludgeoning.
greatclub of slashing.

Tip #4Play enemies as called for by their intelligence and wisdom.
If the encounter is a mindflayer, three gnolls, and two wolfs, then play the creatures accordingly. No, the mindflayer won't jump over that pit to reach the PC's, it'll use spells. No, the gnolls won't jump over the pit to reach the PC's, they'll use ranged weapons. Yes, the wolfs will jump over the pit to reach the PC's because they've been commanded to attack, and they are of animal intelligence. Maybe one will fail its jump check. Oops.
No mindflayer will charge into battle without using spells unless it has buffed itself before. In fact, most creatures of higher intelligence will attempt to escape. This is something lots of DMs don't do. The mindflayer the PC's killed could've been a recurring villan, or at least a plague to the town until the PC's manage to corner him.

I have found that the encounter format presented by the Red Hand of Doom module works well for
Although, I have only used it for the 3.5 D&D system, so that statement may not be universally true throughout other systems.
almost any sort of encounter, though it is designed around combat encounters. I use it as a template when I am designing encounters, and I find it makes the process a little quicker and much simpler.

Encounter Title:
While not every random encounter needs a title, I always find it stimulates my thinking to come up with a clever (or semi-clever) title for my encounter. Or at least something that aptly describes the encounter in a couple of words.

Encounter Level
Always good to figure out the encounter level before the encounter begins. That way you know when it is appropriate to throw it at your PCs and when it needs tweaking before use.

Circumstances of the Encounter and/or Brief Summary
Why are there four Orcs in these woods carrying 12 silver pieces each? If they have money, why don't they buy food? What was their plan before they happened upon the PCs? Simply knowing something about the NPCs in the encounter often makes it easier to improvise if your players do something unexpected (which almost always happens) or to help you fit it into an adventure at the appropriate time.

If you are running a structured campaign (or an adventure module) this can tell you when the encounter might occur. Otherwise, you can easily use it to help in a sandbox game.

Light Level:
This is only really important if the level is not Bright light (such as daylight, even overcast) but it is a good reminder to check on races with Low-Light Vision, Darkvision, etc. Also, remember that some monsters will have their own light sources, sometimes even magical ones.

List any creatures that might be involved in the encounter. If it is combat, list all NPCs, horses, enemies, etc. that might be present (except for the PCs and their companions, obviously). I use this section to keep track of what the characters see. They don't see 2 Hobgoblin Sorcerers, 1 Goblin Rogue Striker, and 1 Orc Rager; they only see 2 hobgoblins, 1 goblin, and 1 orc.

Introductory Text
Just like the text in the Monster Manuals, encounters are often enhanced by their own descriptive sentences. You do not need to include the creatures present in this text, especially if PC actions can affect who is there. I generally just describe the scene in which the encounter takes place. Whether it is a grand ballroom filled with the who's-who of the political scene, a dank cave with dripping stalactites, or a blood-soaked battlefield with the sound of war and agony echoing in the background, describing the scene to your players can turn a fight against 4 Orcs into an epic, cinematic scene in a giant cavern filled with luminescent crystals that shimmer in the background... in which you fight 4 Orcs.

Describe the area in terms of game effects. Those stalactites you described to your players, is there a chance that loud noises might cause them to fall on unsuspecting combatants? Do the chairs in the ballroom cause trouble for those trying to move quickly through the tables? Are there trees, rocks, or bushes nearby that could provide cover for clever warriors? Throw in a few appropriate details like these, or at least make note if no terrain features exist, and be sure to point them out to players and use them yourself!

Are the participants in this battle aware that they might be involved in combat? Are there any special rules that apply to this combat that you want to remember or that are not usual (such as the +1 attack bonus to attacking from higher ground). Here, you might also note whether or not enemies are aware of the terrain effects and if they will be using them to their advantage. This section is usually short, and might overlap a little with the Tactics section that appears below.

Creature Involved:
Next, I generally list the enemies or NPCs involved in the combat. How many are there? What are their hit point totals? Where do I look to find full statistics in case I need something? These are the kinds of things I generally include here. Keep this section relatively simple; you should have the creature’s full statistics nearby and ready to reference for the encounter, but not in this section, probably.

What kind of tactics do the enemies employ? If they were caught by surprise, does it take them a few rounds to get prepared? Do the Minotaurs charge on the first round, or do they wait until the Goblins have fired their crossbows first? Do the Hobgoblin Sorcerers coordinate their spells, or do they just cast Magic Missile at whoever is the closest? Including even some basic tactics for each kind of enemy in the encounter makes running the encounter significantly simpler, especially if there are more than a couple of enemies present. With intelligent enemies, it helps to plan in advance; a brain-eating aberration is likely to have much higher level of intelligence than your average GM (unfortunately). So, those of us without superhuman intelligence need to consider many different possibilities in advance, as our brilliant villains would, and plan tactics accordingly. Even creatures with Intelligence scores of 10 or less are bright enough to know to fight with ranged weapons first.
Additionally, intelligent enemies (with few exceptions) do not fight to the death. Most creatures will retreat if their hit points drop too low. It may be that these enemies drink a potion or cast a spell and return to battle later, but it helps to have such tactics written down beforehand.

So, the PCs have beaten the enemies you placed before them, despite their advanced tactics and clever use of terrain. Now what? The NPCs involved in the combat might have something to say to the PCs, particularly if the PCs were rescuers in the combat. Or, maybe the old, stone bridge upon which the players were fighting begins collapsing, the battle having caused too much stress on the aged masonry. Or, maybe the enemies had a special treasure that the standard stat block does not indicate (perhaps a message they had received or were meant to deliver). Most encounters cause some change in the environment or on NPCs, so this is a good place to list them.

Couldn't a greatclub of slashing just be a club with a blade embedded on one side? And couldn't a Rapier of bludgeoning be a rapier with a special hilt/guard that makes it an effective pummeling instrument if utilized properly?

There is an excellent article by Save-vs-DM HERE, as well, that may be worthy of adding to this guide. Feel free to delete this post, btw, if you think it interrupts post-flow.

There are other names for greatclubs of slashing, like Claymore, Greatsword, Zweihander and so on. After all... such weapons really were essentially giant metal clubs, a shovel is sharper.

Thank heavens some GMs (or players) feel the same as I do.

I have griped about featureless maps and overly stupid or smart monsters as well as the lack of numerous sentient foes too many times to count. These are the elements of any worthy story and its great to see others share that take on things.

1. Start combats in range of the FIRST SIGHTING of the foes (you lazy mapmakers). Let your bow users have their fun to.
2. Remember that 200 syllable soliloquies are RIDICULOUS in 4-6 seconds. Just stop it please. 30 syllables tops!
3. What your character is thinking is irrelevant unless you private tag that to the GM and readers. Other players should not receive 'hints' that are essentially leading the witness from in post narration. It's bad roleplaying and absolutely not a matter of just style.
4. The rule of cool is the rule of fool most of the time. Truly cool things are handled by the rules and they make sense, and are stylish and unexpected, and only then are they great (and cool).
5. If you think you can accurately run a fight without a map, you are WRONG.
6. Planning is more important than high rolls.
7. Scouting should be done almost always and handled quickly by the gm and the scouting player.
8. Mundane obstacles like a river are real and fun issues and the story is forced around them.
9. Fighting with a full backpack on is just as stupid as it sounds. Dropping it realistically creates problems and it should.
10. Remembering what happened 3 encounters ago or even last month in game should be useful and necessary often.
11. If a player posts that post is usually final despite wrong interpretations. Mistakes and accidents happen all the time. If it was your fault as Gm, lessen the blow, but don't erase it.
12. Some encounter are vs one dude and over in seconds.
13. OFTEN the key enemy leader should try to escape, not just boringly fight to the death. Build a rivalry.
14. Create encounters where the only sane thing to do is realize you are outmatched and RUN.

Just a few coppers worth ...

No encounter plan survives contact with the players.. or something like that. You can be sure they'll try the one crazy/stupid thing you didn't thought about.

It just so happens I have written about this exact subject on my advice column. You can find it on my sig. I go over designing basic encounters, making encounters more memorable and challenging (You can see that one HERE ) and I even do a whole section just on dragon encounters beginning on the same page I like to above.

Good luck!

Originally Posted by series0 View Post
5. If you think you can accurately run a fight without a map, you are WRONG.
Luckily, highly accurate fights are just as unnecessary as maps.

Planning is super great but flexibility and working together with your players to play enjoyably (Using common sense, not necessarily Rules As Written) can make your game a whole lot more fun.

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