Theme Thursday: Making Encounters

The alternate title: Don’t Show ’em You’re Sweating.

Today’s theme is all about making your game a seamless series of adventures and encounters, and being that magically perfect GM who seems to have it all together.

First of all, accept that you cannot prepare for everything. Players are like a herd of cats. If they’re not going off track from the storyline, they’re jumping to a whole other track entirely. Actually, maybe they’re more like runaway trains…

Anyway, metaphors aside, no matter how many hours you slave away at your story, characters, and adventures, every now and then you have to make something up. Definitely check out tips in the Gamemastery Guide or the good old 3.0 Dungeonmaster’s Guide for a few little tips that can help you make things up in a hurry.

The following questions are those that generally come up the most often: What’s around that corner? Is there a trap over there? Do they get attacked while journeying or sleeping? What are the consequences of this choice, politically or socially or what-have-you?

Well, the answer is often a monster attack, or the foreshadowing of such. Not only are surprise encounters fun, they focus the players and the storyline beautifully. Whether they want to kill the enemy, subdue them, or convince them to change, what you’ve got is a situation full of tension that has to be resolved. Everyone leans forward, watches the roll of dice, and gets engaged. They think about the story.

To make random encounters work, don’t let them know it’s random. Or if you do, make the random encounters fit solidly into the world–this is a dangerous area, and many different creatures might happen upon you with an appetite.

I’m not a fan of random chance for an encounter to happen in the first place: this system makes everyone unhappy. Either people are disappointed because they wanted the xp, or they’re bored because this arbitrary obstacle appeared to slow them to the next story point. Don’t use this system.

Instead, make it clear that it’s your clear, perfect, definite decision as a GM to have an encounter. If you can, lead into the encounter with a bit of foreshadow. Maybe you set up some terrain before the creatures actually appear, or describe an eerie feeling steal over the PC’s. In any case, make the monsters or humanoid enemies appear to fit in naturally with the surrounding and the storyline in general.

The pitfall to avoid is the sense that you picked a monster at random that just happens to be somehow appropriate. Don’t just make them realize they’re fighting crabs because they happen to be on a beach. Make it fit into the story: perhaps strange alchemical substances leaked onto the beach and caused the crabs to grow, or at the very least make funny lumps appear in the sand, just waiting for creatures to get too close.

In the end, never underestimate the power of fake-checking your notes and throwing yourself into the next encounter with total confidence. They’ll never know you just made this up, and the game will be all the better for it.

-Max Porter-Zasada

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