How do you plan encounters? What follows is the system I use to plan my encounters, sprinkled with stories about other ideas and suggestions on how to plan and make your game the best it can be.
1) All Encounters Are Planned
Every encounter is a planned event. Even the random encounters that represent roving monsters or a guard patrol. Encounters happen for a reason. Maybe you’re throwing in some combat for the session, or maybe you’re trying to create tension, or trying to help the party gain experience points, or maybe all of this is to further the story. Hopefully all your encounters will serve to move the story forward, even if they seem random at the time.
If all encounters are planned, hat might seem inconsistent with the idea of a ‘random’ encounter though. However, as the DM you have to do work with those random encounters, and even that moment after rolling requires at least a tiny bit of planning. Will the monsters ambush the party? Will they just wander up on them? Or are they roving, looking for dinner, or do they represent guards or guardian beasts? When you create an encounter you either plan it out during your planning session or you do a quick setup in your mind. I find it best to prepare a few hours prior to a game and when I run, I like to have a series of encounters already rolled up to be used in that game session. If they aren’t used, then they can be saved for later sessions, either in another campaign or tweaked and improved for another encounter in the current game at a later level.
So, how do you plan the encounter? Most people spend two to three hours planning an adventure for every hour they plan to spend playing. If you are using a pre-written module then this planning time is often used to read the module and adapt it for your players. Few modules just drop into a running campaign, that’s where Adventure Paths are great, since they run for a long time. But, trust me, after you run an AP that ends at 15th level, most groups will want to keep playing. So, you had better have something for them.
Now I have heard of a DM who liked to roll a die for the Bestiary he was going to use, and then rolled percentile dice for the page number he was going to use, thus opening up all the possible monsters to be used for in a random encounter. This meant their players could encounter a contract devil, a six-armed demon, a pseudo dragon, a mountain lion, or even a horse. So, what is a mountain lion doing in the desert or in the plains? Why would a six-armed demon or a contract devil be wandering around for a random encounter? My view is that this makes the game seem unreal and often silly. Would you place an ancient red dragon in the arctic guarding a single chest with 20 gp in it? That is just poor planning.
2) Preparing A Curated List
To give your game more realism, you need a curated list of adversaries that can be encountered in each region, or area. I am not saying that this list has to be run strictly according to level though; but do you think a pack of wolves would be a match for a tenth level party? They would also be too much for a first level party. Now anyone who goes off adventuring deserves to be challenged and sometimes the best answer to a challenge might be to run away from the encounter; like a first level party against an ancient green dragon. But, there is a problem with that theory: the players trust you and they are there to play, not to run away. So, more often than not they will rush headlong into an encounter they are clearly unprepared for.
So, unless you give them a clear sign that they are outmatched, and even if you give them a good hint, they are more likely to run into battle with the expectation that it will be a hard fight, but that they will win. After all, heroes don’t run. So, before you create an encounter list that has a wide range of levels, think about what your players will do. Now you might have a green dragon living in the local woods and the party could be warned. If they go into those woods then let it be upon their heads, but do you really want a TPK (Total Party Kill)? The better idea would be to have the green dragon demand service from the players and get increasing outrageous in her demands until the party finally goes up against her. Plan those encounters so that she doesn’t have a demand each level but she has enough demands to make her bothersome. Also make those encounters with the green dragon meaningful. Green dragons are plotters and planners. Sure, their biggest plan may be for a practical joke, but a dragon lives a long life and like anyone they want to do things with their lives, not just sleep on their treasure horde. Ideally, they want to increase their horde. So, the green dragon is likely to test the players power all while sending them on quests to enrich her horde.
3) Do The Unexpected
Of course, you want to do the unexpected in a game. Doing too much of the same old thing will bore the players, so you need to spice things up and you need to provide at least one surprise for the party in each session. One time I took a first level party and told them that they were hired by a village to get rid of a dragon.
This was a dangerous beast, it had killed Bob the fighter, and he was the toughest fighter in the village. The dragon had a ransom note delivered that said if he wasn’t paid, he would rampage through the crops and the village was getting desperate. The party seemed reluctant, but they trusted me and went on the mission. One night the saw it rampaging through the crops and spouting off fireballs! The party knew the dragon was real, but they never saw it fly. They tried to track it and saw unusual tracks like it had spikes underneath.
A cavalier climbed on top of a house and fired an arrow into the dragon, and it slipped inside the dragon and was lost from sight! Now the party had reasons to suspect that everything wasn’t as it appeared. Frankly, the party didn’t know a dragon from a drake, and neither did the town. Turns out the “dragon” was actually a mechanical dragon that ran on treads. A gnome illusionist was using silent image to make it seem more realistic and he had a fire lizard in a cage in the mouth that would breathe fire whenever he poked it with a stick. The gnome had captured some kobolds and they ran on a treadmill in tandem to make the dragon go forward and the gnome had brakes to turn left or right. It was crude, but it worked. More importantly, it was a fair match for a first level party. For a higher level party you could boost the kobolds into hobgoblins and increase the level of the gnome illusionist and make his illusions better, but it would be harder to pass the encounter off as a real dragon. At that level, the party is likely to have an idea of what a real dragon can do and there are too many things that the fake dragon couldn’t do. Besides, the goal of the encounter was to throw a “dragon” at a first level party and make it a fair fight.
4) How To Avoid Murder Hobos
Remember, the primary pattern of the game is for the party to go out, find big scary monsters, kill them, and steal their wealth. This is where the expression “Murder Hobos” comes from. A party of Murder Hobos has no fixed address, no ties to the area they are adventuring though, and no compunction about killing any creature they come across and robbing them. You can recognize murder hobos by their rush to combat. Now, if the party wants to talk first or if they want to roleplay then you may not have a group of murder hobos. If you have a story that is just a string of encounters with little rhyme or reason, then you will breed murder hobos. If you have a compelling story line and the players are doing more than just traveling around and killing things, then you can get the party away from being murder hobos. Your encounters, how you plan them, if they make sense for the area and the level, they are set at will determine how your game runs and what your players do in response to your encounters. DMs who want to rise above the standard game will do things to encourage their players to go beyond being murder hobos and will try to have depth to their adventures; more than one story line, or more than one event happening at a time.
5) The Nonthreatening Encounter
Have you ever noticed when you announce an encounter the party all draw their weapons, start preparing spells, wake up those who are sleeping, and get ready for a big fight. When you announce the bushes are moving, or they hear a noise then they will all get ready for a fight. To stop this, throw in a few nonthreatening encounters. They hear a wolf howl, or the wind blows through the bushes. After a few times they will wait for the encounter to more fully resolve itself before they become ready for a fight. This adds an element of reality to your game. I suggest you create a list of non threatening encounters and add them to your encounter tables.
Tailor your nonthreatening encounters for various areas and throw them in occasionally. Don’t make them every other encounter or they will grow tiresome. I once had a low-level party exploring a new area. They came across some dragon poo and were curious about the dragon. The ranger analyzed it and made a Survival roll determining it was from a red dragon and from the size, it was a large red dragon. Now the party was a little scared. Still, they went looking for the dragon. Which was not my plan. The dragon scat was supposed to be a non threatening encounter, after all there is very little inside of dragon poo that is going to attack (ignoring the dung beetle).
It was the party’s decision to look for the dragon, so I had him flying around. Dragons have sharp eyes; the party was out in the plains, so the dragon easily found them, and he landed in front of them. He didn’t attack, he felt confident that he could easily eat them if they bothered him. He hadn’t seen humans for a while and was bored, so he was willing to talk. They had a roleplay session with the dragon and let it slip that they were from a town that had escaped a planet wide cataclysm. The town had hidden under a massive dome and shifted forward in time. Now the town had dropped the dome and the people were trying to reclaim lands. When the party let it slip that the town was back and not protected, he asked if they would pay protection fees. The party talked some more, and they convinced the red dragon that the town was defenseless and would pay a ransom. So, the dragon thanked them for the information and flew off. When the party got back to town they heard about the massive battle against a huge red dragon and how the Mage’s College had thrown their most powerful mages at the dragon and defeated him. Needless to say the party was happy to hear the dragon hadn’t laid waste to their hometown. But, imagine their horror when they heard his mate was looking for his killers!
The point is, this was all a random storyline that started from a nonthreatening encounter. The original idea of the encounter was to show that there were dangerous things outside here and that the party had to be careful. In this case I didn’t mean to throw a dragon at a 4th level party. You never know where things are going to go in the middle of an encounter or what an encounter will lead to, allow some nonthreatening encounters and allow some roleplaying with each encounter so it leads to an evolving story.
What do you think about these ideas? What do you think about the idea of curating lists of encounters? What do you think about the idea of nonthreatening encounters? =I would like to hear your observations and opinions in the comments below?
I am Daniel Joseph Mello and I am active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop me a line. I have been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game I was the DM. I have gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. I have written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. I am also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/captainharlock-42/art/Encounter-on-Mythos-Island-694383601
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