A few weeks ago I wrote an article for this month’s Blog Carnival considering how encounters can be defined. Specifically, I discussed what an encounter is for me and why I categorize them in such away. Hint: it is all about rewards. You can find that article here, but the long and short of it is that I need three things to qualify an encounter: an event, an instigator, and effort. If all of these things exist then the scene, be it combat, social, or puzzle, is considered an encounter in my mind. That is the point where I judge the ease with which is was done, the intended difficulty, and the rewards. Sometimes encounters are planned, sometimes they pop up, and sometimes you don’t even know about them until they are over. Today I want to talk about how I plan for encounters and how that effects rewards.
This is a fairly simple process. You have an idea of what you want to happen and you make sure you have the notes you need for it. Of course that oversimplifies the idea, as the more complex you make the encounter, the more complex the planning. Still, I’m just getting at the basic idea. There are certain things you plan out. Maybe its in judicious notes or just thoughts you had floating around in your head. Regardless, there is probably something that initiates an event. Those two parts of encounters are, in my opinion, the easiest to achieve and easiest to plan for.
Monsters and combat. Traps and puzzle solving. Guards and diplomacy. These happen all the time and they don’t always need to be called encounters. Remember, for me, an encounter = a reward. Combat is the most easily recognizable as nearly always earning rewards. XP is built into combat in games like D&D. It costs nearly all the resources the mechanics of the game contain. But so can others.
When I am planning out any type of encounter there has to be some cost. Puzzles may take time, cleverness, and good skill checks. Combat will take HP, arrows, and spells. Diplomacy may see a give and take of information or other resources like money. If an event or scene does not come at a cost to the players, even when they are taking agency in that scene, it may not be worth much or anything. A smooth persuasion check to get past the guard probably isn’t worth XP, but a series of guards who are persuaded, bribed, and avoided may be worth a bit.
There are tons of ways for a RPG to play out. Combat and intrigue abound. Crafting, planning, brute force, cleverness, spells, bribery. Things happen in limitless ways and that is what makes the games fun. Nevertheless each individual scene has a specific composition. The intended make-up may differ from the result, or the encounter could begin one way and end another. Mixing and matching different styles can increase the fun of the game and diversify rewards and how they are earned. The key is to make sure you players know that they are rewarded for things like NOT fighting or finding a way out of the situation you hadn’t anticipated.
Here are some ways you can make encounters more interesting or more difficult:
series/waves of enemies, traps, or puzzles
traps hidden within a combat area
unexpected social attempts
exploitation that require skill checks
a changing strategy
When planning things out you should have an idea of how difficult this should be for your group. This is part objective and part subjective. What do the numbers say? Figure out if it is too much damage or requires things that the players have limited access to. Is it a puzzle the players themselves are good at or one that notoriously stumps them? If you didn’t plan the encounter out, look back and try to determine how hard it should of been for them. Did they create a difficult situation or an easy one?
When all is said and done, players expect to get something out of the events. What that is can vary greatly. Information, advancement, money, XP, status, equipment, or leverage. Perhaps they earn a companion or an insider to information for the future. Maybe it is an alliance between two groups or a keep to call their own. Regardless, it will be up to you to determine the reward. XP is always good but the other things make a great mix too. Sometimes the decision is easy though, dungeons will have treasure but don’t have allegiances waiting for you at the end. Unless of course that’s part of a larger story!
Be sure to consider the encounter as a whole when it is done. Determine what was involved, who was involved, and the things that got left out. From beginning to end what were all of the obstacles along the way? Figure out the base XP that those should reward. Books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide will help out with this, but often it may be up to you to decide. Monsters have XP and often traps do too. For social encounters I generally use the standard encounter value of combat for the party level as a base. Such encounters tend to be of similar challenges throughout game play because much of it is based on the players and not the stats.
Once I have figured out the XP for all of that, I always adjust. Was the tactic super risky? Was it the least risky option? Perhaps the risk wasn’t worth the outcome. Sometimes players are just really clever or come up with great ideas or tell great stories along the way. All of these can earn some extra XP. Taking the easy way out may earn them a little less. Personally I find that adjusting the base XP reward for how difficult the fight ended up being is the first step. Maybe they didn’t catch a hint you thought was obvious or they thought of something super clever and round-about. I increase or decrease, respectively, the reward for those situations . Then I go back and start adding little bits for role-playing, cleverness, and other extras.
Of course this all comes into play for non-XP rewards, as well. Sometimes it may be a good idea to reduce the reward for an easy encounter some other way. Give them all the XP but have those the players wish to be impressed, less so. If they were really clever have the king give more money to balance a reduction in XP. You can add or take away different rewards in full or in part as the result of play. Most of all be sure to talk to your players if they question how they are being rewarded. Be up front and make adjustments to your practices when needed.
The thing about RPGs is that they are always flowing, always changing, and always developing. Stuff happens to the players and because of them. Events, obstacles, and rewards may all come naturally most of the time. An encounter is really just a fancy way of categorizing these things, often with the thought of combat = XP in mind, at least mechanically. For me an encounter is a category that helps determine when I need to reward my players. It helps me plan and helps me determine those rewards later. Most of the time I don’t even use the word, and I am sure you don’t either, but the concept of it is still there. Hopefully sharing how that works for me has given you some useful insight or ideas!