GM Tips, hosted by the talented veteran Game Master Satine Phoenix, is our show to help Dungeon Masters and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we did a deep dive into encounters, and since it’s such a big topic for new and veteran GMs, we’ll be continuing the conversation on the topic.
Designing an encounter is a big undertaking for a GM. So big, in fact, GM Tips with Satine Phoenix covered it in two parts with Matthew Colville (which you should defniately check out).
Yes, they did talk about gummy based miniatures. There’s probably nothing quite as motivated to kill the bad guys than being able to eat them. Now let’s get into the supplemental tips for encounters.
“What would the bad guys have done if the players never showed up?” -Matthew Colville.
Rather than just chucking random bad guys at your friends, make a living world. Now that seems basic, right? It is. Where it gets more complex is adding depth to that. The example in the videos is this: Instead of using 6 goblins, use 2 goblins, a few giant bloodsucking mosquitos, and 2 spiders. Why? Just that little tweak adds depth. They work together and creates an ecosystem. The mosquitos and spiders know they get free meals if they hang out with the goblins.
But this isn’t just a D&D thing either. Diversity among your encounters can be added to any group, and it should be. Sure, your campaign might start off fighting one, or two monsters at a time, but once the players know the rules, cut loose.
If you are running pre-canned modules or campaign guides, you’ll most likely have to alter every encounter. In simplifying modules for less-experienced GMs (juggling different stats across multiple adversaries is more challenging than the same stats for the same number of enemies) homogeneity is designed into most set game modules so you’ll need to do some creative scrubbing of the content before the game starts.
Winning and Losing an Encounter
It’s important to remember that your NPC’s aren’t just blocks of hit points (I mean, I GUESS a gelatinous cube is basically a giant cube of hitpoints). You can liven up the encounters by having the NPC’s react to things as they happen around them. Orc’s should grab fallen friends, or take characters hostage. If the tides turn, have one run for the hills to get help, or even surrender early.
And that’s only one option the bad guy side.
Do your players get salty and think things are unfair if they leap ahead without scouting and get stomped? If you are making living encounters, not every fight will be fair. That’s okay. Sometimes, retreating and coming back is part of the story. Other times, you’ve set a challenge and the players need to beat it. As long as you set the tools (information, magic items, etc) for the players in the dungeon or inside a megacorps office–it’s not your fault if the players ignore it. It’s okay for them to lose. It’s also okay for them to monkey stomp your encounter like nobodies business.
Matthew talks about needless little encounters and also when it’s important to have players put in a bad spot. What’s your take on this, Satine? I know you’ve slaughtered your entire party of players in a total-party-kill before. Why?
“I love it when I put characters in complex predicaments. When they come out of them they become proud of their accomplishments. THAT is why I challenge them. THAT is why I push them so hard. The Character death on Fury’s reach was kind of a bummer. I designed a really elaborate encounter that would take strategy to overcome and one of the characters died on failing his second death saving throw with a 1 (double fail). I don’t plan for death, I plan for unconsciousness with the players working together and helping one another. I create bond building moments for the players.”
Change The Conditions
Having a neonate Brujah vampire display absolute mastery over the shadows in your Vampire: The Masquerade Game isn’t unfair, it’s a question. How did this punk get that? Is he part of a cult? How screwed are we? The same goes for giving your 9th level characters an encounter with a goblin shaman wielding high-end warlock spells. Or even messing with the terrain to give normally weak characters (like lizardmen) an edge in action economy by putting a fight in a swamp.
You can even swap the nature of a fight to spice up the engagement. Instead of killing two easy guards at the gates to the castle. Set the guards far further up in the adventure and turn it into a chase scene. As Matthew says in the videos, it’s not a question who will win the fight, now it sets the stage for the rest of the adventure.
Satine, expanding on the videos and article – what are your thoughts about “reinforcements arriving” in a combat? Have you ever done this on the fly to add difficulty? How was it received by the players?
“Yea, it’s really fun watching the player’s faces as more bad guys show up. It creates a sense of ‘this world is bigger than I thought’, which is good and changes the way they look at the game.”
Looking for More Useful GM Tips?
- Mash-up the Dread System in your tabletop RPG’s to increase tension.
- Here’s tip for how to handle long-running and epic RPG campaigns.
- Shop the Geek & Sundry store for GM gear, like a “How Do You Want to Do This” hoodie!
What’s your favorite game encounter? Tell us in the comments below!
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.