A Deep Dive Into The 3 Pillars of Encounters With GM Tips

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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. This time we discuss the most vital part of all tabletop roleplaying games: Encounters.

Ruty Rutenberg, official Dungeons & Dragons DM and co-creator of Maze Arcana, returns for more advanced dungeon mastering tips. In the video below, you’ll find the reasons on why encounters are the pillars of your game, their structure, and how hybrids make everything more memorable.


I love story structure. Both Satine and Ruty are absolutely correct that EVERY encounter should have a beginning, middle, and end. Satine, just to hammer the point home, can you define for us why exploration is one of the 3 pillars of encounters?

“Exploration is the act of traveling and learning which is important as an adventurer. Explore, interact and conflict resolution. Without Exploration, you’ll probably not get very far.”

Legend of the Five Rings taught me a great trick called Focus, Challenge, Strike. It’s a quick rule that translates well to any game system you run that works both vertically and horizontally.

In an exploration encounter—investigation and puzzle solving are key, but there needs to still be the three pillars. Focus, Challenge, Strike. It’s not just a simple narrative exposition dump. The Death House from Curse of Strahd is a great example of an Exploration encounter: an example of a three-act exploration encounter from me would be like this:

  • Focus – The player dive into the Labyrinth beneath Stygia and explore around. Their purpose is to find their own shadow and contain it.
  • Challenge – After a few twists and turns, they’ve ended up lost. Before they lose their sanity, will they turn back? Or will they push on ahead and deal with the environmental risks?
  • Strike – They make it through the challenge and see the true distance of the Labyrinth wind and stretch for miles to come. They’ve learned more about the world, and the path ahead of them.

By using this little method above, you’ve propped the exploration portion of the story with purpose. Now you can mix it with social encounters or combat encounters below.


One statement I love from Ruty in the video is that a social encounter needs to have high stakes, no different than a combat encounter. Otherwise, it’s just an exploration encounter. Satine, just like with exploration encounters, can you elaborate on what a social encounter is?

“A social encounter is an interaction with a person or people (of any species). Whether it’s to get information directly from someone, sway an opinion or eavesdrop over a conversation, it relates to the interaction with other beings.”

To continue the Hell Diving encounter above, let’s add a social element to it:

  • Focus – Their shadows, the darker halves of the characters souls made real, taunt and harass the players as they wander the corridors.
  • Challenge – Through roleplay and character knowledge, players can cut deals and bargains with their inner demons. They always at a price, pushing them further ahead, or setting them back. If the players attempt to ignore their other halves, then they stay lost in winding corridors.
  • Strike – To the characters brave enough to look within at themselves and realize the shadow is part of them as they are it – a bargain is struck. The shadows bring with them their own goals for further exploration into the labyrinth, but now the characters have an ally in a hostile environment.


Combat is the one encounter everyone is familiar with off the top of their head. But looking at it in regards to a pillar of storytelling puts a new light on it. Satine, can you elaborate on combat encounters with the three pillar method you’ve set forth?

“Combat… fighting. With or without weapons, sometimes with magic, usually to harm another being to death or unconsciousness. This, sometimes like social, is mostly about conflict resolution at the most primal level.”

To wrap out our helldive encounter:

  • Focus – Time spent in the labyrinth was well worth the journey. Characters learned about themselves and each other, as well as their secret desires. Unfortunately, their Shadows aren’t ready for them to go just yet…
  • Challenge – Fighting yourself is a mainstay of many games, and always an iconic scene. Swords out: it’s time to dance with the devil.
  • Strike – Win or lose, the characters are returning home. The question each character must ask themselves is who is in the driver’s seat. Me, or my doppelganger? What about my friend over there? Resolve each outcome privately with each player to increase suspense.

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Featured Image by: Critical Role 50th Aniv. by Hugo Cardenas ( Takayuuki.deviantart.com| YouTube)

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.

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