GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we took care of dice fudging, and now it’s finally time to get back to encounters.
Encounters are the mainstay of every roleplaying game. Simply defined as a three-act structure of rising tension, central conflict, and falling conclusion no single aspect of running a game takes more prep work than encounters. When players first encounter goblins for the first time as level-one characters we start the long and arduous road of killing everything in sight. After all, there is always a new Monsters Manual tomb on the horizon filled with new monsters to slay.
After years of encounters, our GM tricks of variety may start to wear thin, and we start wondering how to keep player engagement high. Based on anecdotal evidence (me asking folks on the internet) average game lasts only eleven sessions. Eleven. With such a limited window to operate in, we’ve under every obligation as storytellers to make encounters epic, which means heightening conflict.
Rising tension is a good hook and assuming your players want to play it shouldn’t be hard to get them involved. Yet that conflict (social, mental, or physical) should be our target for emotional impact. Scary, threatening, epic, or even hilarious encounters are easier emotions to default to, but sadness is a valid conflict driver for any game. By putting a little sadness into your campaign you can ground conflicts and cause gut-wrenching moral choices.
Beg For Mercy
No matter what genre you are running, antagonists are most often self-aware entities with their own hopes and dreams. While your players may undead hordes of guardsmen without a thought, it’s only their general that often asks for their life. Often because the GM put the thought of character development into the boss while dismissing the rest of the soldier as loyal men. In Legend of The Five Rings, our tabletop game had invented a technique we dubbed the Yohei School of Groveling. The premise of this school was for henchmen to appeal to a Samurai’s Compassion (a tenant of Bushido) for their life to be spared.
When having henchmen beg for their lives get personal. Show the terror in their eyes as they stare down the inevitability of death. Don’t hesitate to be pathetic as bowels are unleashed or soldiers debase themselves with extreme acts of cowardice. Even betrayal of their own soldiers should never be off the line—particularly if the characters have a history of slaughter. Monsters and animals are no different and licking their own wounds while whimpering is a universal language. Killing the last of a mythological creature could tug on heartstrings, but so should harming an owlbear who is defending a nest.
The trick to all of this is a bit of encounter illusion. The conflict is not killing the monster (that is the rising tension), but rather the choice of mercy or not. Write your encounter ahead of time knowing the players will be faced with this choice and build up to it.
Do the tears start flowing when you hear of loyal dogs staying on their owners’ graves after they’ve passed? Or how about when you recall the Iron Giant? (Yes, I cry thinking about the entire movie as a whole.) Bravery is oft regarded as a noble emotion and is easily showcased by charging headfirst into overwhelming odds. That trope is flat and we can do better. Showcasing true bravery in an encounter is often a two-part engagement; one encounter to set the stage, the other to have the surprise. The first encounter involved henchmen groveling for their life, and in the second his child taking up her father’s sword stands her ground at a critical moment against the party.
This follows the same principle as mercy above, the act of bravery is the central conflict rather than a resolution. Do your best to keep bravery a surprise. Nobody knew or expected the dog would wait every day for his owner to return. Right before the characters beat the main villain, they shouldn’t expect a young girl with her father’s armor and sword stepping in their way. If you’ve been using monsters or mindless robots as a threat, now is the time to kill a beloved NPC to advance the storyline.
We could spin the wheel of emotions for hundreds of articles in the future. Every emotion on the scale will create a unique and interesting encounter if told through a different lens. As you start running more encounters using emotions as pillars you will notice one very fortunate side effect: your game becomes like an awesome blossom.
Every encounter will have players uncovering more unplanned storylines that they choose to pursue on their own. This will wreak havoc on your central storyline as the characters will get involved with side quest after side quest. One may choose to mentor the brave girl while another is laying flowers on the grave of the soldier he butchered over time but your main storyline will be tanked. The trade-off to this kind of storytelling is that you can run your campaign eternally, easily into those epic 18 year long chronicles rather than a paltry eleven sessions or a single campaign module.
Do you have a heart-wrenching encounter story to share? Let us know in the comments below!
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Image Credits: Critical Role and Hiding by Hugo Cardenas.
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.