Art of the Encounter in Tabletop Roleplaying Games
One of the things we enjoy the most about tabletop roleplaying games is the collaboration taking place between Game Masters and players during a game. The emergent stories spun from game sessions, interaction between player characters with campaign settings and the way player agency impacts GM guidance and adventure direction is the juice! The art of the encounter in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons or whatever game you’re playing has as much to do with how players connect with content as it does the content GMs create. A good GM presents engaging scenarios. A great GM works with players, guiding the group through creating the story of their characters. There’s a shared responsibility to making encounters better.
‘The story you created was amazing’
In the video, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted point out there’s more players than GMs out there. They go on to discuss how players have a duty to contribute to making a great game session through participation. But, there’s an implicit obligation for the GM in this — giving players agency to collaborate. I could not agree more! My No. 1 piece of advice for GMs comes directly from this dynamic. You’re helping the players tell the story of their characters, so let them steer the ship and you’ll find they do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Not too long ago I ran a game of D&D for my partner. It was her first time playing any sort of TTRPG at all. Introducing the hobby to new players is one of my favorite things to do, and especially in this situation because I got to share the hobby I love with the person I love. After we played our first session, a three-hour spooky adventure, she was hooked and told me the story I came up with was amazing.
But as I explained to her, I didn’t come up with the story — she did!
Way back in one of my first contributions to the Nerdarchy site I shared some perspectives on presenting adventure options to players, and many of those same ideas can apply to specific encounters too. Another way to think of an encounter is simply “a thing that happens.” This is how I approach running games now and you’ll see this style reflected in a lot of our videos, posts and products including Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition. (Don’t worry if you missed the live Kickstarter — you can make late pledges through the Pledge Manager and get in with the same lower prices. Once the Pledge Manager closes, the costs will go up.)
The danger in creating an encounter of any sort — combat, exploration or social — lies in expecting it to turn out any particular way. Unless your GM style is really ham fisted, even the bare minimum game element means there’s no telling the outcomes at the table. Dice will roll and the results determine how something plays out. A villain might get smoked before they even have a turn in combat. Characters might uncover the inner workings of the dungeon through their searches and an antagonistic NPC may become a fast friend.
Sometimes the dice cause these unexpected outcomes, but much more likely it’s players and their characters words and deeds. When characters interact with the the thing that happens, there is the space where an encounter is not built but created. It’s where the tabletop roleplaying experience happens.
Art of the encounter — player responsibility
For players this means participating in the story of your character. Even a mysterious loner character can add to encounters and still maintain their mysteriousness. Let’s take a classic trope like an adventurer whose entire family was killed by an evil whatever. We’ll use xvarts for this example. Goblinoids, kobolds and orcs have killed enough adventurers’ families in their backstories. Xvarts are described in Volo’s Guide to Monsters as cruel, cowardly humanoids living in remote hills, forests, and caves. They’re greedy, sometimes kidnap people for sacrifices to a wretched demigod and they use giant rats and bats for food and battle. Pretty nasty!
The player of our mysterious hero can perk up any time the party fights vermin, finds out about a kidnapping or comes across references to demon worshippers. The character can maintain their air of mystery, but still contribute to the party because of player engagement. The party uncovers a journal written by a mad cultist, and the player asks, “Is there any reference to Raxivort in there?”
Now everyone is engaged. The other players wonder who is Raxivort? The GM might not have had the slightest thought of this journal having anything to do with Raxivort, but now they sure do. The mysterious character and their player are satisfied — they just found a secret the GM hid for them (not really, it was spur of the moment but it feels pretty awesome, right?). The other players are happy too; the mysterious member of the party actually showed interest in their adventure! And it might be just the thing to bring that character out of their shell a little to share their knowledge with the companions.
Players who ask questions, whether they’re specific like the above example or something to help paint the scene like asking what the weather is like, help create memorable encounters. You might marvel at your GM’s responses and think wow, they really prepped all this? (We didn’t.)
Art of the encounter — Game Master responsibility
Game Masters don’t get let off the hook here either though. A GM has a very important responsibility for creating memorable encounters too, and it doesn’t have anything to do with writing out balanced combats or read aloud text ahead of time. Fortunately it’s super easy. It reduces prep time and helps achieve the magic we’re all looking for — that your story can only come about because of the unique individuals gathered at the table at that particular time and place. The responsibility is to invite the players to participate and then reward them for doing it.
This duty comes into play two ways. The first is recognizing when you’re talking too much and pausing to think about the parts of whatever it is you’re saying you can pass to the players. I mentioned the weather earlier. This is something really easy to put to the players to decide, and it can add a lot to an encounter. Is it raining? Foggy? Overcast or a bright and clear day? You can practice this with anything. Musty library — ask the players about a book they find on the shelves. Travel to the next town — ask the players what happened during the journey.
See the pattern there? Ask the players to add details, paint scenes, narrate part of the travel or whatever. If you throw questions out more generally and notice some players left out, ask them directly next time. But don’t force anything. Some players are content to ride along for the story and adventure, so be careful not to make someone uncomfortable if they’re not into this kind of stuff.
And that brings me to the second part of your GM responsibility. Make the player engagement meaningful. I don’t mean a GM has to include everything players say, or even that it requires immediate payoff. But if you are running a game and players show you they want to interact with the content you’re presenting, eat that stuff up! I can’t tell you how many adventures and campaign I’ve run that emerged through no planning of mine. Everything from a session one meeting of adventurers to the scope of a yearslong campaign came from listening to what players have to say and folding it back into their story.
In any given RPG session, there’s hopefully one or two standout moments making the experience completely unique. It’s hubris for a GM to think they are the sole reason for these moments. And it’s equally short sighted for a player to hang all their expectations for a memorable adventure on the GM. Weaving stories through encounters is a group activity.
And I’ll be expecting some reports of increased xvart activity by the way. For Raxivort!
If you enjoy Nerdarchy’s approach to the art of the encounter and you missed our first Kickstarter — Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition — our Pledge Manager is open for late pledges and add-ons for existing pledges. The prices for the book, maps, minis and badges for Nerdarchy the Convention will go up once the Pledge Manager closes, so check it out and discover the rewards that are best for you here.