Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. We’ve got one of our biggest announcements to date — Our first ever Kickstarter is now live! Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition has been in the works for years now. You can see the project and learn all about the incredible team and everything we’re putting into this project on the Out of the Box Kickstarter page to find the pledge level that’s right for you. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here. Since we’ve just launched a Kickstarter about D&D encounters that seems a fitting topic for this week’s newsletter.
This is my super basic approach to building D&D encounters.
I pick cool and interesting monsters or NPCs I want to use.
I think about the environment I’m going to use them in or the set dressing. Is this normal for this creature or NPC? Is it an odd place to find them? Are there interesting and unique features that could be used by either side in a combat? Or maybe something that becomes a conversation piece in a social encounter. Lastly maybe the terrain or setting will cause either the NPC or players to seek out the other. These questions can help flesh out and add depth to the encounter.
I don’t determine an outcome. That is up to the players. Maybe I put a warband of orcs in the forest where the adventuring party is. But instead of fighting them they are able to befriend them through interesting roleplaying. If the orcs are hostile it might be a lot harder to resolve this without violence, but if the players are clever I will certainly allow and reward them. For me it’s all about presenting players with potential problems. Most of the time I don’t have a solution in mind. I leave that up to the players.
From Ted’s Head
Ah, the term D&D encounters can mean so much. Typically in normal conversation it is used for something you came across or ran into that you normally do not.
“Oh I had an encounter with him today,” or, “I ran into her at the mall.”
But when you are talking about D&D encounters this winds up being something else. A D&D encounter is an obstacle. It is something to be overcome or avoided. Most often Dungeon Masters plan encounters and assume a combat is going to happen. I know for myself, very much a free form DM, when I put something in the game I wait and see what happens. What are the players reactions to what is happening? Literally last night, as I am writing this, the party encountered two houses racing in the woods. One larger running on chicken legs, the other moving on legs made of vines moving like a spider.
I had no idea how the players and their characters were going to react. I wanted to use some minis I had painted and I was inspired to put the minis on the map and see their reaction. I did not have stats for the houses or the NPCs. It was a lot of fun and could have gone many different ways. Most of the time when planning an encounter there are several key things to look at.
Does it have to resolve in combat? When you have an encounter, what if the players talk their way through? Are you running a video game mentality game that there is no chance to talk it out? If not, do you have set limits for what it takes to avoid combat or is there ebb and flow based on the conversation.
If a fight does happen, will the enemies fight to the death, or will they run or surrender? I have been gaming for decades and I find it rather illogical that so many fights I have run or been a player in end with such gruesome death. If you prefer this I am not urging you to completely rewrite your campaign or change your style but consider what it is like for creatures to have no regard for their lives. Some DMs prefer their characters to be heroes and allow enemies to survive and be taken captive, while others want a heroic game where characters overcome amazing odds and slay unwavering foes. Both options use the letters in hero but are very different style game.
Are you going in with the end in mind? This one is a little harder to swallow. Some DMs write out a whole campaign arc. It might be written digitally or in a notebook literally presented like a module, while others free form or only write the pieces necessary for one session at a time.
Are you planning encounters based on time? Based on my experience with D&D encounters, one per hour works really well. You can have a combat, exploration or puzzle and a social and have a very fulfilling session in three hours. And then goof off the rest of the night if you are like some people I have played with. But planning those things based on time is a great start to moving things forward and making session planning that much easier.
Encounters are the lifeblood of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Or any edition of D&D. Or any roleplaying game, really. A Dungeon Master describes the surroundings. Players listen closely, alert for cues to pique their characters’ curiosities. The DM has set the stage for the characters to take action, and looks around the table before asking the players to participate in the inciting incident.
“What do you do?”
You’re in an encounter.
With several D&D encounters, and the unfolding story told between you and the players, you’ve got yourself a campaign. During encounters, players conspire to achieve a goal they set for themselves. The really obvious one is: don’t get killed in a combat encounter by this monster. But it could very easily become a social encounter — ever hear the fable about the lion with the thorn in its paw? Or an exploration encounter for wary adventurers searching for a safe way to bypass a dangerous creature’s lair.
How players work through D&D encounters, their characters each contributing to an emerging narrative, is what D&D is all about. In any given game session, one or more moments will take place that only your group will create. Any other combination of players and the dice rolls affecting outcomes during encounters will have different results.
Understanding this flexibility can be an aid to DMs who experience the feeling of being unprepared. And for me this feeling creeps up when I lose sight of how much players contribute to the game. However many there are in your group, you’re outnumbered (unless you’re exploring the new D&D Essentials Kit with a solo player!) and players will take campaigns in amazing directions.
Giving encounters to a group of characters is a chance for you and the party to discover things about the campaign setting and find their own unique story to tell. A random encounter while traveling to the location of a treasure-filled dungeon might lead the characters down a totally different path, where those riches go untouched (by them anyway).
Even a simple encounter like a broken stone pillar emanating magical energy that produces random effects on creatures that touch it can inspire new tales. The fighter’s hair turned from black to white when they touched the stone, and the cleric developed an irrational fear of the moon and images of the moon. What can it mean?
I have learned a lot about D&D encounters, what to consider when creating them, and what sorts of interesting options you can pro-offer players to engage them like using their tools, languages and skills to highlight more than their combat aptitude by first reading and then working with writer Mike Gould on his Out of the Box series on Nerdarchy.com. So I’m incredibly excited about the launch of our very first Kickstarter — Out of the Box: Encounters for Fifth Edition.
I’ve used a lot of these encounters in my 5E D&D games and we’ve told some awesome stories because of them. Some I’ve adapted and morphed to fit my campaigns and some I’ve run straight out of the box, both to terrific effect.
D&D Encounters lead to engagement, and engagement leads to dramatic, immersive, adventuresome moments throughout your campaigns that you and your friends will never forget.
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