Designing Better Encounters

As I’ve begun work on yet another product idea, I’ve wondered at the different elements of RPG encounters. What are some of the pieces that make some encounters successful and others less so?

For myself (and most gamers) I suspect that the biggest piece of the puzzle is engagement. Are the PCs involved? How do they get involved? What is the secret? Damn fine question..

Let’s look at some of the parts of an encounter and try to figure it out…

Encounter Action or Goal

encounter-diagramAt the core of each encounter is some kind of action. Whether it’s a combat encounter and the PCs are fighting for their lives or others, skill challenge, or some sort of less of a roll-playing challenge, we need to accomplish some sort of goal. Staying alive is always a solid goal. But so is achieving something less concrete. The problem is making it measurable.

Let’s go back to one of the encounters I described a few posts ago where the PCs were confronted with a socially awkward challenge to deal with an uncomfortable situation. The spouses of some influential members of a NPC agency (let’s say it’s a town council) put together a meal to honor their hard-working significant others and the work that the PCs have been doing for them. It’s not combat, but gaining some sort of prestige or social standing in a community can strengthen ties to that community and perhaps lead to further jobs, opportunities, or even just information they may need.

How do we define the action so that we have some sort of measurable outcome? Role-playing encounters can be difficult to gauge. Can we boil it down to just a few words that capture the essence of the encounter in a useful way?

We can call it a “Social Engagement” and say that the goal is to “Gain prestige with influential community members.” If they succeed, certain avenues can open up to them. And if they fail, those same avenues may shut but others may open.

Measuring Success

scalesHow do we measure success or failure then? In that specific instance, it’s more of a diplomatic challenge than anything else. Since I am trying to define this encounter in system-neutral terms, we could simply label it as a skill challenge if we wanted to allow a “roll” playing option. Or we could offer some examples of how a “role” playing option might play out.

In 4e D&D, a character may be able to use Diplomacy, Insight, Bluff, Intimidate, or some other skill or attribute check to pull off a skill challenge. Depending on the complexity or level of the encounter, it might be 5 successes before 2 failures (or some other combination of success & failure) for the PCs to negotiate the dinner party without offending any of the major players. Other systems may have similar styles of “skill challenge” rules to apply.

Or a GM might just have the players role-play the encounter with the NPCs, gauging the interplay between PCs and NPCs to see whether any offenses were taken by either side of the equation. Would a spouse who prepared the meal be offended if a PC complained loudly about the meal or notice if any questions about the meal were artfully dodged and appreciate the diplomacy shown?

In either case, a well-designed encounter would have outcomes prepared for success, failure, or even a mix of the two.

Player/PC Engagement

But that really doesn’t get to the heart of how to make an encounter more engaging to the players. What we’ve discussed so far would help a GM take a proposed situation and more easily adapt it to their own campaigns I hope. Player engagement requires a slightly different tactic.

baitFor engagement, we need to hook both the invitation and the outcome to one or more PCs, directly if at all possible. Whether we connect the dots to a current adventure, a past adventure, or something in the character’s history is all open for debate. Any of those would work. And the more PCs we can tie to a particular encounter, the better.

Some possibilities for one or more of the PCs:

  • One or more was born or had spent time in the town previously.
  • One or more had previously dealt with a particular family or individual.

Or you could tie particular goals to the PCs:

  • Perhaps a PC had endeared themselves to an influential individual and was hoping to strengthen that relationship.
  • Or perhaps a PC had aggravated an NPC or an NPC had an open grievance with them.

In either case, the PC may need to curry some favor to try and keep a good thing going by “playing nice” in a situation that may not be all that pleasing to them normally.

By providing some sort of connection, momentum may start to build from one encounter to the next or one or more PCs to accomplish some other goal. So the setup becomes just as important as the action and the resolution.


I’m not sure I have a concrete plan yet, but I’m closer and have a few ideas to explore.

Next time we’ll look at how this information might be presented in a system-neutral way (or perhaps with more of an OSR spin) to make it easier for a GM to take a collection of potential encounters, add some world and campaign-specific bits, and quickly assemble them in a meaningful way.


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