Encounter Design: Six Elements and More

What do you remember most about your favorite campaigns? I bet it boils down to one of three things… characters, plot, or encounters. Maybe setting could go into that pot as well. And of course none of it is possible without friends to play with. But mostly it’s those three key pieces.

I’ll probably talk about characters in another one of these rambles and we could talk about plot forever, but I seem to be stuck these days on encounters. Designing one of those unforgettable encounters is like the perfect storm of coincidence and preparation. And I’ve been trying to ferret out a way of defining them. Have I hit upon the perfect solution? Heck no. But I have come up with a scheme that I want to explore further…

So what are the elements of an encounter? I’ve narrowed it down to:

  • Place
  • Players
  • Setup
  • Strategy
  • Outcome
  • Possibilities


These are pretty common terms, so let’s just dive into an example.

An idea that came to mind for an encounter is this… Let’s say the party is in a small ruin and “randomly” comes across a child who has been lost in the dark for a few years, gone feral, and attacks the party. It takes a traditional fantasy world encounter (the dungeon delve) and gives it a bit of a real world twist. Now let’s figure out a few specifics by going through the 6 qualities we listed.

  • Place: Small ruins. The ruins are the remains of a small military outpost from a war waged in the area long ago.
  • Players: the Party, and the NPC child. The child, whether escaping from a cruel situation (slavery, cruel parents, raiders, etc.) or simply getting lost and never finding their way home, has devolved in a “Lord of the Flies” kind of way and been subsisting on small creatures, flora, and water that exist in the ruins.
  • Setup: Rumors of strange noises coming from the ruins have persisted for a while. Some believe that dark creatures, such as goblins or kobolds, have moved in and the village has asked the party to eliminate any potential threats and seal up the ruins for good.
  • Strategy: At first the child will be terrified of the party, run, and hide. Eventually, when the party corners the kid, he or she will attack with no mercy with a club, claws, and teeth.
  • Outcome: Do the PCs kill the child? Capture the child? Return it to the village? Perhaps the child is part of a larger story and once calm and settled can explain how s/he came to be there and share a few memories.
  • Possibilities: The child has been adopted “Willard” style by a pack of rats who will follow his/her commands or protect her with violent swarms. The child comes from a royal line thought to have been killed out a few years ago with the death of a noble family, causing political strife in the line of the throne. The child resists re-introduction into civilization and Tarzan-style returns to the wild after the story ends.

While working on this approach, I was chatting with Joshua O’Connor who is working on a supplement for Modiphius Entertainment‘s Achtung! Cthulhu series, and he is also wrestling with some encounter design issues. Though I’m attempting to use a more system-neutral approach, he’s designing for both Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds, which poses its own problems. How much detail do you go into? Too much gets “prescriptive” as he put it and too little begs the question about why you’re including any description of the encounter at all.

Ultimately I don’t know that there is a “one size fits all” approach. The “Six Qualities” I describe above leaves it wide open to interpretation and is more of a plot idea really than a single encounter. So is that what I’m trying to define?

If you break down the scenario from above into encounters, you might have a few:

  1. Village Introduction – Meet the villagers. They are concerned about the new noises from the ruins and ask the PCs to resolve any trouble there.
  2. Enter the Ruins – Explore the entrance, find some evidence of primitive inhabitation and animal activity.
  3. Go Deeper – Hear noises as the child attempts to evade discovery and capture. Perhaps get harried by a few lone rats.
  4. First Contact – The child is surprised and bolts like a scared rabbit deeper into the structure leaving some rats to protect his escape.
  5. Contact – The PCs find the child’s nest and he fights back with hordes of rats at his command.
  6. Conclusion – The PCs either kill or capture the child and exterminate the rats before demolishing the entrance to the ruins.
  7. Fallout – If still alive, the child may be adopted by the village or taken in by a local church. That may in turn lead to discovery of a political plot that destroyed a family to clear the way to the throne…

Still open ended, but it offers a few concise plot points and the possibility of more bounded encounter definitions.

Which approach would you prefer? The less defined “Six Qualities” approach or the more concise plot points that usually accompany a module or adventure-based approach?

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1 thought on “Encounter Design: Six Elements and More”

  1. Received a few good comments on G+ for this one, including this from Alex Schroeder: “In order to allow strategic thinking, I like my encounters to be announcing themselves avoidable at a cost. If trolls are tracking you using wolves, you hear the wolves before you meet them. I also like complications during or after the fight. Reinforcements are coming and you know how many rounds you have left.”

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