Dungeons and Dragons (D&D or DnD) is made up of encounters. These are preplanned or improvised moments in the game that challenge the Player Characters (PCs) combat and social skills. Since they make up the main part of the game, making encounters not only challenging but memorable is the challenge for the Dungeon Master (DM).
A good encounter not only challenges the players in unique ways but also helps advance the story. The reality of gaming is not every encounter is a good enounter and that is okay.
What Makes a Good D&D Encounter?
Fighting the enemy is the core of the combat encounter but in terms of the scene being created, why is the encounter happening at this location? Is it a natural or man-made chokepoint? Few interesting combat scenes in movies occur in the wide open. Usually those moments are massive armies running at each other and D&D has few of those moments and I feel for the DM who has to coordinate a nightmare like that.
A good encounter offers environmental challenges. Think in terms of narrow ledges, rickety bridges, quicksand, lava, rivers, brambles, nests of deadly vipers, violent electrical storms, or any other aspect of the world that doesn’t care about who wins or loses in the encounter. It just is.
Make the environment even more interesting by including destructible elements. That rickety bridge and be cut and those on it will fall. Rows of bookshelves can be toppled. Standing dead trees can be pushed over to create bridges or block paths. Rocks can be rolled down slopes as weapons or to create obstacles. Large pools of water can be used by magic users for certain spells.
The combat element of the encounter an either be straightforward or a bit twisted. A good encounter starts fast and ends fast. We don’t want to meander into a combat scenario and we don’t want to spend an hour hunting down the last dire spider. A good encounter will have three distinct phases.
Phase One – An Easy Win
One side of the encounter has a distinct advantage. Maybe the PCs stumble upon a small band of goblins who immediately start to flee. The PCs surge forward, kill a few of the goblins and in the next round will surely finish them off. Or on the flip side, the PCs stumble upon a large warband of hobgoblins and in the first round of combat, at least half the party have taken a significant amount of damage and haven’t killed a single foe.
Phase Two – The Tide Turns
The tide turns. As the PCs chase down the goblins, the ground shakes and an ogre emerges from behind the PCs, putting those squishy rogues and wizards at risk. Or as the PCs scatter in chaos at the hobgoblin army, a Paladin riding a warhorse charges into the fray to help the PCs.
It is best to preprogram when the “tide turns”. It happens after a certain event or it happens after a set amount of time. This way there is the chance of really bad or really great things to happen first. Having a savior drop in after a PC has fallen makes the moment even better. (See the ticking tock section below to see other ways of incorporating this into your encounter.)
So not every combat encounter can have a savior swoop in, but there can be cave ins, eruptions, second waves of enemies to fight, beasts that get brought into battle, or any number of factors that swing the pendulum in favor of one side or the other. In general, most of these tide turning scenarios will be in favor of the enemies being fought since the PCs generally can create their own tide turning moments with magic, feats, and special abilities.
Phase Three – Victory/Defeat
The moment of victory or defeat should be decisive. D&D has a problem in terms of PC defeat. For players, defeat doesn’t occur until their characters have died. That puts a lot of stress on the DM in building even random encounters.
It is a given the PCs will be victorious or the campaign suffers a huge setback. This is where we want to make sure the victory conditions of the encounter isn’t always kill everything.
Preventing something from being destroyed is good. Destroying a mystical object is good. Rescuing someone or something is good.
These goals of the encounter make it clear when they have been achieved or not. Okay, okay, sometimes the goal does to be “kill the bad guy” that is fine and will make up most of the encounters created. But once in awhile make the killing a secondary goal. Make it so even engaging in combat is a failure. Make it so they players have to choose, succeed at the main goal or succeed at killing the bad guy. Dilemmas are fun!
A Ticking Clock
Screenwriters use this technique all the time. The captain of a space ship sets a self destruct timer. The hero needs to disarm a bomb with a timer. An abstract rule of “you have 24 hours to get the kiss or else you will be friend zoned for life.” Even things like New Year’s countdowns and the clock used in sports are literal ticking clocks. The idea is something needs to be done by a specific time.
During a planned encounter, a ticking clock can be represented by a portcullis that is slowly closing. By water filling a jug that will trigger a trap. By the duration of a spell.
Give the PCs a specific amount of time to do something while facing other challenges. Suddenly climbing a 30 foot wall which would be a relatively boring event in the game becomes a tense set piece when rushing hot lava is approaching and failure to get up the wall means certain death. A challenge in and of itself, but amped up when there are pixies harassing the PCs as they climb.
A ritual takes 1 minute to cast and the magic user casting it cannot lose concentration. Now the PCs have to defend the wizard for 60 seconds, 10 rounds of combat. That could be 3 hours of game play right there.
Almost every encounter is improved by having a timed element included in it. Nothing focuses a player and improves the efficiency of combat by having a timed element. Consider the basic goblin ambush. This is a staple of any D&D adventure and would take 30 minutes of table time to play out. Now have the ambush occur while the PCs are following a bandit who has just stolen one of their horses that carried a sacred relic. Now every six seconds spent killing goblins is 6 seconds the bandit gets to escape. Even high level PCs who have no fear of the goblins will use vital resources to end that combat quickly in order to catch the bandit.
All the DM has to do is say, “for every 6 seconds the bandit gets to flee, it increases the DC of the Investigation check to follow him successfully by 1.” This might even encourage the Players to split the party. I think the concept of splitting the party has gotten muddied over time and I won’t delve into it here. DMs should always be trying to split the party so the barbarian has to make a social check or the bard needs to break down a door. Good players should always work to keep the party together, knowing that is their greatest strength.
Not Every Encounter Needs This Treatment
Honestly, moderation is the key to life. Don’t apply each of these suggestions to every encounter you create in your campaign. Patterns of any type become boring. The goal is to make at least 1 out of every 4 encounters more complex and more interesting. The other encounters are filler and shouldn’t be all combat encounters.
Be judicious and learn to read your players. Sometimes they need a quick and easy win. Your players have morale as well and can, if faced with too many difficult challenges, become despondent about the game. Many of us play RPGs to escape lives where we don’t feel accomplished and heroic. If our fantasy game life starts to mimic our real world lives, then what’s the point in playing? On the flipside, the feeling of accomplishment doesn’t come from having things handed to you. So you need to up the challenge when needed to give the sense of earning the reward and giving moments of quick easy wins in order to bolster flagging morale.