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RPT Newsletter #012 | Top 6 Ways To Use Encounters to Build a Compelling Campaign

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Top 6 Ways To Use Encounters to Build a Compelling Campaign
From JohnnFour | updated January 9, 2020

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #012

Encounters are like pieces of a grand jigsaw puzzle that you build with your players over time into a story. Imagine then, if some of the pieces didn’t fit? What if some of the pieces were missing entirely? How would your puzzle turn out if all the pieces were round? Or how strong would the puzzle be if all the pieces were square?

To thoroughly kill this poor puzzle metaphor now, I believe our job as game masters is to give our players a complete set of well-fitting, high quality, very colourful, very interesting pieces so that they may build a wondrous and unforgettable puzzle.

If we liken encounters to puzzle pieces then, an encounter’s purpose is equivalent to a puzzle piece’s shape. Here are five ways to make the most interesting and best possible encounter “shapes”:
  • Plot development. Have the encounter move the story forward. Not only from your perspective as the GM, but also from your players’ perspectives. They must feel that something was accomplished and that they have moved closer towards their goal.
  • World development. Use the encounter to explore a significant aspect of the characters’ world – either on a local or global level. Over a period of time your world will come alive for you and your players by consistently turning over rocks and exploring what’s underneath during encounters.
  • Character development. Focus the encounter on one or more characters so that the players learn more about them, or so that the character(s) improve in some way.
  • NPC development. Not all encounters concerning the bad guys need involve combat or narrow escapes. How about a visit with the evil wizard’s mom? Seriously though, you can use encounters to reveal motivations, histories, weaknesses and other interesting stuff about the characters’ allies and foes.
  • Break the mood. “When you see ’em yawn make’em roll initiative” I always say! It’s good to break things up for variety’s sake. If you’re playing a serious story, try an encounter about compassion. For combat intensive sessions try some dry-witted parley with a few friendly NPCs.
  • Try making some encounters fulfill more than one purpose. That will help build a truly exciting puzzle!

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
This was a great and concise newsletter, Johnn!

I actually like the shorter ones, I must confess. They seem like teasers for more. The long text walls are so long that I hardly ever find the time to read it completely without forcing myself to. It is like how you would create an RPG puzzle: small steps that the players can accomplish with a definite reward with a feeling of accomplishment after each part, so that they feel that they make progress.

Anyway, I totally agree with your metaphor. I like the jigsaw puzzle metaphor!

I usually concentrate on (1) plot development, (2) world development, (4) NPC development, (5) Breaking the mood, and (6) Fulfilling more than one purpose. I realize now, that I have usually not seen encounters as chances for character development, no, that is not true, but at least, when I design encounters, I often do not focus on a specific character and how this encounter could help him/her improve stats/relationships/personal arcs. I should probably focus more on that.

But I am very surprised that you did not point out the most obvious: A jigsaw puzzle piece style encounter should interconnect with other pieces, other encounters, should continue them and spread out to different options of next encounters, story-wise (interconnecting plots, hooks, giving hints, etc.), setting-wise (portray a new part of the world culture, history, NPC relationships, discoveries, etc.) and even system-wise (options on how to proceed, dialogues, combat, investigation, etc.).

One more. I think you should have added a definition of "encounter". Many readers are not familiar with your use of the concept, I imagine. Some may think it is just limited to a combat encounter, others that it is only an encounter with an NPC.

Let me try: An encounter is nothing else than a scene in a drama or movie. Personally, I use the word "scene" more often than encounter. But you may see a difference here.
Regardless, typical RPG encounters are ...
  • Roleplaying encounters, in which the PCs talk with NPCs or among themselves. These often have a strong focus on speech, enactment and descriptions, but could also involve planning.
  • Investigation encounters, in which the players ask intelligent questions to solve the mystery that the GM presented.
    (the Exploration Pillar of our game as fantastically described by Zipperon Disney in his video The Exploration Pillar Is NOT What You Think! is often to be found here, but can also be detected in roleplaying and combat encounters)
  • Skill encounters, in which the players roll on skills etc. to have their PCs accomplish a task like sneaking into a building undetected. Success and Failure decides what kind of encounter will follow.
  • Combat encounters, in which the PCs fight with NPCs or monsters.
  • Or a combination of those (combined at the same time)
  • Or a mutation of those (gradually or suddenly changing an encounter from one type to the next)

  • Mini encounters that often involve descriptions by the GM and a few comments/acts by the PCs. Travel is often portrayed with several mini encounters (I find it is a different category)
  • Random encounters for which the GM rolls on a table and doesn't know himself what kind of encounter it is going to be and how the story will evolve.
Basically, you want to have a different type of encounter after the last to increase diversity.
And you usually present an encounter with a specific background (location, NPCs etc.) to differentiate between the next.

Johnn, do you see more types of encounters? Or do you have a better definition ready?

I believe our job as game masters is to give our players a complete set of well-fitting, high quality, very colourful, very interesting pieces so that they may build a wondrous and unforgettable puzzle.
I love this statement. You hint to many other aspects here you do not name in your six tips.
Let's give it a try from my side:
  • Well-fitting. I believe this is to present an encounter at the right time of the story and at the right time of the session, using it to influence the pacing and tone of the scene, while maintaining genre and theme.
  • High quality. I believe this is to present an encounter with emotional or moral impact (or emotional rollercoaster as I call it), strong interconnectedness with other parts, convincing structure of events, relationships and mysteries, high stakes, and finally thrill and relief (also called high note and low note), while working with tone to create a specific mood.
  • Very colorful. I believe this is to present an encounter with great descriptions, convincing NPC enactments, fantastic scenery and a convincing make-belief of a living world, while presenting a huge amount of variance between encounters.
  • Very interesting. I believe this is to present an encounter that connects with the players through resonance and with their PC's character arcs, while including exploration elements (see video link above) and thus mystery.
  • Wondrous. I believe this is to present an encounter with elements of fantasy that is for most the reason to follow this hobby. It is a world of wonder and dragons. So, why should you keep your dragons in the book? Why not exactly using all the nice stuff there is? What is the point of a fantasy game with long lists of magic items if the GM is not giving them out?! Or related to wandering monsters and which to use, Matthew Colville strongly insisted to use what there is in the book in his video on Random Encounters, So, you definitely should use all that fantastic (!) stuff.
  • Unforgettable. I believe this is to present an encounter so full of vivid descriptions that can be put into a trope or category easily that it can easily be remembered. Also, the encounters need to make an emotional impact on the players, hell, even change their view of the world once in a while! I also posted about unforgettable or likeable NPCs. In contrast, it could just be the one tactic that the enemy used that becomes unforgettable.