Just like a book or a movie is composed of a long series of scenes, a game of Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop roleplaying games) is, in essence, composed of a long series of encounters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say encounter design is one of the most important skills in the Dungeon Master’s toolkit.
It’s important to note here, that while an encounter will often be understood as a ‘combat encounter’, the word encounter really encompasses any event in which the characters interact with the world around them. From talking to a shopkeeper or securing a room at an inn to crossing a dangerous ravine or fighting a dragon.
Alright, so if encounters are that important – how can you make sure that your encounters are great?
In this post, I’ll present my answer to that question, as I discuss what makes an encounter bad, good, or even great, and present a method for making great encounters.
The Bad Encounter
Before we get into what actually makes an encounter great, let’s first take a look at what a not-so-great encounter looks like.
Whether you’re playing or running the game, you have probably experienced plenty of boring, bland, uninspiring, and pointless encounters. Especially random encounters – the travel encounters frequently used in published adventures such as Curse of Strahd, Storm King’s Thunder or Tomb of Annihilation – are often vilified for being pointless wastes of time. And truthfully, they often are.
To illustrate what I mean by a bad encounter, here are three examples of what I think are bad encounters:
Farmers. The characters run into a family of farmers traveling down the road. The farmers have names – let’s say Julia & Jacob – and two small children, but that’s it. The characters can talk to them, but they don’t have much to offer in terms of conversation or goods – they’re just simple farmers on the road. Boring.
Ambush. The characters are travelling toward a dungeon. On the second day of the journey, the DM rolls for a random encounter and determines that a band of goblins ambush the characters. It’s an easy encounter, which costs the characters only a few spell slots, the use of some class features, a handful of hit points each – and takes up an hour of valuable gametime! The goblins have no significant valuables and the characters are only halfway to the dungeon, so by the time they arrive, all their spell slots, class features and hit points have been restored. Waste of time.
Door. The characters are searching inside a dungeon and come upon a locked door. The door’s lock requires a Sleight of Hand check to open. After failing the first attempt, the party’s rogue manages to get the door open and the characters continue on into the next room. Unexciting.
So, why are these encounters bad?
Once again, we can draw from the world of movies and literature, where the golden rule is that every scene must have meaning: it must somehow advance the story, develop characters, or be intrinsically entertaining. The same goes for encounters in a tabletop roleplaying game. An encounter that doesn’t add anything to the game has no reason to be there. It shouldn’t exist, because it has no meaning. It’s meaningless.
In all three cases, the DM might as well have skipped the encounter, offering just a ‘you met a family of farmers, but they had nothing exciting to tell’, ‘you were ambushed by goblins, but easily repelled them and gained 200 XP and 12 silver pieces for your efforts’, or ‘you came upon a locked door, but managed to pick it open without too much trouble’. That isn’t anymore exciting or compelling than playing out the encounters, but at least it doesn’t waste valuable time that could be spent on actually good encounters.
Alright, so now that we’re clear on what a bad encounter looks like, it’s time to ask the important question: how do we make encounters that aren’t bad?
I.C.E – Designing Meaningful Encounters
My assertion is this: an encounter should only exist if it is meaningful. But what does meaningful mean, in the context of D&D (and other tabletop roleplaying games)?
While this is, of course, subjective, I have personally found that an encounter becomes meaningful when it contains one or more of the following components:
Information about the story, the world, the characters, or any other information that is generally interesting or useful to the players and their characters.
Consequences for the characters or their environment, whether these are good (gaining resources, improving reputation, saving lives etc.) or bad (losing resources, looking bad, costing lives, etc.).
Entertainment in the form of an exciting riddle or puzzle, an amusing NPC, or a tactically challenging combat.
Dividing the three components of a meaningful encounter into these three categories has the added benefit of creating the acronym I.C.E – and who doesn’t like acronyms? – which I’ll refer to throughout the rest of the post.
So, let’s see how we improve our encounters by serving them with some I.C.E.
To have an encounter provide information is one way to make it meaningful. An encounter may teach the players something about the game’s story or world, their immediate environment or situation, or even themselves. Of course, this information should be something that is actually interesting and perhaps even useful to the party.
This could be an encounter with an NPC that explains how the party’s tiefling is a descendant of Asmodeus, or that the evil dragon is extremely afraid of water. It could be a destroyed village that illustrates the villain’s evil and gives clues to their army’s strength, or a letter-of-hire penned by the bard’s archenemy found in the pocket of an assassin.
Here’s a quick example of how we can inject information into the ‘Farmer’s-encounter presented above to make it more meaningful:
Farmers with Information. Instead of just running into a family of simple farmers going down the road, the characters meet a family of farmers riding atop a cart fully-laden with all their worldly belongings. The farmers have decided to move away from the area because they don’t feel like the King’s soldiers are doing enough to protect them against the many trolls that terrorize the area. The farmers complain that “the king is more concerned with finding his stupid crown than the survival of his loyal subjects”.
While this is still not a particular great or memorable encounter, it now serves a purpose by foreshadowing an encounter with trolls, and offering information about the kingdom – which could even be a potential plot hook.
Consequences, whether they are positive (gained resources, saving lives, improved status or reputation etc.) or negative (lost resources, innocent lives lost, a damaged reputation etc.) are the most commonly used tool to give – especially combat – encounters meaning.
This can be as simple as a combat encounter that requires the use of resources, a magic item taken from the corpse of a fallen enemy, saving the lives of an NPC the characters are fond of, or repelling giant invaders to become the heroes of a small town.
It is important to note that while an encounter may appear to have consequences – such as the loss of resources such as hit points, spell slots and class features – these are only true consequences if they are actually needed before they can be replenished again. This is why random combat encounters often feel pointless. If an encounter isn’t dangerous enough to actually threaten the characters lives on its own, it must be followed immediately (before a long rest) by other encounters that will make the characters miss the resources spent on it.
Here’s an example of how we can improve the ‘Goblin Ambush’-encounter presented above by making sure it has actual consequences:
Ambush with Consequences. Instead of being ambushed by a band of goblins when they are two or three days away from the dungeon, the characters are ambushed shortly before their arrival. Because their mission is time-sensitive, they will feel compelled to head into the dungeon before taking a long rest, and thus whatever resources they spend fighting the goblins become an actual consequence.
Again, a goblin ambush is probably far from a memorable encounter, but with these simple changes, it’s at least not a complete waste of time.
An encounter will often become more entertaining when it has consequences – thus, increasing tension and excitement – or when it provides interesting information. However, encounters can also be intrinsically entertaining, simply because of the way they play out. This could be the hilarious mannerisms of a weird shopkeeper, an interesting puzzle or riddle, or a tactically challenging combat where hard choices must be made.
Again, we’ll exemplify this using the ‘Door’-encounter from above.
Door with Entertainment. Instead of being a door the characters can simply pick open with enough attempts, the door is locked with a riddle: “All living creatures have my key, but none can hold it forever.”
Now, it’s a fairly simple riddle and once figured out, requires only that a character breathes into the door’s keyhole. While in theory just as easy as picking the lock, a riddle is much more likely to get the characters thinking and give them an ‘aha!’ moment when they figure it out. In other words – it’s mildly entertaining.
Making Good Encounters
Alright, you may think, that doesn’t sound too hard. Just make an encounter that gives information, has consequences, or is entertaining, and you’re good to go. And while that’s true, an encounter that has only one of these components is just a meaningful encounter, i.e. an encounter that actually has a reason to exist. To make an actual good encounter, you will want to include at least two of the three components.
Here’s an example of how we can combine two of the values – information, consequences, entertainment – to improve the sample encounters presented above.
Farmers with Information and Consequences. It’s the same encounter as before – the characters run into a family of farmers that can provide information that the king’s crown has been stolen. This time, however, the characters meet the farmers while they are being attacked by trolls. The encounter now has potential consequences – will the characters spend resources (negative consequences) trying to save the farmers (positive consequences), and potentially earn a reward in the form of flasks of alchemist’s fire (positive consequences)? Or will they stand by, thus indirectly causing the deaths of innocent farmers (negative consequences) and a substantial hit to their reputation, as any survivors or onlookers vilify them for their inaction (negative consequences)?
Ambush with Consequences & Entertainment. As before, the characters are ambushed by goblins near the dungeon, which has consequences in the form of lost resources. But the encounter now also provides entertainment, as the goblins use amusing tactics – pole-vaulting onto characters’ backs, throwing entire beehives at them, and so on.
Door with Entertainment & Information. The characters once more run into a door with a riddle written on it, which they must solve to get by, thus offering them a smidge of entertainment. But now the door now also provides information as it is surrounded by murals depicting paladins of Lathander, the god of light, fighting of hordes of undead. The door also has recent damage around the lock, as if some creature has tried unsuccessfully to open it. A successful Investigation check reveals that the damage is caused by long claws – the ghouls residing in the dungeon who couldn’t open the door because they don’t breathe.
Making Great Encounters
Most of the time, a good encounter is good enough. But, whenever they’re able to, the DM should aim to make great encounters. And this means designing encounters so that they contain all three components. This obviously requires a bit more thought on the DM’s part, but creating encounters that provide information, have significant consequences and are entertaining doesn’t have to be all that difficult.
Again, we can illustrate this by using the previous examples:
Farmers with I.C.E. The farmers possess information about the King’s stolen crown, and intervening (or not intervening) on their behalf against the trolls come with certain consequences. But now the encounter takes place in the middle of a long bridge spanning a rushing river One of the farmers’ children has fallen into the water and is clinging to a rock below, but looks like he will soon be swept away by the current. The farmer is clutching their youngest child on top of the wagon – but the wagon has caught fire! The farmwife is wielding a pitchfork and a flask of alchemist fire against two trolls, who seem to be toying with her. The characters must now choose who to aid first and how to approach the situation – making the encounter that much more entertaining!
Ambush with I.C.E. As before, the characters are ambushed by goblins near the dungeon they’re travelling to, which is entertaining because of the goblins’ acrobatic tactics and has consequences in the form of lost resources. But the goblins now actually work for the dungeon’s inhabitant – an evil fomorian from the Feydark! They are covered in fungus-growth and seem weirdly twisted and demented, and if captured, can provide valuable information about both the fomorian and the dungeon’s other defenses.
Door with I.C.E. As before, the characters come to a door with an entertaining riddle on it and information around it in the form of murals and scratch marks. But now the door riddle also has consequences – as soon as the characters approach it, the other door into the room shuts behind them, and all air is sucked out of the room. The characters now only have minutes to solve the riddle (the DM can pull out an hourglass for effect!), before they pass out from lack of oxygen – and won’t wake up until slobbering ghouls force the door behind them open and barge in to attack them!
I hope this post has been helpful in explaining how you can create great D&D encounters by adding information, consequences and entertainment.
Remember, that while all encounters don’t have to be great – that’s an impossible goal to hit consistently – they should always be at least meaningful. If you ever find yourself about to run an encounter that doesn’t provide information, has no consequences, and isn’t entertaining, you may want to ask yourself if you’re better off either spending a little more time developing it, or simply replacing the encounter with a quick description.
Feel like I’ve missed something? Got your own recipe for making great D&D-encounters? Sound off in the comments below, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for this one. Have fun – and make sure your encounters are served with ICE.
J. A. Valeur