Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shaking Up Your Encounters

Today, I've decided to talk about more specific advice. Often this blog is about more generalities and things you want to keep in mind while playing. Not today. Today, we're going to talk about ways to fix something that has always peeved me when they've happened in RPGs. What is it? Well, namely, the tendency for every random encounter to be a "Challenge Rating: (Whatever Level Party Is)" encounter. I dislike it for a number of reasons, and today I want to talk about that dislike.

The Problem
Before addressing it, I want to state what the problem is specifically. My issue with the above situation is the fact that there is no variety in it. Every encounter is set to be a challenging one for the party. No matter how  high a level you attain, every time you are met on the road it is a hostile enemy that is just right to be a full on challenge for your group. Now, to say nothing of how draining this can be on the group's resources, it is also a major drag on the game. Trust me, it's not good when the group's reaction to a random encounter is to sigh and wonder who is going to die this time in a meaningless fight.

So, how can you add some spice to those encounters?

The Opt In Fight
Instead of just having the party get attacked, have them instead hear the noises of a nearby fight. When they go to look, they can come across a pack of whatever the encounter was supposed to be attacking some merchants. Now, they have the choice. Join in the fight and help the merchants beat back the attackers, or just leave the merchant to its fate. You can even use this to start a side story, bring in an NPC, or just give the PCs a way to resupply mid travel. Undoubtedly, if the merchant survives he/she will be grateful and deals can be made.

Non-Hostile Enemy
Who is to say that every opponent met on the road has to be hostile. Why is it that every pack of gnolls, bandits, orcs, and raiders is so keen on attacking the camp of heavily armed seasoned adventurers with someone on watch? Why isn't it ever the other way around? Perhaps, the person on watch hears some chatting in gnoll, and when they go to investigate they find a camp of gnolls near by. The PCs can now choose to attack, or just choose to let things go. Even better for the person on watch who may choose to never even mention the matter to the rest of the PCs.

A Hurt Enemy
This is something you can do in almost any encounter. Have the monster already be hurt. Sure, it's a big dragon, beyond the level of the PCs. However, it only has 13 hit points left, and is attacking in a pain fueled rage. A solid hit or two is all it takes to chase the beast off and leave everyone back at peace.

Cut Off The Head
Speaking of chasing the beast off. How often do the enemies run away in your game? Why is it that every goblin fights to the last man? Why not appoint one goblin the leader. When the PCs kill that goblin, the others break and run. Goblins that are engaged will stay and fight, sure. But the rest of them likely want no more part with the group that just murdered their boss. Especially for any race that does leadership based on strength.

The Point
The point of this is to have fun with the encounters. Mix them up, shake them out, and don't keep having it be the same old same old. For that matter, why are you rolling for random encounters every night? Let the PCs have some rest, and don't drag out every last thing. If you do have an encounter, then mix it up. It will keep people interested and can lead to all sorts of fun RP opportunities.

If you have other ways you can shake up these encounters, post them in the comments below.


  1. When I first started GMing, I would always have enemies pop up and if they got bored with conversationt, they would attack. This was 100% of the time and it took me a little while to realize it. From that point I made a vow that I would never instigate a fight unless it was mindless, hungry monsters or the BBEG if the situation called for it. This meant that almost every fight the PCs got into was their fault, they attacked first. It led to interesting encounters when the PCs would accuse the defeated enemies as being the bad guys and the accused could just say "you attacked us first."

    I also always decide a few things for every encounter: will they fight to the death, what would make them run, will they kill the PCs if given the opportunity. Most enemies will not reasonably fight to the death, not even monsters like wolves or something. Things want to live to fight another day and no matter what their motivation, they usually won't die for it. This leads to shorter battles(especially in 4ED&D) and adds a layer to the combat.

    One more thing I like to consider when creating combats is the enemy's motivation. This has been discussed extensively on gaming blogs and probably on this blog. Basically, not everything out there is out to kill the PCs. Bandits want wallets, so that's what they go for and they run away as soon as they get it. Monsters might be defending their territory and will try to force the PCs out and stop the fight as soon as the PCs are out. A single PC might be the target, and as soon as he's dead, the enemy retreats. Maybe they're trying to activate a switch or a ritual. Anything but, "These random enemies are here to kill you and will die for their cause because that's what enemies are for."

  2. All great points Broken. The motivation thing I think I covered a loooong time ago with something like "alternative victory conditions" for also helping to shake up encounters.

    I like the idea of making the PCs be the ones to attack first. It could make a game very low combat, especially if someone is an open minded good guy. It could also lead to a bunch of other situations too, like the PCs having a price on their head for rabble rousing and generally disturbing the peace.

  3. I've embraced these ideas and they really work great.

    In our last session, I had two gunmen there to assassinate a PC that is running for office but it wasn't supposed to be a major encounter it was just there to alert the players that someone was after them so the gunmen were flunkies and missed the first shot. The PC's bodyguard (a PC of a different player) charged the gunmen and they ran. They weren't there for a fight, they were there to scare or kill the candidate.