Today I have three questions to help you when making an encounter. If you can't answer all three, you may want to relook at your encounter.
The Three Questions
- Why is this encounter happening?
- What does this encounter challenge?
- How is this encounter fun?
Why Is This Encounter Happening?
In game, what is the cause of this encounter? What are the PCs doing when they come upon this encounter? What are they not doing when it comes upon them? What is going on int he world that makes this encounter happen?
A random encounter for the sake of a random encounter is fine if that is the kind of game you are running. But for a planned encounter, having a reason why it is happening is a good thing to know. This plays in to the motivations of the opposition too. Are they defending their home from invading PCs? Are the PCs trying to stop them from doing something? The narrative why of an encounter answers so many questions before they even come up. Will the opposition fight to the death? Will they flee? Will they completely avoid combat and try a different tact to get their wants? All of these are explained by the Why.
What Does The Encounter Challenge?
How is this encounter meant to challenge the PCs? What do we find out about the PCs from this encounter? Is it a simple combat test of "can the PCs beat these people/creatures in combat?" Is it a challenge of their strategy and resource allocation such as "can the PCs manage their resources and abilities so they have enough left to triumph in later encounters?" Or is it a more Character test?
I like the last one a lot. The purpose of this encounter is to see if Sarah's Jedi will save her best friend or her smuggler companion if both are put into a dangerous situation at the same time. The purpose of this encounter is to see if the PCs can be so enraged at an NPC that they forget their objective is to recover fragile objects while they play out the fight? This encounter is intended to challenge how adamant Batman is about not using a gun.
Narrative challenges like this are harder to pull off, but they also can make for the richest encounters you'll find in a game. The best part is they drive RP in the encounter itself and after, which is always good.
How is this encounter fun?
And this is the big one. Is this encounter going to be fun? If so how? What makes it fun? A challenging combat for a group that likes challenging combat is fun by nature of being a challenging combat. A fight with fun tactics to be used can be fun from tactics. A narrative challenge can be fun from the drama and RP it drives.
But what about other things? Have you looked at the details? How is the encounter fun if the boss stun locks a player for 8 rounds? How is it fun if the boss just roflstomps a group to prove a point? That isn't to say these things can't happen, but you need to find a way to make these things fun as well.
And That's It
And that is it. Three questions to help you build your encounters. The last one is the most important, but I would definitely give a lot of consideration to the other two. Those two, in service to the third, can make for some of the most memorable encounters you'll have in a game.