Do not reveal the entire encounter to the players right at its start; let it flow over several rounds.

Sometimes, it feels like an archaeologist just cannot catch a break. Just when you finally begin to feel that you have a solid grasp on things – BAM – another twist makes the scenario more complex. Life is never simple when you are Indiana Jones.

Life should never be simple for the heroes in your game, either, which is a solid reason to consider changing how you design encounters. With standard encounter design, the crescendo of battle happens right at the beginning. All of the monsters and all the heroes are at full power, and their most powerful attacks and spells fly with reckless abandon. The first round is dynamite, the next few are decent, and then combat devolves into mopping up the last few enemies and patching up your wounded. While this is tactically solid, it is completely unsatisfying from a dramatic perspective. If I watched an action movie that flowed like this, I would be bored to tears. There has to be a better way.

Our heroes need to encounter new problems as the battle progresses, much like Indy does.

Tell the Combat Narrative in Steps

A combat encounter is part of the narrative of your story, and it deserves to be treated as such. Give it time to tell its tale. Begin by introducing your players to the scenario through action, and then bring in additional challenges. Give them conflicting short-term goals that all help in achieving their long-term goal. Force them to make difficult decisions. In short, tell the combat story with action the same way you tell your role-playing story with words.

There are many ways to structure an encounter so that the drama and intensity increase from the start, and it is important to switch up your strategies so that you do not become predictable to your players. We will look at two different strategies in detail to get you started.

Tick-Tock of the Clock

The easiest method of unfolding the combat narrative is to script events to occur during specific rounds of combat. When my Tuesday night gaming crew decided to kick down the door to the Cracked Flagon tavern and bust some wererat heads, this is the approach I used.

Round 1: (Surprise round) Begins when the PCs kick down the door to the tavern. The wererats are all in human form.

Round 2: The wererats in the tavern transform on their initiative turns, leaving some human peasants on the board as well. A wererat in the back room rings the warning bell, alerting all nearby wererats to the heroes’ presence. I tell the players that they may control the peasants in this battle and give the necessary rules.

Round 3: The battle map expands to include the bottom floor of a nearby guild house, containing more peasants and human-form wererats. The wererats here transform and begin killing the peasants. A guilder calls to the heroes for help, offering 100 gold for every peasant and 25 gold for every animal saved from the wererats.

Round 4: The battle map expands a final time to the top two floors of the guild house. The last remaining wererats there transform and begin attacking the peasants.

Round 5 and Beyond: The battle continues to its conclusion.

Having a basic script for the combat meant that I could seamlessly keep adding to the fray as I went. The players did not feel cheated, because I was not just adding more monsters to a battle that was too easy to win. Instead, they players could follow the chain of events as they unfolded and grow to understand the seriousness of the situation. Saving the peasants became a competing goal with saving their own hides. They left the table that night with questions based on the story that the combat told.

You do not need to get this complex when you script additions to your encounters. Here are several easy suggestions:

  • An enemy sounds a horn at the start of the battle to call for help. Reinforcements will arrive at the start of the fourth round of combat.
  • The heroes fight on top of a wide dam during a huge storm. A few chunks crumble away every round, eventually dividing the battlefield.
  • A great sea monster attacks the heroes’ ship. Every round it gains a new attack option as more of the monster rises from the depths.
  • Lava is rising in the cavern. It rises five feet every two rounds, forcing the heroes to higher ground.
  • The goblins have constructed a bomb with a ridiculously large timer. It will explode when the countdown reaches zero.

Cause and Effect

For the DMs who like a little more unpredictability in their lives, you can hinge changes in the combat narrative to specific actions that might be taken in combat. This requires the same scripting as our other example, but you allow the actions from that script to occur in a more “organic” fashion.

The first adventure of my current campaign concluded with this type of encounter. The heroes had tracked an outbreak of filth fever and the burning of a local orphanage to a wererat den beneath the city – the origin of their wererat adventures. The battle began as a skirmish with twenty minions on two levels with an obviously magical circle carved into the top floor. It continued this way until a hero became bloodied with standing in the magical circle. The circle was powered by blood magic, and it summoned a bile archon the next round. The bile archon then began to tear into both the wererats and the heroes. What began as a simple minion-based skirmish ended as a boos fight against a powerful solo creature.

The down side of action-based scripting is that you may not get to do the cool thing you planned. That is okay, do not force it. If no one had been bloodied in the battle against the wererat minions, I could not have brought out my bile archon. Having the circle glow and then summon the archon anyway would have denied a neat accomplishment to the heroes. I would have had to just leave my brand new, awesome mini on the shelf and use it another day.

Possible uses of cause-and-effect scripting include:

  • A dragon’s breath weapon is so powerful that every square it covers becomes damaging terrain for the rest of the fight.
  • Hitting a slime monster with an edged weapon divides it in half, replacing the original with two mini-slimes at half of its hit points.
  • The first to blow the Horn of Yori becomes an avatar of the god of battle for five minutes. Both the heroes and the villains arrive to its resting place at the same time.
  • If the five animated lion statues occupy adjacent squares, they transform into a single metal golem of immense strength.

How to you allow encounters to unfold in your own game? What do you do to break up the standard combat scenario? Do you view combat encounters as part of the narrative structure of your game, or do you view them as separate from story-telling? Do the suggested scripts do enough to add dramatic tension to encounters, or do DMs need to do even more?

2 Responses to “Unfolding the Encounter”

  1. I like this idea a lot. I have run D&D adventures on and off for almost ten years now (That’s a disconcerting thought…), and have always had immense difficulty in keeping them exciting. Your point that this is because the climax of the battle occurs at the very beginning, due to standard tactics, is a good one.

    In fact, in retrospect, the most exciting and long-term engaging battles I have run have inadvertently made use of the kind of narrative structure you are describing. At the final battle of a long-running campaign I once ran, the emperor of an evil nation had just sacrificed his nobles to set off a ritual transforming him into a demigod. As turns passed, he gained more and more power. The PCs, who thought they knew what they were getting in to, started slower, but then ramped up the power of their attacks as they realized what was happening. In the end, a Ring of Wishes was nearly depleted to help finish him off.

    I am very interested, now, in trying this kind of style out. I agree that if “trigger-based” battles are used, it is important to not circumvent the PCs’ victories just to get to a part of the battle I had looked forwards too. I feel like a combination of events that the PCs can easily see coming (such as reinforcements), and information being revealed after the fact (the Wizard succeeding in an Arcana check after the battle and realizing, “Wow, had any of us suffered a serious wound while on this circle, a bile archon would have been summoned!”) could help lead the players to trust that as the DM, you have structured encounters to get more difficult, but still in ways that follow in-game logic.

    A final note, having run the “monster which splits in half when it is hit with an edged weapon” encounter a few times before, it tends to go quickly from “Ew, kill it!” to “AH, THERE’S TWO OF THEM!” to a relatively boring fight against a bunch of small, weak creatures. It takes additional writing to make that kind of encounter engaging.

  2. One of the most memorable encounters I ran for my party involved splitting the XP total for the encounter in half. The party was exploring a dungeon and had to decide which fork to move down. Their scout encountered a patrol and took some arrows. He counted eight enemies in the room. He ducked back out, and the PCs agreed that they would rush the enemy and overwhelm the guards’ position quickly. Debilitating force – brilliant!

    I used ranged minions behind one or two weak melee attackers to hit the scout, and deliberately made the seven (!) guards move eagerly forward. At the first sign of serious resistance, they fell back, taking attacks of opportunity. The eighth guard had already departed, sending reinforcements in a pincer movement.

    The party bit down on the hook: “We’ve got them on the run! Don’t let them go for help!” The scout charged in quickly to verify a head-count, and determine whether anyone had already escaped. When they discovered that one was missing, I used that as a cue to bring in the other side of the pincer movement, around the third round. They chose an excellent split — strikers concentrating on one half of the enemy force; defender, leaders, and controller on the other — and won the day.

    The enemy’s intelligent use of the terrain changed how the PCs treated the enemy (a group of undead) and brought them to realize a story point: the undead were all being controlled by a single mind. Combined with other clues on how the enemy fought, they took story-related lessons from the combat.

    If you can accomplish some backstory or NPC development in combat, I guarantee your players will remember it better than having a bard tell it to them in a tavern.

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