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  • Writer's pictureKL Forslund

D&D: Scenic Encounters

The party is on its way to the dungeon that sounded appealing. It’s hot. Mosquitos are biting. The trees are just standing there as the players go by. It’s time for something to happen. In Dungeons and Dragons, they call that an encounter. In Writing, it’s a scene. Today, we’re going to apply some tricks I learned to make it easier to make that encounter.


First Timer Info

There’s a good chance you’re here because you are a Dungeon Master (DM) for a D&D group, or about to become one. Many editions of D&D have covered the duties of a DM in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but as this article is about planning an encounter, I want to make sure the new folks are caught up.


In an RPG, the players make characters and the DM (or GM in non-D&D games) makes up what happens to them. Except it’s sort of collaborative. The DM sets up a situation, and then the players respond. I’m going to spell this out specifically.


The DM sets the scene, tells the players they just entered town and notice an argument in an alley and see a flash of steel before one man collapses. That’s the setup. Does the party check it out?


Notice the DM didn’t declare too much about what the party was doing, other than to get the game started. It’s hard for players to object to that. Also note that I didn’t say the party checks it out. That’s for them to decide. Hopefully they say yes, but you never know.


The party, being good guys, say yes, they go check it out. Maybe one hangs back to lookout. But otherwise, they’re heading into the alley. This is the proper start of the encounter. The players are engaging and have an implied goal of finding out what happened, maybe saving the victim/catching the stabber. They might not have said as much, but nobody enters an alley after witnessing such with the goal to get to the other side as a shortcut.


You’ll describe the victim, and maybe the stabber, and some blood. Maybe he’s not dead yet, which gives the party a choice, nab the attacker or help. Or both. Choices and quandaries are fun.


At each stage, you’re narrating the results of what the players say they attempt (remember, it’s always an attempt. Unless it’s easy, the dice decide on the outcome). It’s just back and forth between you and the players. If it comes to aprehending the attacker, roll initiative and do some combat. Otherwise, if they talk or chase, just handle it. There’s rules for chase scenes, it does’t have to be like combat counting squares.


And when it’s done, either they caught the guy (their probable goal) or he got away (a defeat). To make the defeat more complicated, what if a passerby mistakes the party as the attackers. Now they’re in trouble, and need to clear their name. And with that, we have the launch of an adventure, with the goal to clear the party’s name and/or identify the real culprit.


You’ll ask the players what they want to do next after that encounter is finished. Maybe they’ll want to run. Or surrender because they’ve nothing to hide. You’ll need to work out what might happen because of that. Which is the point of this article.



Some Writer & Gaming Terms


Let’s cover some of my terms as they may differ from conventional use:


Plot: this is the mix of what the main problem of the story is and what the players do about it. Conventionally, if a villain attacks the town, and the players try to stop it, that’s the plot.


Story Goal: straight from writing class, this is the heroes wanting to stop the bad guy.. Players may have multiple goals, and will certainly have smaller goals that support or contradict the story goal.


Encounter: When the players interact with characters and environment in proximate real time (rounds, or just talking) to get things done. Could be a puzzle, convincing an NPC, fighting, or trying to cross tricky terrain. Often, an encounter and scene are the same thing.


Scene: Scenes are encounters that advance a story. The situation at the end of the scene should be meaningfully different from the start of the scene. A random encounter rarely counts. Killing some rats. Nope. Finding out you just made an enemy out of an NPC, needing to go East instead of North thanks to a new problem. A good scene means the story changed.


Scene Goal: The story goal is typically rather broad, like stopping the bad guy. The scene goal is about what the hero wants to achieve for this step of that goal. Like crossing this raging river, or getting onto the only boat leaving port. Knowing this is what gives you license to setup the scene without forcing what you want to happen on the party.


Story: My goal here is to use writer's craft techniques to make encounters build up to something that felt more like a story than a random series of events the heroes walked through. That’s a fine line to tread as we need everything to be organically based on the players goals, actions and logical consequences, rather than explicitly railroading a planned series of events and outcomes.


Transition: If the party travels somewhere, or waits for awhile, you’ll want to gloss over the boring bits and setup the part where things get interesting. For example, “you guys walk for three days through the jungle and finally arrive at the entrance to the temple.” Transitions are where you gently dictate what the party implied they wanted to do and move things along to the good part, where their goals collide with trouble.


What Happened So Far

Before we start the scene, review what just happened and what the players have said they intend to do next. For example, they’ve been framed for a crime, and need evidence. They think the mayor has it in his safe and want to break in. Note that I’ve jumped ahead in the story and the party somehow found a lead pointing to the mayor.


So the next scene should be that break in. If there’s any loose threads from past sessions or encounters to integrate here (like a guard they previously angered, so he might be the one to show up if they get caught), you’ll want to remember that. Stories (and television shows) re-use characters which increases their role and significance. Plus players will see patterns you didn’t and you can use that for ideas later.


Scene Template

On a piece of paper, take notes for the following. It will help you build quickly so the game keeps moving.


  1. Goal: what is the party trying to do right here?

  2. Time: informs us of lighting, shadow, and NPC behavior

  3. Weather: good for ambience and complicating things

  4. Location: the encounter has to happen somewhere

  5. Obstacle: if it was easy, you’d just say they did it

  6. Environment: what’s above/below, around us of interest

  7. Secret: what is something that could be found out here

  8. Twist: what could go wrong/shift to make a huge change


I’ve ordered these in increasing specificity to jog your imagination. Once you know the first four, ideas should start forming on what that scene looks like. This info will help you do the transition and setup the scene itself. I broke them up to be small so if you write the titles down one every line (or every other), you should have room to scribble what you need.


Goal

This is the scene goal. What is the party trying to achieve right here? There’s two flavors of this. The party knows what to expect, like visiting a chieftain to convince him to join their war, or the party is trying to pass through a jungle, and doesn’t know what’s inside. In both cases, you know their intent.


Example goals:

  1. Negotiate aid, assistance, trade

  2. Pass through a region safely

  3. defeat an enemy

  4. Acquire something by stealth


Time

The time of day affects lighting, temperature, and behavior. It doesn’t need to be down to the minute, but knowing roughly when things are going down should shape what the going looks like.


Weather

Another simple thing to miss out, but if you don’t take note, it’ll be bright and sunny every day. Weather can add complications or opportunities. If scenes are back to back, expect it to to be the same, but if time passes, it should change.


Location

Are we in town, a dungeon or cave. Your transition narration will need to cover how we got here.


Examples:

  1. In town

  2. In a building (inn, tavern, house, castle)

  3. In a cave or dungeon

  4. On a trail or clearing

  5. A mountain pass

  6. A river’s edge


Obstacle

Whatever the player’s wanted as their goal should not be a cakewalk. It’s literally why you didn’t narrate their success and move on. It should make sense to the goal and practicalities of the moment. Negotiating peace with a 2CR chieftain should not have a 20CR red dragon in the way at her beck and command. If you need any stats, jot them down after the template (doing one scene per page leaves lots of room for this).


Examples:

  1. Guardians blocking the way

  2. An NPC who isn’t motivated to deal/needs something else

  3. A puzzle (like stones that have to placed a certain way to open a chamber)

  4. A trap

  5. A competitor, rival with cross-purpose goals

  6. Difficult terrain


Environment

You may know we’re in the mayor’s house as the location, but what is it like in there? Skipping the details misses an opportunity to make the environment interesting and interactive. What’s overhead? Chandeliers, ropes, rafters open up possibilities. What’s underfoot? Rugs? In the forest, it might be tree roots that make the ground trippy. What’s on the walls around us, Maybe one of the doors squeaks. Creaky stairs. Paintings of dead people who look back. Or brush and trees in the forest. Take note now so you can be specific when the time comes.


Secret

A secret is something the player doesn’t know but might discover. It doesn’t have to be huge every time. But an NPC might know something or an item could reveal information. Maybe the player won’t discover it, but it’s there.


Examples:

  1. The origin or nature of something (like an item or treasure)

  2. The personal goal(s) of the NPCs that don’t align with their orders here

  3. Information about somebody else (already met or not)

  4. The true value of something innocuous in the encounter


Twist

And now we come to the twist. By knowing all the previous elements, we have pieces to play with. Maybe there’s a reinforcement hiding in the rafters that you listed in the environment. Or the chandelier will fall at some point if a fight breaks out. Those simply complicate an ongoing encounter. What if information is revealed that could shift the player’s goal. Kind of like learning Darth Vader was Luke’s father, it changes Luke’s goal from killing to redeeming.


Examples:

  1. Reinforcements arriving

  2. A desired way becomes blocked

  3. Betrayal by the NPC leader or one of their own

  4. Information is found that contradicts what the players thought about the quest

  5. Environment changes, causing disruption

  6. Nature/monsters appear and disrupt/attack



Rolling With It

Let’s continue our evidence at the mayor example. It’s night, rainy. Good time for a break-in. For obstacles, we know the doors should be locked. One of the stairs might be creaky (stealth check). The safe has a lock. The mayor is sound asleep but any major screwup will wake him and escalate things.


We included a chandelier in the entryway could be swung from or dropped on somebody. A tapestry might hide a secret bolthole. If you make this location interesting, the party may interact with it. That’s particularly handy when things go wrong and they come up with something unexpected using the environment you set in place.


For the twist, we could have the contents of the safe not be the evidence of embezzlement that the player’s suspected but in reality, it’s a contract to sell the town to a warlord. This changes the story from just trying to clear their name to trying to save the good people of the town.


Or a grumpy guard from a previous scene could be waiting outside when the party exits. He knew the party would try this and he’s ready. To make them an offer they can’t refuse.


Again, if you can’t think of something shifty for every encounter, do keep an eye to doing so every third one. The story needs to change, and get harder as we approach the goal, and twists are one way to jack things up without resorting to bigger monsters. Though sometimes, those are a good twist ala “they’ve got a cave troll!”


Action

Once you have those notes, you’re just about ready. You will need to narrate a transition for time passing and the party getting to the good part. In our mayor’s house heist example, the players said they wanted to wait until after the mayor went to bed. So describe the party setting up a watch, keeping an eye on the place, street traffic dying down. The mayor comes home, eats dinner, reads for a bit in the study and then turns out the lights one by one. Then you turn to the players and ask what they do next.


At that point, we’re in the moment and what the players say they do is what you work through resolving. It helps to think of everything they say as starting with “I try to…” and if it’s easy then it happens. If not, roll some dice. Reveal the obstacles as they would discover them. When the players do something smart that would make what you setup easier, don’t thwart it. If they do something dumb, like forgetting the lock-picks, well, that’s on them. Remember that you’re not vested in making things happen a certain way. You set up the scene, they knock it down.


Outcomes and Consequences

In a book, we want our hero to fail more often, or at least suffer setbacks and complications. Otherwise, it would read like the most boring Superman comic ever. You’ll note that most of the time, the hero doesn’t die or get captured and held prisoner for a decade.


In D&D, the hero can run out of hitpoints. And once one falls, it’s easier to kill the rest. Whoops. When choosing opponents, you’ll want to select enemies within reasonable CR range of the party level. The science of balancing that out should be another article someday, but don’t go more than 2CR higher than the party level and you might be okay.


What you do need to keep in mind is the direction of the story. Things should get harder before the end, and not necessarily by increasing CR. You have two tools to make this happen. The Twist and the Next Scene.


In the Twist, you can reveal information, cut off an approach (like literally cave in a tunnel), or bring in a cave-troll. The twist ensures that while you beat the enemies, the quest got harder.


Or, when planning the next scene, look at what the player’s already did, who they ticked off, or what enemy plan got thwarted a few scenes ago. What if they’ve caught up to the party and are the obstacle or twist in the next scene? This is how you build up a layer of complexity and responsiveness to player choices.


One problem to have is defeat. If the PCs die, it’s game over. DMs argue about whether to interfere or not. That’s up to you, but maybe make it clear on your style before the game starts. A party that sees the DM roll attacks in the open, and doesn’t run when they’re getting low on HP deserves some deaths.


With that in mind, consider not running too perfect opposition. If the players need to run, let the enemy fumble so they get away. If you can offer them surrender, don’t expertly detain them with no hope of escape. You have no game, no story, if you do. Consider capture/fleeing/escaping as a new encounter and pause to prepare that.


Lastly, if you’ve had 2 or more combat encounters in a row, try to make the next one be more likely to be non-combat. This breaks up the action, slows down the hit point bleed, and gives non-fighter types a chance to roleplay and use other skills.


Final Thoughts

I bought a cheap notebook to run my campaign in. Old school, but simple. To start, I listed out all ten bullets from the template, one per line. Then skipped a few lines and did it again. That set me up for the first scene, and ready for the second when the time came. It also meant I could copy what the bullets were for subsequent scenes without needing this article to remind me.


In a classic D&D adventure, they tended to cover a lot of locations and what you’ll find there. You might need some of that for dungeons and what not. But the approach here is character and event driven. Locations are important, but only in being about what the characters do there.


The methodology here should help prepare interesting encounters, but the examples I’ve come up with barely scratch the surface. In your actual adventure, you will have details about the original plot, setting, and characters that generic advice can only hit at. Use that material to weave in complexity and connected responses to that information.


Next time, we’ll go over the adventure story arc and the technique here will plug into that for quests with rising stakes and a climactic ending. Unless the players snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


 

For more D&D articles go to https://www.klforslund.com/dnd


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