The fun part about being the GM is that running an rpg means you’re never without a creative outlet. The not quite so fun part is taking the time to organize all that creativity. And so I’m moving on from providing tips to players to seeing how I can help other GMs get to work on 4e encounters.
Encounters in 4e are the basic building blocks of conflict in the 4e universe. To put it in simple terms, they usually come in two varieties:
- Combat Encounters
- Skill Challenges
Combat Challenges are by far the most common of the encounters that a GM will be working with, and its good to take a moment and go through an organized process as to coming up with them. It’s not just about a 10×10 room with an orc and a pie in it.
- Objective – Why do I need this combat encounter? What purpose does it serve? The first problem with some combat encounters is that they sometimes don’t make sense. Unless the campaign itself is an unabashed dungeon crawl of the “kick in the door and kill anything that moves” variety, combat should have a purpose. Make sure that the combatants are there for a reason, whether it’s because they’re guarding something, or out to achieve some sort of mission objective, or have some vendetta to resolve.
- Who are the combatants? - This is actually a no brainer, but it’s good to bring up anyway. Combat encounters consist of groups of monsters / antagonists in 4e now, so it’s a good idea to sort them into logical groups. The DMG has some excellent examples of group templates of mixed roles, but feel free to mix it up to what makes sense. Wizards of the Coast just recently came up with an Encounter Builder Tool that will help save some time when it comes to coming up with monster groups to challenge the party with.
- Where are they fighting? – Another good question is location. Like I mentioned in the 4e: Basic Training article, terrain plays a huge part in making combat dynamic. When designing a combat encounter, consider what scenery you can slap onto a battlefield that both the players and the monsters can use to their advantage. Pits, Spikes, Fire and other hazards should be more than just dungeon dressing now. Don’t forget to get creative when you’re outside of the usual dungeons either. Slippery ice that inhibits movement, the pitching and rolling of a ship trying to ride it’s way through a storm, and a combat interrupted by a stampede of wild animals are all valid things to change the battlefield and make it more than just a static location.
- Victory Conditions – How do the players win this combat? The standard answer is “When they’ve killed all the monsters” which might be the lazy reply. Monsters of any stripe (unless they’re automatons or undead) usually manifest some fight or flight instinct. Seeing comrades fall to the adventurer’s blades should at least affect morale. Only zealots, highly disciplined soldiers, the insane, or suicidal will fight to the last man. That being said, be a fair GM and allow players to collect experience gained from the entire encounter even if some of the combatants flee. It’s good to keep in mind that experience is from surviving or managing the encounter, not necessarily for wholesale slaughter.
- Losing Conditions – Losing is not always defined as getting killed. Most monsters may benefit from holding the adventurers prisoner, for information, or at the very least, for food or slaves. This gives the players a chance to safely experience “losing” once or twice. Don’t make this too common though, as making every TPK a capture will dull your GMing teeth and will result in the players no longer taking the game seriously. In addition, sometimes, the death of one of the NPCs is all that’s needed for the enemy to win, especially when the objective is assassination. Upon achieving the objective the enemies will more or less look for a way to fall back.
- Escape Conditions – Speaking of falling back, enemies of the smarter variety will have ways to cover their retreat. Whether it’s through sneaky skulking about, or magical extraction methods, or the good old “set fire to the castle / village / etc” trick to force the adventurers to shift priorities, covering your escape is a very good thing.
And there you have it. This is basically a surface level approach to encounter design, to help GMs put their combat encounters into perspective. As long as the encounter has a purpose, with clearly defined participants, in a dynamic location, and with appropriate responses to losing, winning and even covering their tracks, all your combat encounters will be fun, memorable and challenging.
Next up: An Encounter Builder Checklist for Skill Challenges