Taking a step sideways from the first two parts of my Encounter Builder Checklist, let’s look outside the rules in 4e a bit and look over another crucial part of the encounter building: Relevance.
I’ll start off by defining Relevance as it matters to this article as a motive that directly spurs characters to react because it has something important to do with their situation. In essence, each encounter in the campaign should be something the characters (and the players) should care about because it directly affects them.
Combat Encounters are usually fairly Relevant primarily because the safety of the Characters, or even the NPCs are at stake. However, it is also possible for it to be irrelevant when it’s another combat that seems to be just thrown at the players to kill time. Because of this, the GM still has to take a moment and consider why the combat is taking place to begin with.
Non-Combat Encounters usually need more setup to become sufficiently Relevant. It’s easy enough for a GM to slap together a Skill Challenge, but it’s harder to make the characters care about it.
So what makes for a relevant encounter?
- Does it threaten the characters in any way? – This is the first and foremost source of priority. The threat in this situation is not only about personal safety, but also the stability of their situation. A Skill Challenge to convince a Regent to allow them to take pre-emptive action against an encroaching monstrous army, for example, is a good situation where the threat is not immediate, but hangs close enough to spur characters into taking action.
- Is it personal? – A threat is good, but not as good as a personal threat. Characters who have something to lose fight harder, because they know that it’s no longer just about them. A mercenary who was hired to fight for a country could abandon the field knowing that if he survived his escape, he could eke out a living elsewhere. A soldier with an oath of fealty however will fight three times as hard, and will perhaps even consider dying for his country an honor.
- Is the threat apparent? – D&D is a game where characters take action against a known threat. All the cliche of the evil overlord divulging his plan (or at least parts of it) are there for a reason. There’s nothing heroic about dying ignobly and falling over blue faced into a bowl of poisoned soup. GMs have to practice restraint when introducing the threat. If poison is used, use it on an NPC that matters, and make it one that has a cure. Doing so immediately starts 2 things: 1) Find and obtain the cure and 2) Investigate who is responsible and take punitive action, if possible. Suddenly something that would have left an angry surly player is now a plot hook that all the group can participate in. Spur the players into action, rather than frightening them into turtling up and going on a full defensive.
- What do the characters gain? – We’ve spoken enough about threats, and it’s time to focus on the other side of the coin. What do the players achieve by nullifying the source of the threat? Do they gain glory, prestige, wealth, love or safety? Every threat is an opportunity for the characters to build upon their legends, appearing larger than life with each victory.
By reviewing each encounter and making sure that every one of them is significant in some way, instead of being “Kobold ambush for no reason at all #5”, you can draw the players to become more closely involved in the game.
In essence, each encounter built has to have one purpose in mind: To give the player characters an opportunity to be a hero.