Excerpts Archive | 8/24/2009
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Excerpts: DMG2 Ch. 2 Advanced Encounters
Dungeon Master's Guide 2

In today’s Dungeon Master's Guide 2 preview, we move on to the second chapter and the start of advanced encounters -- in particular, the use of storytelling in your campaigns.

Advanced Encounters

Chapter 2 of the DMG2 expands on the information presented in Chapter 4 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to give you tips, techniques, and a few tricks to make dynamic, exciting combat encounters for your game.

The chapter covers a wide range of topics:

  • Encounter as Story: Building on the story foundations laid out in Chapter 1, this section discusses encounters as turning points in the story of your adventure and focuses on encounter objectives that add purpose to a combat encounter.

  • Player Motivations: This section focuses on the player motivations described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and describes how to tailor combat encounters to the players at your table.

  • Large and Small Groups: This information can help you design encounters for unusually large or small groups of player characters.

  • Encounters and Attrition: This section includes a discussion of encounter pacing and suggestions for how to push characters onward when they want to stop for an extended rest.

  • Creating Movement: Learn how to avoid static encounters.

  • Terrain: Using additional terrain in your encounters, including terrain with inherent attack powers, can make each encounter unique.

  • Designing Traps: Use this guide to create traps for your adventures; you’ll find plenty of examples.

  • Pulling It All Together: An example encounter combines the elements of this chapter into a dynamic fight.

Encounter as Story

A well-crafted encounter is a key scene in the story of your adventure and in the overarching story of the characters in your campaign. If you build your adventure like a structured fantasy story, sharing a similar dramatic structure with novels, movies, and plays, then an encounter equals a scene in that story. The encounter acts as a discrete element in which tension builds in steady increments toward the climax of the adventure.

Viewed as part of a larger story, a great encounter has three key ingredients.

History: It builds on what the characters have learned in past encounters and previous game sessions.

Clear Objective: The characters must try to accomplish a specific task.

Significant Outcome: The characters might easily accomplish the objective, barely succeed, or fail entirely. However the encounter resolves, the outcome matters and relates to later encounters.

Building on the Past

A strong encounter builds on information the characters have acquired in the course of previous encounters. You can create stronger encounters by foreshadowing what lies ahead.

Introducing information about an encounter ahead of time builds anticipation or apprehension. For example, if you know the climactic battle in an orc-filled adventure features the brutal orc chieftain and his ogre bodyguard, orcs in earlier encounters could name the chieftain and speak fearfully of the ogre. When one orc suggests running from the PCs’ onslaught, another says, “No! Angarr will feed us to the ogre if we flee!”

Laying the groundwork for future encounters can also help the players succeed. For example, the party seeks an audience with a grand duke who has no tolerance for rudeness or insolence. When the duke is introduced to the characters, tell the players that the duke frowns at them and acts condescending. This information might keep the PCs on their toes particularly if you also tell them the grand duke recently imprisoned someone who was rude to him during an audience. This setup builds the players’ anticipation as they prepare for the audience and helps them avoid imprisonment.

You can use the same technique to prepare thecharacters for random wilderness encounters. Letplayers know what to expect if they wander off the beaten path or stray into the nearby forest: Perhaps woods folk warn the PCs of deadly spiders or feyhaunted clearings. Foreshadowing what lies ahead fills your players with anticipation and tension as your adventure progresses toward its climax.

Setting Encounter Objectives

Players can quickly grasp the objective of an encounter in which their characters face a horde of savage orcs. The characters understand that they must fight for their lives, and they either try to kill all the orcs or escape from them. Other encounters have less obvious goals, such as finding an important clue, securing an alliance with a group of NPCs, or defeating a monster before it kills innocent bystanders or assassinates the baron. Every encounter should have a specific objective, even if it’s straightforward. Ambiguous goals could leave your players frustrated or bored.

An encounter’s objective also links the encounter into the adventure story. If the overall story of your campaign involves a quest that the characters embark on to deliver a precious relic to a remote monastery, then each encounter in your campaign should have an objective that moves that quest forward. For example, during encounters along the way, the characters might have to protect the relic from enemies who want to steal or destroy it. These encounters build toward a climactic showdown with the leader of those evil forces.

The use of a secondary objective can make straightforward combat encounters more interesting. The secondary objective might force characters to approach the encounter differently, using their powers or strategizing in ways they normally wouldn’t. A time limit is a simple example of a secondary objective: Not only do the characters have to overcome a gang of bandits, they have to do so in a small number of rounds. If they don’t beat the clock, the hostage awaiting rescue in the next room will succumb to his wounds.

The Outcome Matters

A clear objective can make it easy to determine the consequences of success or failure in an encounter. If the characters’ objective is to protect a relic from shadar-kai that plan to steal it, then failure might mean the PCs must reclaim the item from the victorious thieves. Success, on the other hand, could mean that the players come across fewer shadar-kai in a later encounter, or it could mean that the characters must face the shadow dragon that commands the shadar-kai. (See the discussion of branching in Chapter 1 for more ideas about how to use the result of an encounter as a way of determining the characters’ next encounters.) Failure is a possibility in any encounter; the more pertinent question is how successfully the characters deal with a challenge during an encounter. Following are some examples of possible outcomes.

  • The characters take advantage of their opportunities and deal with the threat successfully. The PCs use few of their resources and enjoy the rewards of the encounter with few setbacks.

  • The characters overcome the obstacles facing them—at a cost. The PCs might head into the next encounter with fewer healing surges or daily powers at their disposal. Worse, an enemy that fled the fight could raise an alarm (leading to tougher encounters ahead) or escape with important information.

  • The characters fail to overcome the challenge. They might flee from a combat encounter, or their enemies could capture them. They don’t receive a reward for the encounter, they suffer a serious setback, and they might have to work hard to overcome the consequences of their failure.

The outcome of one encounter should play into the next encounter. Success in an encounter carries the characters toward completing the overall goal of the adventure. Failure leads the characters to a new turning point.

Excerpt Schedule

Monday Friday

August 17

Ch 1. Group Storytelling

August 21

Ch.1 Companion Characters

August 24

Ch. 2 Advanced Encounters

August 28

Ch. 2 Terrain

August 31

Ch. 3 Skill Challenges

September 4

Ch. 4 Customizing Monsters

September 7

Ch. 5 Adventures and Rewards

September 11

Ch. 6 Paragon Campaigns