I have spoken a little about this before, but I thought I would expand it into a full post. Encounters should matter, whether they be social, exploration, or combat. Each encounter or scene should move the overall story forward in some fashion. As anyone with experience as a game master knows you have to wear a number of hats. You are responsible for all aspects of the story not being controlled by the players. You need to be an adjudicator of rules, an actor of every NPC, and of course a storyteller and writer. No matter the many views on whether RPG campaigns are better if they are character driven or not, the plain truth is that the DM is the supreme storyteller and the brunt of contriving and driving the game’s story rests squarely on your shoulders. It is unfortunately a thankless job most of the time and one typically undesired by most practitioners of the tabletop RPG hobby.
But even the greatest actors, writers, and directors in the world need one person to help them be all they can be. They need an editor, someone to cull the insignificant and mundane away. Trim the fat of the story you might put it. All the good in a story can be quickly lost if there is too much obtrusion, people will become distracted, bored.
This came about a few weeks back as I was playing in my regular Pathfinder game. The mission was a relatively simple one, escort NPC A to location B. There is a time aspect as the group needs to return to the mission’s origin location in time to participate in a licensing examination to become registered adventurers able to take on dangerous tasks. The group travels the road south, through a forest, to deliver the escort. Now, you have probably surmised the forest to be the dangerous bit and rightly so. The party was forewarned of the danger and not to tarry long in its darkness. The place has a very Middle Earth Mirkwood feel to it. Up to this point everything seems on the straight path.
…And then adventure happens.
I dislike wandering monsters and random encounters. That’s not to say I dislike combat, or combat in the wilderness, or fights while traveling. I enjoy all these things, what I don’t enjoy is ‘I rolled and 18, you encounter 1d6 wolves.’ The group was attacked by a pair of rock scorpions and green stings while breaking camp one morning. With things like that I simply want to mount up and ride off. Why would a person risk their life in that fight when the only goal of the encounter is to not die?
You should be able to look at an encounter and easily determine what the goal of the encounter/scene is for each participant. The rock scorpions have no motivation except perhaps territorial claim. As nature abundantly provides such creatures are content to intimidate/scare transgressors away than outright attack unless provoked or ignored. As for the adventurers no one was keen on attempting to eat rock scorpion and the party was preparing to leave anyways. Leaving the immediate area achieves the goals of all parties involved, Win-Win! But no, we must slaughter mindless animals and monsters to appease the mighty DM.
Later in the journey NPC A speaks of how scared he is and how terrifying travel must be. An understandable statement for a teen raised in a city who has never been outside the gates. Perhaps crass, but I did feel compelled to make an offhand comment about how the teen has a point, a group of armed adventurers on a traveled road being attacked 2-3 times a day. A case might be made for the attacks if we were perhaps transporting some precious cargo of monetary value, but we were not.
I’ll take a moment to contrast the above random encounter with an example from a previous campaign I was running. The party was traveling to a certain area in search of some hard-to-come-by ingredients for a special ritual. While camped the party awakes to a bear snuffling through their supplies in search of tasty treats. So right off the encounter’s participants have their own clear goals, the bear is looking for something to eat. The party needs to either scare off or kill the bear to keep their trail rations from being gobbled up. To the party’s credit one of the members did try to intimidate the bear, though he rolled abysmally low. The bear in kind bellowed and made some swipes at the air in front of it to assert its dominance and protect the new parcel of food it found. Needless to say the fight starts and the bear is quickly bloodied and at that point the bear’s risk vs. reward has been tilted and it is ready to run off. While attempting to escape the party slayed the bear outright.
That by itself is a decent encounter as it has the potential to really affect what happens in the story. The party loses their food and they have to spend time foraging every day on their journey. Their lack of food might lead to hunger or even starvation in a very dire situation. They would not be at optimum level for their next encounters.
But let’s take it one step beyond. Why I really inserted the encounter was A) I wanted to see if the party would show mercy and if that was something I might be able to showcase later in the story. B) The party did not know it, but a number of their future endeavors included dealing with nature spirits and a druid. Any of these entities able to discern the party were destructive, or did not afford nature a certain level of respect would become severely more difficult to deal with.
Both of the above examples do however share a similarity in that success is determined by slaying the opponent. This is a trend that developed as newer editions of D&D and other tabletop RPGs entered the market. A certain idea that each encounter is winnable. Encounters became easier to balance, PCs at low levels are more capable and resilient than previously. The prevalent method of adventuring was skulking and robbing and generally avoiding monsters as they were far more likely to kill you than the reverse. Nowadays a game can seem more like a scene from an action movie, doors kicked in with war cries and spells blazing. Not quite the same tense atmosphere as Bilbo’s solitary excursion into Smaug’s lonely mountain roost where a wrong step leaves the hobbit extra crispy.
Not every encounter is meant for the PCs to win. Continuing with the Tolkien reference the tale is very different and less profound if at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring the party defeats the orcs and Uruk-Hai, Boromir lives, and the Fellowship is not broken. It is important that the battle is lost and the Fellowship driven in different directions.
Now, players can be stupid, given the opportunity to choose a smart option or a dumb option they will almost always pursue the dumb option. Why? I’m not sure. Now players who cut their teeth on newer games rather than older games are used to winning combat. All combat encounters are considered as possible victories before initiative is even rolled. Even when getting their butts handed to them some parties are so dull-witted to continue fighting rather than run away and a lovely Total Party Kill happens. It may behoove you as a DM/GM to infer strongly that a certain enemy or group of enemies seems beyond their power to defeat. Use these sort of situations to promote other goals, you can provide compelling chase scenes, tense moments of hide and seek, or introduce a new plot twist or a recurring arch villain. If the PCs learn how outgunned they are they will be more likely to follow other threads to pick up much needed experience before attempting another face-to-face fight.
What experiences have you had in making your encounters matter, have a different opinion about wandering monsters and random encounters?