Friday, May 10, 2013

So you want to be a GM? - Part 2 Writing an Encounter based adventure.




When I first started playing RPG’s and wanted to become a Dungeon Master (since D&D was my gateway into the hobby) I was at a loss as to where to begin.  Sure I had some big ideas about a story arc and some notes on some NPC’s but when I sat down to write the adventure, I had no clue where I should begin.

I struggled with formatting my ideas and putting them in place.  How would I lead the characters from one place to the other? Where should I start the game and how do I introduce players to my plot?  I went as far as going out and borrowing a few pre-made adventures from my friend Chris, not to run, but to emulate the format in which they were written.

I was in the middle of Junior High School and didn't have the benefit of any advanced literature classes or any literary instruction at all. I did have a love for reading and had a basic understanding of story structure, but nothing formal.  It was more of a raw cunning for story than an intellectual understanding.

I ended up figuring it out and cobbling something together, but I was completely self-taught at that point and if I were lacking in commitment at all, I would have probably given up out of frustration and never ran my “Day of the White Raven” game for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Although I didn't know it, the adventure structure I came up with is what I now call the Encounter based structure. How I define this structure is a story which:

a) has the central conflict and drama revolve around combat.
b) has a story framework that leads characters through a series of conflicts
c) has conflicts result in the characters being armed and ready for the next conflict in some way through the introduction of plot elements, equipment or lore.
d) resolve in a final confrontation with the principal element confronting the characters, in other words a boss fight.

Have you ever seen Bruce Lee’s Game of Death? If you haven’t, I highly suggest you do.  It’s the perfect example of this kind of storytelling. (Looking back at my blog apparently I am a huge Bruce Lee fan since this is the third time I cite him as a reference.)

What you need to put together an Encounter based adventure?


The very first thing you need to run a successful Encounter based adventure is a firm grip on the combat system you are using. Since the conflict and therefore the drama of your story revolves around combat, it is imperative that you be able to adjudicate combat fairly and accurately. More advanced GM’s might have a series of house rules, modifications or hacks and that is fine. But be sure to discuss these changes with your players beforehand to avoid any confusion.

I was told there would be no math.


Most importantly the GM has to have a good grasp on how to balance encounters. This is the crucial element in creating the drama for your game.  If the monsters are too easily defeated, they players will not get a sense of tension and lose interest. If the monsters are too difficult overcome and result in several character deaths, the players will lose hope and therefore interest.  The key is to create combat scenarios that are interesting, challenging and within the scope of the characters combat ability.  This can take some time to master since much of a player character’s effectiveness is based on player creativity and the correct player application of the characters abilities.

If you are stuck in a situation where you think things are not going the way you want them to, I have one piece of advice…cheat. Yep, straight up cheat.

If the combat is getting too hard and some people are down simply go, “That Bugbear is looking pretty beat up, looks like one more hit will take it down.” Doesn't matter if the Bugbear still has more than half his hit points, you are adjusting mid fight for balance. If all else fails, give the players an angle of retreat so they can escape the encounter, lick their wounds and find a better way to solve the puzzle. This can be a great way to build even more tension as the players realize that they "can't win ‘em all.”

If the fight is too easy, open up that bad guy spigot(tm) and bring in a few more monsters for the players to beat on. You can also tack on some other element like hidden archers or an unseen trap. Be like water and think on your feet, just because you wrote it down doesn't mean it’s set in stone.

Keith S. brought up an important point on G+ that I had skipped on my original post.  He said:

"Toughening up an encounter on the fly should be a carefully-considered option. Think about the context. Sometimes things will come easily for the PCs. How do the players react? Do they become reckless and overconfident?

That reaction may be an important factor in the next encounter. Some encounter variety will enhance the appreciation of the balanced and/or hard encounters.

Easy encounters are like minions in the broader context of the adventure, satisfying to crush, but how many resources get used in the victory? Resource depletion = story tension."

This lead me to think on the psychological part of the game as well. Using the difficulty of encounters not only to challenge, but to create situations where characters may become somewhat lax and then get a rude awakening. Or simply giving the PC's some much needed confidence building fights could keep them in the game rather than becoming demoralized.


We can take 'em boss! After all they are the equivalent of martial arts skittles. TASTE THE RAINBOW!
Remember, the reason for these combats is to create drama, not to defeat the player characters. You are not playing at or against your players but with them. There are ways to adjust things without being overt. If you are too obvious about it, you will break the immersion, you will lose tension and more importantly trust.

You will find this will get gradually easier once you start getting a firm grasp on what your players are capable of and begin to get a better idea of how they will react to certain situations. Know your peeps and you will get a better understanding on how to balance your game.

The second major factor to an Encounter based adventure is premise and motivation. Where do the characters get started and why do they want to brave all of these obstacles?

One of our +X2A members tells a great story about how his father joined in on one of his D&D games back when he was a kid.  Joel and his brothers were sitting at the kitchen table getting started on a new game and their father walks in and wants to join. They of course enthusiastically agreed and sat him down to make a character.  His father wanted to know who his character was and the boys all answered he is a first level fighter, but that’s not what Dad wanted to know. He demanded to know who the character was. What did he do? Where did he come from? The boys scratched their head and Joel explained that the character was a farmer and since all able bodied men of his village had to take up arms for defense he was also a fighter. His Dad grinned and said, “ok, sounds good to me!”

Dad listened intently as the Joel explained that there was a cave system nearby that was full of goblins that needed killing and that this crew was going to go in and take them out.  Dad would have nothing of it.  He said he was going to go back and start planting for the season and wished the rest of the party luck.

The kids were dumbfounded and asked if Dad was serious and if he actually wanted to play the game. Dad said, “Of course I want to play, but I have heard you guys playing before and therefore know all the bad things that live in those caves and my character doesn’t really have a reason to risk his life, potentially leave his kids fatherless and his poor pregnant wife with lumbago alone with the planting.” After explaining what lumbago was, he went on to explain that without a real cause, he can’t see why his character would risk his life to kill goblins.  It didn’t make sense.

So, they all put their heads together and came up with the storyline which had these goblins come in and murder the farmer's wife and children while he was off in town getting seed.  They burned down the old farmstead and stole his mule Stanislaus for whatever nefarious reason. Now, motivated by revenge and a desperate need to rescue old Stanislaus, Dad wholeheartedly agreed to dungeon delve with his boys.

Poor ol' Stanislaus

Dad was playing more than one game with the kids that day, but he brought up a good point.  Sure, the regular “Everybody meets at the inn and someone offers them a job” routine is tried, tested and true, but it’s not your only option.

I find that when I get a story in my head the best thing for me to do to flesh out the story is to sit down with my players and tell them the basics of my setting and have them make characters. Once the mechanics are in place (stats, class, etc.) I start a dialogue about where the character comes from, what he did before becoming an “adventurer”, how he got his training so on and so forth. When we start crafting these backstories I find that they are fertile ground for my plot to grow. I begin to develop an idea about how the party forms and why they have banded together towards a common goal.  I find that it really helps me put together the story elements that lead the characters from one encounter to the other and has the added benefit of making the characters more personally involved in the plot.

Let’s take my Game of Death example. Bruce plays Billy Lo, an up and coming martial arts and film star. Billy gets involved with a shadowy organization called “The Syndicate” which tries to intimidate Lo into joining their organization and extorting a cut of Lo’s earnings.  Of course good ‘ol Billy doesn’t cotton to that kind of thing and refuses. Long story short, Billy fakes his own death to escape the long arm of the Syndicate.  That’s the backstory.

When The Syndicate begins to muscle in on his ex-girlfriend (an up and coming singer) and begin to threaten her life, Billy gets drawn back in. This is where the adventure begins as Billy Lo, under the guise of his new identity takes on the leaders of The Syndicate one by one.  Every one of Billy’s assaults is an encounter (including Chuck Norris).  After several of these he enters the Red Pepper Restaurant for the final set of encounters and then the Boss Fight with Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Awesome! Billy’s mission leads him from one encounter to the other and drives the story to its climax.



Now that you have your protagonists set its time to set up the black pieces on the board. This should be easy at this point. All you need to come up with is antagonists, a sinister plot, generate encounters, string them all together and determine the likely resolution.

Coming up with an antagonist or villain is key to creating drama. Who is this dastardly being? Why is he/she bent on harming others? What kind of minions is this villain likely to have?

What you are actually doing is determining the final conflict of the game. Your villain needs to be an adequate foil for your group, but should be far too powerful for them to directly confront at the beginning of your adventure. Don’t risk a “scratch one prince of darkness” situation by making your villain too fragile or exposed from the get-go. At the beginning of your adventure he/she should be a shadowy figure that is pulling the strings from a distance. Part of the drama is finding out who the ultimate architect of the plot is and you must develop this reveal carefully in order to make the maximum impact at the end of the tale.

DAMN YOU! One more mule and I would have taken over the world!

Your villains plot can be as transparent as “I want to take over this Kingdom and enslave its people.” For the purposes of this kind of game, especially for the beginner GM, take it easy and go simple. Don’t worry too much about making a three dimensional villain, that’s best left for an intrigue game. For the purposes of this kind of story you are safe with the basic bad guy bent on domination. Just figure out what he wants and how he goes about getting it and how that opposes the PC’s and you are golden.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t go ahead and develop your villain if you want to. If you are comfortable with that, feel free.  What I am saying is that if you are new to the whole GM process this is one of the simplest types of stories you can tell and therefore a good way for you to get your feet wet without feeling overwhelmed. If you bite off too much it will sour the experience. Ease into it.

The first step to writing your first encounter is to determine your villains MINIONS! These minor antagonists are the ones who will dog your players throughout their ordeal. Here is where you bust out your Monster Manual or head to the back of your book for the Antagonists section or simply make characters of the same power level as your group.

I like to separate minions into two categories, Named and Unnamed. Named minions are the villain’s lieutenants and trusted shock troopers. They should be a little more powerful than your basic minion and have critical information or equipment characters need to advance in the plot. Taking down a named minion should be a feat to be celebrated and the rewards should be not only generous, but should be tied into the overall plot.

I'm out for BLOOOD!
Unnamed minions are basic foot soldiers. These monsters should be relatively weak but still strong enough to challenge the group in numbers. Street toughs, minor monsters or basic soldiers do the trick. Just balance the fight with unnamed minions to give the players a sense of epic struggle against mundane opponents that use numbers and surprise to their advantage. These fights can lend a feel of heroism to the game.

I don't think we're using these things right.  Like yeah, I can't hit the broadside of a Hiss.
Now that we have all our major players we can start on writing down some story. Here is a basic list of the things you need to think about for a story.

1) Figure out where the characters meet and how they reach the conclusion that they need to band together to oppose the antagonist. Most of your footwork should be done when you generate characters or you can simply develop an NPC that hires or somehow convinces the group to go on “the mission”. A group of impoverished villagers plead with the adventurers for help. The Lord of this area requires mercenaries to take on a secretive task. Attacked for no reason a group of travelers seek to understand who attacked them and reap vengeance. Whatever ploy you can think of, but this will set the scene for the upcoming adventure.

2) Develop links that lead the group from one encounter to the other. Encounter based games work similarly to the old serial films that preceded movies back in the 1930’s and 40’s. They usually ended with a cliffhanger or unresolved ending that makes people eager to see a resolution.

The end of a session has to have an element that will easily lead them to the next encounter. A dead monster can have a stolen item from a loved one that has disappeared. After a group of enemies are defeated, the players find a trail leading to a hidden path leading deep into the woods. With his last breath a dying enemy can say, “You may have defeated me, but Guttripper will end you all!” Thus, giving the group a clue as to who is behind these dang blasted murders and mule-nappings!

Often, I won’t even develop the next encounter until the previous encounter is complete. I can take the events of the previous session and take some time to draw upon the characters actions to make a more intriguing follow up.

3) Create elements that tie the encounters to the overlying plot. You have to keep in mind that at least a majority of your encounters should be involved with the larger plot and villain.  It’s great to put in some random encounters to fill in time or add some tension, but keep your eye on the prize or your players will lose sight of it as well. Players notice that there are a lot more goblins in the forest than usual. They also begin to notice that they all carry red fletched arrows. They further notice that there are crude red arrow symbols painted on trees and rocks. Players notice small dark cloaked humanoids seemingly giving orders to goblin chieftains, giving them trinkets or weapons. Use the time between encounters for exposition and give the players further motivation to seek out the greater mystery surrounding the violence.

4) Use dramatic elements to make the final conflict epic! The final fight should be more than a basic combat. Coming up to the final villain as he is about to pull off his final coupe at the height of his power should be the stuff of legend. The villain should be prepared to take out these pesky interlopers and handle himself what his minions have failed to do. Make the final battle an elaborate puzzle where they have to figure out the source of the villain’s power and take that out before they take him/her down. Give the villain a special power or ability that makes him/her unique and difficult to overcome. The players should have to use their wits along with their characters abilities to overcome this final conflict. Disrupt power crystals, remove the crown from their heads, kill or free the beast that the villain is drawing its power from, uncover the secret location of the actual villain while fighting its demonic avatar. All of these are classic elements that can make the final conflict something special and noteworthy.  Think of boss fights from video games and MMO’s.  They are perfect examples of this. Heck have them fight Kareem, he is a badass!

Now it’s time to try this out and see how you do. Grab a piece of paper and your favorite hand held portable communications inscriber (pencil) and jot down some notes. Read up on your player’s and GM’s guides and have at. You can do it!

If you liked this article check out the archive of the podcast in my Google Docs folder where we discussed this very topic.  Hear the mule story from Joel himself.