Meaningful Keys & Triggers

Now that I talked about meaningful encounters, I want to focus more on the encounters themselves and the rules of thumb which involve in making them good. Probably the most common form of planned encounter, is the Key. Keys serve many purposes, namely it makes describing rooms and areas easily and with continuity. While the key is the simplest form of planned encounter, creating a key is not an easy thing if you want to do it well.

The true purpose of the key is to describe the people or monsters which live in an area, what they own, how they spend their time, and what they’ll do once they are aware of the players. These keys should help the players experience the culture of the creatures which dwell, or once dwelled in the place. Monsters typically don’t build, they find abandoned areas or they kill the old inhabitants or drive them off and live in their space. Some spaces have lots of stories to tell, and the key helps us get it done.

The key here is detail! Sure, we can have boring and empty rooms, but if we do that then we are wasting an opportunity. Each room and each corridor should have meaning. We can hide foreshadowing to events all over the place! Bizarre murder rituals depicted in murals on the walls, a book shelf speaks greatly in regards to the owners personality, while not magical in itself, by looking at the titles, the players should get a feeling for who lives in the space.

The rules for writing Keys is that they describe only what each room is like once the door is opened for the first time by the PCs. They are static and never changing unless the players change them. We must be careful about the actual NPCs which we place in the rooms. If we do that, then they will become as static as the places which we describe.

While we should put the carrion crawler who lives in the toilet in the key, after all, the carrion crawler will probably never leave the toilet until it is driven out by somebody climbing down there and forcing it to move, but for other NPCs, many time they will be out moving around, we don’t want them to be to static which is what the key is about. Things that never change. If we write that a specific door is guarded by two guards dressed in full plate and shield, armed with a spear and a sword as a secondary weapon, then that door will be guarded 24 hours per day. Is this appropriate? Whose to say, only you know for sure. If you want that door to be guarded only during the day, then if the players break in at night, they’ll have an easier time investigating what is on the other side of the door.

We run into problems when we write that farmers are always milking the cow, or that an ogre is sleeping in the room, keys are meant to be static and it just works best if we have just a cow in the stable, or a ratty old bed covered in filth. That way, depending on the time of day and how well the PCs are doing, we can add the NPC in seamlessly.

We can always write planned events over the keyed encounter listing. For instance the characters could approach some armed guards who were waiting for them, and will allow them to pass into the kings chamber for the scheduled meeting. This would be a planned written encounter, but if the time isn’t appropriate, say the king is in bed or eating dinner, then we’ll only need the description of the room and that is it.

This, of course, becomes the next form of encounter, The Trigger, but before we move on, what kind of stuff should we put in our keys?

  • Any Monsters or NPCs that can always be found in the area
  • What weapons or magical items the monster or NPC will use
  • Any treasure
  • Any unusual characteristics of the room, as well as other points of interest.

Key Encounters can be as rich or as brief as you feel is appropriate. Naturally we don’t have to write responses for every little action, and depending on the size of our key, say if it is the size of the town, the key encounters should be fairly brief, with just the info that we need to keep continuity. Typically the occupants of the house, a valuable possession, their occupation, and their ages. That is all, the rest we can come up with on game day if this stuff even comes up.

Triggered Encounters

Triggered Encounters aren’t as static as Keyed Encounters. Triggered encounters are just that, triggered. Say we have a bedroom which belongs to a wizard, depending on the time of day, and if the PCs can sneak into this area without the wizard knowing or not will trigger a different encounter. If it is early in the morning, perhaps the wizard is sleeping in here? Maybe it is empty because the wizard is elsewhere, maybe in his lab or reading in the courtyard? But lets say that the players have encountered the wizard who as taken flight and barricaded himself in his room, this will change the scene entirely. This is a triggered encounter, and it is a real encounter because the NPC is reacting to the decisions of the player characters.

In a sense, Triggered Encounters are what brings your static Key Encounters to life. While a locked door is definitely an encounter, it is the triggers which really bring it home. If the players make too much noise then this will trigger a random encounter, or if they pick it, the time that they spend may either work in their favor (the ogre is still sleeping and can be slain instantly) or harder (the noise caused by a random encounter alerts the ogre who wakes up and attacks the players backs).

Planned Encounters are usually triggered as well, but for the most part, very little is required to run triggered encounters. This is stuff that we come up with during the game to make it seem like the place that they are exploring is alive, it is an illusion, but for the illusion to work then we don’t want to limit ourselves to much by over thinking things.

Triggers can be difficult because we become lazy. Encounters must still depend on player decisions to work successfully, else we aren’t actually running an encounter. The player should be able to pick the time of day that they think is best to explore. They should pick which entrance to start, and it should be their plans which actually get them inside. By just keeping a list of NPCs and monsters which prowl the area, we have the info that we need to operate our trigger events.

Simple, right?

Now the key here is mixing the two in a way that is meaningful. We make the key meaningful by telling background stories which are going on in spite of the characters. We tell about the culture of the area, what the NPCs likes and dislikes are. We quietly explore legends and give subtle hints at the future through colorful room descriptions, and we bring it to life by having the folks which dwell in the area actually out and about. Sure, we know that they are just as static as the surroundings are, but if we do our jobs correctly then the players will see it as alive.

The best example of a trigger event is by us writing a key event which is supposed to happen without the players knowing about it, and if the players are somehow at this meeting, either hiding someplace or eavesdropping, then they can hear the whole thing, or maybe even stop it from happening! Foiling a kidnapping or murder is a good one, if they can determine who the next victim is going to be. This is an event that we have planned and it will happen if the players are there and ready or not.


Random encounters definitely have their place in the key and trigger encounters method. It isn’t the rooms themselves that we have to worry about, it is the halls, corridors, and common areas. Often times, it is random encounters themselves which trigger our trigger events. Combat is loud, and it attracts attention.

I know me and my table, we are very sneaky players, preferring to get in quietly, and preferably leaving before we’ve been discovered. Random Encounters provide a nice method of random havoc which we like. I know that some DMs prefer not to use them, but I think that that is because they don’t understand their form or function.

There should be different levels of excitement which range from Unaware to Hostile. The level of hostility depends on how quiet the party is being, or if their presence has been detected yet or not. Leaving corpses out in the open, fighting, destroying the environment, leaving doors open, these are all things which get a person discovered. For my random encounters I create a Numbers List, this is the number of creatures and people in the fortress or stronghold or whatever, if this is practical. Naturally if you are exploring the wilderness or the underdark, then this would be pointless, but for specific quarters, this method is perfect. All of the creatures are on a list and you check them off as they are killed, as well as tracking hit points on them in case they get away. Once these creatures are dead then they are dead, if the players leave then they can be replaced, but it limits how many creatures are in the building or area at one time.

Each level of excitement makes random encounters more probable of happening. 1-2 on a d12 is Unaware, 1-3 on a d6 if the place has become hostile. Now naturally, a party can attempt to hide or flee and wait for the excitement level to drop, but all of that is up to your interpretation. Random encounters are there as much as for the players as they are for the DM, as they are just as challenging for you as they are for them. When and how you check for Random Encounters is up to you. Me personally, I check them every time the players enter a common area, or if they spend too much time in a common area. Also if they are being loud, searching a room, even if it isn’t a common area, whenever I am getting bored, or if I sense my players are which is usually about the same time that I am.

If there is a fight, there is a higher chance that somebody will hear the commotion and come running. If a monster or NPC successfully escapes and can signal an alarm the entire place goes hostile. Players have a decision to make, should they just hanker down and fight for their lives, or run like hell? Thus, random encounters can be true encounters.

We can give warnings, say chaotic NPC soldiers walking their rounds are telling raunchy jokes and laughing, giving the players a heads up that they are about to get some company. This is a way to build tension (which is meaningful), it can warn the players that they are moving to slow, or two fast.

I also like to write some random encounters which are unique to a keyed area. A good example is poison moss, I give a percentage chance in that area only, that a player rubs against it and sets it off. In a sense, this is both a trap, and a random encounter. If the players notice this stuff and ask some questions about it, or are fully aware that it is there, then their percentage chance for getting through it is better. This is a great trap because it can be avoided by anybody by simply being careful, but it can also be ran through, creating a great trap for those who are following whoever is doing the running.

The more alive we make our scenes on paper, the more alive they will be on game day. Alive makes an encounter more meaningful! We also strive to keep as many encounters as true encounters as possible. Naturally we can’t keep everything true, while we want the world to offer as many player driven choices as possible, to many decisions can lead to the opposite effect, the players not knowing what to do, or interpreting an event more powerful then what it really was. With all things, there is a balance. We want to keep the players in the maze, but we want them finally discovering the ending completely on their own, so we must ask ourselves, are we putting up a wall for our players benefit, or are we accidentally railroading them?

Of course, sometimes, despite all of our best intentions, games still fall apart before our very eyes. Next time I’ll give you some tips on how to correct the most major problems that arise from encounters done right.


jamused said...

For my money, the more mundane the activity, the easier it will pass as normal if just left in the key. Doors that are supposed to be guarded should have guards all the time, not just 9-5 (though you could have a chance the guard is napping or has gone to take a piss). The kitchen is probably occupied except at the dead of night, and even then might have a snoozing scullion. It's the things like plotters talking about a kidnapping that stretch belief when the party comes across them, even if it was fairly diced for or slated to occur at a precise time and it's a genuine coincidence that the party is there at the right time. Unless the game is deliberately following story conventions because they're story conventions, I try to limit the latter sort of thing to when the PCs have taken steps to ensure it. E.g. if they say they're hiding and waiting until the suspected plotters gather, they can overhear the conversation.

Brooze the Bear said...

this is great. I never thought of encounters in terms of decision points for characters, and my trigger encounters were built on top of the Room Key in the form of response plans by the opposing monsters and situtational updates as the player characters progressed through the dungeon. Random encounters I used as a way to bring the flavor of the campaign to the players - they looted corpses and found orcs and goblins possessions whioch spoke of where these creatures came from, I did use the finite numbers for the monster garrison and then the re-enforfements would trickle in by sneaking into the dungeon to help the defenders. There was a percentile chance every few days that a band of goblins would sneak by the men at arms patrolling the woods around the siege location.

Your conceptualization is excellent and is the nexrt logical step after the DMG1s famous random Dungeon/Treasure generating system. I think that Red Moldvay book single page section on dungeon design was a good addition to that.

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