Non-Encounters



Every DM strives (or should strive) to create the illusion of a living world. One of the easiest, and most often ignored, tricks to creating this illusion is with Non-encounters. They help form the world around the players, and aid in shaping the characters themselves, so that the player can more easily establish who his character is.

People don’t always notice your non-encounters; but they will notice when they aren’t there. Namely the times when travel is being done, we should use these opportunities to bring their world to the forefront. The most common non-encounters are landmarks which we describe. How many times have you been traveling and almost had to stop your car because you found something so beautiful that you’ll never forget it? The characters aren’t just putting their lives on the line for gold, they want to see the world and it’s our job to show it to them.

How do we do this? With the senses, of course there is sight but there are also sounds, smells, physical stimulation, emotional stimulation, and taste. We need some background to the character to really pull them into our setting, i.e. a character who spent his life behind the safety of a city wall is going to be jumpy while camping at night. A barbarian enters a city for the first time and is completely overwhelmed by the sights, smells, and sounds of the place. A dwarf sees a mountain peek that he has seen drawn millions of times growing up, but never in person.
My point is, don’t just keep it sight-based; there should be an emotion connection!

WHAT IS OUT THERE?
According to the Core Rules, the party will be marching for 10 hours; the rest is spent camping, resting, foraging, getting lost, clearing trails, looking for food, maintaining their gear, etc. We can use a non-encounter to tell them how this is going (or not going), but it can be anything that the party would be interested in. Maybe they wounded a deer and had to go stalk it for an hour to get some real meat? Or maybe the cleric discovered a field of herbs that are perfect for spell components?
A main concern for any party, besides food & water, is camp. They will always try and take some time choosing a spot to set up camp for the night: One that offers water, food, and that is defendable; of course they rarely get all three. Defendable is important, as there are always random encounters to deal with, so what if they can’t find even that small luxury? They are going to need to be told, but on the opposite end, they’ll also stumble upon safe, dry structures from time to time, where the nightly random encounter checks won’t happen.

If resources are plentiful, then tell them. If they aren’t, then they need to be aware of this too. Also gear can sometimes be broken or lost. Clothing will rot if not dried, branches tear capes, or maybe they’ll need to patch themselves up because of a thorn bush; be inventive. We shouldn’t destroy their property without giving them a chance to save it, but much of their gear won’t be in the same shape it once was after weeks of marching through the wilderness, odds are great that once one finally enters a village after two weeks of being out in the forest, they will look exactly like they had spent two weeks out in the forest.

DUNGEONS

If non-encounters are important above ground where days can be summed up in a sentence or two, down below, where at least each minute of real time = one minute of game time, describing the place becomes that much more important. I know that I have been stuck in a dungeon that the DM (not naming any names) described a dungeon as, “You go 60 yards and you can turn right or left. Okay you go left and walk 80 yards, and you can go right or left . . . “, it was terrible. Never do this. Think about what the players are experiencing, and feeling. Through non-encounters, we can quickly change the mood of a place, and use them to separate this dungeon from the hundreds of other dungeons that you’ve ran before it.

On dungeon maps, you can look for trouble-spots; places where you can describe the feel of the place that would normally be blank: How does it smell, look, and sound like? We can ask ourselves if there are any unique magical fields in the area; simple things that don’t affect combat, or maybe that favor the defenders? The first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master Guide by Gary Gygax has a cool random generator for creepy non-combat events to happen in the dungeons.

A cool tool that writers use is a list of synonyms to use so that we don’t keep repeating words like slimy, dank, and dark.  Write down lots of descriptive words to refer too, that way you can change them up but keep your head in the game. Don’t forget to mine other works of fiction as well. If you like how an author words something, take it!

In closing, non-encounters are spices for your game, too much and they overwhelm the dish, but not enough, and your story is bland. 

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