Creating Encounters with Meaning

Adventures are more then just fighting. The heart and spirit of Dungeons & Dragons are encounters, some times these involve fighting, sometimes they don’t. While many people dungeon master, the biggest question is how to get better. Now, I don’t think that anybody can make a good DM, while it is true that anybody can do it, truly great DMs are far-and-in-between. I suppose that all of us wish to become truly exceptional, and while I can’t make you a great DM I can teach you some of the guidelines that the good ones use, which you can easily incorporate into your own games. Now style, style is up to you to put into these formulas, and unlike formulas, style can’t be taught or easily condensed into a nice and neat blog post.


The code is simple enough.

  1. Create in advanced the thing, person, event, or monster encountered.
  2. Describe the scene of the encounter to the players
  3. Role-play the reaction of all the creatures involved, except the PCs
  4. Describe the results of PC actions during the encounter

That is it. The basic formula! This always needs to be the same, but it is just a skeleton which we throw meat at. Now some DM’s don’t care what kind of meat that they throw, anything which sticks is good enough, but choosy DM’s are more careful, they pick exactly what kind of meat that they want to throw at the bones, they don’t want to make a beastman, they are after a creature of beauty! Because of this, WE are going to be choosy about what we throw onto the bones. Thankfully, there is a formula and rules for this too.


The most important element in an encounter is that it forces the player to make a decision. A decision must be present, if it isn’t. If the scene rests on the players following your lead, then it isn’t an encounter. The decision should be of some kind of importance to the player. It should effect them in some way which will be apparent right from the get go.

Second, an encounter needs to have meaning. While hacking zombies apart is good fun, it, in itself, isn’t an encounter, well, not one worthy of our pens anyway and that is what all of this is about, isn’t it? If we can just do it in our heads, then why write stuff down? We need to have the encounter be a change, and not a mild change, not spending 3 cp at the tavern change, not refitting equipment change, but real change. Being broke, that is a real change. Excepting the consequences of your actions, that is a real change. The first element must lead to the second. The decision must be important enough to signify a meaning. When the players have the opportunity to take some real risk.

The third element is result. There must be a meaningful result. Now meaningful is up to interpretation, but before sitting down with your pen and paper, we have to decide if the encounter is meaningful or not. If it isn’t, then why bother writing it down as an encounter?

Encounters should be big, and there should be at least one meaningful encounter per game. The results should alter the player characters status: they are employed, they are unemployed. They must question their own government and possibly willingly thwart it. They must risk their lives to accomplish a mission. None of this should be forced on them, whenever an encounter takes place the players are totally in charge because it isn’t railroaded, it is a decision put forth to them. The result can either be good or bad, which the players won’t know until they have made their decision and put it into effect.


There are many different types, which we will talk about this week. There are Keyed Encounters, Triggers, Random, and Written. Since written is the most advanced form of encounter, and has the most rules, it is these encounters which are more meaningful. It is the written encounters which tell the story, which provide the greatest challenge, which form the body of a Dungeon Masters work. Naturally, all of these encounters can be blended together, which is good! The most important part of using formulas is hiding the formulas so that they aren’t apparent. An artist paints a picture, but it is all of his brushstrokes and use of color which distracts the viewer from seeing the formulas involved and focusing all of our attention on the effect, or the painting itself.


These are rough sketches which serve mainly the purpose of providing color to the world around the player. Keyed encounters start on a really large scale, but can be shrunk down to describe very small and compact areas.

Key encounters may and may not be real encounters. An example of a real encounter is a locked door. The players must decide if they want to open the door, which always involves risks. If they bust the door down then there is a chance that somebody, or something will hear it. If they pick it, there is a chance that they will be discovered while doing it. That, and they have no idea as to what is behind the door.

The prime responsibility of a key is to help you describe your world. Keys should only contain the stuff which will always be there, if we have written that Room A has an ogre sleeping on a lice infested blanket, then the ogre will always be sleeping on that blanket. Keys are, by their own nature, static. When things within the keys change it is always a good idea to write it down.


Since keys are so static, it is best if we just jot down the NPCs to the side. If we don’t do this then bizarre things can happen. A priest, for instance. If we write that he is praying in the temple, the players can walk into the temple at any time, day or night, and find this man praying. However, if we simply figure out a routine for him, providing triggers depending on when the players come to visit him, we can make him seem more alive. The priest could be eating, he could be preaching to his congregation, taking confessions, teaching youngsters the mythos of his gods, preparing his sermon, writing a letter, blessing supplies, cleaning the temple . . . .

All encounters, can have triggers. The party must accomplish this, before this happens. Or they must have this item before they are approached by this NPC. Triggers are time sensitive, if the players are dilly-dallying when they should be solving a murder, the murderer is going to kill again!


Random encounters are just that. They are put in to provide challenge to the DM. These can either be real encounters or not, it really doesn’t matter. Many times it is best to rely on Random Encounters to provide you with much of your hack and slash and save your brilliant writing skills for writing real encounters.

It can be helpful to write up a list of every monster and NPC in the dungeon, and set a hard limit, this way we don’t have bizarre things going on which Random Encounters are so famous for doing. If we keep rolling up orcs, we’ll only have, say 35 orcs in the dungeon and once these are dead then they won’t be encountered anymore.


This is the king of all encounters. This is where we are going to spend much of our time creating. There should be at least 1 true written encounter per sitting. These can be triggered, super-imposed upon the key, or perhaps even added into the random encounter table in some rare instances.

We have to be careful with these, because, unlike the other kinds of encounters, this one does require the hard formula. We want to make each and every one of these written and planned encounters to be as meaningful as we possibly can! If we can’t do this, then perhaps it is best to just leave it to the other forms of encounters because they are less work.

For written encounters we want them to be as interactive as possible. Now, of course, we can’t plan for every fool thing that a player can do, but we can have enough information, and know enough about the NPCs involved to be able to get some kind of idea about how they will react. The easiest method is figuring out the two extremes of how they can behave. If the players are extremely cooperative with the NPC, and plans for if the players are hostile to the NPC. Everything else can be figured out quickly and effectively by having this information already planed out. We also need to figure out contingency plans, what is going on? Does the NPC have an escape route planed? What tactics will he use if things get ugly? This is the time to plan for everything, or at least have some kind of general idea of how the NPC will behave.

Much of this can be figured out in the Keyed Adventure method. Important NPCs should always be keyed, their personalities recorded. They don’t need to be as advanced as a player character sheet, but they should be advanced enough that we can quickly deal with a variety of situations without breaking continuity. The reason why we do this is primarily because we require that the Players make as many decisions as possible, and these decisions will probably effect the NPCs.


Encounters, TRUE encounters, are tricky things. There are rules that we always need to keep in the backs of our minds. If we fail to keep to these rules then our games will suffer. Call it a Universal Code of Conduct and Ethics of Dungeon Mastering.

Rule #1: NO INSTANT DEATH; Walking down a corridor and suddenly dying from some trap with no saving throw is bogus. Save or Dies are fun because it brings that feeling of danger alive, however you don’t want to use them regularly. There should also be some kind of warning, by providing simple foreshadowing, we can make a scene into a proper encounter. The danger should be very apparent, or at least to appear to be too quiet and safe enough to trigger some ill-ease on the part of the players. The decision to move forward or not will be their own, the save or die can be avoided. Even if the decision is a split second one, such as telling them that they felt a trap get set off by their foot and the ceiling starts to creak menacingly, this forces a quick decision, should they stand still? Jump forward or backwards? Perhaps if we have them jump forward they can avoid the saving throw completely, but if they take too much time, then the trap will get them. In cases like a giant pressure trap, this can be instantly lethal, but the choice to stand there required it to happen. Perhaps the player is strong enough to stop the trap and bust it? Then the saving throw could be a strength check, followed by a save or die, but if either is failed then they are squished. All of this wasn’t something that you have happen, it was all based on the decisions of the players. Of course “Save or Die” areas should be avoidable, they should be a shortcut, that is the reward for using them.

Rule #2: Planned Encounters should be challenging. Random encounters are just that, random. A good random encounter list should have mostly creatures that don’t pose much of a threat by themselves, but with an element of danger because of 1 or 2 super dangerous monsters. Random encounters have their own rules in regards to challenge. Planned adventures should require the greatest amount of challenge, while key encounters can be just enough to both challenge and slow the characters down. There is no excuse to plan easy encounters. A good rule of thumb is that it is better to over-challenge then under-challenge because it is easier to scale and attack back then it is to increase the difficulty. Not that it is impossible! It’s just more difficult.

RULE #3: Appropriate Rewards. Like I said above, a save or die situation should have a great reward for surviving it. We also want to reward curiosity. Magic Items are never to be gifted out, but earned. Monsters who use them, if the characters can defeat them, will earn them the hard way. The cooler the item, the harder it should be to actually acquire it. They should also be rare, and appropriate to the player character. Everything must be a decision, and we want the decisions to be as meaningful as possible. If a warrior is using a +3 battle axe and he doesn’t take the +1 battle axe, then this wasn’t really a decision was it? It can happen during random or key encounters, but it shouldn’t happen as a result as a written one, unless the +1 battle axe has some hidden powers which aren’t apparent to him. Trading up to a better weapon is an appropriate reward, but it has to come at the cost of an appropriate risk.

RULE #4: Always Foreshadow events. If a player tries to cash in on a gem he picked up and discovers that it isn’t there, we have a problem. If we didn’t provide enough clues that an NPC might be responsible then he may attack somebody in his own party because only they had the opportunity in his mind. This is always bad, if the party turns on itself then we have failed in our job as a DM. Inner-party strife can and does happen, but it should be a result of actions which the DM has no control over.

RULE #5: Leave the Role-Playing up to the Role-Players. This statement can be confusing, but what it means is that we don’t write scenes which force the players to have a conversation with themselves. If the players chose to sit there and role-play a discussion for 3 hours, then it isn’t an encounter. It is good that they are into their characters but it still isn’t an encounter.

There you have it, give the players enough information so that they can form an informed decision, provide a risk and an appropriate reward which makes sense and provides meaning to the players.


A magical item is meaningful, but we don’t want to hand these things out like candy. We have to think of other rewards. As I said before, information is a good reward which can lead to greater rewards if more risks are taken. Land is a great reward for service and keeping to ones alignment. Status and a positive local view of the characters is a reward all unto itself. The funds and availability of a great weapon or improved armor is fun, so is discovering the answers to a mystery, uncovering clues which baffle and intrigue them, getting to cross swords with a dangerous villain and surviving is a reward in itself, if it is extremely tough or meaningful encounter then additional rewards may become needed. Positively effecting their environment or making an important contact and friend of power is a reward. Rewards don’t always need to be money or magical items.

Be mindful of the things in which you write. Hide bonuses everywhere, encouraging the party to explore the world which you created for them in a meaningful way. Risking these rewards is a good way to lose them, but that is what the game is about, now isn’t it. Taking risks in the hopes of gaining better rewards, of course some times we fail and have to pay the consequences of our risk, this should be equally appropriate. An important contact could hear of the failure and refuse to give high profit leads to them until their reputation has improved again. Severe injury and having to fight a big boss with lower health then normal is an appropriate consequence. Dwindling resources, land seizures, being wanted, these can all be appropriate to failing to do the right thing.

We shouldn’t coddle the players, if the party deems attacking a hidden ogre encampment whose numbers are in the thousands, then this risk will probably result in the loss of their lives. It is fine to introduce them to situations where if they don’t think that you’ve got the guts to kill them, then it might be high time to prove that you do have the guts, but even then, the decision to attack was up to them. You gave them all of the information that they needed to understand that this was a stupid decision, and they took unnecessary risks anyway.

How can you tell if a meaningful planned encounter is needed? When we want to either limit or improve a character in some way. Buying a horse is appropriate place to write a meaningful encounter with different horses for the player to chose from. One horse can be strong but slow, one fast but weak, one average, and one total lemon. But, why have an encounter about this? Because their decision will effect their movement rate and maybe even their combat skills, that is why. Horses are also expensive, and any time the player spends a lot of money on anything it is best to role-play the event. Be it a ship, a wagon, a suit of armor, all of this effects the player character sheet. In cases like this we have to supply the character with some options and let them make a decision about it based on the information that they have been able to worm out of you.

A helpful rule of thumb is to just sketch out small encounters, and have one or two big encounters which you spend most of your time and energy on. The rest can be improvised on game day. If something involves a possible reward for taking a risk, then this is a proper encounter which needs to be addressed as thoroughly as possible. Also these decisions should be tailored especially to the player characters themselves, utilizing their skills and abilities, and perhaps maximizing their failures too, if everybody refuses to play a priest, for instance, then go ahead and write badguys who are using this against them. Take your time and write especially for the group of players that are going to show up, however keep in the back of your mind that sometimes a player can’t make it, so we don’t want the entire group to suffer from Doug having to go to his daughter’s dance recital. Utilizing a groups strength is more about making the game easier then actually making it a requirement to continue. If the thief don’t make it that day, the party will have to break down doors, ignore chests, and keep their eyes open for keys. They aren’t stuck, but they may move around slower then they normally would.


Anonymous said...

A lot to digest here, but definitely worth it. Great food for thought and reinforcement of my beliefs as a DM, especially as I go forth in my own campaign.

Kevin Mac said...

Even after 30 years of DMing, there is still some food for thought for me there.

I tend to more often than not have planned encounters. I usually only truly randomize when in a pinch and go to monster encounter tables. Even then, I try to make a supreme effort to have that encounter make sense. Every DM should wing it now and again.

Brooser Bear said...

Great reading, Rip, Thanks!
I thouroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.
You explained it better and more concisely than DMG version 3.5 and on!

satyre said...

Excellent article - comprehensive approach to a subject that many people still struggle with from time to time.

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