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RPGCarnival: Encounters

And once more, it's time to return to the RPGCarnival, and this month's topic: "Encounters".

Front cover for the 5e book enTRAPment

I've spent a fair amount of time building encounters over the adventures and the like that I've written, and seeing as I'm currently working on some rather high-level ones for Pathfinder: Apocalypse, I think it's time that I share a bit of my design philosophy behind how I create encounters.

First and foremost, I have to confess a love of the weird and odd creatures out there. If you give me the choice between fighting a goblin, an orc, and a flumph, I'll take the flumph any day of the week. The weirder the better in my opinion, though of course there is always going to be room for the classic monsters. Unfortunately, because they are classic they do tend to steal the spotlight.

But before I choose my "main creature" (more on that in a moment), I need to look at the environment that the encounter will take place. First, where is it? It's usually not a good idea to introduce a creature into an environment where they are at a disadvantage (no kobolds in sunlight for example), as the heroes are normally the invaders into the area. Of course, the story might dictate that the creatures are on the attack or have been forced into a position where they are at a disadvantage, but to start with, it should at least be considered where it's taking place so that the creature fits into the environment.

Then there is the terrain — unless your heroes are better prepared than mine tend to be, the creatures will be on home turf. So they'll need to be able to navigate the area somehow. To use the kobolds as an example - they have darkvision and live underground, so there's no reason that they'll have any light in the area, beyond that of cooking fires. Perhaps they'll simply eat their meals raw, or cook over things like lava flows. But they have no special movement abilities, such as flight or the ability to traverse webs, so they wouldn't include those features. But they might well include traps that trigger via creature weight — most creatures would be heavier than the kobolds, so a pit trap with a cover that breaks when 100 pounds or more cross it would be perfect. The kobolds would be able to move freely (as long as they're not grouped together too closely) while the heroes would go straight through.

The flumphs would have a similar lair, at least on the surface, but they can fly, so any defensive positions that they create would involve a lot of vertical spacing, allowing them to retreat to safety in an area the heroes would be unable to reach (at least if they're on par with the flumphs on level) without significant thought and effort.

So, once the area has been investigated, I'll go with the "main creature". These should fit the area as stated above, but should also accomplish a purpose. This purpose doesn't necessarily have to be "must be able to threaten the heroes", but it could be something entirely different. This could be anything from a speed bump (and early warning system) to the main threat, but can also serve as foreshadowing for what's to come (to use a computer game example, World of Warcraft's dungeons often did this, by having creatures that appeared before a boss share similar resistances, such as the Core Ragers and Molten Giants before Golemagg in Molten Core.)

Once the "main creature" is chosen, it's time to consider the "sidekicks". These aren't sidekicks like the main villain would have, but creatures that supplement the focus of the encounter. They can be chosen to supplement the main creature in combat (to use the kobolds as a continued example) like a giant gecko — not only would this fit the kobolds well, but when mounted, their underground caverns would suddenly become a battleground on the walls and ceilings as well (kind of like the drow lizard riders from various novels, but a much smaller threat). It could also be a thematic fit for the area that the creatures live in or are associated with (perhaps a draconic creature like a tatzlwyrm that the kobolds are worshipping as a weird ancestor) or something similar.

Generally though, the "main creature" should also be the more powerful opponent, though that isn't always necessary. (Kobolds are weak enough that almost all other creatures are more powerful, but in those cases, you can use some that are less intelligent instead).

And of course, by the end, you should consider how deadly the encounter should be. Not all encounters should bear a risk, but they should always have a CONSEQUENCE or PURPOSE. Otherwise, the encounter will feel odd and out of place.

Hope you enjoyed this little read. :)

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