Saturday, February 21, 2015

Some thoughts on encounter design

In RPG Superstar, the encounter round has always been one of my favorite rounds. Below are some things I'll be looking at as a voter. It's not an exhaustive list, far from it! But I think the following are some good elements to include. A good encounter doesn't necessarily need all of them, of course.

  • Social interaction: Everyone remembers to include some combat in their encounters, but some social interaction, even if it's just the villain and PCs taunting each other, makes an encounter much more interesting. Bonus points if the social interaction has a real effect on how the encounter unfolds.
  • Other skills, too: Give each PC a chance to use her skills. While it's not necessary to include every single skill in the game, let the PCs use their skills whenever it makes sense.
  • Surprises are good: Not everything has to be the way it seems at first. Something that the players didn't expect makes for a memorable encounter.
  • Tension is good: Uncertainty and limits on time or other resources are an easy way to add to the tension. The illusion of danger is more important than a big chance of failure. There's no catharsis without tension and fear! Make the players go "oh crap, oh crap, oh crap" then "oh my gods we survived!"
  • Interesting terrain: Include terrain that limits or enhances movement. Include terrain the PCs and their foes can interact with. Things like these reward players who use good tactics and creative thinking.
  • Multiple ways to beat the challenges: Include ways for skilled, fast-talking, and swift-footed characters to shine, but also allow slow, heavily-armored, and less skilled PCs to contribute meaningfully.
  • Make your map just as awesome as in round 2: Having a clear map with a nice layout is just as important in the encounter round as it was in the map round. Don't forget everything you learned in round 2! If your map for this round had been one of the maps for round 2, would it have been in the top 50%?
  • Climax: Don't design an encounter, design the encounter. While it should be usable as a stand-alone encounter, if it was part of an adventure, your encounter should be the climax of the adventure. Why beat up wandering monsters when you can kick the big bad's butt!
  • R3 monster is the star: The R3 monster should have a very central role in the encounter. The villain is the most obvious choice. It's also ok to let someone else do the talking, but the monster should at least be the main combat threat. Very probably, the monster should have the highest CR in the encounter so that other creatures don't overshadow it too easily. At the very least, the monster should have an instrumental role in how the encounter develops.
  • It's not the monster but how you use it: It's good to remember that in the monster round, the monsters have to shine on their own. In the encounter round, however, they are just one of many parts that make up the encounter.
  • The trap should be an integral part of the encounter: The trap should be closely connected to the theme of the encounter or what is going on in the encounter. If removing the trap wouldn't change anything except the difficulty of the encounter, it's probably just tacked on to fulfill the requirement in the rules for the round.
  • Awesome but makes sense: Although it's important that the encounter is fun and awesome (see all my points above), it should also make sense for the location to exist and for the monsters to do what they're doing. If you have to choose, I personally think you can handwave some things because of "the rule of cool", but of course, a Superstar encounter is both awesome and makes sense.
Bonus tip:
  • Playtest: If possible, it's a good idea to playtest the encounter before submitting. It's a really easy way to spot mistakes of many kinds. Because twist was revealed so late this year, it is understandable that most people weren't able to playtest their encounters.

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