Back in the fall of 2009, Chris Dinkins and I interviewed a host of game designers and novelists who were also experienced game masters. We sent around too many questions to too many GMs and received far too much material for one article to hold. As a result, a lot of great material got scrapped. Fortunately, gaming wisdom ages well. I recently discovered a folder full of all that cut material (anecdotes, advice, and miscellany), which we will be presenting, here, in the Lost GM Scrolls. Enjoy! —JLCJ
Mike Mearls is currently a senior manager at Wizards of the Coast and is part of the team working on D&D Next. Below, Mearls responds to a question about important things for GMs to keep in mind when designing and running encounters. He emphasizes, as you’ll see, raising the stakes with story hooks.
Mike Mearls: It’s easy to think of an encounter as monsters on one side, PCs on the other, fight! I think that misses what’s really compelling about an RPG session. I like to start with justifying the encounter’s existence. It might be something simple like a fun bit of dressing, like the shaky rope bridge that threatens to send the PCs tumbling into a ravine, but the best way to make it interesting is to tie it into a larger story or narrative. The encounter should fit into everything else like a puzzle piece, tying your game together into a greater, cohesive whole.
That narrative might be something you created, the story of your campaign, but it works even better if it’s something the players really care about.
For instance, in my Greyhawk campaign, I’m using Obmi, a dwarf assassin who’s a bit famous in the setting, as a villain. The players really, really hate that guy. He betrayed them, killed an informant they needed to question, stole a powerful artifact, and danced just beyond their grasp every time they’ve run into him.
I’m 100% certain that I could take the most boring encounter possible, like five gnolls standing in a big, empty room, and make it exciting just by showing the characters that the gnolls know where Obmi is currently hiding out. Nothing has changed in terms of the game rules or stats, but now the players really, really want to clobber those gnolls.
Part of it, too, is that Obmi has never escaped via GM fiat. He tricked the PCs, outfought them, and otherwise beat them at their own game. That makes him all the more vexing as a foe. The players know that if they come up with a good idea, they can do almost anything.
In my experience, the nice thing about building those compelling story hooks into an encounter is that it breeds creative thinking by the players. If the PCs want to question the gnolls, maybe they try to bribe them, pose as servants of Iuz and trick them, or ambush one when it leaves to fetch a fresh waterskin. When encounters are just XP, the players try to think of the quickest way to plow through them. When there’s something more at stake, then players start thinking creatively.
What have you done to what might be a vanilla encounter to make it more interesting for your players? Feel free to discuss your tips and tricks below in the comments!
3 thoughts on “The Lost GM Scrolls: Mike Mearls on Encounters with More at Stake”
Sounds good. I think the idea of not having encounters for their own sake is beginning to gain some traction. The neat thing is that this idea can also be turned around and used to make the monsters more interesting. Why are the monsters fighting? What are they after? Have they heard of the PCs? Can they “win” without killing the PCs?
The recurring enemy that can escape without DM fiat is a rare thing, in my experience. I have one they’ve encountered twice, an oni who tried to lure them into an ambush, and then later tricked them into a fight with another group. The second time, he wasn’t a proper enemy but more of a set piece. I worry that this would be seen as “fiat” and not really fair play, but I think it’s overly restrictive to assume that monster stat blocks are the “physics” of a world and anything that moves can be described by one. The D&D boardgames have shown how there can be troublesome encounters (“events” in those games) that don’t conform to the same rules as the combat.
Getting information out of a bad guy is much harder than killing them. Some methods work better if they are tried first. You usually can’t con somebody if you’ve tried something else ahead of time. Bribery is still an option later, but it usually gets more expensive. Torture… is complicated.
As for bad guys getting away without fiat, you need to think ahead. Design a few tricks into the character. If they are athletic, give them a potion of jump and have them make a leap that would be impossible without magic. Even if somebody in the party has the same, it reduces the pursuit to one character. A feather fall token is another consumable that can let the bad guy take a route that’s hard to follow. A teleportation item is the ultimate expression of this.
If the bad guy knows the environment better than the PC’s then they can use that to get away. It’s even better if it’s the bad guy’s home turf. Conceal yourself with darkness/smoke/illusion and escape out the secret door/slip down one of two passages/hide in a prepared bolt-hole.
Distractions. Have the bad guy’s henchmen release monsters on innocent people. The party will have to decide between following the bad guy and saving innocents. Naturally this works best with a truly good party and it also enhances the bad guy’s reputation as somebody who needs to be taken down.
Though I do have to say that in one modern day game I had the bad guy get away in a car that was a collaboration between an American company and an Italian one. Yes, he got away in his GM Fiat.
“Though I do have to say that in one modern day game I had the bad guy get away in a car that was a collaboration between an American company and an Italian one. Yes, he got away in his GM Fiat.”