Thursday, 8 September 2011

5 ways to create meaningful and dynamic encounters {4e}

We all know that 4th edition D&D has ultimately changed attitudes towards the combat encounter. Whereas once it was the norm to enter a 4x4 room and clear the hellhound or goblin chefs within, the current incarnation favours large, sprawling set-pieces over the humble 50 room temple.

The focus on grand Hollywood encounters makes combat a different beast compared to earlier editions, making it imperative for the players to not only have to defeat the enemy, but also overcome one or multiple goals in the process, otherwise the 1 hour+ fight scene tends to drag.

To put it another way, the combat encounter is a vehicle within the story; something that can either have a positive or negative effect. In order to keep the fight fresh, there are some things that you should keep in mind.

Don't kill the PCs without a very good reason
Controversial, I know, but let's face it - the game has changed. It's no longer just about surviving in the Temple of Elemental Evil, it's about an epic story unfolding and giving your players the satisfaction of reaching level 30 and fulfilling their epic destiny, while the DM can look back on a huge campaign that they themselves crafted. Alright, perhaps if it suits the narrative and the player has consented, a PC could be killed off or the resurrection of a PC would be ridiculous in the circumstance. However, that doesn't mean the players can't fail the encounter. In fact, I find death to be a pretty boring aspect of the narrative. Instead, have something negative happen to the PCs if they lose an encounter, but something they will be able to get out of and feel all the better for it.

Layer on the threats
Rarely should the soul aim of an encounter be to slay the opponents. This kind of combat will only become long and drawn out and more importantly not very memorable. You need to be adding threats left right and centre, and I don't mean just traps. Within 3 rounds that Passion Devil will summon a big nasty demon using a summoning stone unless the PCs kill him or destroy the stone. That sounds simple enough and gives the players another focus, however throw in the fact that there are innocents who are about to have their souls harvested by the other demons puts the players under more pressure. Do they focus their fire on the Passion Devil or the soul-sucking demons? Now you've got yourself an encounter.

Change the battlefield
Usually the arena in which battles take place is a static location. There are walls here, stars there and perhaps some magma pits scattered around. What if there were a 1 in 6 chance of those pits overflowing and covering a wide area, leaving the PCs on a narrow strip of ground? Maybe there's a war in the city streets and a Skiff falls out of the sky and into a building in the 3rd round, creating new cover and destroying old ones. As the battlefield evolves, so do the players' tactics. This is guaranteed to keep them on their toes.

Create a status table
Encounters should have random elements that are entirely our of the players'control, both positive and negative. Draw up a small 1d6 table with some random status effects that could happen. These are similar to what WotC tweets, such as "You hear the Angels Warrior blast his horn, filling you with confidence: gain a +2 bonus to Fortitude for the next round." You can roll the status die at the end of each round, or every other round if you want. You could even use this table to determine events as discussed in the point above.

Give a reason for the encounter
Fourth edition has taken a lot of the fun out of random encounters, at least for me, because combat is now more complex than it once was. Now you should have a clear reason for the encounter you want to run. If there are going to be no repercussions then it's probably not worth doing. Ask yourself 'Do I need to do this?' 'What will this encounter achieve?' If the answer is that it's just to pad out the session, then you need to scrap it or change it so it does have those repercussions.

As always, I'd love to hear your comments. Also you can catch me on Twitter @scottmalt