Behind the Screen: Desigining a Great Encounter

2007 November 5
by Dante

Over the weekend, things came back around in a big way for our group and we were able to pull off a largely satisfying session. The interesting thing is that the session was centered around a single battle encounter.

It all starts with a plot point

Our players were suffering from a lack of engagement… they weren’t able to see any personal tie-in to the larger world around them. So my co-DM and I set out to create a major plot point that would tie the actions of our characters during the first campaign to our current one.

We created a battle encounter that seemed relatively consistent with a few others that we’ve had during the session, but we added in the presence of a very, VERY evil aligned NPC. They jumped right into the fray, luckily!

And yes, I got to use some suspense and horror!

The encounter took place near dusk, and the spot check to see the baddies was pretty difficult. Luckily, nobody rolled high enough to see the evil NPC behind the standard baddies until they were entrenched in battle. A few more difficult spot checks to make out some important details made them curious, including the fact that she did not engage them in any way.

The NPC was an evil aligned goddess from the Book of Vile Darkness, and the baddies were her underlines that she put out there because she enjoys torture, pain, and inflicted suffering. The characters realized something was up when the baddies would laugh and writhe ecstatically with every successful strike. As they died, a tether would appear connecting their essence to the evil goddess.

This got them all extremely interested in what was going on.

The all encompassing power of flavor description

After the baddies were reduced to less than zero hit points, they were so overcome by their ecstatic pain that they fell to the ground. At this point, the evil goddess would re-assert her dominance and tethered them with a spiked collar that did nothing but break bones and sinew, causing a disgusting series of images for the players and their characters.

Then, one by one, as the characters attacked the goddess they were stopped dead in their tracks, mid-action. The goddess then had a speech explaining the plot as it concerned the characters, and her actions up until this point and the players were all very interested in what she was saying.

In fact, the two note-taking types in our group were writing so furiously I had to stop for a second to tell them I was going to post this talk on the forum that accompanies our game sessions so they could focus on what was being said. They were pleased.

Get to the point already!

The long and short of this story is this: much can be done to create a good encounter by mixing a whole lot of intrigue with a piece of the plot and sprinkle a battle in there liberally.

The session that I described was the first time in my DMing career that the entire group was engaged at some level and the entire night revolved around a single battle oriented encounter. Several of my players told me that the session was extremely good, and I felt extremely good while running it so I’m willing to chalk this one up as a success story.

Special kudos go to my co-DM Kanati, who found said evil goddess and made her speech positively hair-raising!

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