Tips and Tricks with Agragorn Goldman – Creating Encounters

Over the past few years, I have gravitated away from playing RPGs, and I have spent more time running the campaigns.  I always preferred to be a player, but I’ve become less reluctant to run a game because I enjoy creating stories.  The most difficult part of GMing, however, is coming up with interesting encounters.  I’ve been learning how to avoid this problem, and I would like to share some of the short cuts I’ve discovered.  This may be old news to old school dungeon masters, but new players like myself should appreciate this advice.

The first step is to have your villains pre-made.  Most RPGs have monster manual or bestiary source books, and most will include a few sample monsters and henchmen in the core rules.  I’ve found that swapping out a skill and the name can create whole new characters without the players ever knowing.  For example, if your Clone Wars campaign requires an encounter with Kal Skirata, use the core book’s template for Boba Fett.  This is more efficient than creating an NPC from scratch.

In a recent Savage Worlds game, I used the template for orcs provided in the Explorer’s Edition to create a variety of opponents.  I gave them ray guns, and suddenly they were alien lizard men from Planet X.  Taking the same stat block, I added the “construct” key word, and they became robots.  I described each enemy differently, and the players never knew that they were the same creature under the hood.  I even fooled myself at times.

Now that you have your opponents created, it’s time to create the setting.  How much of your D&D combat takes place in a cavernous room?  When you’ve spent so much time thinking of what your players will fight, you may have forgotten to liven up where they will fight.

A lot of game masters will know to include traps and hazards, but it is important that you fully incorporate those into the fighting space and your descriptions.  It’s easy to mark a square on your map as a pit, but describe it.  “As you enter the next chamber you see several kobolds dumping their refuse into a deep pit.”  You could be more detailed than that, but you have at least explained why some kobolds would be casually standing in front of this death trap in the first place.

With those two tips in mind, my last bit of advice is to rip off awesome scenes from books and movies.  This can even apply to your plot!  Some of your players may call you out on it, but it really doesn’t matter.  You may have set up a very familiar scene, but the players have to do a lot of the work too.  The heroes may face a challenge similar to Shelob’s lair, but they aren’t required to stab the beast in the chest while it falls on top of them.  They are allowed to come up with their own strategies, and they may even choose to run away.

I think the best way to make a familiar scene your own is to change the setting.  You may be playing D&D, but you could take the story of the Godfather and replace the mafia with orcs or dragons.  Swap out enough stuff, and your players may not even notice.  Star Wars is basically Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” in space, so even renowned creators will do this.

Here are some examples of scenes you can adapt to your roleplaying games:

  • The Great Pit of Carkoon (Return of the Jedi) – Also known as the sarlaac pit.  You could use this straight up in a Star Wars campaign.  Do you think Luke was the first man Jabba wanted to toss in there?  However, it can work in most other settings.  Jabba’s sail barge went across the dune sea to bring the heroes to the sarlaac.   Maybe your players were captured by pirate’s and brought to the lair of a great sea monster.  Replace the sand with water, and you have the potential for a great encounter.
  • The Parkour Scene (Casino Royale) – This scene, early in Daniel Craig’s first bond movie, is a thrilling chase with various stages.  It would be great as a skill challenge with a few short encounters.   Give the players several options for pursuing the enemy, and then when they get him in a precarious situation have a short fight.  After a few rounds he can escape again, but give them an option to end it.  The verticality and danger of a misstep will be most important here.  Note how Bond uses the environment to pit himself against a more agile opponent and, at the end of the scene (not in the clip), the heavily armed soldiers outnumbering him.
  • Tower of the Elephant (Conan the Barbarian) – This is one of the few Conan stories I’ve read, but it gave me the idea for this article.  You may recognize it from the Schwarzenegger film as the Tower of Set.  In the story, Conan hears that there is a priceless treasure in a sorcerer’s tower.  He and his companions must sneak through a garden full of lions, scale the outside of the tower wall, and fight a giant spider (a snake in the film).  It’s ripe for skill challenges and fights with monsters.
  • Rope Bridge (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) – The Indy movies have lots of inspiration available, but this scene is a great example of putting the players in danger of the environment.  Indy is surrounded by villains and the bridge is in danger of collapsing.  What will your players do?  Can they come up with a better plan than Indiana?
  • The Bumble Battle (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) – This sounds silly (it’s really just a Christmas treat for you guys), but it does exemplify a cool format for a fight.  Rudolph and crew weren’t ready to battle the Bumble, but evened the score by removing his greatest advantage — his teeth.  An encounter based on this scene should emphasize setting a trap.  Unfortunately, I could not find a good clip of this fight without the Benny Hill theme.
Merry Christmas!
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