Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's an Encounter?

I've learned stuff reading Justin Alexander's blog but a recent post of his just seemed odd to me.  Comments were closed on that post so I'll comment here.  He writes about the sample adventure for WotC's latest Gamma World and notes that the later part of the adventure is just combat encounters without even connective tissue to string them together.  To me that is the exact opposite of what I'd want from my game, more akin to a first person shooter than the rpg I grew up with, but Justin takes it in stride.  Then he ends with this:
"How else could you structure and/or connect a sequence of encounters?
By this I mean, what’s the actual interaction — mechanical or otherwise — which happens at the table which moves you from one combat encounter to the next.
And this is, of course, the simpler version of this question. Remove the assumption that you’re moving from combat encounter to combat encounter, and suddenly we’d also have to take into consideration how each “chunk” of content is structured… and how are we deciding what an appropriate “chunk” is?
This is an area that I don’t feel gamers actually give much conscious thought to: We’ve learned a few forms subliminally and by chance, but because it’s largely an invisible bias we rarely consider whether there might be a better way of structuring scenarios."
     First, this reads to me like a person who hadn't heard of D&D until they bought a copy of fourth edition.  The assumptions here are 1) the game is encounters, and encounters are combat, 2) a DM's job is to orchestrate those encounters, 3) this is what gamers expect.

     Second, I've seen Alexander comment on OSR blogs, he must know this community exists.  And, unless I am horribly misunderstanding this, how has the OSR not explored the questions he poses repeatedly and innovatively?  The whole discussion of Western Marches style campaigns and the constant investigation of sandboxes is about how players interact with the game world and how they "encounter" stuff right?  Or if you want to zoom in and be a little less granular you can look at the dungeon map and all the discussions of chokepoints and Jaquaying the dungeon (a term Alexander invented!) .  Heck, even my posts on door priority and heat maps were trying be aware of how players interact and make choices in a dungeon thus leading to or avoiding "encounters."  And now I'm just remembering the fascinating examination -C started with the quantum ogre, that was thinking about "encounters" and their relation to player choice and agency.

     So it seems he is completely wrong about assumption 3; some gamers have spent a great deal of brain cycles thinking about what players encounter in the game, how, and why.  Now I want to look at the other two assumptions.

Combat is Not the Only Encounter
     Players can encounter lots of things while playing an rpg, from descriptive details (the dungeon ceiling is covered in damp moss) to violent physical conflict.  You could set these on different continuums depending on what you want to privilege.  Are you more concerned with things that can kill pcs (That is a pretty big one)?  Then you'll have things like dungeon dressing on the less important end of the scale and creatures that attack on sight on the other.  But, that dungeon dressing could be very related to mortality if it's hiding traps (a spiked grate falls out of all that moss), or if it's a signpost suggesting danger lies ahead (it's getting hotter and hotter).  And also, are you sure player mortality should be supreme concern?  Getting taken out of the game is a big deal, but surviving to play in a dull, plodding game is a pretty big concern too.  So you could chart out a different continuum that goes from less important to more important in relation to: engaging players, creeping them out, making them feel empowered with choice, or allowing them to exercise their own creativity in the campaign world.  Privileging any of these would result in completely different discussions and different ideas of what an encounter is.  But people almost always focus on combat.
      What about encounters with sentient beings that don't want to fight?  Heck, what about a speaking thing that players can't engage in combat even if they want to, like, say . . .  a giant stone head.  Sound familiar?  Is that Castle Greyhawk classic not an encounter?
      What about two other classic dungeon features, traps and fountains?  Traps can be telegraphed and then players get to be creative trying to circumvent them.  Fountains are a temptation and an example of the mysterious underworld that players can choose to engage with or not.  It would be nice to have the tension of combat encounters make time an element when dealing with the traps and possibly make players desperate enough to drive them to drink from the fountains, but I propose you could have an entire dungeon with no combat encounters at all, just traps and magical fountains.   In fact, I challenge you all to make one.
     What about the lowly "Dungeon Dressing"?  The term implies you could run the dungeon perfectly without it.  Or that you might replace it with entirely different details according to whim.  I think this is wrong.  I propose that if you're "dressing" is dispensable, you don't know what it's for.  Even if you just want your dungeon to be weird, there are different flavors of weird.  These details can help one location feel different from another, help define the denizens of that place, can set the mood or tone of the exploration, as well as making the place seem tangible and plausible.  So I guess what I'm saying is that even the lowly dungeon detail often dismissed as "fluff" is an encounter with the imagined world and to only focus on the things that can swing an axe at you is missing a lot of the point of the game.
     Who decides when an encounter becomes an encounter?  Players in my last session went into an abandoned monastery and saw lots of odd, otherworldly things.  Whether these would become combats was not a cut and dried as latter day gamers like to make encounters out to be.  The party found a monk's body stuffed entirely with feathers, but approaching it, they thought it might be undead ready to spring at them.  They prepared themselves for what might be a surprise combat.  The party also encountered a little man riding a pug with reins in the dogs mouth that ended in fish hooks.  This little man gestured and rode off into the darkness.  While I had it appear mostly for atmosphere, had the players pursued, shot missile weapons at it, or cast a spell, I would have allowed it--  it was real enough to be engaged.  They could have turned that and several other experiences they had in the dungeon into combat encounters and chose not to.

DMs have More Tools than Just Plotting

     In mentioning the little pug-rider, I want to point out something I realized in that last session.  I actually determine what players encounter in three different ways: 1) I tie things to a location on the map.  The sick bear is behind the alter in the chapel, it doesn't roam.  There are plenty of details that indicate a large smelly animal is in there, but if the players don't go there they won't ever see it.    2) I roll for random encounters.  A sick wolf wanders the halls, as do rats and stirges.  Now the list of things that might be encountered was crafted by me to fit the location, but if and when they occur is entirely out of my hands. 3) I had several mobile, set pieces that I employed at times I chose.  The kobold riding the pug, the lost little girl.  These appeared when the toughest pcs are engaged investigating inside a monastic cell, leaving the weaker members of the marching order in a hallway with darkness on two sides.  I intentionally employed these to try and make my players feel vulnerable, to show them they were not in control of this environment, they were interlopers and in danger.
     Now, we're all familiar with random encounters and certainly with static location based encounters, but I stumbled into that third, when-I-thought-it-best-to-happen mechanic on my own.  And I like what it allows me to do.  But I would never just make stuff happen off the cuff any more than I would pre-script battles in a certain order the way the Gamma World adventure Alexander is reviewing does.  It seems to me that a DM will want to use all three of these tools for determining what players experience-- the static, the random, and the DM orchestrated-- at the same time.  The first makes locations and choices about exploration real, the second is what story emerges from-- surprising even me and making the world seem alive, the third allows me to do something a computer game could never do-- make things happen based on what I'm observing players are feeling.  I think a good DMing "how to" would talk about how to get these three methods working together.

     After writing this (it took several work mornings) I think I have a better idea why latter day D&D focuses so much on pre-prepared, balanced, combat encounters.  It's hard to DM.  It takes some sensitivity to notice a certain player is getting left out and then make them be the one that sees the creepy girl in the shadows.  It's hard to design dungeons. At least, a dungeon that has danger and emptiness laid out in a way that lends itself to creating rising and falling tension in a group of players.  It's hard to have faith in a random dice roll, "What if something comes that kills everyone?"  I realize that the scientific systematization of D&D into pre-scripted combat encounters is about control.
     But I think this approach, while comforting, is a gross oversimplification.  Like thinking writing can be parceled into discrete types-- persuasive, descriptive, informative-- or that people are different brained-- left, right-- or that taking vitamins will help you with a cold, oversimplification gives you the feeling of control while misunderstanding the complexity of the world underneath.  Trying to reduce D&D down to a set of prepared, carefully controlled combat encounters can be done, but the D&D it results in is a pale image of the D&D that is possible.


  1. This is an absolutely outstanding post, very thought provoking.

    Especially your ending quote, "Trying to reduce D&D down to a set of prepared, carefully controlled combat encounters can be done, but the D&D it results in is a pale image of the D&D that is possible. "

    Perfectly sums up what I've been feeling for years.

  2. I think there is great advantage to thinking about DM tools in 3 flavors, as you have described. I don't know that I would have cut the pie up that way, but it describes the broad strokes of how I plan.

  3. To look at it another way, there's two different kinds of D&D:

    Old school: a game where we use characters to solve problems we imagine, and if we fail at a problem, it takes just moments to create a new character and try again, approaching the problem from a different direction. The most fun is found in solving dilemmas presented by the adventure/rules.

    New school: a game where we take the time to create the character that exactly fits what we imagine, then use it to solve a problem. We don't really ever fail to solve a problem, because the problem is designed in such a way as to make sure our characters succeed. The most fun is found in creating a character with exactly the strengths and weaknesses we want him/her to have.

    Contrary to what both sides of the edition wars say, these are both good ways to play D&D - they're just different.

  4. This is not exactly on topic, but I think you might like it as another continuum to add to your list: one can think of encounter-based games as driven by boundaries or by torches (or hearths, if you prefer the more trad. term in architectural thinking).

    The dungeon is a bounded environment, and everything inside that boundary is a potential encounter of some kind (Zak mentioned this in his write-up of Rients' game: the dungeon consisted of relatively few elements, but every one of those elements might possibly kill you - you don't know until you've investigated them). So boundary designs have an environmental focus/idea, and "dressing" is interactive. In this case the seam between encounter and between-encounters is hidden or non-existent: the players elect to deal with this or that bit of dressing and encounters ensue. The fundamental question is "how shall we use this place?"

    Investigative stories with their breadcrumb trails of clues or Traveller campaigns with their rumours and patrons and valuable cargoes (ie plot-driven games) tend to be torch-based: the light from the torch draws PCs and NPCs from wherever they are, and is the object of interest. There is a clear demarcation between foreground/background or encounter/dressing, and doubt about what constitutes fore or back can be seen as a problem (one Robin Laws deals with by saying "you'll find the clues here" and then concentrating on what the clues mean). This seems to be the thinking behind all this talk of encounters and between-encounters: the questions are always "what drew the PCs here? Where will they be drawn from here? What changes because they came here?"

    Most games mix these two. But they often don't telegraph which mode they're in. Subtle methods of indicating are legion, but it might be worth thinking about what they are. If I don't want the PCs to investigate a library in depth I'll add a friendly and curious librarian, who becomes a vehicle for "library use:" you ask them questions, they provide the clues. If there's a body in the stacks then the librarian is away.

  5. The best game session I ever ran was in D&D 3.5. A massive dungeon without a single encounter, just room after room of traps & obstacles. My group ended up playing from 7 in the evening on Friday until 5 in the morning on Saturday because they were having so much fun.

    Unfortunately that game was almost entirely made up on the spot, so I don't have any good notes to reconstruct it from. I do recall a large acid pit which they flew over, and a room filled with cupid statues which fired love arrows at them.

  6. Great post. I think you're right - the meshing of planned and unplanned, combat and noncombat encounters is part of the magic of the mix in gaming.

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    @Andrew: If he had blogged about a fun session playing that Gamma World scenario I would have read it and moved on. But he asked a question which seems to spring from some sort of dissatisfaction and he asked the question in a way that requires the last 30 years of gaming to be shoved down the memory whole. That's what seemed so odd to me. And that's why I don't see this as an edition wars post.

    @richard: I think I follow. And I think you're saying I'm working from the assumption of the bounded conception of play. But even that is probably too much of a simplification.

    The abandoned abbey is a bounded space and everything in it can be poked and prodded, but some things are more important than others. The pots and kettles in the kitchen were there but not too interesting after players asked me a few questions. The goods in a store room were more interesting because they seemed to be valuable. A bloody paw print on the floor was very important because it signposted where the bear lives.

    I've found that how I deliver information can really influence how important players consider it. I will often give them signals if they are barking up an uninteresting tree. I often give them conclusions rather than just discrete facts (the tonsured head and clothes lead you to believe this was one of the monks). It seems like all these issues come up with the torch based game too (thus the need for Laws' strategy). So is the distinction that relevant?

  8. @richard: Now I'm thinking you mean that I am, in fact, mixing both kinds of game, that a true bounded game would be a relatively bare dungeon, if there is a throne then it will be important. And that I should pay more attention to how I deliver and privilege various information to my players. Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for the comment.

  9. It wasn't supposed to be so cryptic. ;) It's really just a heuristic, for helping to think about what sort of world you're presenting, and getting the players on the same page with you. What's important at this moment? The flame that draws them on or the boundary that defines the arena?