Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

Every dungeon master sometimes throws characters into a combat encounter, and then sees players do something unexpected. We never expect a peaceful dialog. Later, the characters reach a mountain outpost stocked with perfectly crafted encounters and the players show ingenuity by, say, triggering an avalanche that buries the place. Sometimes, every DM wants to say, “Come on, you all took intelligence as a dump stat. Just fight the monsters!”

Sometime in most dungeon masters’ careers, we plot a grand adventure for characters, complete with dramatic beats, treachery, revelations, and a climax. Then the players impulsively murder the traitor in session 1. In session 3, instead of escaping as planned, the evil mastermind dies too. The threat of such reversals tempt any dungeon master to railroad.

All these setbacks come from preparing encounters and plots that expect players to behave as expected. Often players do something surprising that leaves the plans in ruin.

Such planning misfires stem from taking the wrong mindset to prepare for a Dungeons & Dragons game.

For a better approach, follow two principles:

  • Prepare situations instead of encounters.
  • Prepare clues and villains instead of plots.

Situations form the bones of an adventure.

Game-world situations are the arrangements of locations and non-player characters that stand between the characters and what they want. The most elemental form of a situation includes (a) an obstacle, like a bridge blocked by a troll hungry for the party’s delicious gnome, and (b) a goal, like the other side. Often the difference between a small situation and an encounter is a mindset. An encounter starts as a situation with an assumed plot—perhaps as simple as (1) the characters fight and (2) they win. A situation stops assuming a plot and fills in other details like what the monsters want. (Hint: Not to wait in a room until heroes come to murder them.) A small situation might resemble a combat encounter complete with monsters to (probably) fight, but the situation mindset opens DMs for other courses of action. Maybe the characters talk, or sneak, or dislike the gnome.

Unlike combat, exploration, or interaction scenes, situations bring enough flexibility to play in different ways.

Larger situations often resemble dungeons. From a situation mindset, players could solve the Tomb of Horrors by excavating it from the top down—or by skipping it. Rather than grave robbing, real heroes should battle evil overlords. They have treasure too. (Perhaps by looting the tomb, the heroes can defeat the overlord by getting enough gold to cause runaway inflation. I want an adventure where evil is thwarted because it can’t make payroll.)

Tomb of Annihilation includes more modern takes on the dungeon as situation. Within the campaign, The Fain of the Night Serpent features factions, intrigue, and a McGuffin to recover. The Tomb of Nine Gods resembles the Tomb of Horrors, but with the time limit and an objective bigger than runaway inflation.

Situations can go beyond locations. For instance, a masquerade could be a situation where players need to uncover a spy. The characters might find their target through deception, magic, or by picking a suspect’s pockets to gain stolen plans.

The Prince of Murder’s network of covert assassins could form another situation. Instead of predicting which encounters the characters will face as they unravel the network, the DM invents a organization that reacts to the players’ actions.

As with combat encounters, a boring situation can lead it to dull scenes. Good situations include features that lead to interesting play. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea has advice for creating situations. “Develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with.”

So a situation that might feature combat may include a location primed for a dynamic battle. A situation that might include role playing may include memorable NPCs, but should at least include NPCs that want something.

I think of developing situations as piling kindling. Add enough incendiary ingredients so that if a spark flares, the scenes catch fire.

These details rarely require more work. Most dungeon masters will feel comfortable improvising some of the pieces. Plus, the situation mindset often frees DMs from worrying about contingencies. DMs who build situations spend less time preparing responses for every potential action because consequences stem naturally from the situation.

Mike touts the virtues of situations. “D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions.”

For situations, Tom “Dungeon Bastard” Lommel plans one extra element: He prepares a menu of potential outcomes. He lists wins that represent total success, complications that bring success at a cost, and setbacks that represent failure. “One thing I always get bogged down in is analysis paralysis,” Tom says. “This is a road map for me to respond to what the party is doing. I have a list of plausible options at my command and I don’t have to think about it in the moment.”

I like Tom’s strategy because, in the heat of a game session, I struggle to improvise reactions to sweeping victories and epic fails. Such grand outcomes often threaten to upend the game. An easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. Instead, I want to reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that keep one move from ending the game. A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion. Instead, I want the characters captured, or to lose the magic key, or to suffer the gloating of the rival who saves them. (Forget bludgeoning, adventurers hate blows to their pride most because they wound the player too.) At the least, I always plan ways to turn total-party kills into setbacks that spare the campaign.

Tom uses a storyteller’s sense of drama to help decide among outcomes. His choice results from the usual factors of the player’s choices and the luck of the die, but also from what suits the narrative. Will an up-beat or a down-beat better add drama? Is the table spoiling for a fight or for a lull? Does the session’s pace leave time for complications?

Instead of preparing encounters, prepare situations. The mindset opens you to plan less for what the players might do, while making you ready for anything.

Next: Dungeon masters: Instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.

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10 Responses to Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

  1. Matt AC says:

    Good. As always. Would love to see some more specific talk about how to apply this mindset to published adventures.

  2. Chaosmeister says:

    You should read Don’t prep plots by the Alexandrian too for anyone who hasn’t yet. He wrote something very similar a few years ago.

    https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/4147/roleplaying-games/dont-prep-plots

  3. Grimcleaver says:

    If the problem with scripted encounters is that they can be subverted, the problem with situations is that they’re messy–both dramatically and balance wise. The only reason DMs craft encounters ahead of time is in order to present something that is either balanced (crunching the math on how many trolls is a fun fight vs. unfair is hard to do on the fly) or dramatic (tense situations that balance character moments, interesting terrain, environmental effects and a harrowing fight are tough to gel without some set up time).

    I generally use something that’s like a compromise between the two: So take your normal map with encounters scattered around, cut out all the same encounters and put them in a bulletpoint list. Then just sit back. When the time seems set for one of the encounters–run it. They need be in no preordained place on the map so long as the circumstances are right. They collapse the mine entrance with an avalanche? Fine, but a ways out they discover tracks–a warband of the creatures must have been out when the cave was sealed. If they do the expected thing and follow them into the woods then your first encounter can be whatever you’d planned, but in a clearing in the woods. If they come up with another crazy out of the box solution and subvert that situation? Well that’s fine, you have the encounter prepped and in your notes whenever you need it–and the PCs get to do something else clever.

    What I try to go for is to have a list of encounters that are both dramatic and balanced that I can drop in anywhere to use as filler or twists or kickoff points to further the action. If what the PCs are doing is proactive and interesting on its own, that’s better. I’ll stick with that. But when things slow down and the players need an external stimulus, bam I can throw down an encounter that works.

  4. S'mon says:

    >>A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion.<<

    If a TPK is not possible then it's not much of a (typical, combat/threat-centric) campaign arc IMO.

    The real trick is to have the party TPK be just as satisfying a conclusion as total victory, bittersweet partial victory, or draw.

  5. Dan says:

    What you describe as a “situation” is just an encounter by another name. From the original Player’s Handbook:

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    • Dan says:

      And most of my comment disappeared because of some kind of HTML markup snafu… the following quote was intended to be included:

      Encounters: A “monster” can be a kindly wizard or a crazed dwarf, a friendly brass dragon or a malicious manticore. Such are the possibilities of encounters in dungeon, wilderness, or town. Chance meetings are known as encounters with wandering monsters. Finding a creature where it has been placed by the referee is usually referred to as a set encounter.

      All encounters have the elements of movement and surprise (previously discussed), as well as initiative, communication, negotiation, and/or combat. These aspects of adventuring, as well as damage, healing, saving throws, obedience, and morale must now be considered.

  6. S'mon says:

    I definitely agree about avoiding scripted encounters. The rise of the scripted encounter was a very un-fun development IMO. The old way was better.

  7. Pingback: Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads | DMDavid

  8. Pingback: Preparing with situations and characters – Melestrua's Musings

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