It’s something we all strive for as GM’s, for our players to leave the table with an experience they’ll never forget. Connecting with your players is no easy feat though, it takes time, planning, writing, and can happen in a number of different ways. We can tell memorable stories, create characters that’ll never leave us and present situations that will come up time and time again when we reminisce on our old campaigns. A big part of D&D, and most TTRPGs, is the encounters we come up against on our adventures, and when you're throwing combats at your players week after week, it can be hard to think of something new that’ll really stand out to your players. I sat down with narrative designer, Geoffrey Golden, to talk about exactly that; how do you create memorable encounters?
If you want to grab the full formula and conversation, you can listen to Episode 168 of We Speak Common on any podcast platform right now, or by clicking here. But if you’re in a rush to prep tonight's session, this article will break down the steps you can take to knock your party’s socks off.
When planning for an encounter that you want to stay with your players, whether it's a big boss battle with the evil Lich or defending a keep from a hoard of gelatinous cubes, there are three aspects to its design you need to think about. Hitting just one of these will create an unforgettable encounter, hitting all three will change your games forever.
So what are these three key design points? History, Quality and Novelty. Each aspect of these points is designed to help you think about something that will stand out to your players specifically. Let’s break them down.
This is your encounter's link or importance to the player's story. Every single member of the party has their own story that is being told alongside the overarching narrative of the campaign. A great campaign has these stories intertwine and progress with the overall narrative. When you plan your encounter, think about the history behind it. This can be the recurring nemesis to the fighter, the parents of the young druid trying to stop her from leaving home or the fire giant warlord that destroyed the party's hometown. Linking weight through events and character connections takes the encounters combatants, and makes them three-dimensional.
You don’t remember that one time those bandits tried to rob you on the road to Waterdeep that was rolled as a random encounter, but you do remember when Sir Gerald’s lifelong nemesis stopped you on the long trail backed by hired thugs looking for revenge. That random hill giant that you stopped from wrecking a village was cool, but it was truly epic when you confronted Korkas the fire giant as he went to destroy Amphail, making sure he never inflicted the pain to others as he did to you.
This one is a no brainer, the better designed encounter, the more memorable it will be. But what is a well designed encounter? Obviously balance and maths come into this but that’s not the be all and end all to good design. There’s plenty of different resources out there to help you understand balance and mechanical design in D&D, hell we’ve talked it to death on the podcast. What we’re going to look at today is the lesser talked about aspect of a well designed, quality encounter; narrative.
When planning out an encounter, linking it back into your story is going to make it stand out as important, impactful and weighty. That doesn’t mean don’t roll up random encounters to chuck into your hex crawl as you play, that can be a lot of fun. What it means is think about how they fit into the tone of your story at the moment. If your players are in the dark woods, hunted by undead on a stormy night, chucking a bunch of happy singing gnome bandits is going to be very jarring when you roll it on that encounter table. Instead of chucking it out, twist it to fit your current situation. Suddenly those happy singing gnomes are chanting, psychotic cultist gnomes that prey on the foolish that wander into their woods and use the undead as back up (more on that in a second).
Equally, if you roll a mundane encounter make it a moment that stands out through your descriptions. Recently while running Tomb of Annihilation I rolled a random encounter of a harmless giant turtle. Instead of throwing it out, I described this majestic creature, foreign to my Sword Coast party that laid out in the sun. They ended up throwing it food and watching it lazily eat as they sailed by, showing them the beauty of nature in the jungles that had been so harsh and unforgiving up to this point.
Quality comes in a number of different ways, I encourage you to add some thought to the narrative design of your encounters to make them more memorable.
Doing something different or unexpected. Just like quality, this can come in many forms, and while it sounds tricky it doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Planning something just a little bit unexpected will make your encounter stand out from the norm. Let's revisit those psychotic gnomes in the undead forest. Instead of planning for the encounter to get harder over time by having the undead wander in, instead as the gnomes begin to lose the fight they blow on large horns using the sound to attract the horde that arrives in 1 round’s time.
Planning on using an iconic dragon? Instead have a village terrified of the Dragon queen Tiamat that lives in the hills. Let your party believe they are up against a god at level nine only to find it’s actually a Dracohydra, created by a mad mage. If you can inject something a little different or suppressing into your encounter, it is bound to stand out in the minds of your players.
There are endless ways you can use these three simple pillars to create memorable encounters in your adventures, and hopefully this short breakdown has already got your mind racing with possibilities. If you need a little more you can hear the full conversation, breakdown and other examples in use but listening to Episode 168 of We Speak Common. For now, roll well and think; History, Quality and Novelty.