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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Alternate Views » Encounter Design

Encounter Design

I”ve started working on my two Savage Worlds games for Orccon 2012. Since one of the games is going to be in a fantasy setting (the game’s called “The Hall of the Munchkin King”), I’ve been thumbing through the Fantasy companion for ideas and inspiration.

While flipping through the monsters in the back of the book, there was a little paragraph about encounter design, balance, etc. I can’t remember it exactly, but the gist was “forget balance. Make the encounter that makes sense for the story. If it’s too difficult, the players will have to come up with another plan.”


Let me back up a bit and talk about immersion. Immersion is the brass ring of RPGs. GMs always (or should) strive to give their players immersion into their character and the story — get them to feel (to some extent) what their characters would be feeling.

If the players KNOW that victory in an upcoming combat encounter is uncertain, rather than a carefully calculated mathematical inevitability, then maybe they’ll feel a little bit of the trepidation their PCs might be feeling.

In some games, designers take great pains to make sure their combat encounters are balanced. That is, they make sure the PCs have a certain predetermined probability of victory.  I understand why this would need to exist in organized play, but in your home game? No. Definitely not.

If a band of trolls have been terrorizing the local hamlet, then when the party finds their lair, have the whole band be there. Too tough of a combat? Too bad! Perhaps the party will have to figure out some other way to disrupt the trolls.

  • Maybe lead them a way a few at a time.
  • Perhaps they can take a “divide and conquer” tactic.
  • Maybe they can set up an ambush at the troll’s lair while they’re out marauding the village.
  • Or they can lure them into some sort of flammable structure and set fire to it.

By giving the players an overwhelming combat encounter that is consistent with the story, you’re putting them in control of coming up with their own solution. The story of their heroes is in their control.

To do this, however, will require the GM to improvise a bit. Suppose the party decides to lure the trolls into some sort of thatch hut. You, as the GM, will need to make sure they can find some suitable tinderbox.  How hard will it be for the trolls to get out? How much damage will they take bursting through a flaming thatched wall?

And keep in mind, there DOESN’T always have to be a solution to a particular encounter. Maybe that big dragon sleeping at the entrance of the ancient temple should be left alone.


Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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