Evolving Encounters



Friday night. My group confidently strides into the sizzling, green portal leading to Ozus, the third layer of the Ten Hells in my world. Awaiting them is their patron-turned-enemy, a master of ooze and warlock of Juiblex, Magus Sint. As they arrive on Ozus, the portal shuts behind them, and they’re able to view the immense landscape around them: Sint’s fortress is built onto the side of a massive emerald embedded into the ground and set beside a river of glowing ooze. The river ends in a turbulent cascade of slime that feeds the ocean of bubbling ooze below.

The party, unfortunately for them, teleported onto a bridge built on this river. The bridge leads to the reinforced gates of Sint’s stronghold. Above the entrance rests a magic mouth, in front of the door, a hulking devil with metal plates bolted directly onto its flesh and maggots crawling in the cracks between the body armor. 

Despite Sint’s threats lobbed through the magic mouth, the party engages the devil, an orthon named Legionnaire Gonarzus. Before they reach him, Gonarzus slams his lance of ever-shifting black ooze onto the bridge, and it begins to sink into the ooze, and other ‘islands’ rise above the river’s surface. The encounter evolves.

As various party members leap from platform to platform while battling the constantly teleporting Legionnaire Gonarzus, the river of ooze begins to shift the platforms downstream. They’re now heading toward the enormous falls that plummet into a bubbling ocean of emerald-green ooze below. The encounter evolves.
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Similar to all great stories, encounters in Dungeons and Dragons have a beginning, middle, and end. The battle begins or the conversation coalesces, but what happens after that? You might say it’s obvious: They continue. The party succeeds or their enemies overcome them. The conversation goes awry or both sides gain something valuable. The rogue discovers the lever’s location, or the door stays shut.

Yes, that’s what happens. But most encounters encompass a mini-journey. They have beginnings, middles, and ends that should be fleshed out.

Perhaps your group is facing off against a nalfeshnee, the pig-faced demon antagonist of the campaign: You need that encounter to amp up the drama, difficulty, and potential for disaster constantly! Or maybe your group is parlaying with a potential ally that can turn the tide of the campaign in their favor. You need everyone to understand what's going on and what the stakes are!



In both of those situations, you need to give your group great encounters that change dramatically but organically as they progress.

You need encounters that evolve. And for that, you’ll need to know how to build and run evolving encounters.

Last week, we discussed how to build better battles. This week, we’re talking about how to build and run encounters that evolve over time.

Specifically, we’ll be discussing HOW to run encounters, as I believe that’s one of the most powerful weapons in a dungeon master’s arsenal. First, though, let’s discuss encounters in D&D.

Dynamic, Not Static

You might necessarily realize this, but every single D&D encounter evolves naturally. Enemies are injured in combat, PCs add new information to a conversation in social interactions, and new aspects of the environment are discovered in exploration. But the evolution doesn’t end there.

As dungeon masters, whether we know it or not, we strive to add drama, tension, and excitement when designing encounters. Thus, we naturally build encounters to evolve!

In combat encounters, we add new elements to the battle, seek to challenge the PCs, and set them in fantastical locations. In social interactions, we react to the PCs words and actions as dynamic NPCs, add in juicy bits of valuable information, and mold flamboyant personalities to portray. In exploration locales, we purposely put interesting locations and objects to discover into the area and litter the region with monsters or NPCs.

Whether we know it or not, we are always creating evolving encounters in D&D! Therefore, since we already build encounters that evolve, all we need to know is how to run them correctly.

Of course, that’s the difficult part.

Running Encounters

Encounters aren’t static. They’re dynamic situations that can completely change on a whim. Most people have a grasp on this. However, to run them well, understanding a few more concepts is key.

Three fundamental tips I’ve learned over the years are pacing, foreshadowing, and recapping. They’re not discussed as much as other encounter tips such as balancing and strategizing in the many circles of D&D, but they’re just as important when running encounters.

Let’s begin.

1. Pace encounters according to your group's interest.

Encounters can turn into a slog if they’re too slow or too fast. You must run them at a pace your players enjoy. 

Do they love interacting with an NPC for a few minutes, or a few seconds? If the former, disperse important information throughout the conversation. If the latter, frontload the key points and allow them to continue the conversation if they’d like. These two conversations will evolve at completely different rates and are completely different encounters. 

Learning how to pace your encounters will immediately improve the table’s enjoyment of them, and has the plus of letting you know how you should prepare specific encounters.

2: Foreshadow upcoming twists.

Giving hints to what’s coming is a fantastic way to build tension and give your players something to think about when they’re not acting. It also makes players feel great when they see a twist coming.

For example, in the first round of combat encounter with the orthon, Legionnaire Gonzarzus, I described the maggots crawling all over his body as follows: “The fidgeting maggots stick to the hulking devil like they’re one with the creature as if they were extensions of his being.” Some of the players thought nothing of it, but one of them latched onto that, believing the maggots were connected somehow to the encounter, that they could be interacted with as a bonus option. Sadly, the party didn’t agree and the maggots were mostly ignored until Gonarzus was finally hit and the maggots rapidly crawled to the wound. I never directly said they healed it, I simply described the insects immediately moving to the wound, and then the table turned to the player who called this surprise and apologized.

As an aside, foreshadowing doesn’t have to occur during the encounter. Set up twists and turns in an upcoming combat, social interaction, or delve hours or sessions in advance! Hint at the powers of the while the group speaks with them, or show the party an NPCs social characteristics and ideals during a combat encounter. 

You’ll be surprised how quickly they start speculating and latching onto different bits and pieces of your foreshadowing once you start doing it. The whole act is highly entertaining, and can even give you original and exotic ideas you’d never think of.

3: Briefly recap what’s happened.

While an encounters ongoing, try to concisely state what’s happened in the past few moments every so often. Usually, I have a set time to do this depending on the type of encounter.
  1. Combat: At the beginning of every round.
  2. Conversation: At the end of the conversation. Usually, I have the other players give recaps if necessary, and only interject if they get something majorly messed up (and I think it’s my fault).
  3. Exploration: Every 2-3 minutes of exploration.
This is easily demonstrated using a direct example. Using the Legionnaire Gonarzus encounter, I’d recap the opening round as follows:

Finished with your insolence, the orthon slammed his lance onto the bridge, causing it to sink and other platforms to rise above the slime. As you all maneuvered to solid ground and launched a barrage of missiles at Gonarzus, he teleported directly on top of Aku! Aku, what do you do?
Then the next round begins.

This is a surprisingly simple yet effective tactic to ensure everyone at the table understands what’s going on. Try using brief recaps, and I think you’ll find everyone at the table has a much better grasp of the situation.

In Summary

As you’ve probably realized, encounters in Dungeons and Dragons are almost always evolving. The dynamic nature of the game, the limitless options the PCs have at their disposal, and the creativity of the DM is the reason for this. And it’s why D&D is the best game in the world.

Running encounters is a fine art, and arguably the most valuable skill you can have as a DM. To do this, remember:
  1. All encounters evolve! They’re dynamic, not static, and can be influenced by everyone at the table.
  2. Pacing encounters can drastically raise the overall enjoyment of everyone at the table.
  3. Foreshadowing surprises before and during an encounter give players both a sense of satisfaction when they see the twist coming, and something to think about when they’re not acting during an encounter.
  4. Brief but frequent recaps can help everyone cement the encounter’s image in their minds, as well as reinforce the fundamentals of the encounter. Remember, though, that when to recap depends on the type of encounter.
Let me see your comments and critiques, dungeoneers and masters of the dungeon. I’ve had absolutely wonderful discussions with the folks of https://www.reddit.com/r/dndnext/ and the D&D 5E Facebook group the past few weeks. Let’s keep the momentum going.

I’ve truly enjoyed writing these articles/blogs/musings for the past few months, and I have no intention of stopping. When I started, I didn’t believe I’d get many readers, but I’ve already had 30,000 unique page views from yall! It may not be much for some, but it’s a tarrasque for me.

Remember to bookmark this website, subscribe to the blog, or just check back every Monday for a new article. If you’d like to see my musings more regularly, follow me on Twitter @richardjcompton.As a little aside: In addition to the long form content I’m creating here, you may see some short form creations on another popular website...and it may involve videos. More on that when it’s ready and I’m confident in the project.

Until next time, farewell, my friends.

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