Encounter Construction Component Design

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When we look at designing dungeons, there are many tips people will come up with to build them. One of the big ones is to make sure that your dungeon has a story as to why it is in the world. Was it a wizard’s tower or a natural cave that monsters moved into? Those things help you build up the narrative about how the dungeons was used and thus give you some ideas about the sort of challenges that might be encountered inside. After all, a cave taken over by goblins likely wouldn’t have a lot of magical traps in it because it just do
es not fit what we know of goblins.

Sometimer dungeons will throw things out of whack for what the players may be used to, such as Tucker’s Kobolds which is basically kobolds who were known as trap designers using their skills to run a guerrilla style tactical combat on the PCs, since they know the terrain and can set up chokepoints and deathtraps. This shows a great example of design, but the question is how to build such synergy. Extra Credits Design Club on Durlag’s Tower is my first experience with the CNPR style of encounter development, focusing on four points in each room of a dungeon but it could be put into anything you choose to classify as an encounter. The four elements are Combat, Narrative, Puzzle, Reward.

If a room has all four of these elements, the player will love the room and always remember it. Three elements, and the players loved the room. Two and they liked it, one and the room sucked, add something else. You can populate most of the Dungeon with “two element” rooms, and vary the elements for pacing. (Like, if one room had combat and a reward, the next room can have lore and a puzzle. Make sure you mix and match, though, so it doesn’t get repetitive!)  Source: Reddit Dungeon Design Tips

I do not know if I fully agree with the comment from above, but it does have some merit. You want to make things interesting for the players, which is why you usually want to fill at least two of the categories.

Going out of order, the Narrative component should be able to be filled in every section to some degree. The area something happens in is relevant, as the environment has characteristics to set it apart from other places the player will see. How this room fits into the story you are telling should be evident, but you can also use other elements of narrative in the choice of what sort of monster, puzzle or loot you have for the players, such as in Durlag’s Tower where you encounter undead monsters upon entering. That should raise some concern in players about some larger evil that went on here to cause the dead to rise as that simple act is unnatural. Any puzzles you have in the room (including traps) should be justified by the person(s) who set them there, such as the guerilla warfare traps from Tucker’s Kobolds or a locked door which usually is meant to keep something secure (one possible twist being it wasn’t keeping the players out but something else in).

The Combat component is something that you probably want to think about in detail when making your choices. First, you want something that is reasonable for the party to encounter given the Narrative of the area, such as various undead in a graveyard compared to humanoid creatures in a tavern brawl. Secondly, you want the combat to challenge the players, so something reasonable for their level unless the dungeon was meant to be encountered at a higher level, which is a problem with open world games. Third, you will want to find ways to make the combat choices synergize with everything else, such as the example in the 2nd Durlag’s Tower video where as soon as you enter the zone you trigger some ghasts and may end up setting off a Stinking Cloud trap so that the trap poisons and knocks out your party while the ghasts are immune to the effects and can also paralyze a character.

Before I get into the next component, I want to take some time talking about the idea of synergy as we see shown above. Creature’s abilities can work in harmony with other things, sometimes to uncanny degrees. A dryad in Fifth Edition D&D has the ability to jump from one nearby tree to another up to 60 feet away as part of its movement. Given that the dryad can also charm people to see them as a trusted friend to be heeded and protected, this would make for great hit and run tactics as it moves outside the range of most PCs movement and could choose a tree side that protects from most Line of Sight options.

Beyond monster powers and resistances, the 2nd Durlag’s Tower video brings up the point of bottlenecks in the terrain which shows how tactical layout can be great factors in making combat varied. You can have creatures use cover instead of standing in the open, you can trap characters where they cannot maneuver easily, perhaps have some part of your encounter delayed such as a trap that goes off a round or two after stepped on or monsters who were waiting for the characters to get into a position and then attack.

Let’s look at the dryad in the forest example again, this time factoring in the terrain into the combat encounter beyond the simple Line of Sight. One element we could associate with the forest is the idea of elevation. The PCs could have to climb vines or the trees themselves to get to something high up in the trees, whether it be a macguffin like the sword Excalibur (like in Quest for Camelot animated movie, and just look at this song from the movie for some interesting forest encounters) or a suspended village out of a Robin Hood movie.  This puts the characters in a precarious position if getting attacked while climbing, and to aid with that we could also give the dryad some flying friends. A couple decent power birds that could possibly knock the PCs from their climb is now an added combat element built by the Narrative element of the room, and perhaps could be classified as a puzzle element too as one considers the question of getting up to the height they need as a challenge.

So now we move onto Puzzle components. First and foremost, we have the traps, but I believe a lot of that would be factored into your design considerations as you look at combat playing the tactical advantage. So, after those, we have the puzzles involving how to get to what the player wants. It is like giving the player a treasure map in a game like Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption and then having them find the location to get their treasure, you are making them earn their reward by solving a puzzle and it feels better than something they just find. You will see this with Lever/Button/Pressure Plate type puzzles that open doors. While they have been around for as long as dungeon crawl games have been made, they are a simple example of delayed reward. Also, depending on how you make your layout, you can showcase puzzles before your player gets to them physically. We have our party climbing trees in a thick forest encounter and as they climb up one tree, they can see a treasure chest in the distance or a large building on the horizon, this is a little more of that delayed reward, tempting the player with something before they can get there to enjoy it. This will build anticipation in your players as they wait for the moment they can get to that thing, keeping them on edge until the secret has been revealed.

Beyond pathing puzzles like locked doors and finding routes to items, we have other physical puzzles like the Hall of Thor’s Might from Stargate SG-1  where the team had two physical puzzles to interact with in a way to test the courage and technical knowledge of the citizens. Other forms of test are riddles and lore and the like, such as this example of decoding glyph pieces from Broken Sword 5. Video games and movies are great sources for puzzle ideas. However, puzzle design can still be hit or miss depending on the group. To help combat this, I will be coming up with an article soon focusing on key elements of good puzzle design.

Reward component usually should be pretty straight forward. Durlag’s Tower does give the good mention about supplying your characters with the equipment they will need to keep going in the tower without having to run back and resupply, so things like arrows and the occasional potion would not be turned down by most players. However, after any major encounter, such as a boss or mini-boss fight, you’ll want to give them some significant rewards. Sometimes that will be new weapons and armor, sometimes it will be some resource tool that they can use like a Legend of Zelda hookshot or boomerang, or maybe it will be some loot that fills in gaps in the lore of the world, but it will be something that will allow them to make significant progress, either in the dungeon or in the game in general.

Some Gamemasters worry about parties becoming more powerful than they should be. If you’re not careful in how and when you reward, this is a possibility, but then what you do is just upgrade the challenges to be tougher for the players. It might be adding more hit points, changing a resistance from 5 to 15, increasing a resistance check difficulty the players make to resist something. All of this should be visible when you sit down and evaluate the CNPR of the encounters, making sure that you can challenge the abilities the players have shown and keep things from becoming too monotonous. If it does get that way, however, you can always bring out “Orbital Bovine Bombardment” as seen in the end of this clip.