What’s not fun vs. What is
First, I will tell you what is not fun: repetition and no choices. Doing the same thing over and over, without any meaningful way to affect anything. This is why the card game “War” is not fun once you’re not a child anymore- you just flip cards and hope for the best – there’s no choices to make, no strategy, just luck. Long, drawn out, luck.
In your encounters, if the best option for the players is to do the same thing over and over? That’s not fun. If the monsters and encounters are always in the same kind of environment, doing the same things? That’s not fun.
Fun encounters are unique and memorable AND/OR tactically challenging with interesting choices to make.
The Tactical Dial and RPGs
Now, here’s an important thing to consider – most roleplaying games do not do high challenge tactical play very well. Consider – most games which produce a high challenge make it easy to set up and play – you can usually be up and playing a game within a few minutes, maybe 10-15 minutes for the most complicated boardgames, if you know the rules. Now consider how long it takes to make a character, in most games.
The sort of repeatable experiences that allow you to gain skills to play at high level tactics in other games, aren’t so easily put to play in RPGs. Videogame RPGs either re-spawn characters, go to previous saves, or even in the most hardcore roguelike games – start you at the beginning with barely 3-4 choices to make a new character.
So with this in mind, be aware most roleplayers, even those interested in tactical play, aren’t usually interested in extreme challenges. You often will do better with a lower challenge that has unique elements that make it seem worse than what it is. Personally, I prefer to start with an under-powered set of challenges and turn it up a bit after I know the playgroup and how well they deal with challenges, otherwise you can simply overwhelm folks and they don’t really learn anything or get much from it.
Sandbox vs. Set Piece
So remember how I posted about Threat Structure? This is an important consideration for how you design dungeons with your combats in mind.
Set Piece Encounters
If the combats are going to be isolated locations, with monsters in one area not chasing players around the whole dungeon and helping out other monsters, you can build much simpler areas and you can control the combat encounter balance much better. On the other hand, you have to come up with decent reasons why the monsters don’t chase the players if they retreat, and what happens if player characters run off the map area you prepared for a given encounter. It often feels more “videogame-y” to do encounters this way, so you should be mindful to think of rationales to cover it up a bit, if you can.
If the combats can spill out and go anywhere, then you have a much different situation. Monsters might snowball into a larger group than the party expects. Players might lure monsters into an area more favorable to killing them. Monsters might fight other monsters. Etc.
This ends up mirroring some of the issues MMORPGs have seen in the last few years where players might lead a bunch of monsters, or an uber monster into an area that you don’t expect it to go. Some of this naturally depends on running the monsters not as mindless AI bots, but even then there’s ways this can happen. It also means players might inadvertently lead monsters to areas more favorable to the monsters, as well. It’s more “realistic”, or at least, allows more options than videogames do, but it’s also more messy and you have to be willing to improvise and accept that things will be more swingy than what you’ve planned.
Monsters + Environment
So what makes a memorable encounter? Something unique that happens. Goblins are gobins. Goblins attacking you by swooping down on hang gliders is another. Goblins riding dinosaurs is yet another. Goblins jumping down from trees onto the rickety raft you’re navigating with supplies down the river is yet another situation as well. As you can see, the context makes a simple monster, into something much more interesting.
I once had a gelatinous cube chasing players in a library. It’s slow, big and stupid. Easy to outrun. Except when it started using it’s three tons of mass to knock down shelves upon shelves of books, trapping characters so it could devour them, slowly. It wasn’t like it was thinking about this – it just took a straight line path towards food…
Towards the Monsters’ Advantage
It’s easy to think of many ways in which the environment might be in the monsters’ favor – defensible positions, darkness, water for swimming creatures, etc.
For any monster that has a form of movement the player characters do not – burrowing, climbing, wall walking, swimming, hovering, teleporting, etc., there’s an environment well suited for them. Weird amorphous creatures, small swarms that can flood through tiny cracks, gaseous creatures and ethereal types are especially dangerous in this way. Also don’t forget great size or strength is it’s own form of movement advantage – a monster that can casually push down trees like brushing through grass is strong enough that many obstacles… simply aren’t obstacles to it.
Consider whether the advantage is short term (an ambush, having the high ground, etc.) that can be easily lost, or if the advantage is lasting, like a swimming creature dragging you underwater, where the advantage is likely to impact every single round of combat.
Towards the Players’ Advantage
Environment favoring the players is something you have to think about a little differently than that favoring the monsters.
First, it works best if it provides choices and things to do. Putting a monster in an area where it is inherently disadvantaged isn’t that much fun. Putting the monster in an area where the characters can do something fun like use the environment, lead it to a place where it can’t fight back as well… that’s fun. These are “Stunt Zones” – areas where stunts are likely.
But for this to work, you have to have players who are willing to think outside the box and try to do these things – some players are used to any ideas they have that aren’t listed on the character sheet being shut down, they will not try them ever. It helps with new groups or players to point out some options, usually based on what kind of character you’re dealing with. A warrior would know that luring the monster into the tunnel would prevent it from flying around and make it easier to hit. The rogue character might immediately see the cart full of salt and know it could get thrown into the creature’s eyes for a blinding effect. Etc.
Second, it makes epic battles more reasonable. You can fight a terrible monster if the situation limits it’s abilities and brings it down to a more manageable fight. This might be injuries or simply better conditions. If you fight a dragon in a (relatively small for it’s size) tunnel, it can’t fly, it can’t turn around as well, and you have a better chance to win. But you still get the excitement of fighting a dragon.
Expected vs. Foreign Environments
Fighting Ice elementals in a tundra, fighting fire elementals in a volcano… pretty classic fantasy logic, right? There’s an elemental version of most things, and they’re keyed to a particular environment. That’s easy enough to fit a monster to an environment – it’s expected.
But what happens when you’re fighting a fire elemental on a frozen lake and it’s melting the ice you need to stand on? What happens when you have a fire elemental in a library? How about an ice elemental in the middle of a monsoon? Or when your party is waist deep in water? Think of putting those monsters in foreign environments and consider the effects! You can make a lot of things a lot more memorable this way.
So remember how I suggested putting “Breakables” as a section in the notes of any dungeon room? Collateral damage is fun. Not just for the players, but also when the monsters do it, too. Did the party manage to avoid getting hit by the giant? Great. But did it take out half the support pillars to the room, starting a cave in? Uh oh.
Every time someone misses, ask yourself what got hit instead?
I don’t recommend tracking every little thing by points, as much as using common sense applied to the laws of your game world and a little forethought for your encounters. If you absolutely need to make it a mechanical thing, consider strength rolls and similar set ups.
The easiest way to spice up an encounter is to put a hazard in the area. A key point for designing good hazards is that they have to have some clear indication that they are dangerous. That is, an open pit is clearly a hazard. A rickety bridge “that looks pretty shaky and questionable” is also a hazard. A pit of spikes with a magical illusion over it that looks perfectly safe isn’t a “fair hazard” as much as a “gotcha” style trap.
A hazard doesn’t have to favor one side or the other, although it can depending on the abilities of everyone involved (a pit doesn’t really faze flying creatures, for example).
Hazards can be something that causes damage, slows or stops movement, wrecks gear and supplies, and or sets up other long term problems. An important consideration is if you foresee a hazard taking someone out of the combat – because even if it’s incapacitation, or being stuck spending the next 7 rounds trying to climb out of a hole, it’s effectively “out of the combat” just the same, and that’s a dangerous thing for your encounter planning – it can swing a combat one way or another very quickly.
Hazards should be placed either central to areas where players are likely to cross, or, at least, near things the players would likely want. If you have a hazard in the corner where no one wants to go anyway, they’ll just avoid it and it becomes set decorations in the background and not actually anything interesting.
A pit is a pit, and everyone knows not to go fall in the pit, right? But a raging bull that is randomly moving about and goring or stomping people in the middle of the battle… that’s not so easy to avoid.
Some hazards are more fun if they’re chaotic – they can move around, grow/shrink, have changing effects. That said, you have to be careful about these kinds of hazards. Because they’re randomized, they might go really bad one way or another, and favor one side or another just by luck of the draw.Chaotic Hazards can have lesser effects, their randomness usually makes them memorable. Be careful not to make them too mechanically complicated since you have to keep track of them.
Next: Flow and Encounter Area Design
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