The Lost GM Scrolls: Mike Mearls on Encounters with More at Stake
Back in the fall of 2009, Chris Dinkins and I interviewed a host of game designers and novelists who were also experienced game masters. We sent around too many questions to too many GMs and received far too much material for one article to hold. As a result, a lot of great material got scrapped. Fortunately, gaming wisdom ages well. I recently discovered a folder full of all that cut material (anecdotes, advice, and miscellany), which we will be presenting, here, in the Lost GM Scrolls. Enjoy! —JLCJ
Mike Mearls is currently a senior manager at Wizards of the Coast and is part of the team working on D&D Next. Below, Mearls responds to a question about important things for GMs to keep in mind when designing and running encounters. He emphasizes, as you’ll see, raising the stakes with story hooks.
Mike Mearls: It’s easy to think of an encounter as monsters on one side, PCs on the other, fight! I think that misses what’s really compelling about an RPG session. I like to start with justifying the encounter’s existence. It might be something simple like a fun bit of dressing, like the shaky rope bridge that threatens to send the PCs tumbling into a ravine, but the best way to make it interesting is to tie it into a larger story or narrative. The encounter should fit into everything else like a puzzle piece, tying your game together into a greater, cohesive whole.
That narrative might be something you created, the story of your campaign, but it works even better if it’s something the players really care about.
For instance, in my Greyhawk campaign, I’m using Obmi, a dwarf assassin who’s a bit famous in the setting, as a villain. The players really, really hate that guy. He betrayed them, killed an informant they needed to question, stole a powerful artifact, and danced just beyond their grasp every time they’ve run into him.
I’m 100% certain that I could take the most boring encounter possible, like five gnolls standing in a big, empty room, and make it exciting just by showing the characters that the gnolls know where Obmi is currently hiding out. Nothing has changed in terms of the game rules or stats, but now the players really, really want to clobber those gnolls.
Part of it, too, is that Obmi has never escaped via GM fiat. He tricked the PCs, outfought them, and otherwise beat them at their own game. That makes him all the more vexing as a foe. The players know that if they come up with a good idea, they can do almost anything.
In my experience, the nice thing about building those compelling story hooks into an encounter is that it breeds creative thinking by the players. If the PCs want to question the gnolls, maybe they try to bribe them, pose as servants of Iuz and trick them, or ambush one when it leaves to fetch a fresh waterskin. When encounters are just XP, the players try to think of the quickest way to plow through them. When there’s something more at stake, then players start thinking creatively.
What have you done to what might be a vanilla encounter to make it more interesting for your players? Feel free to discuss your tips and tricks below in the comments!