This is the second part of my series of articles on flexible encounters. I use flexible encounters instead of random encounters in most of my D&D games. They can be used in any game that uses random encounters or something similar.
Last week I talked about the pros and cons of random encounters. Now that we’re all on the same page as far as what random encounters offer for our games, and what their shortcomings are, I can talk more about my system of flexible encounters.
Flexible encounters have similarities to random encounters—they are encounters that I can use pretty much anytime, anywhere within a particular region. They serve the same purposes as random encounters in the game—they provide encounters that don’t necessarily relate to the story or quest the PCs are pursuing (although they can). Instead, these encounters can help to establish the setting, establish danger and foreshadow future story encounters, villains and antagonists. They can also be a change of pace.
Like random encounters, flexible encounters can be used anytime you need an encounter, but don’t have a story encounter to run. Maybe you need an encounter to bring some excitement (combat) to the session. Maybe you need an encounter to fill up some game time. Like random encounters, flexible encounters can serve all these purposes and more.
The main difference between a flexible encounter and a random encounter is that flexible encounters are prepared ahead of time. Usually random encounters are generated randomly by rolling dice during a game session and run on-the-fly.
Flexible encounters have a lot of benefits compared with random encounters. Most of these benefits are due to the fact that you prepare them ahead of time. This allows you to create encounters with antagonists with more in-depth and thought-out tactics and strategies, because you had time to think about them before the game session. You can have encounters where the treasure is already prepared. This allows the antagonists in the encounter to realistically use any magic items from the treasure in the encounter. You can also consider a lot of other things ahead of time that you would have to come up with on-the-fly during play with a more traditional random encounter—things like the win conditions for the NPCs, if or when they'll surrender, what information they have that the PCs could extract from them in an interrogation, etc. You can also come up with evocative descriptions of the monsters and/or NPCs ahead of time.
Improvisation is a big part of being a GM, and no matter how much and how well you prepare, you will always have to improvise in a game session. A lot of the prep I do for a session is preparing to improvise.
I find that running a flexible encounter is much easier than running a random encounter because of the preparation I put into it. I don’t have to quickly come up with NPC tactics, strategies, names, personalities, etc. while running the encounter, because I’ve done much, if not all, of these things ahead of time. This leaves me more mental bandwidth to improvise other things in the encounter. I have more energy to devote to improvising the setting and terrain of the encounter and how that might affect the action. I have more time to improvise how the monsters react to what the PCs do, how they adapt their tactics in response to the PCs’ actions. I have more bandwidth to consider what comes next after the encounter and what any repercussions of the encounter are.
The goal with flexible encounters isn’t to remove improvisation from the game. Rather, the goal is to prepare the things we can prepare ahead of time, so we can save our improvisational strength for reacting to what the player characters do and adjusting to fluidity of an evolving encounter. This makes running the encounter easier because it's less you have to do on-the-fly. It will also make the encounter better, since you give it thought ahead of time, and you’re less likely to get into issues with plot holes or things that don’t make sense when the players start examining them.
For the most part, you can use flexible encounters anytime, anywhere. They can serve so many purposes in the game.
They can be great for pacing. Maybe you have an hour to kill at the end of a session, and you're not sure what to do. Use a flexible encounter. Or maybe things are kind of dragging, and you want a combat to shake things up and get the players into the session more. Use a flexible encounter.
They can be great to use instead of (or in addition to) random encounters on a journey through the wilderness or while exploring a dungeon. This accomplishes everything a random encounter does (establishing danger of the world and traveling through the wilderness, foreshadowing foes the PCs may later face and showing what creatures are in the area, giving the PCs a chance to learn needed information, giving the players a chance to blow off steam, feel powerful, etc.), but with a better-thought-out encounter.
Maybe you want an encounter that isn’t a story encounter just to remind the players that not everything revolves around their characters, to remind them that sometimes things just happen for no apparent reason. Also, if every encounter ties into your main story or plot somehow, it can feel very contrived to the players. In real life, not everything is relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish at the moment, so having some non-relevant encounters can really add a sense of realism to your game and world. Use a flexible encounter.
They can be a great way to use monsters you want to use that don't fit in the main storyline. As long as those monsters are in the area, or there's a reason they could be, you're good to go. There are often times you may use an NPC or monster in a flexible encounter, and then later you find a way to tie it into the main plot or a subplot of your game. This can often be done retroactively. This is awesome-sauce.
If you don’t end up using a flexible encounter, you can always use it later, sometimes even much later, although you may need to add more monsters or enhance it in some other way for PCs higher level than you designed it for. If you finish the campaign and never use a given flexible encounter, you can always use it in the next adventure or campaign you run.
In short, flexible encounters overcome many, if not all, of the shortcomings of random encounters, while still serving all the functions random encounters serve in the game. Now that I’ve hopefully illustrated the benefits of random encounters, let’s get into how to create and use them.
One of my favorite tools I use as a GM is a pack of index cards. I find an index card is the perfect size to hold the relevant details of an encounter. (I use 3x5 inch cards, but you can use 4x6 inch if you need more room.) The index card also limits me, so I don't put too much information in. Index cards also make it easy to use the encounters in multiple campaigns, if I’m running more than one campaign at the same time.
Pro-tip: I also put monsters and NPCs on an index card whenever I have the time. For example, if I'm going to use a ghoul, I'll print out the ghoul's stat block from the Monster Manual, and then glue that to an index card. Now, anytime I use a ghoul, I have that monster card ready. This is especially helpful when you're using multiple monsters in a single encounter. Instead of having to constantly flip around pages in your monster manual (or worse, flip between multiple books), you can have all the monsters laid out before you.
I create a flexible encounter in much the same way I’d create any encounter. The key difference with a flexible encounter is that it isn’t tied to a specific time or place. In contrast, a story encounter is tied to a specific time and/or place. So a certain story encounter might happen when the PCs enter a certain building in the city, or a story encounter might happen when the PCs track down a certain NPC. A flexible encounter, like a random encounter, is an encounter I can just slot in anytime.
As an example, let’s consider a group of PCs who are travelling through a forest. As part of the preparation for this adventure, instead of coming up with random encounters and a random encounter table, I’ll come up with some flexible encounters. This follows much the same process as designing a random encounter table would. I’ll think about what kinds of monsters and NPCs could be encountered in that area. I’ll brainstorm as many ideas as I can of encounters that could happen in the region, and then I will select my favorites to develop into flexible encounters.
So maybe our forest has goblinoids in it, so one encounter could be with a group of goblin hunters riding wolves. Perhaps another encounter could be with some bugbears. Maybe there is a sizable fey presence in this forest, so I add an encounter with sprites and another one with a mischievous fairy dragon.
If I’m just worried about the coming session, which is usually the case, then I try to come up with a few more encounters than I think I’ll need. So, for the next session, maybe I think I’ll be able to run three flexible encounters, so I’ll come up with at least five. This way, during the session, I have some choice as to which encounter to use at a given time, and I always have more than I need. So, if we end up needing four encounters instead of three, I’m still prepared. Keep in mind that any encounter I don’t use in this session can always be used in future sessions.
Once I have my list of flexible encounters for the session, I flesh each encounter out on an index card. I’m not going to include things from the stat block of the monster here, I have my monster card for that (see the pro-tip above). Instead, I put any other information I may need about the encounter on the card. I’ll put on what kind of monsters there are and how many. The number of monsters can either be a set number, or it could be range represented by a dice roll, e.g. 2d6 goblins riding wolves.
I’ll usually add a description to the card, or at least a few key words I want to use in the description. I’ll write down any tactics the monsters may use, and any other information I think I’ll need for the encounter, like whether or not they’ll surrender, any useful information they might have, etc. I also write down any treasure they are carrying.
Sometimes I will have encounters for in camp and others for while traveling. Other times, I will have one encounter, but have some notes on the card on how to run it if the PCs are in camp versus while travelling. I might also include notes on how to run the encounter at night versus in the day.
I create a card like this for each flexible encounter. The idea with the encounter card is to have only the information I need. I express this in as few words as possible (difficult for me). I want there to be all the information I need on the card, but I want to keep it very concise so I can scan it very quickly at the table.
Once I’ve made a card for each flexible encounter, I effectively have a "deck" of encounter cards. As I need an encounter during play, I can flip through the deck and find an encounter that fits the current location and situation well, and is what I'm looking for at that moment. I can literally have this deck in my back pocket for whenever I need it. As I plan for future sessions, I can add new encounters to the deck. After I use an encounter, I can remove it from the deck, or I can keep it in if I want to use it again. However, if I did use an encounter again, I would change something about it so it's not the same exact encounter (number of enemies, treasure/magic items/equipment they have, tactics, etc.).
If you look at most random encounter tables, they have a lot more options on them than you’ll ever use in a session, and often they have more than you’ll use in the whole adventure or campaign. So, really, all that stuff you don’t use is wasted effort. So, instead of having a bunch of not-at-all-fleshed-out encounters, I have a few encounters (just a couple more than I think I will need for the next session) that are fairly-well-fleshed-out. However, just like random encounters, these flexible encounters can be used at any point during the session that I want to run an encounter. So, our band of goblins riding wolves can be encountered anywhere in the forest, at any time. In contrast to a story encounter, where this group would be encountered in a certain place, or at a certain time, this group can be encountered anywhere, anytime I want to use the encounter.
Finally, because I’m choosing an encounter from the ones I’ve developed, I’m picking an encounter that fits and is what I need in the moment. So, if the PCs are in camp, and it’s the middle of the night, I pick an encounter that fits that well. If the PCs have been having an easy time of it for a while, and I want to give them a challenge, I can pick a harder encounter. This is all preferable to rolling the dice and using a random encounter that doesn’t fit so well for whatever reason.
Next week I’ll give you some more tips about using flexible encounters. I’ll also discuss ways that you can reuse your flexible encounters in future sessions.
If you have any questions or comments, please comment below.
This series is continued in Part 3.