This is the third part of a series of articles on flexible encounters—my alternative to random encounters.
Part 1 explained the advantages and disadvantages of random encounters and offered flexible encounters as an alternative with all the advantages but none of the disadvantages of random encounters.
Part 2 explained how I build flexible encounters and how I use them in play.
Today I’ll give you some tips and tricks to use with flexible encounters, and I’ll also give some ideas of how you can reuse your flexible encounters later in the campaign or in future campaigns.
Adding Variety to Your Encounters
One thing to keep in mind anytime you’re designing a number of encounters at once is that you want to avoid the encounters all seeming the same. When you’re designing flexible encounters for your campaign, try to come up with a variety of encounters. There are a number of ways to do this.
Come up with encounters that span a variety of difficulties—easy, medium, hard etc.
Design encounters with a variety of adversaries. Instead of having all your encounters involve evil monsters, have some encounters with neutral or good monsters as well. Keep in mind that an opponent doesn’t need to be evil to be an adversary to the PCs—they just need to have goals that go against the PCs’ goals. Encounters with non-evil monsters are often far more compelling because they’re not black and white. There also may be more opportunity to non-violent solutions to the problem.
You can also design some encounters that involve a group of weaker monsters and other encounters with a single powerful monster.
Find a variety of different monster abilities and mechanics to use in your encounters, like flying monsters, monsters with poison, monsters who grapple and/or paralyze, monsters with spells, etc.
When it comes to using your flexible encounters during play, think about pacing when you choose which encounter to use. How much time do you have left in the session? Are you and the players in the mood for a quick scuffle or a drawn-out fight? Keep in mind that encounters with multiple monsters usually take longer than ones with a single monster. As a general rule, the more participants in an encounter, the longer it will take. I used the word participants because the time an encounter takes also depends on the number of players at your table, as well as the number of friendly NPCs in the party.
Also keep in mind that not all flexible encounters have to be fights. PCs can encounter friendly or indifferent NPCs who just happen to be in the same area as the PCs. They can also encounter monsters who can be bribed, manipulated or reasoned with. Just as it’s a good idea to include some non-combat encounters in a random encounter table, we should do the same thing when we’re building our deck of flexible encounters.
Sometimes the environment itself can present an encounter. A sudden storm, flash flood, mudslide or avalanche are all examples of natural events that can be encounters in their own right. Other environmental encounters can be things like quicksand, traps and snares. For even more excitement and uniqueness, combine one of these natural events with a combat encounter.
The environment can also make an encounter more difficult or easier. Wind and rain can hamper the PCs’ senses, making it easier for them to be surprised. Treacherous terrain can make movement during an encounter more difficult and dangerous.
Reusing Flexible Encounters
One thing I especially like about flexible encounters is that they are much easier to reuse than story encounters. By design, flexible encounters are meant to be used in a variety of situations and places, so it’s extremely to reuse one.
Maybe you design a flexible encounter that you just never get around to using. You can just keep that encounter in your deck of flexible encounters (see Part 2 for more information) for as long as it makes sense to do so. If you never get around to using the encounter, you can always save it for future adventures and campaigns you run.
You can also reuse a flexible encounter that you’ve already used and that you and the players really enjoyed. If you’re going to reuse an encounter in this way, I recommend that you change it up in some way so it’s not just the exact same thing again. This will make it more interesting, and it will be less obvious to the players that this is the same encounter recycled.
There are a number of ways you can change an encounter up when you want to reuse it.
You can change the number and/or types of creatures in the encounter.
You can change the equipment, magic items and treasure that the creatures have with them.
You can change the creatures’ tactics. You can change whether or not they will surrender and what it will take to make them surrender.
You can also change the information the creatures have if the PCs question them.
You can change the way you describe the creatures. Perhaps you make these the same types of creature that were encountered before, they just look different. Or you could reskin the creatures as something else. This is where you use the stat-block of one creature, but describe it as a different creature. This is really easy to do.
You can change the environment that the encounter happens in. You can change the time of day (day or night) or the context in which the encounter happens (while traveling or while in camp).
Using Flexible Encounters & Story Encounters Together
In my games I usually think of two types of encounters—story encounters and flexible encounters. Story encounters tie into the plot or story of the game; they’re involved with a quest the PCs are pursuing. Story encounters may also be tied to a location, like in a dungeon adventure. Story encounters are the encounters you can plan for—you usually know when or where they’re going to happen, if not both. Flexible encounters, then, are sprinkled in among the story encounters. They can serve a number of purposes, which I discussed in Part 1.
The real key is to use story encounters and flexible encounters in a given session to make the game flow. There may be sessions where you don’t use any flexible encounters, and there may be sessions where you use nothing but flexible encounters. Of course, there can also be sessions where there are no encounters at all.
Pacing is very important in an RPG game. One of the many things that separates an excellent GM from a mediocre one is mastery of pacing. We want to keep the game going, so the players stay interested and engaged. Downtime should usually be avoided at all costs, unless you’re taking a break, and breaks should be taken at appropriate times with a consideration toward pacing. Downtime can come in many forms—looking up or discussing rules, bathroom breaks, setting up miniatures, rolling initiative, etc. (For a way to minimize the impact initiative has on the pacing of your game, check out this article.)
This is where flexible encounters shine, because they can be used to dial in the pacing of a given session. If you have a good variety of flexible encounters prepared, as we discussed above, then you likely have a good array of tools to use to manage the pacing in your game. You have some encounters that will be fairly quick and straightforward to run, like an encounter with a single adversary or an encounter with a small group of weak adversaries. You’ll also have encounters that will take longer to run, like an encounter with a powerful and complex monster or an encounter with a larger group of opponents.
You may not have as much flexibility with the story encounters you run in the session. Maybe you’re running a dungeon crawl, and the story encounters encountered depend completely on where the players decide to go, and are completely out of your hand. Or perhaps you’re running a more event-based adventure, and the story encounters are determined by the passage of time, and again are something you don’t have a lot of control over. But you do have control over whether or not to use flexible encounters, and if so, which encounters to use. So, maybe you have a couple long-drag-out fight story encounters that the PCs will encounter in succession. You could break these up with shorter flexible encounter in-between. Or maybe the PCs are encountering a bunch of simple and easy combat encounters in the dungeon, so you can spring a flexible encounter that is more complex and will take more time.
The best part is you can make these adjustments on-the-fly during play, depending on what is needed for the pacing of the game, how much time you have left on the clock, what the players seem to be in the mood for, etc. Maybe the players are dealing with a series of high-stakes roleplaying encounters, and you feel the game’s getting a little bogged down. A quick, exciting, flexible combat encounter could be the perfect thing in this situation.
In the end, I think the limits of flexible encounters and their usefulness in our games are really just the limits of our own imaginations as GMs. Remember when I said that when I’m preparing a game, I’m preparing to improvise? Flexible encounters help me to do just that. I have a deck of encounters ready to go. These encounters have been fleshed out enough that I have quite a bit to work with, and I can launch right into one. But they’re open enough that I can use them in a variety of situations and for a variety of purposes. It’s this flexibility that makes flexible encounters such a useful tool.
I hope you give them a try, and if you do, please let me know how they work out for you in your game.