I came up with a method of how to construct better encounters. Consider this post inspired by this one, written by the erudite Arnold K.
I sometimes have a problem with improvising in games. I find I work best when I have a solid foundation to start building off of. I prefer to conduct the creative process within a pre-existing system, one that permits freedom but has certain limits already set up. As such, if I don't have at least some pre-planning, I often feel like my performance suffers. So I decided to create a system that would enable me to pre-plan my encounters a bit more.
Combine this with the feeling that sometimes combat encounters run too long and start to get stale, I decided to come up with this system. It's totally untested and highly dangerous, but maybe you'll find some use for it. I call it the DAME Method.
To illustrate this method, I've also taken the liberty of including some examples. These are lifted below: two encounters, one easy and one difficult.
First, a troupe of bandits step out in front of the party in the woods and demand money.
Second, a Lich is confronted by the party in one of its' laboratories.
D is for Dynamism:
How dynamic is the encounter? How much do things change from round to round?
The best way to determine how Dynamic an encounter should be is right in the middle of it. If your players are getting bored or if the combat is turning into I attack, you attack, I attack that's your cue to inject a little more Dynamism into a situation. I recommend coming up with a small list of changes that could occur each round and if the players start to fall asleep mid-encounter, throw a curveball at them.
1- The Bandits have reinforcements hiding in the trees. If things are going bad, these reinforcements will rain arrows down on the party.
2- The Bandits have reinforcements up ahead. If things are going bad, the Bandits will run up the path and (hopefully) lead the party into an ambush.
3- The Bandits will throw themselves at the feet of the party and beg for mercy.
4- As per "3", but it's actually a trap, as the Bandits have reinforcements sneaking in behind the party, ready to launch a sneak attack with poisoned arrows
1- The Lich uses a magical attack that destroys part of the room the fight is currently taking place in, opening up a hole in the floor, smashing down a wall, ripping the ceiling off, etc
2- The Lich engages a magical effect that changes the nature of the battlefield. Here are a few examples. The Lich could, fill the air with fog that that induces hallucinations or makes it hard to see; it could plunge the area into magical darkness; it could activate an aura that cumulatively damages the players or inflicts some negative effect on them. You get bonus points on that last one if it is something the players could manipulate and not just one of the Lich's overpowered abilities.
3- The Lich decides to move the battle onto more favorable ground and leaves this room
4- The Lich decides that it needs more help and summons more minions: maybe its elite soldiers were down in the gatehouse, waiting for a frontal attack that never came? Anyway, they're here now.
And try not to be super dynamic the whole time. The whole point is variety- if every encounter is a rolling escapade across three continents and seven times zones, it doesn't feel as special, now does it?
A good rule to follow would be that the more important an enemy is to an adventure, arc or campaign, the more dynamic the encounter should be. You don't need to be super dynamic if the players get mugged by a band of thieves disguised as a chain gang and their overseer, but if they're fighting The Jade General, Oppressor of the Nine Realms and the main villain of the entire game, you should pull out all the stops.
A is for Aggression:
How aggressive are these enemies? How quick are they to resort to violence?
This one is simple enough. What will it take these enemies start trying to stab you?
The Bandits don't want to fight anyone, if they can avoid it. They'd prefer you just turn over your valuables. If you do, they will let you go by.
The Lich likely has some grand, master plan that is broken down into about a million different smaller plans. You are temporarily inconveniencing the Lich by slowing down the completion of one of its current plans. The Lich may kill you if it it decides that would be easier, or if you seem to pose any threat to its grand designs or to the Lich itself. But if you're too powerful to be wiped off the face of the Earth but too uninteresting to worry about, the Lich may just order you to leave. If you refuse to obey its orders, it probably won't be sure of how to proceed. Maybe it will bribe you with something shiny and dangerous, such as an prototype magical bomb; or perhaps it will simple threaten you with curses and terrible consequences until you take a hint and leave.
M is for Motivation:
What do the enemies want? What is their goal?
Again, this one is particularly self-explanatory.
The Bandits want money, warm boots, nice clothes and horses.
The Lich wants to study the Kraken and possibly attempt to breed another one, this one under the Lich's control.
Currently, it is building a submarine.
The Lich's current problem is that Gillmen keep raiding the shipyard for supplies and keep kidnapping its workers. Productivity is down an unacceptable 53%.
E is for Exit:
Do the enemies think they have a good chance of winning? If they start losing, will they retreat? Where will they go?
One thing you have to keep in mind as a Referee is that your NPCs aren't the stars of the show and often, are going to die. This goes especially for the monsters, enemies and antagonists you drop into the player's paths. However, Hostile NPCs don't know that.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a Referee was to "be the monster". Role-play as the Monster as it would behave in that situation. If the encounter is "You got between a Mama Grizzly bear and her cub" how would Mama Grizzly act in that situation? Play that Mama Grizzly bear. That's your baby that these two-legged pink burritos are threatening.
This is a piece of advice I've treasured. So let us go back to the problem of the retreat, the exit strategy. What will the Hostile NPCs do if things start going south?
This won't be an option for all creatures. Undead will generally not retreat unless ordered to, so unbound Undead will usually fight to the death. They will only flee righteous Angels or sunlight. In other cases, if a Motivation is a strong enough, it may forbid retreat as an option. Mama Grizzly bear isn't retreating if she thinks her cubs are in danger. The same goes if the enemy is trapped. In such cases, they may feel they have no other option but to engage in a last stand.
But generally, enemies will either have some idea of how they could escape, should things go wrong. Even if they don't start thinking about it until half their friends get cut down by the dude with the flaming claymore, you as the Referee should have a few ideas already.
The Bandits will scatter in different directions, running back into the woods to hide. They have a secret base camp that they will all meet up at later.
The Lich may allow itself to be killed, if that wouldn't endanger its plans. Its minions will surely have been informed of what to do should such a situation occur.
Alternatively, the Lich may summon its mount, an enormous skeletal Drake, and climb onto its back to fly off, swearing revenge on those meddling fools!
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