In my article about how to be a confident game master, I mentioned I have encounter seeds ready during games that I categorise as break down the door. Campaign Mastery reader Will asked to see what these were, so here they are. Thanks for the request, Will!
If gameplay slows, or if I get stuck for an idea when the NPCs do something, I draw from my encounter seeds list. These are proto-encounters not yet fleshed out, waiting for circumstances to crystallise before they can be brought into play. A subcategory in my list of seeds is break down the door. These are pure action scenes that will inject energy and excitement into the game through some good old-fashioned combat.
Break Down The Door #1: Gather Information
The PCs have many smart enemies who will not sacrifice important minions without knowing more about the characters’ abilities. So, foes throw a group of flunkies against the PCs and observe. Then they return to their evil lairs and plot more potent challenges.
A player of mine said his GM in another campaign ran monsters like they all had Bluetooth headsets on. Monsters have perfect coordination, exact countermeasures in place tuned to the PCs’ abilities, and the perfect tactics in place against the party. He says it stretches his belief that his foes are always so well-informed, organised and intelligent.
Foes in my campaigns start with knowing nothing about the PCs. If the characters become a thorn in their sides, then they will start with a gather information campaign. Their minions will go out and make Gather Info checks. But this only tells them so much. Eventually they need to tackle the PCs head-on to learn what they are made of.
Here are a few things foes look for when observing these battles:
- Character classes. It pays to know who the spellcasters are, if any, who the tough guys are and who the sneaky guys are, in the party. From this information can be deduced possible special abilities to defend against, weaknesses to exploit, and tactics to strategize around.
- Best spell. You also want to know what each spellcaster’s power level, typical spell selections and best spells are.
- Key buffs. What kind of defences does the party put in place? Any offensive buffs?
- Special abilities and feats. You do not want be caught off guard when your foe throws a special, twisty punch at you.
- Monster types. Some foes employ minions of a certain type, such as undead, outsiders, aquatic and so on. Before pitching the minions they have invested the most in against the PCs, you want to first learn how they handle creatures of a similar nature.
- Magic items. This is the most interesting category. Villains want to know what magic items the characters have, what those items’ properties are, plus any command words or activation rituals. Magic items might also become treasure, so it pays to know everything you can from the people who know how to use them.
A Gather Information type encounter needs flunkies, which I just pick out of the Beastiary on-the-fly according to what the villain has at his disposal from the ranks of his minions, prisoners, slaves or mercenaries.
The encounter also needs at least one observer. Perceptive enemies tend to get spotted, so some redundancy is ideal. The observer should be a minion intelligent enough to understand and assess the characters.
Break Down The Door #2: False Alarm
The PCs are attacked out of the blue for the wrong reason. This lets me attack them with anything, at anytime, anywhere. I will sort out the details between sessions as to who ordered the attack and why.
A potential twist involves the attack actually being targeted correctly. The attackers are tricked into attacking the PCs, but cannot divulge any important details if defeated, captured or parleyed with. Alternatively, the PCs are purposefully misinformed or setup so as to trigger the attack.
For example, Klash is a gang leader who curries favour with the neighbourhood villain, but the PCs have made him lose face recently and have also identified themselves as a potential threat to his plans. It is simple enough for Klash to find someone in the neighbourhood, or even outside the neighbourhood, to trick into attacking the PCs. A jilted lover gets told the party’s paladin was the other man. Somebody just robbed receives information that the PCs did it. A rival gang learns the PCs are apparently trash-talking them.
Break Down The Door #3: Is That A Banjo I Hear?
One of the themes in my campaign involves storms and nature gone awry. There is a backstory to this, and it is one of the central conflicts of the campaign. If the PCs get involved, then they will learn a group of mighty villains fight against each other in the ways they best know how to gain an epic prize. If the characters ignore the ongoing hooks, then a series of background events are scheduled to occur to make their lives, and the lives of everyone in Riddleport, interesting.
One the events is something called Blood Rain. Actual blood falls from the sky. When enough has fallen and gathered into pools, blood elementals coalesce and attack anything nearby.
There are different sub-types of blood elementals, giving me the option of kicking down the door at different challenge levels depending on what I need at the time.
The aberrations are mindless, twisted and warped beings. They have no treasure or clues to help the PCs. However, ongoing news and rumours about these creatures appearing and attacking during various occurrences of blood rain give me dramatic options and serve as an ongoing hook into my storm plot, should the characters ever get curious about why this dangerous rain is occurring and how.
Break Down The Door #4: Send A Message
If certain villains could talk to the PCs they would have a lot to say. The thing is, some bad guys in my campaign are not too articulate. So instead of parley, they send minions to whack the characters to send a message of a different type: beware, quit interfering, I am too dangerous to mess with.
Cunning villains will add additional messages and pitfalls their unwitting minions can deliver, such as:
- Booby-trapped items (scroll cases, small boxes and even clothing work well)
- Notes that mislead and misinform (physical notes, tattoos or even verbal messages the minions have to memorise and deliver on their initiative)
- Cursed items
- False maps (that lead the PCs to a false home base with enough traps and defences and tricks to kill 100 characters)
- Ransom note (true or a setup)
For these encounters, I send foes that would realistically be minions of the villains, or hirable mercenaries. I can’t just open the Beastiary and randomly launch a critter. The encounter needs to involve foes that not only fit the parameters of the Riddleport setting, but could also be encountered at other times depending on the characters’ actions. A closed population loop, if you will.
Mind you, the city is a pirate port. Technically anything could be brought ashore….
Break Down The Door #5: Showing The Bling
The game setting is a small city with eyes and ears always open for the opportunity for a bit of larceny. The PCs are sometimes not careful about hiding their wealth, especially magic items. As word spreads, the group will attract treasure hunters looking to whack characters and take their stuff.
Divide and conquer works best, if foes are cunning. The group splits up often to take care of errands or avoid attracting attention. The PCs have already learned walking around as a group six members strong guarantees being perceived as a gang and being attacked by others protecting their territory. So, it is often possible to attempt an ambush of one or two PCs at a time.
Stupid foes will attack the group at the PCs’ home base or during the few times the party walks around as a group.
This gives me the option to engage the whole group or just certain PCs, depending on who I want to keep busy at the game table. For example, while the wizard is at his guild doing various transactions, and the priest is at his church gathering intel, four players are left spinning dice on their character sheets to see who has can spin the longest. Great, I got the message, roll initiative.
Each of these encounter seeds leave many detail decisions for game time. This minimises my planning and gives me maximum flexibility for how and when I want to trigger the encounters. I do have factions, villains and minions fleshed out to a certain degree already. So I am drawing on more details available to me than just at the encounter level.
Whenever possible I try to link encounters to my plots or current character threads. Too many open loops and loose ends gets me confused and dilutes the campaign. Even though the characters are making most of the calls in this campaign, I want to make encounters circle back to something meaningful that moves the plot forward.