If You Go Down To The Woods by Jim Daly

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There are five attributes to any encounter that define it, and any one of them can be the foundation of that encounter.

In the old days of D&D, it used to be that there was relatively limited flexibility. You chose an encounter based on one of these five criteria and everything else was more-or-less dictated by that choice. This was both a blessing and a curse, because it limited the scope to which the GM could tailor has encounters to his needs, and one or more of these corners of the Pentagon usually had to be compromised – but it also meant that encounters could be created fairly quickly and easily, simply because most of the choices were dictated by the domino effect of the one primary choice.

Points-based systems such as the Hero System afford far greater flexibility because you can construct any encounter more-or-less to order. But they provide this flexibility at a cost – construction time and complexity. One of the skills any GM of such a game system must acquire is the capacity to shortcut this creation process.

About six or seven years ago, everything changed with the advent of a new technique: Reskinning. Depending on how far you went with it, suddenly the entire gamut of possibilities was open to you, quickly and relatively easily – but with freedom to choose comes the need to consider the options; no matter how efficient the reskinning process is made, it is inherently always going to be longer and more complex than simply picking a monster out of the appropriate rulebook

This article is going to attempt to simplify the process of making effective choices in such a way that it applies equally to the really-flexible systems and to the process of reskinning. If I succeed, the results should be better encounters, produced more efficiently, regardless of game system.

The Pentagon

The reason that I have high hopes – in fact, near-total confidence – in my ability to pull this off is that theoretical studies of this sort of thing have always assumed that the five variables, the points of the Pentagon, are independent of each other. It’s my belief and contention that they are actually far more closely interrelated, and that this relationship permits the construction of a logical road-map through the choices that defines the easiest path for the GM to follow.

Before we can get there, you need to understand what the five choices, or points on the Pentagon, are, and this is where a lot of past analysts have gotten themselves into a tangle, because this is a Pentagon with 9 points! This causes complications than obscure the relatively simplicity. Tell you what, let’s deal with these as we come to them.

The five points are:

  • 1. Plot
    • 1a. Purpose
  • 2. Environment
  • 3. Abilities
    • 3a. Offensive
    • 3b. Defensive
    • 3c. Other
  • 4. Character
    • 4a. Capabilities
    • 4b. History
  • 5. Challenge

I have no doubt that most readers will know what most if not all of these are, but let’s (briefly) get acquainted with each in this context”


What encounter does the story need to propel it forward? Is it someone who knows something the PCs need to know, or someone to complicate their lives, or a undead in thrall, or what?


What’s the villain’s plan, and how is the next encounter to fit into that? Is he removing potential opposition, distracting an enemy, correcting a mistake, or going about his nefarious business? This is a sub-type of Plot.


“Well, the PCs are in the elemental plane of fire, so some sort of fire-based encounter….”


‘Abilities’ refers to what the enemy in the encounter can do. You might pick a particular ability because it hasn’t been used for a while, or because you think it would be interesting, or because you have an idea for doing something interesting with it, or simply because it catches your eye. Abilities are often subdivided into three broad categories.


Offensive Abilities are those used to harm, manipulate, or impede the PCs.


Defensive Abilities are used to protect the NPC from harm, manipulation, or from being impeded.


Other can be very broad in scope, but usually comes down to information-gathering or protection from information-gathering.


Character-based encounters are those based on what one or more of the PCs can do or have done. There are two sub-varieties.


This is the “can do” part of the encounter definition.


This is the “have done” part of the encounter definition.


Finally, you might choose an opponent for the PCs based simply on the degree of challenge that you want them to pose to the PCs. The only thing wrong with that is that one or more of the other aspects of the encounter often get scant or no attention.

The process of encounter selection

The contention that I am offering up is that because of the degree of interdependence and inter-relatedness of these various aspects of an encounter, once you have selected one as being the determining factor in who or what will be encountered, there will be a logical choice for the secondary criteria to employ, and that will lead to a logical choice for the tertiary, and so on. One answer leads to the next question like dominos falling.

A key 6th criterion will be used to dictate this logic: Instigator.


Whoever causes the encounter to take place usually has a lot of control over the circumstances. If the PCs are confronting the villain in his lair, this control is shared; the villain has control over the environment, the PCs have control over the manner in which the confrontation proceeds, and the timing.

The instigator, coupled with the principle of self-interest, creates a compelling logical channel through the process of defining the encounter. No matter which starting point you choose from amongst the five, or amongst the nine if you prefer, there is a single “best path” through the minefield of all these decisions that not only simplifies the choices, but that defines the encounter in the process.

Plot-based encounters

I do a lot of these, because I’m a strongly story-focused GM. But I also leaven the mix with some random-chance encounters, simply because there is a hostile force to be encountered; some of these are based on where the plot has brought the PCs (environment-based), some on one or more abilities that I think will be fun and challenging, and so on. A lot of the focus here at Campaign Mastery is on showing how to accomplish this, for which I make no apologies; but other approaches can be equally valid.

So the plot calls for an encounter with a character of ambition A, whose plan is B, whose personality is C, whose plot function or personal story arc is D and whose stage within that personal story arc is D1 – the very beginning, from the point of view of his interaction with the PCs. I will probably have a name, though even that might be up for grabs.

Some of his abilities might be dictated by future plot function, but there is no restriction that states that he has to have those abilities already; he might acquire them in between this encounter and that future one, possibly even in response to this encounter. In fact, this encounter might have no purpose other than to introduce this character and his motivations and ambitions and to justify his acquiring that future capability. But beyond that, I have no idea of what this character can do, at least not at this point in time.

In the case of plot-based encounters, the logical path is as follows:

  1. Plot
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Challenge
  5. Abilities
  6. Character

Plot is first, because that has been selected as the foundation of the encounter.

Instigator is second, because that defines who has control over the remaining aspects of the encounter. A key decision related to Instigator is always “why is the creature instigating the encounter”?

Environment is third. If the villain is the instigator, he will choose a battleground that gives him the advantage and that is within his reach. That advantage might be in enhancing his own abilities or in handicapping the PCs. What environment that the instigator can reach is most advantageous to his achieving his goals? If the villain is not the instigator, the environment is determined by where the PCs are and what they are doing at the time of the encounter.

Challenge is fourth. Once you know the environment, and whether it helps, hinders, or is neutral to either or both parties within the encounter, you can assess the challenge required, so that is fourth. If neither side are advantaged or hindered, or if both are equally impacted, the determinant factor is how difficult you want the encounter to be; if one side is advantaged relative to the other, you may need to weaken that side relative to the challenge level you would have set were the encounter to take place on neutral ground. In D&D / Pathfinder, this is the point at which you choose the base creature that is to be reskinned or enhanced. In a points-based system, this is where you decide the basics of what the character can do, given the environment and the challenge desired.

Abilities come fifth. Once you have the base creature, the environment, and the challenge level desired, you can compare the abilities of the base creature and tweak them accordingly, either enhancing them, diminishing them, or replacing them. This is the actual process of re-skinning. In a points-based system, this is where you decide all the nuances that distinguish this character’s “fire blast” (or whatever) from that of the last character.

Finally, Character. The significance of the encounter to any character is defined by that character’s relationship to the plot arc that is producing the encounter. It has no determinant value so far as any other defining element of the encounter is concerned.

Once you know all these things, you can create the encounter itself relatively easily. What is the base personality of the being that is to be encountered? How is that going to be affected by the foundation decisions? How does this individual vary from the “base model” – how representative is he? How well does the creature know the environment? How can he best take advantage of the opportunities it offers, how can ge minimize any impairments that result, what is he doing, how are the PCs likely to react and how will the creature react? The foundation decisions and knowledge of who is instigating the encounter and why make these decisions as straightforward as they can possibly be.

Purpose-based encounters

This is a variation on the plot-based encounter in which the encounter is taking place because the creature being encountered is acting to achieve some purpose or carry out some plan. This produces some subtly but profound variations on the process, and even reverses the sequence of two of the later steps.

In the case of purpose-based encounters, the logical path is as follows:

  1. Plot (purpose)
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Abilities
  5. Challenge
  6. Character

Plot is first. You can only employ this architecture if you know what the character’s plan is, and are developing the encounter to fit that plan. This is reasoning backwards; it’s normal to have the character and to make a plan based on the character’s capabilities and objective, but this is also much harder work for the GM. It’s usually far easier to come up with a plan, and if the character doesn’t have the capabilities needed to carry that plan out, to set out to obtain them. Instant plot arc! But, more importantly, the character now has a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The plan produces the plotline.

Instigator is second. There are only two alternatives here: either the encounter is an integral part of the plan (in which case the hostile is the instigator) or PCs are to encounter and potentially disrupt the plan (in which case, they are the instigators but with limited control over the situation.

Environment is largely dictated by the plan – it is whatever environment is most conducive to the success of the plan. If the hostile is the instigator, his greater control over the encounter yields a more favorable environment: about 45% of the time, it will be beneficial to him, about 35% of the time it will be neutral, and about 20% of the time it will be to his disadvantage within the encounter. For the PCs, the division is even – one-third beneficial, 1/3 neutral, 1/3 inimical, unless their involvement is a mandated part of the plan, in which case the odds are 20%, 35%, and 45%, respectively. If the hostile is not the instigator, the differences are not so profound: for the hostile, 40, 30, 30; for the PCs, 35, 35, 30. These numbers reflect a number of considerations – the hostile has control over the plan, and environmental variables are going to be a consideration in that plan; and there is a good chance that what suits the hostile will also suit the PCs. So, if a range of environments are suitable to the plan, use these percentages, roll randomly, and decide based on the outcome – and bear in mind that any deliberate choice informs as to the personality of the chooser.

Having defined the plan and the environment, the next logical step is to answer the question, “what does the hostile need to carry out the plan, given these conditions?” This starts you down the road of determining the capabilities of the hostile, of deciding (in D&D terms) what the new skin will be before you decide what creature you are going to wrap it around.

Defining the abilities first can make the next decision, Challenge, more difficult, because you are now matching against two different criteria. First, there is the overall challenge level of the encounter, and second, there is the question of reskinned-abilities relative to the base abilities of the creature and any effect they may have on that overall challenge rating. There are two solutions to this: one quick and easy but vague and risky, and the other more difficult but more rigorous.

Difficult but rigorous: a table of challenge adjustments
There is a very rigorous system provided in the Monster’s Handbook by FFG for the D&D/Pathfinder/d20 system which can be reverse-engineered. But it seems overkill in this situation. So, instead, here are a couple of rough rules of thumb:

  • Rule-of-thumb #1: 1d6 per level, or 1/2 d6 per level with enhancement;
  • Rule-of-thumb #2: every level in advance of the base in one respect is 1/2 a dice overall.

Using these, we can construct a table as follows:

excerpt from table of challenge adjustments

An excerpt from the table. Click on the image to download the table as a PDF.

Down the left-hand column we have the actual number of Hit Dice of the encounter (or equivalent from other systems) – multiply by 20 and add 100 to get Hero System build points, for example. Across the top, we have an estimate of the effectiveness of the combined new abilities of the creature. Most importantly, in the middle, the table contents, we have a rough estimate of the effective power level, assuming that the abilities are replacing those that the creature would normally have. A “+” indicates that you can either distribute +3 in stats or add half a HD of appropriate size.

I have color coded the results – white is fine, no problem; yellow is with caution; pink means with serious care; and red means “not recommended, proceed at your own risk”. In general, yellow starts with a difference between HD and effective power level of 2, pink at a difference of 5 to the top right or 4 to the bottom left, and red at a difference of about 6 or 7 to the top right or 5 to the bottom left. These are just my opinion, and they probably understate the danger margins, if anything.

The table can be used in either of two ways: you can identify the point on each axis of a proposed reskinning job and determine the approximate effectiveness level of the combination; or you can choose the appropriate ability level, track down that column until you get to the white zone, and then move left to identify a range of appropriate HD creatures to re-skin with the new abilities.

Example 1: You want a Kobold (1 HD) who has STR of about 20 and can throw lightning bolts. STR 20 is about 10 higher than what is defined as “average” for the D&D system, so that’s roughly +5 to the level (based on Rule of Thumb #2) – so this along would be appropriate for a creature of 6HD or more. Most creatures of 6HD or more also have an ability of some sort, the Lightning Bolt is not unreasonable; According to the 1HD=1d6 principle (Rule Of Thumb #1) that says 6d6 lightning bolts. Those sound a little strong to the GM, so he drops them to 4d6, a reduction of two, which says that the “appropriate level” should drop by half that (Rule of thumb #2 again). So the combination of abilities is about right for a 5HD creature. Using Kobolds (1HD) as the base creature gives an effective level of 3, and is within the yellow zone. With only 1HD, the kobolds won’t last very long, and will pay off better in XP than their longevity indicates they should.

Example 2: So let’s pick something else, re-skin it as a Kobold, with our extra abilities. The logic that took us to Column five on the table hasn’t changed; so let’s track down that column to get an appropriate range of creatures to be reskinned as our new breed of Thunder Kobold. The first white entry is an effective level of 4, and the last one is 7, with an additional bonus “plus” to get there. Tracking left from those entries gives a HD range of three to eight. Anything in that HD range is appropriate for this reskinning; it’s just a matter of what other abilities and stats come along for the ride, how powerful the PCs are, and how hard we want to challenge them. Consulting my Pathfinder Bestiary, Appendix 9, Creatures by CR reveals Troll in the CR5 category. Perfect – replacing the Trollish regeneration with 4d6 Lightning Bolts, upping the STR slightly, and “reskinning” the result into a Kobold-like shape, and this part of the process is complete!

Finally, Character. The significance of the encounter to any character is defined by that character’s relationship to the purpose/plot that is producing the encounter. It has no determinant value so far as any other defining element of the encounter is concerned.

Once again, the encounter itself is relatively straightforward to write from this point. Any PC encountering a group of these creatures will quickly learn not to judge a book by its’ cover!

Environment-based encounters

There are times when where an encounter is to occur is the dominant consideration. That might be a desert, because the PCs happen to be in a desert, or in an elemental plane, or whatever.

The logical path to defining an environment-based encounter is:

  1. Environment
  2. Instigator
  3. Challenge
  4. Abilities
  5. Plot
  6. Character

First, the environment. Does it advantage or disadvantage the PCs? Will it advantage or disadvantage the hostile?

If the environment hinders the hostile, he is unlikely to be the instigator; he or they is more likely to represent a passive barrier that the PCs must overcome. If the environment helps the hostile, he is more likely to be secure enough to be aggressive or territorial, and therefore to instigate the encounter.

Once you know that, the logical next step is to decide how difficult a challenge this encounter is to pose, given the environmental considerations.

This decision made, it’s easy to replace or modify abilities; the key question is always, “how can the creature use the environment to its advantage, if it’s the instigator? What does it need?” Similar logic enables the creation of abilities for an encounter being built with the Hero system. Use the same principles outlined earlier for any abilities that you decide to change.

By now, the basic outline of how the encounter is going to proceed should be fairly clear; you know the creature and how it is going to fit into the environment, you know how it is going to behave and why the encounter is going to take place. The next decision is how the encounter is going to fit into the plot. If the answer is that it is superfluous to the plot, an arbitrary danger to be faced, then the “plot” question devolves into its’ sub-entity, “Purpose”. What does the creature hope to achieve by Instigating combat? That should define how the encounter will begin, and the various ways in which it could end, requiring only translation into specific outcome descriptions and guidelines. You have the beginning and possible endings of this little mini-story; the middle is up to the players to choose.

A major factor in that choice will be the character histories and attitudes. Having outlined the various outcomes, you can use past behavior and current attitudes as a guideline to the outcomes that are most likely, and lavish a little extra care and prep on them.

Once that’s finished, the encounter is ready to play; there is little or no additional work required. Okay, maybe the narrative that introduces the encounter could do with some additional polish.

Abilities-based encounters

It doesn’t especially matter what the nature of the ability is, the logical path is still the same – but that path has a slight twist to it, compared to the simpler ones that I have examined so far. The path is:

  1. Abilities
  2. Plot/Instigator?
  3. Character
  4. Instigator/Plot
  5. Environment
  6. Challenge

When the most important factor in the encounter creation process is an ability that you want the encountered creature to posses, your reasons for wanting to base an encounter around that ability are going to be metagame-based nine times out of ten. Whether it’s an idea that sounds like fun, or because legend has it that creatures with that ability can be found in this part of the game world (and you’ve decided to make it true and not a myth), or because you haven’t used the ability (or anything like it) for a while, or whatever – those are all metagame to some extent.

An ability-based encounter, by definition, has a limited plot function. If it didn’t, the plot point would be the primary factor.

The second step, after defining the abilities that the encounter is to be based on, is to determine whether or not you have enough information based on that limited plot function to determine who is going to be the instigator. Obviously, if the PCs are looking for a creature with a certain ability – and there are reasons why they may want to do so – they are the instigator, if not then the either the creature is the instigator by virtue of that limited plot function, or you can’t say yet.

If you can’t say, then you need to create a plot outline for the encounter that will determine the identity of the instigator. It’s not often that you have a genuinely blank canvas to draw on, so this is your chance to do something you normally wouldn’t, your chance to do something unusual – and unexpected. A Drow with hydrophobia who leaps into a raging river to rescue children on a raft without thinking – and then needs rescuing himself. A goblin seeking wisdom, in search of a holy man that he saw in a vision. A white dragon that just wants to be left alone to practice his ice sculpture. A bugbear poet who is seeking out those who have decimated his people in past encounters to get to know them, that he can include them in his epic Saga about the suffering of his people. These may be insane by the standards of their race, or they may reveal a little hidden corner of light within the racial makeup (one that is usually suppressed). A devil who, once every hundred years or so, needs to do someone a genuinely good deed to permit him to be fully evil the rest of the time – and who isn’t going to leave until he has done so to his satisfaction, no matter how it might inconvenience the PCs to have him hanging around. An Elf who wants to enslave the Orcs until they have repaid his society for all the damage they’ve done through the eons and who is willing to start a war to achieve it.

In all these cases, the heart of the plotline is going to be how the characters are going to react. The plot is defined as being provocative to them, to their assumptions and to their personal histories.

A race always seems more evil if they have a choice and choose to be the way they usually are. By carefully playing against the stereotype, you can actually reinforce the stereotype.

Of course, if it were just the aberrant representative, there is no real challenge for the PCs. So you need something for them to overcome, be it a natural danger (the river) or other members of the society who oppose what the aberrant representative is doing, or a fearful mob, or whatever. Perhaps, for social class reasons, they can’t stop the aberrant from doing whatever he’s doing, but they can make sure there are no witnesses afterwards… And with that, the focus shifts from the encounter being based on the aberrant creature to being about the nature of the challenge that has to be overcome.

After making your choice of plotline, based on the character interaction with that plotline, you are therefore able to return to the question that we started with – who is the instigator? You need a clear answer to this before you can proceed, because the instigator controls, at least partially, the circumstances of the encounter.

Once you have that information, you can take the plot from being broad concept to an outline of specifics.

The instigator, of course, has the choice of the environment in which the encounter takes place. I once used the “bugbear poet” idea, with him stalking/hunting the PCs for almost a week, evading any traps they set for him, until they reached a place where the environment was suitable – he wanted to be able to approach from cover, and to have lots of room to evade them if they were not receptive. The two are often mutually-exclusive.

With that done, you are able to determine the challenge to be faced, i.e. how much trouble the encounter is going to be for the PCs, at which point the fleshing out of the encounter can proceed easily.

Character Capability -based encounters

This can be one of the most complex types of encounter to craft, depending on what you want to achieve – a metagame decision. It might be that you feel it’s been a while since a PC got to parade one of his abilities, and want to craft an encounter that does so. Or it might be that you are tired of the PCs employing a particular tactic and want to shake them up a bit by denying them access to or the functionality of, a key element of that tactic.

The logical sequence is:

  1. Character – Capabilities
  2. Environment/Abilities
  3. Plot – basic
  4. Environment/Abilities Revisited
  5. Plot – specific
  6. Instigator
  7. Challenge

This is often a push-pull situation in which you not only need the encounter to have a particular (fairly obvious) vulnerability, but also need to deny the PCs any easier answers.

Part of that can sometimes be achieved through the environment in which the encounter takes place, part of it will need to be the result of the abilities that you give the creature, either defensive or offensive. A nice twist is to have the encounter not merely immune to whatever the PCs normally use, but actually empowered by it, either directly or indirectly.

However you are going to arrange to have it happen, you need to identify specifically what parameters you need for the encounter to have, and then devise a combination of environment and encounter abilities that produces that outcome.

That generally gives you the outline of the plot for the encounter. This usually reads, (1) Encounter Begins, (2) PCs use standard tactics, (3) PCs realize standard tactics won’t work, (4) PCs improvise/call upon tactics that will work, (4) Resolve encounter. In effect, this gives the enemy a free hit or two at one or more PCs while they are engaged in steps (2) and (3), so it may be necessary to weaken the encounter to take that into account, either directly (perhaps as a consequence of whatever treatment conferred the immunity/defensive ability) or indirectly (as a secondary environmental effect).

And that’s where the real complications start. With so many consequences and moving parts, it becomes easy to create the impression that the encounter has been crafted from a Chinese menu, more or less at random. The encounter can lack coherence. And achieving coherence while still ticking all those boxes is the difficult bit.

Having done so, it will often – even usually – be necessary to revise the plot in more specific fashion to achieve the broad outlines given above. How are the PCs to learn what they need to know? Or are they simply to remain ignorant until one of them realizes that the creature should have dropped by now – and hasn’t? How much damage are you willing to inflict on them in the meantime?

Once you have all of the above nailed down, the instigator of the combat will usually be obvious, and mostly irrelevant (for the first time). Of greater difficulty is determining the appropriate level of challenge, as I’ve implied above. How much an immunity or defense is worth depends on a host of factors, not least of which is how broadly it is defined.

The more specifically-targeted an immunity, the more obviously the encounter is targeted at the PCs – unless the GM is able to justify that, he can be (legitimately) accused of picking on them. This adds an additional burden on the plot – (3a) Justification – which makes these encounters more difficult to pull off, again. I would suggest that specifically-targeted immunity/defense should be worth +2 or +3 CR.

A very broad immunity is often the easiest to articulate, and even to justify at a metagame/plot level. But it makes the creature very dangerous. Such an immunity should often be defined as having a capacity limit, because that makes the encounter seem more plausible once the PCs discover the limit – but that again brings in the questions of how the PCs are to learn of this restriction, and how long it is going to take. Choice of language can often be the answer; instead of having the encounter gloat that he is immune to all physical attacks, have him sneer that the PCs are incapable of manifesting sufficient force to harm him. The key difference is between “all” and “sufficient force,” which implies that there is some limit.

But this can backfire, giving the Players hope that continuing with their standard tactics will eventually bear fruit instead of persuading them to try something else. So this, too, requires careful management and plotting by the GM.

A broad-based immunity can be worth as much as +10 CR. +8 is more usual. This usually mandates the provision of 2-4 more abilities of equal power, and it’s very easy for a snowball effect to make the encounter overwhelming except to very high-level PCs. One way that GMs can get around this is by specifying that weapons/attacks with a given magical bonus can penetrate the defense – but this can easily tip the balance in the other direction, because it’s not too difficult to stack an extra magical plus or two onto an attack.

The final danger that I want to mention has been intimated above – that of making a casual, passing encounter more significant than the boss-monster, making the rest of the adventure an anticlimax. You need to plan now how this problem is going to be avoided.

Character History -based encounters

The second-last variety of encounter foundation is a lot simpler, thankfully! Quite often, you will want to base an encounter around a character’s past, as much to give them an opportunity to talk about that character background as anything else. Whenever a character drops something into their background, I tend to look (hard!) for a plot arc (big or small) to build around that background element – and tend to leave the element sitting on the shelf until I come up with something satisfactory. Case in point: St Barbara, from my Zenith-3 campaign, has an African Warlord named The Blood Dove as an enemy. Nothing much was known about him until the player and I collaborated on the character’s background, many years ago, and because I’ve never found a good plotline, he’s remained in limbo since. In the course of plotting the overall structure of the current campaign, I finally came up with a small plotline revolving around him, and have dropped it into the master plan at an appropriate point.

The Evolution of an encounter based on a character’s past history is fairly straightforward:

  1. Character – History
  2. Instigator
  3. Plot
  4. Challenge
  5. Environment
  6. Plot Revised

Sometimes, you know that you want to do something with something from a character’s past but don’t know what; it’s just a way of giving that character a share of the spotlight for a while, and not meant to go anywhere major in plot terms. At other times, you have a clear plot arc for the NPC to follow, with (of course) the PC’s life intersecting with that plot arc at strategic points. The starting point has to be getting both of these up to the same standard of definition by selecting the character history element around which the encounter is to be built.

Second, you need to decide whether the instigator is going to be the PC (confronting their past) or the enemy (the past confronting the character).

That gives you the beginning of the plot, so the next decision has to be listing the possible endings, and (in particular) whether this is the end-point or just the first chapter in a larger plotline, perhaps one that is to be spread over a number of widely-separated encounters.

The fourth decision is the degree of challenge that this encounter is supposed to provide. This is an important decision because quite often the answer will differ from the level of outright challenge that the enemy represents.

That difference can stem from one or both of two sources: the circumstances (which may require some revision of the plot), and the environment in which the encounter is to occur. In general, there are limits to the effectiveness of the environmental factor, so it’s better to decide that first and then make up any shortfall by stacking the odds created by the circumstances in the NPCs favor – though sometimes an environment can be so hostile that the circumstances need to be in the PCs favor to balance things out the other way.

Challenge-based encounters

I’ve left the most obvious one until last. Choosing an encounter based on nothing more than it being sufficiently challenging to the PCs is probably the most common approach. You could argue that the entire concept of reskinning arose as a way of injecting greater variety of choice into this approach.

The pathway to defining this type of encounter is also straightforward.

  1. Challenge
  2. Instigator
  3. Environment
  4. Abilities
  5. Character
  6. Plot

You start by deciding on a challenge level relative to the PCs, and then factoring in their capabilities to determine an overall challenge rating.

Second, you need to decide who the instigator is going to be. Most of the time, this will be the hostile force, but from time to time it will be the party (depending on the make-up and attitude of the PCs, it must be added – some are super-aggressive).

Next, the environment. If the PCs are the instigators, the environment will probably not be of their choosing, it will be somewhere that the creature to be encountered calls home, or whatever the local conditions are at the PCs current location at the time of the encounter. The smarter the creature, the more it will have manipulated the local environment to create a sub-environment that is even more conducive to its success.

Fourth, the abilities that the creature needs to take advantage of the environment to whatever degree is desired. This permits the completion of the reskinning process. It also completes what you need to know to plan the start of the encounter.

Fifth, in order to determine and prepare for the possible endings of the encounter, you need some idea of how the PCs are likely to react, based on their history and current circumstances.

Sixth, using that knowledge, complete the plot outline for the encounter, and you will be ready to write it.

The limits of logic

That’s every possible foundation of starting point for an encounter, and a logical road map through the different decisions that leads through the maze of endless possibilities.

Except one.

The ultimate type of encounter is one which derives from the personality of the individual being encountered, which is a subset of the generalized personality of the race. These can be the hardest, and most satisfying, encounters to craft – and the most frustrating to play if the players insist on engaging in combat instead of roleplay, or vice-versa. There’s nothing worse than crafting a Combat Monster only for the players to parley with it.

Such encounters are best handled by applying the advice offered in a series of articles that I wrote back in 2010 (it doesn’t seem like 6+ years ago): Making A Great Villain. You don’t need to go to the same extent that you would if this was to be the main villain (or one of them) for the campaign, but applying the principles to even a small personality-based encounter yields the best possible result.

Use those techniques to make a great one-shot villain, use the result to generate a plot, and use the plot-based technique offered at the start of this article. And play them to the hilt; for this character, there is no tomorrow.

But don’t be surprised if the enemy totally takes over the adventure. Expect them to do so, and plan accordingly – don’t be caught short without enough plot!

Have fun :)

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