Here’s a basic formula that you can use to construct an encounter:
Challenge (combat, social, puzzle or other) + unique element (memorable NPC, fighting on a rope bridge, etc.) + a way to advance even if the party fails (although perhaps with penalties) = a successful encounter.
And here’s a brief example encounter:
A band of orcs (the challenge, combat) + the fight takes place in small boats on a rushing river (the unique element) + the orcs will take the PCs prisoner if the party loses (a way to advance despite failure, but with consequences).
By including only a single challenge and single unique element that defines the encounter, you’re keeping prep time and on-the-fly bookkeeping to a minimum, and keeping the focus on what makes the encounter fun (everything is within your players’ flashlight beam).
By making sure the PCs can move on even if they fail (partially or completely), you’re preventing the encounter from being a roadblock to keeping the adventure moving. And when you’re bleary-eyed from prepping for your next session, having a formula to glance at might just come in handy.
There are lots of other ways to build encounters, but this simple approach will work for most groups and most RPGs.
Very handy, I am constantly striving to find more efficient ways to prepare, and I love succint ideas like this.
I like this approach. I like it a lot.
This looks like a really handy tool, especially when GMing on the fly. I like how the unique element is used to turn a simple challenge into a much more cinematic experience. Nice!
Remember DM’s: CLUE.
Loot (if they win)
Unique (neat element)
Even if they lose
I think I’ve been using this formula subconsciously for years without realizing it. It definitely highlights two very important elements of an encounter that are often forgotten by novice DMs. You always want players to say with fondness, “Hey, do you guys remember the time we fought those [INSERT GENERIC MONSTERS] while [INSERT UNIQUE SITUATION].” It doesn’t really work without the unique situation, which really is the difference between a run-of-the-mill encounter and a memorable one.
I think the last part is the strongest point, however. PCs can and occassionally do lose, especially at low levels. Being able to say what happens next, other than to say, “Here are some dice. Roll new characters,” is absolutely vital to the fun of the game. I’ve seen far too many fledgling GMs assume the look of a deer in headlights when this happens.
If I may put forth this idea, any story-related encounter*in which the party can succeed or fail should come in one of three basic varieties: obstacles, breakthroughs, and climaxes.
Obstacles are encounters which hinder the party if they lose. Many combats would fall into this category, where the party has little if anything to gain from winning and realistically are only fighting to avoid the setback or other general nastiness. Since there is no reason for the party not to avoid it if they can, obstacle encounters generally are non-optional. Often times, they even represent the antagonist(s) direct efforts to thwart the heroes, whether actively (an assassin) or passively (guards).
Breakthroughs, on the other hand, are encounters which the party could easily ignore if they so chose without any relative drawback, but they stand to gain if they go through with it. Many skill checks and things like that would fall into this category. Researching a monster’s weakness, for example, would give the party an edge when they fight it, but if they choose not to or fail they’re no worse off than before. Similarly, attempting to scale a wall to avoid the larger guard contingent at the gate and get in their stealthily would be breakthrough. Often times, breakthroughs are the result of the players being proactive.
Finally, there are climaxes, which are special. While not neccessarily the actual climax of an adventure/session/whatever, climaxes are the “important” fights. It might be a “mid-boss” of sorts, or it might be the big bad itself, but a climax is an important battle in which failure, simply, is not an option. These are the fights where you pull out all the stops, and where the players have to eke out a victory or all their efforts were for naught. As such, climaxes should be rare, memorable, and fun. In all likelihood, the party should even be expecting them (which isn’t to say they need always know that they’re about to face a big enemy, but they should at least have an inkling that there’s an ancient wyrm hunting them down that could pop up at any moment).
Now, these aren’t hard and fast rules, and there are certainly lots of cases where the lines between them blur and you can even combine different kinds of encounters, but I think it serves as a good set of guidelines.
I have to agree with Stephen W., as I also feel like I’ve been using this formula for years without knowing it. But to have something so complex from the abstract art of GMing put into such simple and easy to remeber terms (such as Shana’s C.L.U.E. acronym) is great for two reasons:
1) The novice GM has a framework to use. GMing is a craft that a person has to learn over time. Anything that can speed up that process is worthwhile.
2) Us veteran GMs have a refreshing look at our roles, and seeing things with renewed simplicity revives the creative process.
I read the OP and immediately thought “You know, I rarely have water in my campaigns due to my choice of games. My players would have a blast if I somehow got them into combat on some rapids . . .” I began to realize that I’ve been focussing too much on the character development and storytelling aspects. This simple formula reminded that once in a while just let the session be an adventure for the players, and not some deep psychological event for the players characters to live through.
I’m sure my players will appreciate it too. They are so into the story now that the campaign is almost like another job for them too. We have fun, but it is time for a change and it is ironic that this simple little formula has now got me re-thinking everything!
Also I just started GMing for a new group of players that I have recruited and brought together. For that group I’m definitely going back to the basics so as to get us started off right!
This one popped into my head while I was staring at a blank post box this morning (often the way many of my favorite posts start out ;)), and like Stephen W I’ve never really thought about this approach as a formula before. It sounded about right, it fit with my experiences, and I’m glad it’s helpful.
I’ve had it on the back burner all day, too, hoping that some other formulae might pop out. That could make for a neat — and potentiall useful — series, or maybe a PDF.
CLUE is excellent, even though the L isn’t a mandatory component for many games (but probably is near-mandatory for D&D). Great mnemonic!
(Ian) If I may put forth this idea, any story-related encounter*in which the party can succeed or fail should come in one of three basic varieties: obstacles, breakthroughs, and climaxes.
Was the * a pointer to footnote that you didn’t add, Ian? I’m guessing you were going to define “story-related encounter,” and I’d love to hear your definition. I really like your classifications — want to turn them into a guest post?
Drop me a line if you do. 🙂
Yes, I like this formula, too.
The “a way to advance even if the party fails” is a better alternative to creating new PCs or re-running the encounter. Re-running the encounter is another traditional way besides rolling up new PCs: the GM forces the PCs into a general retreat so the PCs can return next session and refight identical enemies who are oblivious and unaffected by the previous session.
Actually, I don’t view the unique element as a neccesity. The idea — variety in encounters — is good, but sometimes a party just wants to fight an orc guarding a treasure chest in a 20×20 room. (To use an extreme example.)
Good formula, I’ll use it in the future.
The only thing I would add is that each encounter should incorporate in some way a key character element, focusing on different characters with different encounters.
So, for example, one might have one encounter focus on a characters theiviness, while another encounter focus on a different characters social skills. I’m not saying the GM should say “This is your encounter for your diplomacy skill,” just that the GM should focus on key character elements and let the characters figure it out from there… make sense? Kinda like giving different characters spotlight time.
When this is done the players tend to feel more “involved” if you will.
Dan: Yep, the general retreat and regroup approach works well, too.
tsuyoshikentsu: Sometimes fighting a vanilla encounter can be very satisfying, but I’d argue that it will never be as satisfying as one that has a unique element. 😉
Scott: Great links, thank you — and thanks for the plug, too. 🙂 You keep up with a lot of RPG sites and blogs — I’m jealous!