Want to write better adventures?

Want to prep more efficiently?

Sick of players skipping all of your best content?

Prep Smarter, Not Harder, with Encounter Theory

Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Workbook is a fresh way to look at adventure design by Ben Riggs, the voice of the Ennie-Nominated Plot Points podcast. Using his background in teaching and adventure review, he dissects what we think of as an adventure and helps us get to the core of what makes one great—the encounter.

Adventure Craft and You

How did you learn to write tabletop adventures for your players? You’ve had creative writing assignments in English, maybe even taken a course in creative writing. Perhaps, you started by delving into old D&D modules or stared at the cloudlike white space of a sheet of paper until a story began to form. But, what are the steps? Where are the instructions on how to do this? Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure?

Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure?

But Pete, I’ve run many great adventures!

Sure, but how did you do it? How do you write a good adventure, can you explain it? Better yet, can you show me how? A good GM can make the best of a badly written adventure just as they can homebrew their favorite system to work for any setting. It doesn’t have to be perfect to pass for fun. As GMs, we get SO good at improvising, that we can work with “good enough”. But, do you really want to settle for “good enough” adventures?

Principles to Adventure By

Why the encounter? Because the encounter is the core experience of play and our most quantifiable unit. As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play.

As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play.
Each encounter or scene feeds the player a description of the setting and the characters, something for the players to mentally chew on. Then, narrative control shifts as players are free to act on that description, often begging the question, what do you do? That’s the moment all of this work goes from prep to play.

Description is the BIG word there. Adventure writing is hard, mostly because we drown the reader in it or offer too little, too generic, to capture the mood. Arguably, the greatest feature of Encounter Theory is that it can help a GM narrow down just how much description we should apply in adventure design.

Guiding Principles of Encounter Theory Design:
  • Face the Player and Free the Player
  • Present Problems Not Solutions
  • Use the Dungeon as Adventure Structure
  • Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description

Encounter Theory is a method of efficiently focusing GMs on creating adventure plans that are ONLY player facing and that maximize player agency. Unlike other mediums of fiction, tabletop roleplaying is collaborative. So, providing any description that is not actionable for a player at the table is a waste of your prep time, as it doesn’t fit how the content is used (excess location history or long NPC backstories). Players need specific descriptive information that is short and sensory. They need to be provided description in a way that their characters can interpret (smell, sight, touch, hear, feel). Anything that does not help a player understand a situation through their character is more to read, more to say, and ultimately, more to delay play. Players come to play!

Unlike writing short stories, the narrative of where play goes should be decided by the players, not the Game Master. A GM should present problems but avoid presenting solutions. That’s not to say that you can’t help players if they get stuck in the fog. It is to say that players should be free to create solutions and find their own way to the next encounter, their own way through the adventure. We have the freedom to explore endless options to solving problems, why limit ourselves to a few dialogue options like some sort of a video game?

What Does This Look Like

Imagine the model of a dungeon for your game session, plot plan, or campaign storyline. Players begin their adventure at its start with a call to action. As the GM, you set the scene, describing where they are, what’s going on, and a problem for them to fix. No matter how they go about solving their problem, there is a clue, a lead, to have them visit the next room, the next encounter. A series of encounters act as rooms leading to the climax, boss fight, or final revelation.

Encounter Theory helps a GM create only as much information as is necessary, minimizing prep, and helping players to get to play faster. It trims down the size of adventures, so that we as GMs can get to running them faster. It helps to focus GMs on player facing information that is immersive (five senses) and to the point. When writing RPG adventures you shouldn’t be writing novels. We’ve learned how to write short stories, maybe even written books, but writing adventures isn’t the same. They are imaginary sandboxes put out for our players to play with, and for the GM to revel in. Save time and focus on your players. Give them what they need to find their fun!

Want to Know More

For more on Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Handbook, pick up a copy at DriveThruRPG. The book offers a variety of playplans (as seen in images throughout) to help you put these principles into practice for a variety of settings and situations. Use the Adventure Starter to develop adventure ideas, the Opponent Starter to create worthy adversaries, the list goes on and on. Ben even includes a 5E adventure laid out as an example or for your use at the table. For more on Ben Riggs, adventure design, and his work chronicling TSR, download an episode of Plot Points.

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