What sounds like more fun, option A:
As you peer over the blast wall, you see six guards armed with laser rifles.
…or option B:
As you peer over the blast wall, you see six guards armed with laser rifles — and four shadowy figures sneaking over the opposite wall.
Right, option B — because it has an extra layer of excitement baked right in.
A set-piece encounter is one that you’ve planned in advance, and they usually involve something pretty exciting for the PCs — a big battle, a grand ball fraught with intrigue or the like. Because you get as much planning time as you need, set-piece encounters give you a chance to really polish things until they shine.
With this in mind, why not add an extra layer of cool stuff to the encounter?
Once you’ve got the general concept for the encounter in mind, step back and consider it from a few different angles. Ask yourself, “Would it be more fun if…” — and toss out a random idea after the “if.” If the first one doesn’t grab you, try again until something sticks.
In the above example, you’ve got a pitched battle with a squad of guards in a spaceport. That’s likely to be fun in its own right, as there are lots of ways to approach it — especially if the PCs are trying to sneak in without rousing the rest of the guards. But it’s also pretty much what they players are expecting.
Why not mix it up a bit, and add another layer? For example: a second team of infiltrators that just so happens to be assaulting the spaceport at the same time. That could go in a dozen different directions depending on what the PCs do, and all of them are likely to throw your players a bit off-balance — in a good way!
When I’m designing encounters, I sometimes have trouble remembering that because I know exactly what’s going on, they seem “done” before they actually are done. The key is to look at things from your players’ perspective: Is the encounter as nifty as you can make it, or does some of the niftiness come from things only you know (as the GM) — which the players might never find out about?
If so, sex it up a little with an extra layer — another element, something surprising (maybe even over the top, depending on your game). This is also a great way to make sure you don’t hoard your best ideas — and if most of your set-piece encounters are battles, Simple Tips for Making Fights More Dramatic is a good place to start.
Not every encounter needs this treatment — sometimes, you nail it on the first try. But I nearly always benefit from looking at things from a new perspective, and then adding a twist.
Do you do something similar when designing set-piece encounters? Or do you take a completely different approach?