Character-Focused Encounters

by Mike Shea on 24 June 2016

Here at Sly Flourish we talk a lot about focusing our games around the backgrounds and motivations of the PCs. We think this is the best way to draw players into the game and build cooperative collaborative stories well beyond the single imagination of one person. It's a core focus of the Lazy Dungeon Master and we've written a lot of articles about it including the following:

We even designed a PC-focused GM worksheet that takes the place of or augments your typical GM screen.

There's a reason we've written so many articles about this topic—it's surprisingly hard to do. It is much easier for us to write down a rigid outline or follow the chapters in a published adventure without even considering how the PCs fit in. Sometimes it works out just fine. Players have fun. We have fun. No harm, no foul.

When we focus a story around the PCs, though, our game moves up a level. It feels like a unique story built by the group. It's a creation greater than the sum of its parts.

It's hard to fit character focused storytelling into the basic components of what builds a good D&D game, though. When we're building a D&D game we might put down a loose outline of our next session; where it begins, what scenes we expect, what secrets we might reveal, which NPCs might come into play, and which combat encounters might take place. Where does the background and motivation of the PCs fit into this?

One way we can fit character focused stories in is to actually build encounters around the background of those characters. Many published adventures including Out of the Abyss and Curse of Strahd include random encounter tables to throw encounters in during travel. What if we modified them or replaced them with encounters built to tie into or showcase the backgrounds of the PCs?

Let's look at an example. In our Curse of Strahd game we have six regular PCs, each with their own personalities, backgrounds, and interests. We can write down a short list of potential encounters with the hooks that tie them to these PCs. Here are some example encounters:

  1. A band of werewolves known as the Children of the Nightmother try to ambush the party but they smell that Milo has some werewolf blood in him. He can spot the ambush and they are wary to attack him. One might even recognize him from another werewolf pack.
  2. Vistani bandits try to jump the party. One of them carries a purse with the mark of the Houndmaster on it, the very Houndmaster that Volanthe seeks. This houndmaster is none other than Rictavio currently staying in Valliki. The bandit got it when Rictavio summarily beat them down with his cane and then paid them for their trouble.
  3. Vampire assassins in a loose alliance with Strahd, are sent to assassinate the "bearer of light", Tellos the cleric. They see him as a direct threat to Strahd.
  4. A crazed druid runs into the party and tries to convince Lilly that the way of the druid in Barovia is to worship the darkness within the land.
  5. Vistani servants of Strahd run into the PCs. One of them is a cousin of Jinokio.
  6. A group of soldiers following the Order of the Silver Dragon seek out the destroyers of the Death House. They try to recruit Sir Ander to their cause and tell him to join them outside of Argynvostholt.

Using This List

We might be tempted to use this list as a standard random encounter list. Each time the group is traveling, we can roll on this list and use the listed encounter. This ensures we're not playing favorites. Instead, we might just pick the encounter we think fits best given the time, place, and attendance. Obviously we don't want ot run an encounter for a player that isn't actually at the game.

Mixing In Interesting and Relevant Encounter Locations

We can, of course, spice up these encounters with some interesting encounter features. Here's a quick list of ten. You might also use a randomly generated ancient monument. The ones below are flavored for our Curse of Strahd campaign. Feel free to add an appropriate effect to the feature such as bonus radiant damage, advantage on particular attacks, or another such interesting effect. You can also, if you want, add a random Tarokka effect to really spice things up.

  1. A cracked statue of the Morninglord bathed in the one beam of sunlight in all of Barovia.
  2. A statue of the Nightmother that appears to weep blood. Minions of darkness can use it to turn day into night and gain advantage on attacks until it is restored.
  3. A series of crusified werewolves who aren't quite dead.
  4. A circle of ancient standing stones with glowing glyphs from a primordial age.
  5. The ruins of a watchtower destroyed before Strahd's turn. It's protectors still haunt the ruin.
  6. An abandoned farmhouse with the torn remains of its owners still laying as they fell. These remains seem not yet to be at rest.
  7. A tree covered in the hanged decaying corpses of knights of the Silver Dragon. The corpses scream for mercy from passers by.
  8. An ancient graveyard filled with turned dirt and broken coffins. The land remains unhallowed.
  9. An abandoned field filled with decaying scarecrows that burn eternally with flame.
  10. A cracked pillar topped by a grinning gargyole whose head and ruby eyes fall upon those who pass by.

An Evolving List

Our character-focused encounters need not remain the same throughout our campaign. In fact, it's better if we change them up as we go. Just as the stories of the characters continue to grow and evolve, so can the encounters that showcase those backgrounds. We don't have to change them all every session but it's worth reviewing them before each game, seeing which ones are still relevant, and modifying them to fit the story as it is now. A few tweaks each week is probably all we need.

Reinforcing the Characters in Our Mind

Exercises like this have the added benefit of reinforcing the stories of the characters in our mind in a way that we can directly use in our game. It's one thing to say "keep the character backgrounds in mind" and something else to actually use those backgrounds to build out parts of our adventure.

Building out these encounters helps us tie together interesting threads between the game we're playing (like Curse of Strahd) and the backgrounds of the characters. We don't have to put character backgrounds on one side of our table and the story we want to tell on the other. Tricks like this help us mash the two together to build practical components of our gaming sessions based on the parts of the game our players love the most—their characters.

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