A dynamic encounter has more than one elements. Interacting with those elements influences some other aspect of the encounter.
To some extent, dynamism is already present in all encounters. Fighters engage the melee combatants, spell casters stay guarded behind them to act as artillery and resolve effects, and rogues rely on this distraction to positioning themselves for massive damage. It requires teamwork and coordination to properly play those roles. The fighter needs a healer to do his job efficiently, just as the ranged attacker needs someone to block melee attacks.
Extending this model, we can create more interesting encounters by creating different types of interactions on the battlefield. Certain elements interplay in a way which requires teamwork and tactics to “solve” the encounter. Here, we’ll be talking about combat encounters, but you can apply this reasoning to nearly any type of challenge.
Start by thinking about the battle in terms of objectives. Those objectives must influence other elements present on the battlefield. This creates different tasks which must be accomplished during the battle.
Instead of writing straightforward combat encounters where the PCs and NPCs fight to the death over and over again, create different tasks and objectives. Perhaps the players are capturing someone, arming an explosive, cleansing a pool, or holding a defense point. Completing this objective should simplify or complicate other elements of the encounter.
Before a complex encounter, the players will need an overview. Have an NPC describe the objectives and conditions for victory. Don’t expect that players will figure out what’s going on mid-battle – there will probably be little time for comprehension, much less communication about what’s going on! If the players know what to expect in advance, they can begin formulating a strategy to complete the objectives. (It’s okay to throw in a curveball now and then too.)
Here are some examples of dynamic encounters:
Encounter: Orc Camp (module or wave battle) – The players are storming an orc’s camp. The camp is guarded by numerous orc warriors and a very powerful lizard. At the center of the camp there is a shaman within a protected circle of power. The shaman has a horn which he uses to call for reinforcements. He also knows a spell which can resurrect the lizard in 60 seconds. Also within the camp there is a totem pole which gives the orcs a berserker rage (this increases their strength and hit points). In order to complete the battle, the players will have to deal with all of these elements.
- The lizard, who is too dangerous to engage in direct melee combat, can be distracted by waving a red cape at him. He will then focus on that person and charge at them like a bull. The shaman can easily resurrect the lizard, so until he is defeated, it’s best to just distract the creature.
- The shaman can also summon an infinite number of reinforcements as long as he has his horn. Each time he sounds the horn, another wave of orcs will charge out of the woods.
- The totem is a large pole covered with runes. It is placed in a dangerous spot, right near where the monsters are coming from. There are ten faces on the poll, represented by paper plates with faces painted onto them. If all ten faces are destroyed, the orc warriors no longer gain the benefit of berserker rage. It takes 60 seconds to destroy each face, using acid, carving, or magical incantation. This mechanic’s intent is to create a time limit. You can be sure the battle will last at least as long as it takes to do this task. Another method: The characters have been given a paint of dispelling (use a jar of blue paint, and give the players several brushes). To dispel the power of each face, people must paint over every inch of the paper plate, then they can take it down.
- Like most orcs, the shaman can be baited by challenges and dares. If challenged, he will allow a single spell caster into his circle for a casting duel. If the player wins, it stops the warriors and lizards from returning. The players may come up with another creative way to draw the caster out of the circle – the shaman should try to roll with their roleplay. If the players are slow to figure this out, he’ll begin calling them out and challenging them himself. He begins doing this in earnest after the totem pole is destroyed.
A note about preparing the players for this encounter: it is important that they know what to do before they’ll arrive at the battle. In this case, perhaps the players have a scout who reports to them: “They have a giant lizard in captivity. They’re dumb creatures, you can probably get their attention by waving around a brightly colored cape. Or maybe just kick a gypsy into his path. I also saw a totem pole like the one I saw last month in the other orc camp. If I’m right, there are going to be ten faces on it. They’re the orc’s ancestors, and they protect the orcs in battle. It’ll take sixty seconds to destroy each face, and you can only destroy one at a time…” and so forth. Knowing this in advance, the players can decide how to approach the battle with the resources they have.
Encounter: The Obelisk (wave battle) – The Obelisk is a six foot tall black statue which beckons undead. A chaos imp is attempting to shake things up by sending zombies towards this strange necromantic artifact. In order to complete the challenge, players will have to purify the nearby marshes and defeat the imp.
- If an undead touches the obelisk, the undead will be absorbed into it. If ten undead are absorbed, a really dangerous undead will be released from the obelisk.
- Within an acre of the obelisk there are five desecrated marshes, represented by big green circles on the ground. Zombies crawl out of these marshes and try to make it to the obelisk. A marsh can be purified by performing a 5-minute long cleansing ceremony next to the marsh. The ceremony requires you to spend 10 clear gems, which can be found on the zombies.
- There is a sneaky chaos imp who is running around and re-corrupting the marshes. Not overtly hostile, he tries to persuade players into defending him while he completes his task. If he is killed or banished, he will be restored by his master and will appear again in five minutes. He has five “lives” like this, but there is another way to banish him entirely. He must be somehow persuaded to touch the obelisk, an object which he is curious about and does not fully understand. He can be charmed, repelled, or tricked into doing this. After he is absorbed into the obelisk, he will later emerge from it as the final boss of the battle.
Encounter: Undead Horde (field encounter) – A uniform pack of monsters favors certain classes. If scholars are no good against obsidian golems (which reflect spells), a legion of obsidian golems is no fun for scholars. Instead, send out groups composed of different types of monsters, with different strengths and weaknesses. This pack of undead contains possible targets for various combat styles:
- Revenants – melee creatures with mid range body points, but take half damage from weapons. Magic deals full damage, so these are good targets for spell slingers. The majority of the horde is composed of revenants.
- Lesser Vampires – these are young vampires, eager to impress their sire. They are hungry for blood, and will be healed to full and renewed if they spend 5 seconds biting someone’s neck. This faction of vampires are all archers. They pair up with the wolves.
- Trained Wolves – light melee combatants who block for the vampire archers. Can be charmed to fight alongside players.
- Death Knights – a heavy melee fighter with glowing red eyes. Has resistance to magic. Will actively engage other fighters.
- Necromancers – black robed humans who support the death knights and throw necromancy. They also heal undead using necromancy. Being humans, they are vulnerable to just about everything, but can cast spells to support themselves.
Scaling Tip – Create a task for characters of certain levels. Too often, all the monsters in the battle are scaled at one difficulty level. In the average encounter, some people will be too low level to participate, some will overpower the encounter, and (hopefully) some will be at the sweet spot where the scaling is appropriate. Dynamic encounters are a great way to segregate the players into groups based on experience level. This allows you to ensure that all levels have something important to do in the fight. Here’s an example of how that might work —
Encounter: Two Prong Fight (wave battle) – Ogres and Goblins have allied to kill the adventurers. They are attacking from different sides of the field. The goblins are protected by an ancient goblin spirit who watches over the fight. It is incorporeal and merely watches over the fight, unable to be killed. The high level players should focus on the ogres and the low level players should focus on the goblins. If the high level players participate in the goblin side of the fight, the goblin spirit will begin empowering the ogres, making them stronger.
Writing Objectives – When brainstorming objectives, think of them from the player’s point of view. Is there an easy way to break the encounter?
For example, in the above Orc Camp encounter, the players might try to throw a protective circle around the totem pole. This would negate the need for them to defend whoever is destroying the pole.
Another thing to keep in mind is that not all players want to win. Some are secretly working against the town. Try to prevent situations where these players can easily disrupt the whole encounter. For example if your plotline requires a puzzle to be solved, an evil player can easily pocket one of the pieces and prevent anyone else from succeeding. The moral of the story: if you require the players to collect 10 items, put out 15 of them.
The Season Finale to Avendale 607:
Here’s an example of a very complex dynamic encounter.
Avendale 607 ended with a climactic boss fight which wrapped up two years of plot. In it, the players were confronting Nod, a creature of Void who was involved in the corruption or defeat of numerous NPCs throughout the two seasons. This was a three part boss fight…
- In part 1, the players fought Nod and his undead minions in traditional melee combat. When he was defeated, he staggered over to a certain spot and transformed…
- Part 2: Our monster department then unveiled their magnum opus – a 25 foot tentacle creature. The creature’s skull was attached to a pulley, and the black cloth body was fastened to the bottom. Large metal rings gave the cloth a hollow, collapsable, cylindrical form. When we pulled the rope, hoisting the skull up in the air, the creature seemed to spring out of the ground. Monsters respawned from the creature’s form.
- Nod had long green tentacles which came out of the base of the creature. The tentacles were made of pipe foam wrapped in bubble wrap and Christmas lights, spray painted green. They could not be killed, but they could drag you into the body where you’d be engulfed. Hitting a tentacle with a healing spell caused it to go limp for about 10 seconds.
- During the event, the players had enlisted the help of a mimic, a creature which looks like a treasure chest. The mimic knew of an underground cache full of stakes of woe. To aid them in battle, the mimic burrowed underground, got a stake of woe, then burrowed back up to the battle. The chest would appear in a random spot in the woods, up to an acre away from Nod. After it was looted, it’d begin its 5 minute round trip to the cache.
- a player had to find the chest, grab the stake, and then run over to Nod. Another player would hit a tentacle with a healing spell so his buddy could get in and drive the stake into Nod’s heart.
- Five stakes later, the creature shuddered in its death throes. Once everyone was looking, the pulley was dropped and the big cloth cylinder fell. Revealing the third incarnation waiting inside…
- Part 3: Nod transformed into his final form, a 9 foot tall grim reaper creature. Wes (the NPC playing Nod) was on stilts, and is remarkably dexterous on them. You’d be surprised how scary it is fighting a creature that much physically larger than you! Nod’s sickle obliterated anyone it touched, but this ability could be suppressed if someone was playing a musical instrument. This ended up being the job for the low level characters that had trouble with the other monsters in the fight. Adventurers had to defend the musicians whole engaging Nod. The stilt creature was eventually taken down by coordinated force.
Sadly, the pictures / video taken of this battle were too dim to make out. It was perhaps a bit too complex, but it was interesting because everybody in the fight had a different job. In the end, the low level character playing the flute was just as important as the high level fighter who drove the final stake into Nod’s heart.