Archive for category Field Encounters

Calling a Hold ruins the moment like your grandparents walking in on you having sex

Guest article by LIAM

This past weekend I ran the last major encounter in my stint writing plot for NERO Hartford. It was essentially the final fight against the first end boss of the campaign. It was a relatively elaborate encounter, involving a split field (based on level), and four self marshaled tasks for the PCs set around the field which dramatically affected the dynamics of the battle. The battle lasted for over an hour of straight combat, and the villain was defeated….without one single hold being called!

Now, I’m not going to say it went perfectly, but I did put a lot of preparation in to make sure it went as smoothly as possible. The players involved in tasks around the field were briefed before the encounter, and knew exactly what they had to do and what would happen (meaning no marshal standing over them). All OOG mechanics were reinforced in a notes section on the IG scrolls they were using to perform their tasks. An air-horn was used to signal the field effects making it unnecessary to call a hold to explain the change.

The most important preparation happened just a few hours before the fight though. During a moment of downtime I had an opportunity to sit down with a good chunk of the players. My exact words to them were “If any of you call a Hold, there had better be a compound fracture involved”. While this is obviously hyperbole, they knew my expectation. I have little to no tolerance for superfluous holds. I personally think they should be limited to medical situations ONLY. It should become the goal of all staff and players to run a game with no holds (which also means trying to run a safer game with less injuries).

Holds destroy immersion. You are wrenched right out of the game and brought back to the real world. Staff can do many things to avoid these situations. NERO in its first year always included a guy in an orange headband marked “MARSHAL” carrying a clipboard following the party and narrating huge chunks of the encounter. It was like playing half table top/half LARP. I have really grown to dislike this style of play.

My friends and I ran a NERO sub campaign in the mid-90’s called Kyrandal. One of our major principles was to never include anything in the game that we couldn’t rep in a reasonably realistic way. We had really grown to hate the phrase “What do I see?”, and wanted to run a game where this was never heard. (Cue to an old Ravenholt event where a kid who wasn’t more than 5’6” came running through the trees as a “9 foot tall T-Rex”).

I can’t stand hearing, “Hold, marshal, do I recognize this guy from the October event in blah, blah, blah?” or “Hold, marshal, I have 10 levels of Kobold Lore, do these look like Kobold droppings?” I have learned a great deal from Dan’s entries and the LARP Ohio blog how to create encounters with as little of an OOG component as possible, how to get in front of these problems and brief the party ahead of the encounter, or have envelopes prepared if an applicable skill would provide key information.

One of my favorite ideas of Dan’s is to include a marshal who is in fact an IG confederate traveling with the party, and explaining OOG mechanics or answering questions in a IG way. I don’t want to digress too far into a discussion of what helps or hinders immersion, but the two topics do go hand in hand. Many of the principles which help create immersion, and remove the need for an OOG marshal, help prevent that most offensive of all four letter words, “HOLD”.


Dynamic Encounters

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.

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Emergent Plot

The “plot” of an event is much more than the story run by the directors and supporting cast. There are stories that emerge from character personalities playing off one another. You cannot write these stories, by their nature they emerge spontaneously from gameplay. You can, however, write scenarios which reward cooperation, competition, creativity, ingenuity, and initiative. This is the  perfect backdrop for players to showcase their character concepts.

Here is one method to encourage emergent plot: create a resource that players will compete over to accomplish their goals.

Eyes on the Prize

Allow the players to choose their own goals. They should have a number of options. Participation in the plotline gives them clear steps they can take towards accomplishing those goals.

The Macguffin

The plot should involve a resource that many people could use to accomplish their goals. This could be an item of power, access to a learned sage, command of a military force, the favor of a foreign ambassador, or ownership of a famous shield. Maybe if they succeed at the challenge, the players may choose their reward, negotiating it with an NPC. In any case, everybody wants it!


Players will be competing along a common axis. If they are competing over a scarce resource, working towards one goal may prevent other players from achieving their goals. This creates inter-player tension, strengthening the importance of in-game friendships and rivalries.


  • A local lord is concerned with the goblin population feeding on his crops. He has offered a reward for whoever brings him the most goblin ears. The champion goblin slayer will be given a forge or laboratory of his choice.
  • There is a shrine in the woods which is a focal point for the balance between order and chaos. When meditating there, you can sacrifice an elemental component or an elemental gemstone (a treasure that can be found throughout the adventure weekend) to slightly shift the balance. This changes the power level of certain creatures over the weekend and influences the behaviors of certain NPCs.
  • A number of merchants come to town, each one representing a different cause or faction. Some are friends and some are rivals. They are taking donations for their cause, and specifically looking for certain items owned by other merchants, which can be bought and sold by players. Whichever faction has made the most money by the end of the weekend will become more powerful within the season plot. Factions may promise boons and favors in reward for help with their collections.


Scaling for Melee

Scaling isn’t just statting monsters to a certain amount of power. Scaling is creating appropriate challenges for each character level. Elsewhere we’ll cover how to create dynamic challenges that players of all levels can participate in. This section talks about the math of scaling – rather than creating monsters which are too hard for one group and too easy for another, we’ll create middle-range monsters which challenge characters regardless of their level.

Here is one mechanic for scaling:

Most monsters should die in about 5-8 hits. But body points are tricky. If you just keep adding body onto a monster, it makes damage spells and low level characters exponentially less useful.

Take the average number of damage the people on the module / field are swinging – say 10s. Multiply this number by the difficulty of the encounter:

  • 3 for an easy fight = 30 body
  • 5 for a tough fight = 50 body

Then add a few “lesser parries” – melee defenses which may be used against normal weapon swings, but shouldn’t be called against times-per-day skills like slays and assassinates.

Lesser Parries are a MUCH BETTER way to scale melee monsters than adding body. Here’s the math which explains why:

A monster with 100 body…

  • dies in 5 hits if you’re swinging 20s
  • dies in 20 hits if you’re swinging 5s
  • takes two flame blasts and a magic missile to kill (19 levels of spells)

This means that if you swing 5s, you might as well not bother. You have to swing four times to equal one swing from the 20Magic guy! And if you’re a low or mid level caster, you probably shouldn’t bother with damage spells, they’ll barely dent the creature.

    But a monster with 20 body and 3 “lesser parries”..

    • dies in 4 hits if you’re swinging 20s
    • dies in 7 hits if you’re swinging 5s
    • only takes one 4th level spell to kill

    That’s a lot more fair fight for everybody involved!

    A quick way of scaling up: add a bless spell and a magic armor — now the creature dies in 7 hits from the 20 guy and 9 hits from the 5s guy. And all it took was three levels of spells.

    When the melee monsters have low body + a few lesser parries, everyone can participate and feel like they’re actually helping.