April 12, 2024

Going in All Directions

Encounter setups that have a single throughline are often the main way that the narrative of a D&D game is advanced. Investigating an unusual phenomena leads to an ambush. A gauntlet of traps and hazards needs to be run. A chance meeting in a tavern brings the characters into contact with a powerful ally. A noble takes umbrage at a perceived slight and becomes the party’s nemesis. In any and all such scenarios, there’s a clear sense that one thing is meant to happen in response to the characters’ entrance, and that’s how the scene should play out.

Setting up encounters that have only a single primary narrative goal usually works just fine in the game (at least within a larger framework where the characters have enough agency to shape which encounters they undertake and how their story advances when those encounters are done). Sometimes, though, the players and the characters can surprise you in ways that can quickly make a single-thread setup go off the rails. An encounter that you expect to be a social challenge suddenly turns into combat when the characters grow overly suspicious of an NPC’s actions. The players ignore what felt like an obvious hook meant to draw them to a specific location and instead wander off in a different direction.

Art by Carmen Sinek from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

As a general rule, combat scenarios make good examples of how having only one way for the characters to push through them can lead to problems. As most GMs have experienced at one time or another, setting up the single win condition of “one side beats the other side into submission” can lead to a disastrous outcome when the players want their characters to flee or attempt to bargain with their foes, but the encounter offers no good way for them to do so. (You can get great advice for building more open-ended combat encounters in lots of places, including the excellent book Forge of Foes that I had a hand in.) But the kind of narrative bottleneck that shows up easily in a straight-line combat encounter can easily derail any type of in-game scenario.

Just Winging It
As a GM, I usually have a great time when the game goes off in unexpected directions, because I’ve been playing long enough that I can quickly work up alternative scenarios to where I was expecting an encounter to go. But if you sometimes have trouble reworking story on the fly or improvising resolutions to unexpected developments in the campaign story, it can be a great exercise to build uncertainty into your encounters right from the start. 

When setting up an encounter, whether that means creating encounters from whole cloth in a homebrew story or making notes on encounters while running a published adventure, think about ways that each encounter might play out along two or more different threads of narrative. That way, whichever of the threads the characters tug at, you know ahead of time how you’re going to handle that. And even if the players decide to ignore all the prepared threads in favor of unspooling an unexpected thread of their own, having thought about the encounter and the surrounding scenario as a range of possibilities rather than a single throughline puts you in a better position to reassemble the narrative on the fly.

One Way or Another
Here are five quick encounter scenarios to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. Each of the following scenarios is set up with two broad approaches that the characters and players might pick up on, just to keep things simple. But you can just as easily come up with three or four possible throughlines — just as you can expect the players to come up with throughlines of their own that you never anticipated.

Thief! Thief?
A pickpocket appears to have stolen a valuable possession from a character (a weapon, a magic item, and so forth), but the character immediately realizes that they still have the seemingly stolen item on their person. If the characters pursue the thief to figure out what’s going on, it turns out that the stolen object was an illusion intended to draw them into a chase and an ambush. If the characters ignore the thief (perhaps because they assume the above scenario is playing out), it turns out that the thief magically swapped the real possession for a shapechanging item carrying a powerful curse that spreads to all the characters one by one — and which can be lifted only by passing on the item in the same way.

Too Quiet
Entering a nondescript tavern, the characters discover the patrons and staff all acting unusual — strangely distracted, speaking in whispers, ignoring their ordered food and drink, and so forth. If the characters are instinctively suspicious of the people in the tavern, it turns out that this is the secret meeting place of a cult planning a humanoid sacrifice for later that night. If the characters initially assume that the patrons and staff are victims of foul play, it turns out that the patron at a corner table is a powerful enchanter testing out an unstable magical relic that lets him control people en masse.

Wild Party
The characters receive an invitation to a gentry’s grand ball, where the duke of the realm is the most prestigious guest. At midnight, the duke is suddenly grabbed by armed intruders who attempt to spirit them away. If the characters do nothing, the duke is kidnapped and the party is accused of being complicit through their inaction. If the characters intervene to protect the duke, the intruders are out-of-uniform guards attacking because they know the duke is actually a doppelganger — who might be the only person who knows the whereabouts of the actual duke, kidnapped hours earlier. 

Our Flag Means One of Two Things
While traveling along a remote section of seacoast, the characters come across a hidden cove occupied by armed sailors who appear to be running a well-established pirate operation. If the characters attempt to treat with the pirates, the group is revealed to be working for a local merchant lord who sends the pirates after the ships of their enemies — and who can’t let the party leave the cove to reveal their secret. If the characters instinctively attack the pirates, they turn out to be a group fighting against a corrupt local leader whose warships have been attacking settlements behind in their tax payments.

Hag Hijinks
The characters come across a remote village whose folk are ravaged by a magical malady, and who blame a hag dwelling in a nearby grove for their plight. If the characters go after the hag directly, the hag is revealed to be trying to help the villagers, and can reveal that the source of the malady is a cursed magic relic brought to the village by a secret cultist. If the characters investigate the situation in the village first, they discover that a local alchemist has incurred the wrath of the hag by kidnapping her toad familiar — which has escaped and must now be found before it can be returned.