Confessions of a Newb GM: Vary Your Encounters

Few things leave me as bored as a GM or player than two sets of characters sitting at the opposite sides of a map running at each other. When several of these instances are chained together I start to wonder if I’m playing chess. I generally prefer chess in those situations. Those people can party like you’d never believe.

A series of running fights can work because you’re players go from one set of circumstances to another. If you go from room to room to room without changing those circumstances, you have bored the players. If you instead go from room to bridge to rooftop it’s more exciting even if the actual battles haven’t changed much. Having different styles of fights keeps players interested and away from the glaze of sameness; this works whether you’re online or at the table.

It’s normally a waste of time for a group of people to stand around a table and wait as three to seven people start to move little figures around a board in the same way and in the same fashion as the last time everyone was there. Have different terrain, create a variety of challenges, vary the composition of NPC adversaries; these will help combat any chance of boredom at the table.

Running a mapless game isn’t an excuse to be too vague, even though you’re supposed to begin with less detail so that people aren’t overwhelmed. The big secret is: wear Sunscreen… no, wait… use adjectives. Tell people what the cover is and make mention that there is one on the right and one on the left. Even if it’s just desks the players will pick up on this and the combat will be better. For the next encounter in the same building, don’t use desks, use decorative rocks. Functionally this is the exact same thing, waist high terrain for the characters to crouch behind. In the players heads though, hiding behind the Left Rock or the Mossy Rock lets a bit of the character of the area bleed in and the players have something better on which to cue their actions.

When you’re a GM it helps to work from a map, even if the players never see it. This means it can be done on the back of a napkin as well as not having to be ‘presentable’. Using this informal map allows the setting to solidify in your mind which in turn lets you deal with the questions and weirdness that the players come up with. If a player is trying to edge around the outside of it to sneak by or flank, you have a reference to show what is in the way instead of just going with the first thing that comes to mind.

The fun part of all exploring scene ideas for me is coming up with a few rooms and maps that are based on the same floor plan but have vastly different execution. A security entrance to a building can be functionally the same as walking through a broad cube farm, but vastly different in the details. Having a few simple hand drawn maps lets you decide what oddities are there for the players to find in one of their trips through, but also allows for you to apply a theme across an entire building.

A theme is brought to the attention of the players by repetition and building on previous rooms allowing for the sense of the whole area pervade the session without needing a huge single investment in time at the outset. The first room can be dark and gloomy with the hallway after that unkempt with dross tossed about and the bedroom after that has its lights out, only lit by the periodic lightning bolts seen through the window. When the architecture of your various encounters come down to the same square room or a hallway the players stop paying attention. They’re not going to hear that a room is completely optional and showing something really cool for the point of showing something really cool.  Or they’re inattentive jerks at the time.

Building on player expectations and preconceptions allows for you to make a twist and get the player more interested in the scene. When players start looking at what is presented to them and begin realizing there is more to the setting, it encourages them to explore settings and contribute more.

Too many times in RPGs I have run through identical rooms to find the only one with a modicum of color was the big bad end guy. The minions and setting were boiled free of flavor as they were tossed in front of us. Déjà vu is something that needs to be carefully controlled so you can use it to bring themes to the fore; if every room feels the same to the player anything that isn’t is very jarring. There is a fine line between re-using a room to simplify and over-using a scene because you are grasping at straws.

How have you used similar settings in demonstrably different fashions? Have you drawn a map to have a bit of inspiration pop forth?

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