Hopefully, my experience in Eberron can inspire you to rethink your encounters.
February’s RPG Blog Carnival theme is “Rethinking encounters”. DM in charge at “Tabletop Terrors” proposes a few topics, such as inventive ways to come up with encounters, tools to enhance encounters and making encounters memorable. I almost miss posting for this Carnival (I’mactually preparing for March already) and I don’t know exactly how to make a handbook on encounters, so I revised in my memory looking for the most memorable encounters my players have been into (I had to asked them also, just in case my memory was been over selective). I’ll go down Memory Lane with them and extract a few key ideas. I have one disclaimer: if you didn’t know my blog yet, you must know I’m a big fan of Eberron, so most encounters will need some serious tweaking in order to use them in less magic-infused settings. On the other hands, if you were looking for ideas on how to use the recently published Plane Shift: Kaladesh online supplement, well, you’re in for a treat.
Murder on the Orient Express
“Riding the Rail” is an Eberron adventure by Christopher Wissel and illustrated by Udon and Robert Lazzaretti, published in Dungeon Magazine #143 (February 2007). The entire adventure is set on a moving coach, and the hectic pace offers little opportunity to regain hit points or spells through rest. For the non-initiated, the Lightning Rail was commisioned by the Crown and created by House Cannith and Orien as a means of rapid transportation across the kingdom (yes, ok. It works as a train). During the Last War, though, some routes were used by spies to pass crucial information to each other, and counterspies tried to stop them from doing so. Too many movies show fight scenes on top of a train, so what was I waiting? I created some stats for the lightning the conductor stones produced on top of the carts, established some few bonuses and penalties when moving with or against the wind, and I had an encounter that still lives in the memory of the players who lived it.
Idea #1: Don’t be afraid to use clichés from action movies. Just add a creative twist.
Death in the Clouds
I know what you’re thinking: Once you’ve done the train thing, you need to do also the Air Force One thing. I did, using Elemental Airships. That was like a sequel, obviously not better than the original. So I had to think of something very unique and in the air. And just right there, Keith Baker came to my help with one of my favorite Dragonshards article ever: The Race of Eight Winds. This event is basically a test of speed and skill through the spires of the biggest metropolis in the world: Sharn. While the beasts may use any natural weapons that they possess, the riders may not use spells, psionic powers, dragonmarks, magic devices, or alchemical items. Inside my head, I could only think of “Wacky Races” meets Eberron. My players were trying to catch a thief mounted on a hippogrif, and I knew they would use some pegasi they acquired in the previous adventure… soon they were totally inmersed in the race when some of their characters passed the Knowledge (local) checks. Have your urban chase happen in the middle of a local event and describe it in full color and mayhem and you’ll have a memory for the ages.
Idea #2: Get inspiration from small details, even ones from a published campaign setting. Expand it as you want, make it yours.
Elephants Can Remember
Some of the times I’ve played a character in someone else’s campaign, DungeonMasters use to prepare a very “challenging” encounter based on a special feature. It comes to my memory a very particular fountain which surrounding area had a permanent antimagic field effect, so all of us were stumbled to reorganize ourselves in our strategies in order to succeed. As I was playing the wizard, I forced my self to waste some rounds trying to cast spells until my character finally could deduce what was going on. Abusive as it was, some time after in one of our classic DM conversations over cocktails and beers, this particular friend told us his only intention was forcing us to change the way we used our characters. All this sparked an idea in me, and then again Eberron gave me a very nice scenario to play with: the Last War. In this case, the party’s cleric had to cast a very particular ritual in order to get some knowledge about something occured over a century ago… but instead of telling them what happened, I took out some character sheets I’ve previously made, gave them at random and made them play the entire scene. When the scene was over, I described the ritual being way more powerful than they thought, actually making all their current characters remember what have happened before.
Idea #3: Play carefully with your players’ expectations, and in a controlled way that can be finished if need arises. Whenever you want to take something from the characters, try to give them also something.
They Do It With Mirrors
Nothing is what it seems, and most players will always look for the very-carefully-planned twist. Distract them with tricks and tell a classic story just to surprise them at the simplicity. And if the campaign idea is very simple, just make the final encounter special by its decoration. Everybody has had a fight in the middle of a volcano at some point in their RPGing careers. You’ll have them at their toes while they wait for something to happen when the villain and the stage are just regularly crafted. Change some descriptions in his abilities without distorting the mechanics and the ticking-clock feeling will be created by the players, not you. In my case, the final adversary was the long-suspected Cardinal Krozen, and the fight happened at the very Cathedral in Flamekeep. Every player was trying to spot the portal from which a powerful demon would be summoned, while the only thing the Cardinal was doing was trying to stall them in order to get his very mundane reinforcements (of course, there was a portal, but it wasn’t in the Cathedral… the Cardinal is a mastermind, after all).
Idea #4: Plant the seeds of urgency during the adventures and harvest them during the encounters.
And Then There Were None
A few years ago, a friend of mine confessed his “one encounter per gaming session” rule. He said in his defense that a fight is what most players build their characters for, so they would be frustrated if he didnl’t let them use said characters in a combat once a week. In retrospective, I can support the idea, but I need to implement a detail of my own: Encounters are not necessarily fight scenes. The skill challenges as they were introduced in 4th Edition (but in my opinion based in the Alternity complex skill checks) were the perfect example. Sometimes you won’t have a combat, but you can plan a challenge that makes the players roll their dice with thrill and emotion even if there are no villains in front of their characters. And for the last time (in this article), Eberron gives me one more time the perfect tool to set this scenario: the Eldritch Machine that needs to be desactivated in a very particular way. In my case, a sword bathed in a King’s son blood (acquired by the Warlord) needed to be held in a particular position (Strength checks were accompanied by saving throws from expelling fumes from within) while the Song of the Thousand Fallen Ones needed to be played with an instrument made from wood obtained from an awakened tree (performed by the Bard, of course via Perform checks) and, well, I’ll leave to your imagination what the cleric and the sorcerer needed to do along.
Idea #5: Not every encounter involves a combat scene. Even a game of chess (or Conqueror, if you’re in Karrnath) can be exciting as long as the players feel the need to blow their dice for good luck. The First Commandment “Never split the party”, still applies though: always have something for everyone to do.
I hope these particular five memories of my most memorable encounters will inspire you to play in Eberron… I mean… inspire you to re-engineer your encounters. And yes, the section titles match five very well known Agatha Christie novels. Yes, I’m a fan.