Creighton’s Corner: Encounter & Adventure Design

When considering adding an adventure or encounter to a campaign a GM should always view it from his players’ perspective. A GM should already know the general interests of the participating players (Know Your Players). However, while a GM may know if a player prefers combat over role-playing or vica versa) he should aim to gain more insights into exactly what kind of encounters his players want. Of course, there is nothing wrong with asking the players to give more information about what they want to do, but simply including encounters that mirror their suggestions does somewhat remove the element of surprise and wonder once they work out what the GM is doing.

An excellent resource for working out what they want are their characters’ record sheets. Such sheets contain a wealth of information which a GM can mine to create exciting and engaging encounters that play to his players strengths and interests.

At its most basic level, a GM should take steps to include encounters that play to the various strengths of the PCs’ classes. For example, cleric PCs should have undead to destroy, rogues should have plenty of opportunities to sneak about, check for traps and indulge in sneak attacks while fighters should have lots of opportunities to whack opponents until they fall over. Of course, not every adventure needs to include these elements but a GM should always keep the PCs’ classes in mind when creating encounters and adventures. For example, if the adventuring party contains no rogue, a GM constantly including trapped locations, treasure hidden behind cunningly-hidden secret doors and so on is doing his players a disservice.

However, beyond each characters class (and to a lesser extent race), a character sheet contains vast amounts of information a GM can use to further tailor adventures to his players. Take for example, a character for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. A player has to choose feats, allocate skill points, buy equipment and possibly pick spells. All give insights into what a player is hoping to achieve or expecting to encounter during an adventure. For example, a character taking Power Attack is clearly hoping to be able to mix it up with numerous, easy-to-hit foes while a rogue maxing out his Acrobatics skill is probably hoping to be able to get into flanks so that he can inflict sneak attack damage or encounter locations that let him show off his impressive mobility. A GM should look particularly closely at a PCs’ feat choices – each character gets comparably few feats and thus they are excellent indicators of what a player wants his character to do.

Of course, not all skills and feats must be used in combat and many, such as the Knowledge skills, Diplomacy, Bluff and so on, have extensive uses outside of battle. Thus, a GM who has a character with such skills should provide plenty of opportunities to use them.

Equipment – particularly magical items and expensive mundane equipment – provides insight into what a player things he’ll need during a game. Does a character always carry bags of caltrops? Design a space in which he can scatter them to inhibit his enemies’ movement. Alternatively, is he always lugging vials of holy water? If so provide opportunities for him to use them.

Permanent magic items – as some of the most expensive things to
purchase – are particularly loud indicator of a player’s plans. If a PC buys a magic sword, he is probably going to want to whack enemies with it. Similarly, a character buying a staff or rod should be given the opportunities to use its abilities.

One Final Thought…

A GM should always remember that it is absolutely no fun for a player to buy an item or take an ability and never, ever get the chance to use it. While a GM shouldn’t pander to his players’ every whim, he should take steps to tailor adventures and encounters to his player characters so they are rewarded – not penalised – for their character development choices.

A Caveat

I run and play 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The advice in this article uses terminology from both games, but the general advice is valid for any other gaming system –look at the options available to the players and note at which ones they take!

Next Time

Next time, I’ll talk a little bit about how to gracefully end a campaign when the time comes.

About the Designer

Creighton is a keen gamer who passionately believes in the Open Gaming License and is dedicated to making his games as fun and easy to enjoy as possible for all participants. Reducing or removing entry barriers, simplifying pre-game prep and easing the GM’s workload are the key underpinning principles of the products he releases through Raging Swan Press.

Over the last 11 years, Creighton has worked with Expeditious Press, Paizo and Wizards of the Coast. He now releases his own products through Raging Swan Press. You can read his thoughts on game design at

Creighton lives in Torquay, England where, apparently, the palm trees are plastic and the weather is warm. He shares a ramshackle old mansion with his two children (“Genghis” and “Khan”) and his patient wife. Famed for his unending love affair with booze and pizza he is an enduring GREYHAWK fan.

[Editor’s Note: Creighton has graciously offered the opportunity for U.S. readers to check out this series of columns originally posted at the UK Roleplayers site about a year ago. This is the second article in a series. It first appeared here on 2-SEP-2011. Here is the previous article in the series.]

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