004 – Building an Encounter System Part 3

Hello fellow adventurers,

in Episode 4 of the Nerdlab we will talk about the third and final building block of exceptional encounter design.
In the first part of this 3 part series, we identified how to ask dramatic questions to our players by creating interesting conflicts and real decision points. In the second part we discussed the tools our players will need to answer our dramatic questions and what experience we expect from their decision making processes. Today we will discuss how we can put all this together to handle the resolution of our dramatic questions by using structure elements and metrics.

A short recap of the first two parts of this series on encounter building
In the first episode, we defined encounters as the resolution of one or more conflicts to achieve a desired outcome by using a variety of different interactions.

Components needed:

  • Create a hook (to make players care about the encounter) and Ask dramatic question, which is a the
    player’s objective phrased as a yes or no question.
  • Enemies, NPCs, objects to represent interesting conflicts
  • Triggers to introduce new decision points

Tools needed:
How Can players resolve conflicts?
What experience do I want to create with our character control system?
We defined three steps to design our controllable actions.

  • Step 1: Choose actions players can use to resolve the conflicts we confront them with
    Combat, Social Combat, Skills and Decisions
  • Step 2: Identified the characteristics for each character action and determine their min and max values
    —> Goal:
    Creating Design Space
    Create unique abilities
  • 3. Add begative effects and costs to create Risk vs reward trade offs
    Goal:
    Add tactical layer
    How do our enemy behaviours match our player skills and the other way around?

The resolution of an encounter
Now that we have the skeleton of our encounter, we need to see if it will work or not. The first thing to ask is “how can the encounter end?” Well, it ends when the dramatic question has been answered, right? But what will that look like?

First, we need to define all the possible outcomes of an encounter. Or at least the ones we want to support in our game. In an open-ended RPG, there can definitely be other conceivable solutions that we have not been considered during the creation of the encounter. But in a GM-less game we cannot improvise. Therefore, we need to fix all possible outcomes.

If you remember the dramatic question from our previous example:
“Can the heroes leave the dragon’s lair with at least one of the dragon eggs?”

How will you know when the dramatic question has been answered? How will you know if all of the conflict have been resolved?

  • Well if the PCs are all dead, the question is obviously answered.
  • If the players somehow manage to kill the dragon mother, the question could also be answered. But only if the dragon mother was the only source of conflict in your encounter. If you planted additional challenges like a collapsing cave or a competing group of adventurers, killing the dragon will not end the encounter as not all conflicts have been solved.
  • If the players leave the lair with an egg.

But how do we measure that? Until now we haven’t defined any metrics to determine one of the possible outcomes. When is a character or enemy dead or defeated? How do we know when the players reached the exit of the lair?

Structure Elements
This is where metrics and structure elements come into play. Structure elements are just ways to keep score of certain aspects of your game that help your players to keep track of the game state. They can also help to visually build tension and push your story forward.

You have to identify aspects of your game that need some sort of mechanic or structure to keep a score of. We don’t have to figure out exactly how the mechanics have to work in detail just now, but we should identify at least all the mechanics and structure elements we need for our game to measure the progress of our encounter resolution.

I personally distinguish between two variants of structure elements for games:

  • Core Game Elements
  • Encounter Specific Elements

Core Game Elements are elements that you’ll need for many of your encounters (such as character Hit Points) while encounter specific elements are scorekeeping mechanics you only need for a specific encounter (such as number of eggs or a mechanic to identify the exit of the dragon’s lair).

Since my goal is to have a significant narrative part in my rpg-like adventure game, encounter specific elements are very important for me to transport my story and create uniquely tailored situations.
Core Game Elements:
Every game of course needs core game elements and mechanics. How do players choose skills. How do attack rolls work? How can a players defend themselves? How do we measure when a player is dead? How does a skill check work? How do we determine the turn order? All this questions are absolutely necessary to build our games and they all need some kind of ruleset and metric. But since this podcast series is about creating encounters, I assume for now that you have already defined the core elements for your game. We’ll go into all of these core game elements and mechanics later, but today I’d like focus on the encounter specific structure elements.

Encounter Specific Elements:
Besides the core game elements you may also want to track elements that are unique for your encounter or quest.

Morale system
Let’s say you added the competing adventurer group to our dragon egg example. Since the adventurers are not brainless zombies, they will probably have more values and goals than just getting the dragon egg into their possession. And therefore, you want another possible resolution than simply killing the entire adventurer group. Maybe they are going to keep fighting until they are risking severe injury or death.Therefore, you could need some kind of moral system and a metric to measure it.

Easiest way:

    • when an opposing adventurer has 10% or less of its hit points left, he will surrender.

He values his life more than obtaining the dragon egg.

Other options:

  • When he sees one, two or three of his allies die he surrenders.
  • Or maybe one adventurer is afraid of fire (like the hound in game of thrones) and he surrenders once the players cast any fire spell. (Maybe the players could have gathered that information earlier during the campaign and use it against him).
  • Once the adventurer is below half his hit points, someone could scare him off with an intimidate check or something.

The options are manifold, but we need some kind of structure element to keep track of it.

How to Structure Elements
Now that you have understood why we need structure elements for our encounters, let’s have a look on how we can build them. I have selected some mechanics to measure the process of non-combat encounters from games I know and put them together in a list. Maybe you can use them as a guideline to create metrics for your games. So let’s go through them and explain when and how to use them.
Skill challenges: (D&D 4th edition)
Skill Challenges are from D&D 4th edition. They are used to create dramatic intense situations without combat.
The core principle of a skill challenge is easy. The group collectively has to accumulate a certain number of successes before they accumulate 3 failures. Successes can be accumulated by skill checks. But not only one character is doing the skill checks. Everyone in the group participates in a skill challenge. In other words, skill challenges are an attempt to capture a dramatic action sequence and boil it down in a number of skill checks. They make the answer of a dramatic question measurable.

Let’s say the players want to convince the competing adventurer group of their trustworthiness and propose to work together to steal and share the dragon eggs.

Bluff to encourage the adventurers to aid their quest using false pretenses.
Diplomacy to entreat the adventurers for aid in their quest.
Insight: You empathize with the adventurers and use that knowledge to encourage assistance.
History: to make an insightful remark about the significant event from the adventurer’s past in order to create a bond between the NPCs and the players.
Intimidate: The adventurers refuse to be intimidated by the players. Each use of this skill earns a failure.

Typically the different skill checks also have different difficulty levels. Each player can participate in the skill challenge. You as a designer can define how many successes are needed to win the skill challenge. But as soon as the heroes have collected 3 failed attempts, the challenge is lost.

You can modify and enhance this simple skill challenge metric in a lot of ways. As a little goody I brought 8 possible modifications you could use to create better skill challenges for your games.

Modification 1: Each character is allowed to use a particular skill only once during the skill challenge
Every character can use a particular skill only once. He can try other skills or other players can use that skill. But every player has only one shot per skill.
The reason for that is that if you don’t limit the successes you can accumulate from one skill per player than the best character at something will accumulate all the successes and that does not feel like the group is doing it.

Modification 2: You must be trained in a skill to make an attempt in using it
The characters must have some experience in using the skill. This will ensure your specialized characters really feels special because he is the only one strong enough to push that rock aside.

Modification 3: Different skills provide more or less number of successes or failures
If a character completes a skill check particularly well or succeeded in a particularly difficult skill check he could get 2 or more successes instead of one. If he fails he could likewise accumulate two or more failures.

Modification 4: Sequence of skill checks
Sometimes, only a certain sequence of skills will make sense to solve the conflict
First success with Diplomacy skill opens up the use of the History skill (the adventurers mention an event from the past that has significance to them).

Modification 5: Successful skill checks reveal information of other skill checks
First success with Diplomacy skill reveals that any use of the intimidate skill automatically earns a failure.

Modification 6: Aid others (D&D 3,0)
Some skill checks may have a very high difficulty level. So high that a single character cannot succeed in a skill check. Therefore, the allies are allowed to help the character to lower the difficulty level → Aid others (allies must only beat a difficulty level of 10 to help out) → player gets +2 to his skill check.

Modificaion 7: Ways to undo failures
E.g. make a successful acrobatics check to negate the effect of a failure?

Modification 8: Vary the result of a failure
Every failure could have an immediate effect ( 3 damage) in addition to its encounter ending result
Skill challenge as an input for a combat
Every failure the players accumulate leads to an additional enemy in the next combat.

Using 1 to 10 Scales (proposed by the Angry GM)
Figure out what things are important or what things are in conflict and give them a score from one to ten, but don’t start them at one or ten.
Example: Moral system
The competing adventurer group begins with a greed value of eight and a fear of two. Each time something happens that makes them want to run away or leave, increase the fear score. Each time something happens to make them more dedicated to killing the party, the dragon or to get closer to grab a dragon egg, increase their greed score. If the fear ever equals the greed score, they flee or surrender.
Chasing scene:
The party managed to leave the dragon lair with the egg but the opposing adventurer group follows them. The party has a head start of seven distance units over the enemies that are chasing them. The enemies maybe have horses, and therefore are faster. This reduces the distance every round by one. Each thing the party does to slow down or evade the enemies increases the distance by one. When the distance is zero, the enemies catch the party. When the distance is ten, the enemies lose sight and give up the chase.
It is pretty easy to create measurable “things,” stick them on a ten point scale, and just increase or decrease them whenever it seems right. That sort of encounter structure can help you to create good encounters.
Contests (in the Fate rpg)
“Whenever two or more characters have mutually exclusive goals, but they aren’t trying to harm each other directly, they’re in a contest. Arm wrestling matches, races or other sports competitions, and public debates are all good examples of contests.”

Players can make some kind of contest roll or skill check and compare their result to someone else’s result.
Player has the highest success → gain one victory point
Player is the only one with a success → gain two victory points
If more than one party are tied for the highest success → noone gets a victory or maybe something unexpected happens. “They both stumble because they get in each other’s way.”
Win condition: The first participant to achieve three victories wins the contest.
Success Rates or Level of successes (German RPG called Splittermond)
To measure the outcome of a skill throw not only the differentiation between success or failure is important. Often you want to know how well a player succeeded in a skill test or how badly he failed. By using success rates, you can define several possible outcomes for a challenge. If a character only misses the sneaking skill test by 1 or 2 points he may stumble and lose all his remaining actions but the dragon mother continues to sleep and doesn’t notice him. Whereas a failure that misses by 3 or more points has a profound impact and starts the combat with the dragon mother the heroes actually wanted to prevent.

Progress Tracks
Another versatile tool is the progress tracker used in the Warhammer Fantasy RPG. This tool can be used to keep track of various events during an encounter. In Warhammer the progress tracker is implemented as puzzle pieces that can be used to build a route of different length. It contains neutral pieces and colored pieces that can be used to highlight any form of event that happens. You can place tokens on the track to represent players, npcs or other things.

The progress tracker can be used in one of two ways – tracking the progress of a single event or tracking competition between multiple parties.

Single Party Event:
Starting at one end and moving toward the other end with one token suggests something will happen, it’s just a question of how soon. Let’s say the dragon mother enraged and damaged the structural integrity of the cave. The question now is when will the entire cave collapse? We could build a progress track of 5 pieces and a token on position one and an event on position 5. Once the token reaches position 5 the cave collapses. Every turn the token will be moved one position forward. Different actions from players or the enemies could have an impact on the token’s progress. Players could try to use some tree trunks as a wooden support to delay the collapse. Or every attack of the dragon mother using her tail could move the token one field forward.

Multiple Parties:
Using two or more tokens on the track can represent multiple parties’ interests being resolved. For example to measure who wins a race or another competition.

Some examples for what progress tracks could be used:
To keep track of important resources
To track the moral of enemies
To track the reputation of the players
To Enhancing Social Encounters
Players negotiate with a Lord. Every round the players use skills to influence the Lord. Once they made 3 progresses an event occurs and the lords board of advisors join the negotiation. Skill checks now have a higher difficulty.

Closing
This brings us to the end of this 3 part series of building encounter systems.

All the tools presented today can help you to give non-combat encounter elements more depth. Instead of making only one skill check to find out if the result is a success or failure we can use these measurement tools to keep track of a multitude of actions that are required to overcome a conflict and answer the dramatic question.
It know these flexibel measurement tools mostly from RPGs and I think it will be an interesting design challenge to reproduce this kind of skill challenge experience in a gm-less card game.
If you know other methods how to keep track of non-combat metrics, please let me know and I will be happily share them in next week’s episode.

You can send me an email: Send Mail

I hope you had as much fun listening to this 3 part series as I did creating it. If so, I would be incredibly happy if you could leave me a short review on iTunes. This will help other designers to find the podcast and help me to increase my audience.
Today I am proud that I managed to stay consist and produce one episode of this podcast per week so far. Thank you for being my accountability partner. If I can work consistently on my game so can you. In this sense: Thank you for listening and until next week keep shooting for the moon and nerd like a boss.

Sources:
Gamasutra
Encounter Design (Angry GM) 

Contests in Fate RPG:
Skill Challenges in D&D 4th edition
Youtube Video about Skill Challenges 

Progress Tracker in Warhammer Fantasy RPG
Music by: Matthew Pablo

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