Portable encounters

This post examines encounter types and proposes one that you might not have come across: the portable encounter.

Encounter types: fixed-location and random

Most encounters in published adventures are fixed-location. Enter room 3 and meet the troll that lairs there. Or don’t, and don’t. But if you, as GM, stick entirely to fixed-location encounters, that limits your control. Pacing and sequence depends on what the players choose to do. And, depending on the whims of the dice gods, the adventure can turn out frustratingly hard or all too easy for the PCs.

If you plan on having a certain encounter or scene, it depends on getting the players to a certain place. The temptation is to railroad them there, but players often dislike this, unsurprisingly—they want to choose their own adventure. Also, the world tends to feel very static, with all the monsters just waiting in one place for adventurers to kick in the door.

But RPGs also often have random encounters. Every hour (or day or whatever) in a monster-haunted area you (the GM) check randomly for ‘wandering monsters’–roll a d6 and on a 1 (or whatever) monsters approach. What monsters and how many is also rolled randomly, with the 5e DMG offering things like: in a sylvan forest roll d12+d8; on a 4, encounter 1d4 gnolls and 2d4 hyenas. OK then—open the Monster Manual.

This randomness pretty much ensures that the encounter has little connection to the adventure plot. It challenges the GM to improvise (which some like, but some don’t) and it may disrupt your session pacing.

I think there’s a middle ground: portable encounters. They are not fixed to a location, and they can relate to player choices and the course of the story in various ways. But they are planned and they appear at the GM’s discretion, not randomly. 

Why use portable encounters?

To look in a little more depth about why and how to use portable encounters, I’ll look more generally at why and how to use any encounters. There are actually some really useful ideas on encounter purposes in the 5e DMG in the random encounters section. But I’m expanding these to be more general.

To set scene, atmosphere and tone

Encounters (whether fixed, portable or random) can showcase a creature or character that establishes atmosphere for your world, or theme or tone for the current adventure. Your descriptions and what encountered creatures do and say can add to this and give information about your world. If you use portable encounters, you can provide this kind of flavour reliably without worrying about whether your PCs will choose to visit a certain fixed encounter, or having to adapt the tone of some random critter from the monster manual.

To tell the story

As well as the setting, encounters can reveal information about the plot.  Details like creature type, character identity, dialogue, or objects or documents discovered via the encounter, can reveal specific clues, plot points or establishing facts.

There’s a particular subset of this function that is addressed in the DMG random encounters section: to give clues about upcoming encounters. Specifically, to foreshadow danger or to provide hints that will help the adventurers prepare for the encounters to come. With fixed and portable encounters as well as random, early/minor encounters can be a good way to give clues ahead of a big showdown. The climactic encounter will of course be tougher and more spectacular; by giving the PCs a chance to prepare themselves, you reward engagement and smart choices.

You can also use portable encounters more generally in storytelling. They can provide exposition, development or resolution to parts of the story or the whole thing. Their portability lets you make them happen in response to plot developments other than the arrival of the PCs at particular locations. They can happen at certain times, or they can happen as a result of certain PC choices or other events. They enable you to get early revelations in a useful sequence without railroading the PCs to certain locations. 

You can use portable encounters to provide clues about who or what to go after, and where to find them, to resolve the adventure. This means you can make the climactic encounter fixed-location, which enables you to use the terrain to make it more dramatic, memorable and exciting. It also lets the players choose to go to the climactic encounter rather than stumbling across it.

For pacing

Portable encounters are particularly useful for pacing. The 5e DMG suggests GMs use “random” encounters to create urgency, to counteract the players slowing down, to interrupt a rest stop, to liven up a long uneventful journey. Note that these are reasons to *choose* when “random” encounters happen, or at least when they are checked for. The function depends on the encounters *not* being entirely random.

You will want your sessions to have a mix of action and quieter elements, ideally in a satisfying pattern of raised and lowered drama. You can use portable encounters to insert action and drama into what could otherwise be excessively long lulls.

On the other hand, if there has been a lot of drama and you feel it is time for a lull, or if progress has been slow and you need to speed things towards resolution, you can leave out a planned or potential encounter. The DMG has several points about when not to use random encounters, including not distracting from the main story, not interrupting progress, and not becoming tiresome. These are all obviously also reasons to hold back portable encounters.

If for these reasons you find yourself omitting an encounter would have given some important piece of information or item, then you can put that back in at some point via a portable encounter—either the originally-omitted one in a different context, or a different one that achieves the same purpose. 

For balance

You probably want your PCs to be challenged and not to find the adventure easy. On the other hand, you want them to have a fair chance of success and not to find the adventure too discouraging.

You can use encounter planning, especially portable encounters, to adjust the adventure challenge up or down. If things are going smoothly, either because you over-estimated the difficulty of your planned encounters, under-estimated your PCs or just because the dice favoured the players, you might want to increase the challenge by adding an encounter that takes away a bit more of the group’s resources.

But if things are going unexpectedly badly for the group, you might want to make things easier. You can have one encounter less than you originally planned, or you can add an encounter with a helpful creature or NPC who heals, gives resources or gives information to help the party best use its resources.

In both cases, portable encounters are helpful, because they are easy to add or take away. Your fixed encounters provide a baseload, and the portable encounters are a good tool to adjust on the fly.

Note that you can combine fixed and portable elements into one encounter. A location can contain a fixed encounter, which you estimate to be on the easy side. If, part way through the encounter, you do want to make it harder, you can add a portable element–either a second wave of the original encounter opponents, or a different kind of opponent that joins the encounter, taking sides against the PCs. If even your original encounter is going badly and you want to help the PCs, you could introduce an ally.

To enable meaningful choice

Games are better when the players have agency: the chance to make meaningful choices. For portable encounters, this means they should be able to reduce the encounters they face by using stealth tactics, keeping to safer areas or progressing without delay. If they behave in opposite ways, then you can legitimately use portable encounters to provide consequential danger and expenditure of resources.

Portable encounters can also provide meaning to choices within the plot. For example the PCs may have the choice whether or not to antagonise a powerful NPC like a noble or crime boss. If they choose to do that, you can then have the boss send minions in response. Or if the PCs make it known that they are looking for something, then that may trigger NPCs to approach them offering help. With portable encounters, these consequences do not rely on the PCs visiting a certain location. 

However, note that misusing portable encounters can work against meaningful choice. If you use portable encounters to ensure that the PCs inevitably run into a particular sequence of dangers, information and other experiences then where is the player agency?

It is a fair point. You should not make your adventure entirely out of portable encounters that will hit the PCs regardless of their choices. There can be some plot-critical encounters (probably a minority) that you plan to happen, more or less whatever the PCs do and wherever they go (for which purpose portable encounters are ideal), and other encounters (ideally a majority) that the PCs can to some extent choose (which can be fixed-location or, as noted above, portable). The type I like to minimise is encounters that the PCs stumble over as a result of random rolls or arbitrary choices like left or right in two identical corridors—these are neither in your control nor the players’.

Multi-function encounters

Encounters can of course serve more than one purpose, and often should. An encounter that purely drains the PCs’ resources or provides a fight in the middle of a long quiet spell might start to feel like padding if it is completely unrelated to the plot, atmosphere or theme. Your adventures will feel tighter and more story-driven if encounters contribute in these ways as well.

You might want the feeling that the world is big and busy and the PCs aren’t actually at the centre of it. In this case, some non-plot encounters can help. But you can still make them scene-setting, showing the world to the PCs, as well as providing the balance of combat and roleplaying that you want in your session.

What about you?

Although it is sometimes left out of GM advice on encounters, I don’t think this is really a new idea. Have you been using a similar concept already? Or has this article prompted you to start using portable encounters? Let us know your experiences and thoughts in the comments.

School of Adventure—Year Three

And so the students at the School of Adventure have completed Year 3, and my older kids have now left the school where the club takes place.  

Back to the dungeon

I decided to go back to the dungeon format for the Year 3 test, with monsters, tricks, traps and puzzles. It seemed to be fairly successful in Year 1, and I only had one non-club week between the Year 2 adventure and the Year 3. So I knocked up a quick start on a dungeon map. (I say quick; creating it in Roll20 is much slower than drawing on paper, so I suppose I mean I spent some time on it but the result was relatively limited.)

I didn’t have any high concept or overall plan for this. Needing a quick setup I sketched out three ways to turn from the dungeon entrance, put an encounter at the end of each, and then joined the encounter areas up to each other with linking corridors round the back. I figured that would keep them entertained for a couple of sessions and give them the feeling of open exploration, and I could extend the map between times.

My between-times extension was always just one step ahead, so the adventure structure became linear in the second half. More or less—I set up the exit they were looking for part way along, but unreachable when they first went past it. They had to get to the end of the dungeon to find a way to use the exit, then figure out that they could now go back and do so.

Talk or fight?

I’m still trying to get a handle on how far to simply do a fight club in a fantasy setting, and how much roleplay and plot to include. Both groups, and I think all the players in both groups, seem to quite enjoy a good scrap. As long as I can keep spicing up the routine with a new attack form or a new tactic from the monsters, I think fights will be reliably entertaining.

So for this adventure, I packed in plenty of combat. Both groups fought a squad of bugbears, a giant octopus and an outpouring of giant centipedes. The necromancer-with-zombies encounter had entertained the Tuesday group last adventure, so I gave it to the Monday group this time, with the Tuesday group facing a Spectator instead. The Monday group’s finale was animated statues and the Tuesday group got some different animated objects, and a surprise fight on the way out as well because they played faster and needed the last session filling.  

But one of my players did ask after one session for another go at a talking scene, so I put one in. It seemed to fizzle out rather; I think largely because of the online setup in which dialogue is stilted by people sometimes muting their mics and so on. But the same group (Tuesday) managed to find some roleplay in what I had imagined would be a basic fight. The Spectator showed a flicker of personality by telling the party that it was ordered to guard a treasure, and this was enough for a couple of the players to latch onto. They decided it would be wrong to ‘kill’ the Spectator (I reminded them that in the School of Adventure nobody actually dies, but it still felt wrong, I think because it had showed no ill-will towards them). And so they engaged themselves in the project of neutralising the Spectator and taking the treasure without ‘killing’ it. It really added an extra dimension to the encounter.

Dungeon fun

I also did several hidden traps and secret doors, and some other physical obstacles to progress. This kind of malarkey is a bit new to the players I suppose, so I’m putting in some classics I feel they should become familiar with, like moving wall panels and concealed pit traps. Also some more odd puzzle locks, which I may be a little obsessed with. And I did a bit of a theme across several rooms where everything below the normal floor level is flooded with water, or potentially so. More than once as an obstacle to go through, but one time as a facilitator of movement. Some monsters in the water too. I quite enjoyed it—don’t know if the players saw it as a theme, but definitely they recognised that once there had been a monster in the water there might be more monsters in later water and that was entertaining.

Upping the pace

Having found in the first half of term that things went slowly online and we only got through three actual encounters in six weeks, things were much faster in this adventure. Each group did about one combat encounter per week, plus the obstacles and traps. The Tuesday group even got their talking scene, as well as fitting in one more fight than the others. Since I had briefed them to do it all in one game day, they had to make full use of short rests, hit dice, arcane recovery and cantrips to get through.

I think what was mainly going on is that they have got the hang of the technology for online play and also the mechanics of the game. Now, when I ask for a hit roll at +4, it mostly happens. It is self-reinforcing as well because with everyone’s turns going more quickly, each person’s turns come round again faster and they stay more engaged between times.

Never split the party

This is a time-honoured RPG maxim, and was borne out for the Monday group. I had set up the dungeon in an old-school most-rooms-have-enough-monsters-for-the-whole-party way. All the kids have a slight tendency to move their characters individually, sometimes further than is wise. But one of the players in the Monday group in particular decided that they wanted to bag loot for themselves by going ahead of the others to see what they could find. They even did this towards the end of a fight that the group was still engaged in. There was a solo monster which I described as significantly wounded, and so Lone Wolf said on their turn “I think the rest of you can handle it from here; I’m going down that other corridor to find some treasure.” So of course they ran into four bugbears, who had heard them coming and prepared an ambush. Bugbears hit pretty hard for low-level monsters, and Lone Wolf is one of the squishiest characters in their party, and was already wounded, so they were immediately knocked out. I mean, it turned an encounter that the Tuesday group made short work of into a real nail-biter for Lone Wolf and their comrades, so in a way it was good. But also I guess Lone Wolf the player may have learned that Lone Wolfery is not smart play.

Player service

There’s a player I find I say ‘no’ to a lot. I mean, I don’t say flat out no too much, but they come up with lots of crazy schemes and I tend to bring them back down to earth with the practicalities of our imaginary world, and the limits of their authorship within the creative structure. Hang on, that sounds unclear and a touch pretentious; I mean that the player will say “I’ll do this and then the other character will do this, and this will unexpectedly happen and then we’ll go on like so and it will be fantastic!” and I need to remind them that they only control their character, and there are limits on their character’s capabilities, and they have to go step by step and I’ll tell them the results of each action, and generally they are not writing a story by themselves.

Anyway, so I often feel like I’m saying ‘no’ to this player. But they made it really clear over a period of weeks that their big dream was to ride a flying creature to save the day. And I managed to make the finale of that group’s adventure that they found a statue of a winged horse, that came to life and moved, and they found a way to get control of it and to pilot it to get the whole group out of the dungeon to mission success. Yay! I actually love it when players say out loud what they want and I can give them the chance for it to happen.

What next?

So we’re now in the summer holidays, which in the UK is the end of the school year. The Monday group by the end of term was just Year 5 players, who will be back at the same school for Year 6 in September. So I will hopefully be able to continue the School of Adventure as an after-school club for them (either on-site or on-line; I’ll have to see). There was one Year 5 player in the Tuesday group (plus another year 5 who didn’t join this term for practical reasons) so I might see if they would like to join the other Y5s on the same afternoon.

The rest of the Tuesday group was Y6s, and they’re all off to secondary school. I’ve been assuming that this means the end of School of Adventure for them, but one of them is my own older kid, and I’ve had information from their school that there aren’t after-school activities because of COVID-19 and the students are encouraged to go straight home. So I begin to wonder whether there might be an appetite for further online play in the back-home kind of time slot…

And I did find that Y5s are able to get into the game, so if the primary school is hosting clubs onsite I can advertise for next year’s Y5s to come in. I think probably only if I can do it face-to-face though; of the two new players who wanted to start during my online play phase, only one successfully got started and that was the one with the older sibling who already played Dungeons & Dragons on Roll20 and could coach the younger sibling through it. The other player was trying to get into it helped by me remotely and their non-gamer parents, and they logged on for a trial session but didn’t really play and didn’t come back.

So, we will see…

Pick’n’mix race for 5e

I’m keen to develop a version of race in fantasy roleplaying games that doesn’t bake in the notion that people are divided by ancestry into essentially separate groups that differ dramatically from each other. Since my current (and most likely near future) games are Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, I’ve turned my mind to implementing this within that framework. So I present, and invite your thoughts on, the following:

Imagine all the races from the Player’s Handbook have lived alongside each other for thousands of years, and have interbred. Most folk have dwarven, elven, halfling, orc and many other types of ancestry, as well as vanilla human. Even bits of draconic or infernal. So people vary from short like halflings to tall like half-orcs or dragonborn. They vary from slight like elves to sturdy like dwarves. They have all kinds of coloration and other cosmetic features. And they have a wide scatter of fantastical abilities. Most people more or less take after one or both of their parents, but sometimes you get a throwback to a more distant ancestor.

So in character creation you can choose from one giant racial-features buffet. I feel it would get out of hand if players choose as many as they like, so I’m thinking I will allow a certain number. And all the different features are not equal, so I’m thinking of dividing them into tiers, and allowing, for example, 2 Greater benefits, 2 Medium benefits, 3 Lesser and 3 Trivial. With probably scope to trade, for example, 2 Lesser benefits for 1 Medium. And a little scope to accept a drawback in exchange for an additional benefit of equal value.

Anyway, so I’m inviting thoughts on the following tiers for the various SRD racial features.

Greater Benefits

  • +2 to any one ability score (only one benefit per score)
  • Tough (+1 hit point per level as Hill Dwarf)
  • Infernal Legacy (as Tiefling, or maybe equivalent with other spells)
  • Lucky (as Halfling)
  • Relentless Endurance (as Half-Orc)
  • Savage Attacks (as Half-Orc)

Medium Benefits

  • +1 to any one ability score
  • Lifespan over 500 years
  • Darkvision
  • Resilience to poison (as Dwarf, or maybe similar benefits for different attack form)
  • Resistance to elemental energy type (as Dragonborn or Tiefling)
  • Cantrip (as High Elf, maybe expand to allow non-wizard cantrips)
  • Breath Weapon (as Dragonborn)
  • Cunning (as Gnome, or similar advantage to many saving throws)
  • Tinker (as Rock Gnome)

Lesser Benefits

  • Lifespan 250-500 years
  • Proficiency with 3-4 weapons in up to two groups (as Dwarf or Elf)
  • Brave (as Halfling, or similar advantage on a few saving throws, such as magic charms*)
  • Unsleeping (Trance as Elf, plus immune to magical sleep as Elf*)
  • Naturally Stealthy (as Lightfoot Halfling)
  • Nimble (as Halfling)

*I am regrouping the Elf features headed Fey Ancestry and Trance, into Advantage vs Charm and Unsleeping (that is, moving immunity to magical sleep to go with trance/not normally sleeping, which seems more logical to me).

Trivial Benefits

  • Lifespan 150-200 years
  • Proficiency in one tool, skill or language (you must take at least one language)
  • Craft Lore (as Dwarf Stonecunning or Gnome Artificer’s Lore)

Medium Drawbacks

  • Slow (speed 25 feet)

Lesser Drawbacks

  • Plodding (speed 25 feet, not reduced by armor)

Trivial Drawbacks

  • Size Small
  • Lifespan 75-80 years

(I take Medium size, 30ft speed and lifespan of around 100 years as the default, not counting as any benefit or drawback.)

Looking for feedback

So, do you think these tiers make sense? Do I need to put anything in a super-high tier above Greater? Do I need a tier between Greater and Medium?

And do you think that the right features are in the right tiers? Should I do anything fancier with ability scores, like whether +1 changes the modifier or not, or whether you increase a score that is already high? Should skill proficiencies be worth more than tools or languages? Should I bump Small up to a Lesser Disadvantage? Should I put Relentless Endurance and/or Savage attacks down to Medium Benefits?

Rating the races

I’ve tried to make a rough test of the tier assignments by counting up the value of all the SRD race features. It varies a bit depending on exactly how many lower-tier benefits are worth one higher-tier benefit but, roughly speaking, I find that the above system makes Halflings, Dragonborn and maybe Gnomes come out weaker than Humans. And it makes Dwarves, Elves, Half-Orcs and maybe Half-Elves come out stronger. Does that seem to reflect your feelings? Or should I re-assess my feature tiers to make the official races come out more balanced.

Limits on pick’n’mix race building

I should also note that I would put some limits on what Strength scores are compatible with what heights and weights (ie if you want a low Strength you have to be smaller, and if you want a high Strength you have to be bigger), and also on what speed features are compatible with what heights and builds (basically if you are going to take the Slow disadvantage you must be under a certain height, maybe 5’, and if you are going to take the Plodding disadvantage you must be similarly short but also strong for your height).

I also propose to make the Small disadvantage automatic if you are below a certain height/weight, and unavailable if you are above it/them. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but I mention this principle now because it is part of why I have currently made Small size only a Trivial drawback—if you’re Small, you have a low Strength and probably don’t want to use Strength weapons anyway, so being unable to use weapons with the Heavy property doesn’t impact you much. I suppose longbow and heavy crossbow might be missed.

Ancestry vs upbringing

Also, when I implement this system, I’ll probably move some elements to the background phase of character creation, such as proficiencies of the various kinds, Tinker, Craft Lore and at least some cantrips/spells. Background won’t be completely pick-and-mix but there will be some flexibility there too.

Seriously, tell me what you think

In the comments below, please and thank you.