Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Single Encounter Adventures

One thing I remember as I review my old gaming records is how often I used to create whole adventures around a single encounter. Whether through laziness (got tired of stocking dungeons), thriftiness (I had no money for modules), or practicality (the short attention spans of young players) some days the only adventure would be one Big Bad…or Big Bad Fight.

I guess the term for this in 21st century parlance would be a “set-piece” encounter, or perhaps a “Boss Fight.” Except I might not even have non-Boss monsters (save perhaps as a warm up encounter). Generally, these One Encounter scenarios were of the scourge variety, something like “the Tarrasque has awakened from centuries long slumber and is ravaging the countryside…what are you going to do?”

The scourge monster doesn’t exist in a dungeon…hell, they may not even have a lair, or treasure of which to speak (though reward was possible from a grateful lord/ruler). XP-wise, I’d generally award a blanket amount of experience depending on the scourge…generally enough that every PC could gain a level from the encounter.

Perhaps an example or two would serve.

When I was youngling, some of my first exposures to fantasy was the animated Rankin/Bass films The Hobbit and The Return of the King. I drew heavily from both for adventures (micro- and otherwise)…the latter, for example, provided me a scourge encounter with a Witch-King figure that duplicates the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (that’s for another post on the perils of being a self-taught DM).

However, from The Hobbit the dragon Smaug makes a great single encounter adventure. I was never too comfortable with placing dragons in dungeons (though I know I did so often enough). I mean, I just pictured dragons as so BIG…how did you get them down those 10’ corridors?

Far better to put the dragon in a big cave at the top of a lonely mountain and have him terrorizing the kingdom, waiting for a group of adventurers to come a-slaying. Sure, the adventurers may encounter a group of, say, trolls or giant spiders on the way to old Smaug’s lair, but there was no additional dungeon that needed to be traversed. Just getting up to the dragon’s mountain lair and figuring out a way to defeat him was “trap and trick” enough. Not to mention the inherent deadliness of an Ancient Red Dragon. Why needlessly complicate or obscure the encounter with a bunch of little, minor encounters. The scourge is a suitable encounter for a party at full strength.

Single Encounter Adventures (SEAs) were some of my favorites back in the day. As long as the encounter was fierce enough, there was plenty with which to occupy a party of adventurers for several hours (real time)…talking, strategizing, planning, encountering, and (if lucky) dividing the loot afterwards.

Not every SEA need be a scourge; any properly scaled antagonist can work for this type of day-long session. Examples: an oppressive Lord/tyrant lives in this castle with his soldiers and maybe a pet wizard or beastie…what are you going to do about it? An evil cleric operates out of this shrine...how are you going to handle him and his acolytes?

A mega-dungeon can require a serious amount of time and commitment from the party wishing to plumb its depths, whereas a one-off encounter with a memorable opponent can be handled in an afternoon. Plus, players can later say, “Hey, remember when we took out Argle-Shmargle the Mighty? Joe and Fred got smoked, but the rest of us came out hella’ rich! That was cool!” Maybe I AM lazy, but we seemed to have a blast with these kind of sessions.


  1. I am also a fan of the SEA but I like episodic play. I think that they fit very well into the strengths of classic D&D. And as you say the planning, intelligence gathering and marshaling of resources can fill a big part of a gaming session.
    A few more examples:
    - A troll is terrorizing the far side of the river, attacking anyone that crosses on the ferry. The ferryman's business has dried up and he and his pregnant wife are living off of their last bit of savings;
    - Ogres are terrorizing a nearby village and have constructed a crude dam diverting the river that, until recently, flowed through the village;
    - A group of mercenaries has set up a camp in a nearby valley and have been raiding local farms, burning crops and stealing livestock.

  2. Hmm...I consider this kind of play to be "episodic;" in the sense that each play session is its own episode. The PCs will eventually build up a resume of heroic accomplishments, much like the tasks of Heracles.

    Um...or die. Either way, though, it's nice to have a break from the extended dungeon delve (and to my mind, fits more with the literature of pulp fantasy short stories).

    By the way...like your examples.
    : )

  3. Sorry if I was unclear as my use of the word "but" in my first sentence might be misinterpreted. To be more clear my first sentence should be read as:

    I am also a fan of the SEA because I like episodic play.

  4. Ah, yes...that does make more sense. Thanks for the clarification!

  5. No problem. I have a terrible tendency to write in the same way I speak conversationally.

    Another point about SEAs is that it allows for encounters that would be considered overpowering in a typical dungeon crawl. If the players know that the encounter will be very challenging it focuses more of the effort on the front end planning and roleplaying.

    Eg. Where can they get a ballista from to shoot the dragon? Will the bandits ally with you to overcome the manticore? etc.