Tuesday, March 5, 2024

"Memorable Encounters"

Oh, boy. Feather ruffling time.

I don't care about writing memorable encounters. Writing adventures is NOT about writing "memorable encounters." Trying to design "memorable" encounters is the DM-equivalent of the player twinking out over how to use their kewl powers in some super-awesome combo.

No. Just no.

People need to trash the "video game thinking." Video games are not the origin of this concept, but they have far and away been the proliferator of it. Stop thinking like you're designing a video game. OR, if you really must: go design video games. Video games love (and desperately need) "memorable encounters."

D&D does not.

I'm looking back, over my many decades as a DM and a player, and trying to recall "memorable encounters" and I'm pretty much drawing a blank. Really: I'm coming up with zero. Certainly nothing that was set up to be "memorable." There are, of course, things that are memorable, and they fall into three general categories: situations, successes, and failures.

Successes are times when the PCs had a "big win." I've noted some of these on Ye Old Blog over the years: things like slaying the naga in N1 or offing the gender-bent Strahd in my re-skinning of I6. 

Failures are usually amusing (to me anyway) TPKs and pyrrhic victories; I've sometimes blogged about these as well, including parties (well, what was left of them) fleeing White Plume Mountain with their tails tucked between their legs. My own journey through Q1 (as a player) resulted in a rather memorable failure, just by the by.

Situations are something else completely...I think I'd best define it as "player manufactured drama." Players bumbling into some sort of predicament, based on ignorance, lack of leadership, or ridiculous in-fighting of some sort. In my youth (before I 'wised up') this sometimes (often?) led to some sort of PVP...but not always. Sometimes, "situations" just involved PCs trying to Rube Goldberg their way out of some sort of silliness. Yes, it makes for a "memorable" event.

These are the things that are remembered: successes, failures, and silly situations. Not encounters. Encounters are a dime a dozen. It's not about what the encounter IS...not about the types of creatures or NPCs or their combination of attacks. It's about what happens DURING the encounter and the RESULT of the encounter...maybe. A fight with kobolds that ends in a TPK is memorable because we got gaffled by a bunch of tiny dog people with spears...not because of the monsters' special abilities or any sort of tactical BS. 

You do NOT need super special snowflake set-piece encounters to have a memorable game of D&D. Forget that noise, because making it a priority is a distraction from what makes ACTUAL memorable D&D play. Memorable D&D play comes from playing the game HARD, with CONSISTENCY. It is about applying PRESSURE via the rules at hand. It is about creating scenarios that drive PLAYER ACTION, and then following that thread ruthlessly...for good or ill. Sometimes the players win and they take away a big pile of treasure with lots of cheering and hollering. Sometimes the players lose and everyone has to roll up new characters (at least now they can try playing a ranger...or whatever).

For my players, there are only a couple things I care about them remembering at the end of the day:

#1 I want them to remember their character and their character's journey. NOT because the character has a cool backstory or story arc or blah, blah, blah. I want them to remember (with fondness) their dwarf or paladin or WHATEVER and feel a sense of pride (if the character was successful and had a long career) or wistful sadness (if its career was cut short by some untimely demise). Because, in the end, the character's journey is the player's journey.

#2 I want them to remember me, as a Dungeon Master: that I challenged them and pushed them and played HARD with them and allowed them to EARN Every. Thing. They. Got. 

Because THAT, my lovely readers, is what D&D is really, really all about. That, my friends, is what makes the game great. Playable content and a well-run game is all that's required to make a game memorable. DMs that are "firm but fair." Worlds that are consistent and have verisimilitude. Play experiences that players get lost within.

Yes, encounters are a large part of the D&D play experience. But it's not the uniqueness of an encounter that makes it worth remembering (if it is worth remembering). Rather, it is the interaction with that encounter, and what the consequences of that interaction might be...and those things can't be scripted, only played. 

You want a memorable script? Write a screenplay.


  1. Really? I can think of dozens of memorable encounters going back 40 years or so. I mean maybe we are splitting hairs here, my "memorable encounters" could very well be permutations of your "situations, successes, and failures."
    I can think of a few when a dragon took out my one and only ever ninja (failure), or my character's fight with Strahd (situation), or my players destroying the artifact shrouding the world in night (success). And I do typically think of these as encounters. Did I write them that way? Well...the dragon was so ridiculous that no one could have written that. The Strahd one could have gone a dozen different ways. But the last one? Yeah, I knew from the start of the campaign it was going to be an epic scene and I did want I could (including scheduling to make sure it happened at Gen Con) to get everyone to that point.
    It is something my kids still talk about.
    There is nothing wrong with memorable encounters.

    1. Maybe we are splitting hairs...or maybe not.

      What I'm ranting about/railing against (and to be clear, it WAS meant to be something of a rant...) is the idea that it's necessary...or even desirable...for a DM to write/create "memorable" encounters. Of the examples you list, only the last one seems to be DESIGNED as such. Perhaps.

      I mean an encounter with a vampire or dragon probably WILL be memorable, because of the nature of the beast (i.e. a quite deadly, quite intelligent, most likely adversarial monster). But sticking one in one's dungeon does not require any great "design skill." Neither does the lair of a lich or any number of high powered antagonists (which vary depending on the PCs' level range).

      But regardless, it's not the fact that there IS a dragon or a greater devil or a lich that makes the encounter "memorable." One can say the demilich in Tomb of Horrors is "memorable" or the froghemoth in Barrier Peaks...but I've run both those encounters in the past and there's nothing that sticks out in MY memory about either (other than the demilich NOT being defeated...).

      Some encounters WILL be memorable (regardless of how "interesting" or "original" the design is), and some will NOT be memorable (again, REGARDLESS of how "interesting" or "original" the design is). And, as such, I'll reiterate that working towards such design, or lauding such design, or deploring lack of such design ALL fall under the heading of "false idol." It is worrying about style over substance.

      Is there anything WRONG with a memorable encounter? Only if you make it a priority of your adventure writing.

      However, I'll grant you one caveat/exception: if you plan on ending your campaign, I don't terribly mind trying to "go out with a bang;" i.e. scripting a memorable conclusion or capstone to a long running game that is coming to an end. But, personally, I don't run D&D campaigns with an "end" in mind. I understand that some folks do, but that's not my approach to the D&D game.

    2. IF you are saying "Don't craft an encounter for the sole purpose of being memorable" then yes, we are in agreement. To use a somewhat adult term, you are not looking for the "Money Shot."
      Craft a good a encounter and let it BE memorable. Like my example with my ninja and the dragon. There was no way we planned that, yet the scene of my poor ninja getting reduced to -70 hp paste is not one I am likely to forget.

    3. Yes, Tim...we are on the same page.

  2. Discounting whatever the "memorable encounter" meme is, having searched for it online and seeing that it's buzz-speak and not an established formula ... I'm not at all clear what you're saying here. I plan and design quality moments in my games all the time, and I do so with such alacrity that they usually hit the mark I'm aiming at ... and yes, they're all very memorable.

    "Memorable" isn't the exact thing I'm shooting at, but nonetheless it's a reasonable definition for the basic goal. Things in the game have to happen to encourage play. There's a natural instinct that those things ought to have quality. Quality makes a good game. How to make "quality" happen might be up for discussion, but the idea of quality isn't. We want quality. We want game experiences to reflect that quality. Obviously, any quality game experience is going to be memorable.

    What is it you want, then? That we don't think at all about our games, and just hope shit happens, maybe? That's a plan? Or are you saying plans don't work ... to which I'd have to answer, "Maybe for you ..."

    I don't have to go back to game modules written 40+ years ago to find "memorable" encounters that occur in my game world. I can think of four such encounters that have happened in the last year, that brought shouts of pleasure and anguish and total immersion. Why is it that when you, JB, need an example, you have to go to someone else's design, in another era? Is it that you have nothing of your own, right now, that you can speak of?

    No, I know that's not true. You won a trophy this year. Why don't you use that event as an example. I'm sure it was memorable, both to you and to those people who enjoyed the game you brought.

    So what the hell is this? Because for someone not in the know, it sounds a bit ... um ... let's say directionless.

    As such

    1. Hey, man. Yeah, context is probably important.

      Not a meme; recently I read a review where a "gonzo" adventure was praised for its ability to create "memorable scenarios." I pushed back on this, partly because I find the IDEA of writing with this goal in mind is silly ("memorable" being a product of interaction between the DM and th players) and partly because I think the this idea has, in fact, proliferated among adventure cobblers, distracting them from what SHOULD be the focus: namely, writing scenarios that are comprehensible, consistent, and consequential.

      *sigh* I see that I probably need to sit down and write a point-by-point essay on this subject.

      [and, yes, with examples]

      ANYway, I don't think you're really disagreeing with me, here. You (the DM) creates memorable encounters, and I'd imagine you can do so from many things, including the most basic group of hostile orcs. *I* can do that, and it's not about TRYING to make them interesting or weird or "memorable."

      Mm. Maybe this reply doesn't make much (or enough) sense. Let me ruminate a bit, as I have to run out the door at the moment.

    2. No, I'm not really disagreeing with you. Just pushing back at you writing content that seems utterly incomprehensible.

    3. LOL. I'm rusty, man.
      ; )

  3. I 100% agree with your post. In fact, it sounds like me talking half the time. The memorable things from the campaigns I've run are, like you mention, situations the players manufactured either knowingly or unknowingly. All I did was give them a tool or three and watched them go.

  4. Aye, the GM's job is to create situations or settings. How the players (as PCs) interact with them creates the memorable. Due to the heavily improvisational nature of the game, it can be difficult to force a scene specifically for its "memorability" without it becoming stilted or feeling false.

  5. I think we agree on a higher level.

    The responsibility is two-fold. The DM ultimately creates encounters that are special and encounters that are routine. I remember, say, fighting the re-animated corpse of the Mad Emperor's beloved horse in ACKs. These encounters stand out above others and have the potential to be memorable.

    However, these encounters cannot exist solely as a piece of interesting fluff. They must be memorable on the interactive level. What is ultimately the most memorable, and here we agree, is how the players interact (emphasis) with the object.

    A second fallacy that you also allude to is that DnD is a game of strung together memorable *encounters* when the structure of an adventure, the overlapping organization, can also make it memorable, distinct, engaging or challenging. This incidentally, was why I balked internally a bit at your point that Slyth Hive had a handful of encounters that were a bit too similar.

    I don't think that is the case, because the overlapping mechanism, the adaptation, the reinforcements, the environments around them etc. all contribute to them being different encounters, despite having more or less the same components.

    1. Mm. I definitely don't want (nor intend) this to devolve into a critique of Slyth Hive. However, my critique of SH, in THIS particular instance, is indeed linked to the underlying principal(s) upon which my grievance ("forget memorable encounters!") is based.

      I am absolutely serious...and yet that is not to take away from Slyth Hive as a near-masterwork (it is very good, your best creative output that I've read...and, yet, I think you have better yet to come). It IS a great adventure...and yet here it stands, doing the same thing I rail against, with its lavish detail to diabolical set-pieces. Perhaps NOT set-pieces deliberately written to be "memorable," but certainly designed to be "interesting" which, for purposes of this rant, is tantamount to the same thing.

      "The DM ultimately creates encounters that are special and encounters that are routine."

      I REJECT this premise. The DM creates encounters, period. The encounters are then run, with attention and with intensity correlating to the scale of the thing. Encounters challenge/threaten the lives and/or livelihoods of players' characters, and should be respected as such. Even a scratch from a lowly orc may make a difference in a character's career, reducing the party's resources (through the expenditure of a healing potion or spell) or by diminishing the character's hit points JUST ENOUGH that they are felled by the next trap door or monster they come across.

      Nothing should be routine, nor taken for granted. D&D IS a game, but unlike other games (except in the broadest sense), it's rules/mechanics generate a particular experience of play that fires neurons in the brain in a way that is not seen outside of actual ("real") adventurism...partly through identification, partly through imagination, partly through verisimilitude. Run properly, players should be on the edge of their seat MOST of the time (with periodic lulls to break tension). I suppose one could say ALL encounters are "special" if treated as such.

      However, when YOU distinguish between "special" and "routine" encounters, perhaps what you're trying to point out is that some encounters are "boring" or trope-y. 'Oh, another goblin guard post with six spear-chuckers...haven't seen this before (*yawn*).' Good adventure design (IMO) doesn't seed throwaway encounters; each piece should have a reason (in the in-game fiction sense) for being where and what it is, so as not to break verisimilitude. Designed in this way, no encounter becomes boring or trite, because players are ENGAGED with the world being presented and are (probably) in a fight for their lives. The ART of the Dungeon Master involves finding a way for the appropriate mechanical challenge to coincide with the fictional game reality. When you can do THAT, then there is no reason to add weird, memorable, unique encounters...those things are spackle used to patch holes that would otherwise be filled with simple, solid DMing. A poor substitute, in my non-humble opinion.

      So, yes, where we agree (see your third paragraph) we definitely agree. But where we DISAGREE...look, there is a part of me that would LIKE to agree with you. In a way, it would be so much easier to write adventures that way (here's a few "normal" encounters, here are some "Saturday Night Specials," now go). But IN THIS CASE, my opinion is informed by my experience (mainly as a DM but also - and disappointingly - as a player) rather than just theory-bashing/thought-storming, and so I am unlikely to be mvoed. Perhaps your experience has been different from mine...or perhaps, if you ruminated on it a bit, you'd see there's something to this rant of mine.

      There are different ways to do "hard work" on adventure design. I wouldn't make the creation of "memorable encounters" a priority of effort.