Sunday, May 19, 2024


Three days ago my wife told me to go to the store and get some rice. Sadly, my car battery had died, so I decided to make the long walk to the other side of town to my local supermarket. To get there I would have to pass through several bad neighborhoods, so I took a hammer with me just to be safe. 

As I passed by the the observatory around the corner from my house, two crazed men, armed with knifes, came charging down the hilltop, stabbing wildly at me. I trapped their blades in the claws of my hammer then brought the poll across their skulls, dropping them both. Merciful person that I am, I dialed an ambulance and then continued on my way when I suddenly found myself waylaid by a ferocious mother bear. 

An oblique encounter at a wine shop
Art by Jackie Musto 
Foolishly I had walked between her and two cubs. The beast charged and chased me for over a mile. With her full weight she dragged me down and pinned me to the ground with her claws. As her jaws opened to devour my face, I managed to bribe her momentarily with a pack of beef jerky I kept always in my back pocket. Bear handled, I continued on, but  had to make my way through Pine Grove Cemetery as the chase had taken me far from my intended destination.

It was approaching dusk but defeating the bear emboldened me, so I walked through the gates and took the gravel path. I'd gotten no further than the old Poole Mausoleum when a shambling mass of undead corpses harried me, claws reaching for my throat. I gripped my hammer firmly and resolved to send them all to hell......


Real world encounters and travel don't look like the above. But it is easy to slip into the trap of having all of the encounters in your campaign be nothing more than creatures and opponents rushing in to kill the players. While you dont' want encounters in the game to be as mundane or dull as real life, they should have some of the mystery, the obliqueness and variety that exists in real life. Part of the fun of an encounter is not knowing what the encounter means initially, whether it will lead to combat, friendship, difficult choices, information, etc 

I talk about this HERE at more length, but the idea is simply that encounters are not always a direct line towards the party, and even when they are directed towards the party, they can come from oblique angles. Yes, sometimes an encounter is simply a charging attack or a group of bandits demanding the player characters hand over their money and supplies. But if every encounter is like that, encounters lose their mystery and become routine procedure. 

There are a number of ways to promote oblique encounters in your campaigns. One way is to bake them into your encounter tables. Personally I don't like my encounter tables to be overly detailed or involved, I see entries as starting points, so another way is to simply reflect on the result you roll and to give yourself the freedom to elaborate so they are interesting. 

Thinking is key. It sounds basic, it sounds like something we all do anyway, but getting in habit of thinking on the fly about the result, why it is there what possible ways the players might find themselves involved, how it presents to them, etc. For example, if you roll a result and you get something like "Eleven of General Jin Zai's Soldiers on Patrol", you could simply have the soldiers approach the party, ask them for passports, and allow the particular details of the campaign to help determine the nature of the encounter (i.e. are the players wanted by empire for some reason). But you don't have to make the party the focus, you could instead have the players happen upon a conflict between the soldiers and other people. Maybe they are chasing a group of Kushen Merchants who were spying or stole something. Now the players have choices when the encounter occurs, and one of those choices is simply to do nothing and move quietly along. But they could help the soldiers or help the Kushen. This helps turn the encounter into a meaningful decision point. Another possibility is you decide the soldiers are on patrol but in disguise, perhaps as musicians or farmers, with the aim of implanting themselves into groups of martial heroes that might be a threat or potential allies to the general. 


If every encounter is negative, then there is no reason for the players to think about what they do when an encounter happens. In Sons of Lady 87, I offered up one way of quickly figuring this out (simply rolling a d10 and determining the nature of the encounter on a spectrum of positive to negative based on the result). But that is just a tool. This can be done simply according to what seems the best, most realistic or most interesting choice to you. The basic point is that some encounters, even encounters with monsters and bad guys, ought to be interesting and positive sometimes. 

The key with friendly encounters is to still keep them interesting, and to make sure there is occasionally something that benefits the players themselves. In a world of martial heroes, or even in a world of fantasy heroes, the party's reputation, personalities and achievements are going to make them popular with some people, even villains. One thing I always ask myself for example when I roll on the Personalities of the Martial World for encounters, is how much the NPC in question respects the party and what they are known for. He may have heard of their techniques, he may know some of the people they have defeated. This can obviously go in a negative direction too, but when it is positive it is likely to lead to good things for the party (whether that is a new friendship, resources or even helpful knowledge or martial arts techniques is all based on the specifics). 

Even monsters can be friendly. Look to a movie like A Chinese Ghost story, where not every monster is trying to kill the protagonist (or at least, not fully committed to that enterprise). If the players are capable and worthy, a monster may not be seeking to kill them, but to work with them. 


Another very important thing to help keep all encounters from just being about combat or things rushing to attack the party, is the players themselves. Smart parties will try to converse with threats. Even if the encounter is a hostile one, the players can use reason and even make emotional appeals to turn the tide in a more favorable direction. 

I recently had a group of characters who were the target of a paid assassin. The party understood the assassin was quite powerful so they engaged him, and ultimately paid him off. They also took time to make a good impression on the assassin and earned his respect. 

This is largely about not committed to any particular outcome, honestly playing the NPCs and giving the players a fair hearing when they present ideas. 

All this advice isn't meant to change how you run the game if you are satisfied. If you are running most encounters as hostile combat and people are having fun, that isn't a problem. If you are doing so and the game feels like it is growing dull, try some of these techniques and see if they add to your campaign. 

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