Designing Goal-Oriented Encounters, or “How can I challenge my PCs without having to make my monsters stronger?”

Designing Goal Oriented Encounters, or

How can I challenge my PCs without having to make my monsters stronger?

This is a reprint of my /r/DnDBehindtheScreen article published 26 February 2016.

Here we go with the next sermon essay. In the following, I will

A) Briefly explain the nature of and some common struggles with designing encounters,
B) Assert a goal-oriented imagination of encounter design philosophy, and then
C) Provide some longwinded examples.

First, let’s define “Encounter”.


Any conflict within which there is the potential to drain PC resources. These resources include hit dice, hit points, abilities, spell slots, consumables, action economy, and even wealth (Do tell if I’ve neglected another resource).

This definition is intentionally broad and vague so as to encapsulate the variety of encounters we can come to expect. Encounters can cover everything from straight up fights with hostile forces, environmental calamity, harsh negotiations, dealing with puzzles and traps, as well as attempts to avoid all of these from the outset.

Now the way DnD is set up, we need encounters, because encounters are the primary, if not only, means by which we justify and distribute Experience Points, by which our PCs level up. So one of the many challenges of every DM is: how will I fill up today’s session with encounters?

Enemy Encounters are the easy quantifiable metric by which we can evaluate whether any given adventuring day was challenging or not, just as how comparing average damage potentials between classes is the easy quantifiable way by which we can compare the strengths and weaknesses between classes. But just as how comparing average damage potentials can blind us to the broader aspects of class design and intent, judging the difficulty of encounters based on how challenging the given enemies are can often trap us into arms races against our PCs.

If you recall from my essay on Challenging Encounter Philosophy, an overemphasis on the Combat aspect of encounters can lead to the constricting notion that the Goal of any given encounter is to eliminate enemy forces. If that becomes your PC’s goal, then it’s not unexpected that their character design will increasingly focus on maximizing their enemy elimination potential. Once encounters start getting trounced, the common reaction for DMs is to up the strength of their monsters, fueling what is effectively an arms race between PCs and DMs. Hence my essay on Designing the Mechanics of the Big Bad to enable DMs to step away from that arms race a bit, for at least regarding their BBEGs.

Now for accomplishing the same with any run-of-the-mill encounter, I assert that you do not necessarily need a better application of mechanics, but rather an alternative philosophy regarding encounter goals.

The Goal Oriented Encounter

In a goal oriented encounter, the encounter is a means to an end, or an interruption to what would preferably be a conflict-less pursuit. In such a type of encounter, the elimination of enemy combatants is merely one among many avenues by which to achieve a goal.

What this requires is that you define a goal from the outset, and then let your PCs pursue that goal however which way they want. Obviously this is nowhere close to a foreign concept – it’s the nature of a collaborative real time role playing game! But I am talking about within the parameters of an encounter itself, rather than the nature of the game as a whole. The emergence of an encounter demands the questions, “Why do we fight?” and, “If we achieved what we wanted, would we continue fighting?”

These questions drive home the point that seldom is fighting for the sake of fighting. Fight because you wantsomething, and once you get it, make yourself scarce!

Understand what your goal is, fight for it, and once it is achieved, or once you determine it is impossible to achieve, leave the encounter.

What this means for DMs and PCs mechanically is encounters can and often should end long before all of one side’s collective hit points reach 0.

Examples of Goal Oriented Encounters

1) Monster psychology. In one of my campaigns, I really wanted to impose the atmosphere of famine and starvation. So one of the monsters I had running around as semi-random encounters were a small, inconsequential beast called a Starvation Dog, a type of desperate, cowardly creature defined by its perpetual state of hunger. For a party of level 9 PCs, such a beast would be nothing. Except when they came in packs of 12 to 30… Yet even then, a well placed AoE could possibly quite effectively wiped them out – and if a PC wanted to attempt such a thing they could. But the important thing to keep in mind here wasn’t what the PCs would do, but what the Starvation Dogs wanted. Their goal was to, well, survive. Individually they are incredibly weak, so they congregated in packs. Yet even in packs they are still quite weak, and not very smart, unlike a pack of wolves, so their overarching mentality was, “Get what you can, eat what you can”. Their goal was to snag whatever bit of flesh they could get from the PCs, and then live to do so again another day. They derived confidence by being in a large pack, so if you reduced the size of their pack to a sufficient enough degree, they’d lose that confidence and run like the Starvation Dogs they are!!!

So built into their encounter design were clauses like, “Hit and run; no attempts to genuinely take down any PC. If reduced to half health or lower, will run. If pack size is reduced to half volume or lower, entire pack runs.”

In this example we see that the goal focus is on the monsters themselves, rather than what the PCs want. The Starvation Dogs’ goal happens to run counter to what the PCs want, which is to not become food long enough to get the MacGuffin, and because of that the encounter occurs. The Starvation Dogs are an interruption to what would preferably be a smooth passage for the PCs, but due to the psychology of the Starvation Dogs, the dogs present a mild yet consistent threat that does not solely demand the elimination of all enemy forces. In fact, if the PCs had investigated the nature of the dogs further, then some food charity might have ended these encounters before they even began, though then they might end up with packs of cowardly, dependent dogs to feed.

2) Monster Psychology #2. In my level 8 campaign, my PCs were charged with protecting a train that ran on Lightning Elemental energy from a vague, undefined threat. The electrical field that the train generated deterred many potentially hostile creatures away, but it attracted a very specific type of monster: The Lightning Beetle, a large insect that fed off electrical energy. Thus at some point during the train’s travel, the train was attacked. Now no particular person on the train was in danger from direct attack – the beetles ignore organic life unless the beetle is being attack – but the train could be stopped or derailed if deprived of enough electrical energy. So the PCs naturally are compelled to stop the beetles. And so are the human guards that have long served their duty to protect the train.

So, climbing to the top of the train through pull-out staircases built just to serve just this kind of occasion, the 6 PCs, alongside maybe 14 human guards, confront the approaching 16-20 lightning beetles. Now if this were a straight up PC v. Lightning Beetle brawl, the encounter may earn an Extremely Deadly difficulty due to the sheer number of lightning beetles, but because I have well defined divergent goals, I do not have to strictly follow encounter difficulty balance. The PCs’ goal is to protect the train. The Lightning Beetles’ goal is to eat their fill then move on.

When initiative begins, most beetles fly right past the PCs, because the greatest concentration of electrical energy is in the engine compartment at the front of the train. So for the PCs, it’s a game of catch up and disperse. What makes things annoying for the PCs is the fact that merely attacking a lightning beetle with anything metal immediately triggers a reactionary shock attack.

Another complication is the fact that the human guards, while many, are not nearly as strong as the PCs. For the PCs, this is an annoying battle. For the guards, this is a deadly battle. And so prior to all this I made sure to greatly humanize the guards, to encourage the PCs to care about them. Which means some of the PCs now have an additional goal: prevent any guards from dying.

Any beetle left undisturbed attacks the train itself, and when they do so I narrate the sounds of the train as groaning and creaking. Any beetle that eats its fill leaves the encounter. Any beetle that reaches half health or lower leaves the encounter, because what is the point of trying to eat if you are going to die? The guards are taking damage as they are shocked and tackled, the PCs are pulled in different directions, dealing with the beetles in front of them, chasing after the beetles that flew up ahead, protecting guards, and worrying about the state of the train itself.

By establishing divergent goals and employing monster psychology, you can make mechanically deadly encounters stressfully easy and mechanically easy encounters annoyingly devastating.

3) Mixing it up: Goblins Attack! This one I haven’t actually done, though I may have done a variation of it at some point. Imagine the classic encounter scenario: There are Goblins attacking a town. The goblins’ goal is simple: destroy the town, kill all humanoids, etc. The PCs’ goal is simple: stop the goblins. Straightforward encounter, right? It doesn’t have to be. We can introduce smaller goals within the larger goal.

The goblins are firing flaming arrows at the town’s structures with people still inside. Other goblins are toppling a watchtower, with people still at the top. And yet other goblins are about to finish destroying a dam, which when destroyed will flood a large part of the town. The obvious goal is kill all goblins, but excessive focus on that goal will result in: burnt townspeople, fallen-to-death townspeople, and drowned townspeople.

This is basically the superhero’s dilemma. While chasing after the bad guy, the bad guy snags a hostage and throws her off a building. You gotta choose to either continue after the bad guy, or save the hostage first. We all know what the superhero usually does, and if the superhero is even more awesome than usual, they will not only save the hostage but still have enough time to stop the bad guy afterwards.

Through the introduction of mini-goals that can feed into the overarching goal, we can consume PC resources in ways that do not necessarily maximize mere combat efficacy. A beastmaster ranger and her beast can run into the burning building and pull the trapped people out. A barbarian can use his Rage strength to prop up the falling tower. A wizard can cast Cone of Cold to freeze the flood water. All of these resources used towards non-combat ends still serve the overarching goal of “Stopping the goblins.” Stopping them from what? Their goal of destroying the town and killing all humanoids. Of course, your PCs could ignore these mini-goals and just choose to fight goblins (damn murderhobos), but in doing so we can introduce Non-resource related consequences, which will be another, much shorter essay.

Through the introduction of miniature goals throughout an encounter, we can more greatly challenge our PCs without necessarily making the encounter more deadly.

4) The Craziest Encounter I Ever Conducted. In my 7th level campaign, my PCs were in a pacifistic vampire land wracked with starvation and famine due to land poisoned by a war 10 years prior. They were there to fulfill the vague final mission of one of their now deceased vampire compadres. Throughout this campaign, there emerged four factions: 1) the PCs; 2) a Duergar Vampire attempting to restore vampires to their dominating, violent ancestry and become their leader; 3) a powerful, reclusive Vampire Muse who was devoted to now deceased vampire companion, and 4) a vampire hating human who (wrongfully) blamed vampires for the starved land, his starved people, and for the death of his parents.

The overarching goal of the PCs was to find and complete a mysterious machine that, based on rumors, would cure vampirism en masse. Obviously the Duergar wants to stop that; the Muse doesn’t care much other than to enable the goals of her deceased friend; and the vampire hater has only the mindless absolutist desire to destroy all vampires and thus is ignorant of everything everyone else is trying to accomplish.

In the final battle conducted in the open air sanctum that housed the machine, all four factions fought in a chaotic flurry. The PCs fought to reach and activate the machine. The Duegar Vampire and his cohorts fought to prevent that. The Vampire Muse with her undead hoard fought to give the PCs time and space. The vampire hater fought to destroy all vampires and vampire sympathizers (i.e. everyone).

Factions and PCs entered the encounter at different rounds, ramping up into an increasingly chaotic battle. Only one faction had the actual goal of eliminating all enemy forces. Other than the vampire hater and his soldiers, no one fought – nor could afford to fight – in such way as to maximize round-to-round damage output.

The PC that finally managed to reach the machine and climb its height in order to place the final part at its top that would complete and activate the machine, reoriented the Duergar vampire’s attention to solely on stopping her. While she had a tedious time climbing up the tall machine, the Duergar Vampire used his phonemically powerful body to ricochet himself up next to the PC. The PC would alternate between climbing and using a Thunderwave to knock the Duergar Vampire off.

The Duergar Vampire was a mess with everything he’d been working towards about to go up in smoke, so it was easy to justify for him to act completely irrationally. Rather than finding some other means to more efficiently stop the climbing PC, he pushed himself way beyond his limits to try and attack and grab her again and again and again. With some lucky and unlucky rolls, the PC managed to repeatedly dodge his grab attempts and knock him down, giving her the time to achieve her goal: the completion of the machine.

Upon activation, the encounter reached its end. Why? Because activating the machine completely fulfilled or denied everyone’s goals. Interestingly, rather than curing vampirism, the machine restored the fertility and vitality of all the poisoned land, reviving the blood-substitute-generating flower that had allowed the vampires to go pacifistic in the first place. Without the threat of starvation justifying the Duergar’s return to predation, he lost the will to fight. With the machine completed, the Vampire Muse saw her late companion’s will settled. Triggering the memories he suppressed that revealed that he was in fact the one accidentally responsible for the deaths of his parents, the vampire hater went mad and lost the will to fight.

And finally, the PCs had saved everyone worth saving. Not a single main actor’s Hit points reached 0 (except for maybe a couple PCs during the hectic battle), but the encounter still ended. Four factions could fight in a mass free for all, and yet the encounter could end before any side was completely routed or eliminated.

If you know what you want, then no encounter design is impossible. PCs can fight encounters that could technically be classified as deadly ten times over, without the fight being necessarily too easy or too hard, if more people fight for the sake of their goals rather than for the sake of fighting.

Next time you want to pit your level 3 PCs against an Adult Dragon, try not to tell yourself, “That’s impossible!” Instead, ask yourself, “What does the dragon want?” And, “How does what the dragon want relate to what the PCs want?”

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