The Encounter’s the Thing

By August 17, 2020DnD

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Not much has been announced save a new box set for Curse of Strahd.

The Encounter’s the Thing
An encounter can be many things, but, more or less, it’s simply a point at which the players get to interact with the world. This can be combat, exploration, social or any combination of those and other aspects of the game. I often wonder what makes it fun for different people. What combination will get everyone at the table excited about an encounter? The fact is everyone has those moments when they feel bored with an aspect of the game. It can be anything from your own mental state, to the DM running something you are not particularly interested in or perhaps, as the DM, you find your players staring vacantly when you are putting something in front of them that you believe should excite them. That said, let’s try to figure out what makes an encounter good or bad with my amazingly subjective opinions on the subject.

What makes an encounter bad? For me, an encounter is only bad if it’s not engaging to anyone. This could be the dungeon master vomiting lore to the players in an uninteresting way. This could be an encounter that makes the players feel absolutely powerless or annoyed with no payoff. This could even be a failed puzzle that was interesting at first, but quickly spiraled as the answers were too difficult to uncover or solve.

Personally, I generally dislike encounters with high CR fey creatures, especially as a player. It feels like most of the time when you encounter one they often feel too powerful to really challenge, but annoying or detrimental enough to want to. They often have that kind of devil’s bargain aspect to them where you have to really watch what you say and do. Usually not heeding that angers them or put yourself and your party into a bad situation that is difficult to get out of. After that it’s long sloggy combat encounters. Sometimes this can be by design, a kind of puzzle and the players are just not getting. Perhaps the glowing onyx jewel at the center of the room is making the zombies rise again at the 20 counter of initiative. Sometimes that can be frustrating, especially if the DM wants to be more standoffish about it.

On the flip side, what makes an encounter good? Well, it’s quite frankly the opposite. A good encounter is just simply engaging. Whether it has drama, humor, fun mechanics or anything in between. As long as it has meaning, it’s good. That doesn’t mean it has to be meaningful for everyone. Like good D&D etiquette suggests, you have to let the spotlight wax and wane on everyone or it can become stale for one or all.

So what do you think? Have any pet peeves that make for bad D&D encounters? Have some aspects that all of your favorites share?

A Dodecahedronal Encounter: The Pixiu
Trying something new this month. Going to include a random encounter, as the name suggests, when I have a good one to share. This will be an encounter I came up with myself or saw online that I thought warranted being sharing. It will be accompanied by a short story, if applicable, then an explanation of how the encounter works. This month will be an encounter with a pixiu, something of my own design.

The party is making their way through the Denwyc Timberlands. The elven Ranger in the lead, pathfinding the safest route through the forest. To the rear the dwarven Cleric keeps an ever watchful eye on his flock and beyond, ensuring nothing was tracking them. In between the party lend weary eyes while trying to remain as quiet as possible. This area of the forest is known to be far more dangerous, but makes for a much faster trip. A necessary trade as speed is currently of importance for their current endeavor.

The Ranger makes a signal to stop and the group waits watchfully as she and the Rogue investigate the faint noise she heard to the east. They make their way to encounter a strange levitating beast in a clearing. It has the shape of a lion with an almost humanoid quality to its face and small, clearly ineffectual, wings that flapped slowly as it moved. The stylized stone-like face is adorned with gaudy gems as jewelry and facets, a single fist sized ruby inset into it’s forehead and eyes like pools of quicksilver.

They gather the party to discuss what they saw and after some debate decide to greet the creature instead of ambush it. The Knight leads the party to greet the creature that is happily humming a pleasant tune. Their arrival, at first, does not seem to garner it’s attention. After a moment, however, it looks to them.

“Well met, weary travelers,” it says in a nearly booming, but pleasant voice as it lands on the ground facing them.

Before anyone could greet the creature back the Cleric stepped forward and cast a spell at the beast. It seemed to fizzle on the creature’s skin. Though drawing it’s attention, the creature seemed to take the attempt in stride.

“Very wise, my bearded friend. Strange creatures in the woods always warrant caution. What brings you here today?”

The group looked to each other, trying to figure out what to say when the Knight stepped forward once again. He explained that they were traveling through the woods to further their quest to the north.

“Ahh, the noble quest. That reminds me of a tale I once heard,” it said in reply, a smile beaming across its face.

It began to tell an entertaining tale that went on for several minutes. All the while the party began to see a strange relevance to the quest at hand. Close the end the Wizard gasped, remembering a detail they had missed a few days earlier. He quickly conferred with his party and they come to revelation. The Wizard turned to the creature and asked how he chose a story so pertinent to their quest.

“It seems to be a happy accident my fair scholar. I am as perplexed as you all, but equally thrilled it was useful to you.”

A few remained unconvinced, but none threatened or questioned the beast. They continued their conversation in relative privacy as the creature began to almost frolic in the space, humming the same tune once again. After a few moments they turned to face it once more.

“Have you come to a consensus?”

They confirmed and asked it what it was doing here.

“Traveling. I found this fine spot and decided to rest a bit and lift my own spirits with a tune,” it said happily. It added, as a quick afterthought, “you know what brings spirits even higher?”

There was a pause before the Knight asked what it was.

“Stories, my newfound friends. Trade me a good story and I will grant you luck on your endeavors for a time.”

They questioned the meaning behind the words and the creature told them things would work out better for them for a time, relative to the quality of the story they told. The Rogue took little convincing and spun a tale about when he nearly pulled off an entire endeavor by himself after his companions were arrested.

“That was quite the tale! A quality addition to my expansive collection. I shall spin this tale the next time I meet some delightful strangers such as yourselves. You have my blessing!”

The creature gleefully danced around and seemed to cast a spell on the rogue who saw no ill effects. Convinced the knight stepped up and told a story about his time as a boy serving his former lord. The quality of the tale was high but it was quite dour.

“I see, the life of a knight must be trying,” the creature replied flatly.

The Knight looked dejected as the Wizard stood forth and told the story of how they came upon her staff.

“Excellent! Camaraderie, danger and triumph. You have my blessing.”

The Ranger and Cleric seemed uninterested in sharing a story and they parted the creature on good terms and continued their trek north.

A week later they had completed their task to great success and in no small part due to the Rogue and Wizard.  The Knight found himself sharing drinks with the rogue a few nights later.

“I never knew you used a dragon’s breath elixir when we were captured, that was inspired,” he remarked.

“What?” the Rogue replied, confused.

The Knight reminded him of the story. The Rogue looked at him, still confused. The Knight grew concerned but thought it may have been the drink vexing his mind.

The next morning he asked again, to the same reaction. They soon discovered the Rogue and Wizard had no memory of the stories they shared with the beast.

“You should pay more attention to the creature’s words. It traded those stories, they are the creature’s now,” said the Ranger as the Cleric nodded solemnly in agreement.

This party had met a Pixiu, my take on a mythological creature from Chinese folklore. In folklore it is associated with wealth while my take on the it borrows the look, name and connection to wealth in appearance with little else in common.

A pixiu can be encountered anywhere, peaceful forests, blazing deserts or barren lands consumed by necromantic energies. They seem to be immune to such magical effects and are often found happily humming a strange tune that you would be hard pressed to find unpleasant. They are generally jolly beings that love stories, greeting the people they come across with a big smile and a welcoming demeanor. They will often insist on telling the players a story before any lengthy conversation can occur. The story is usually related to a quest in some manner, perhaps providing a clue they had previously missed. Of course this may add to the enigmatic nature as the players might wonder why the creature would tell such a poignant tale.

So long as the players remain friendly to the creature it will offer them a trade. A blessing in exchange for a story. The nature and power of the blessing correlates to it’s enjoyment of the story told. This is completely subjective to the creature as, although its demeanor may always be jolly, they do have distinct personalities and each love different stories. Some prefer tales of conquest and war, others romantic tales, some may enjoy tales with strong morals and still others prefer tales of a flattering nature. What the players will not know, and may never even find out is that the exchange has a more literal nature than they might expect. Once they are blessed they forget the story, forever. Even if they relearn the story it grows hazy for them after a few days and is lost again soon after.

This strange exchange has led those who know of the creature to have a hard time classifying it as benevolent or malevolent. While the exchange is objectively favorable to the storyteller, many would argue losing a story is akin to losing a part of oneself. Especially if the story is deeply personal.

Mechanically, a pixiu is a fey creature as it’s nature lends itself to. While I never thought of a stat block for them, they would likely have spell immunity similar to a rakshasa and high defensive stats. It would likely not attack saving a petrifying gaze before attempting to escape with spells like misty step, dimension door or teleport. I would estimate their CR to around 10 to 14, leaning lower.

The blessing given to the player could be anything, but in my world pixiu are creatures of Taekei, the god of luck. As such when the players successfully give them a story they gain a few luck points that they can keep until they use them. The number depends on how entertained the creature was by their story.

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