Guest Article: Encounter Building in OSRIC Part 1

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Guest Writer: Dave Johnson

Encounter Building in OSRICv1.4

Expert Thoughts

OSRIC and 1e FRPG doesn’t need encounter-building guidelines, other than the very basic idea that the 1st level of a dungeon should have mostly 1st level monsters in it! — Anonymous
Hello folks, this is Dave Johnson of Dave Johnson Games and unofficial OSRIC cheerleader on Twitter(@osric_rpg)

Today I ‘d like to talk about encounter creation in OSRIC and 1e FRPG. Many people have lamented over the sometimes cryptic explanations on this subject, with answers provided by Gary Gygax, finding the content of the discussion somewhat lacking a clear answer to the question. I have reverenced books and pages from the original body of work and also referenced the updated prose of Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch. So here we go into the underdark!

In Appendix C of the Game Master ‘s Guide of the 1e FRPG states the following in the section on Underwater Encounters; both sentences occur on p 179, with fewer than 60 words in between them:
The numbers of monsters encountered are those shown in [1e FRPG Monster Book] […]”(Gygax).

Number of creatures encountered should be appropriate to the strength of the encountering party”(Gygax).

So what does this say about Gygaxian 1e FRPG? This tells me that the original first edition fantasy role-playing game, in spite of the eccentricities, is actually a very stable game. This translates well for OSRIC.

An example of an encounter:
If a creature’s entry in the OSRIC core rule book or supplement, states number appearing as 2-20, the Game Master should not simply roll 2d10, they should choose the amount according to:

  • Party strength.
  • What the GM wants the encounter to achieve.
  • What is sensible for the situation/environment.

This brings us back to the notion that the Game Master wants to accomplish certain things, or story hooks in the game and it is certainly up to the Game Master to fulfill this obligation. A number of goblins as shown in the monster book (Monsters of Mythâ„¢) might be great for a specific situation with a low-level party, but it might be important to adjust that number of monsters to really intimidate the party. Not every encounter needs to end in a fight. Players need to remember that balance is the word.

With encounters in mind, I asked a few experts on the subject to give me their thoughts:

James M. Ward of Ward Co. — Work hard at describing the environment.

Jim Kramer of Usherwood Adventures & Publishing — Okay, first, thanks for the vote of confidence by asking for my opinion. I’ve never been particularly outspoken regarding my opinions about anything, whether it’s politics, religion, gaming…whatever.. So, the mere fact that you’re asking suggests I might be doing something right.
Second, know from the outset that everything I do for gaming I do for my own entertainment and creative outlet. If others enjoy my work, that’s just icing on the d20 cake. Now as to encounters…

  • I try to put my encounters into one of three buckets; those that move the story forward, those that serve to distract the players and those that provide the GM with side-trek opportunities. Not everything falls into one of those buckets, but I do try to be aware of it.
  • I try to always avoid the “this chamber has 3 orcs who attack immediately” scenario. Boring! So, okay, maybe the orcs are in there, and maybe they’re likely to attack, but why? Every chamber, every encounter needs to have a logical purpose; a reasonable reason for being there. I guess that’s why it takes me at least 12 months and 80 pages to write an adventure.
  • I try to never, ever, railroad the players. Players want to make their own choices, and if they sense they’re being herded like cattle to the slaughter, they’re not going to be happy.
  • I try to avoid situations in which I am telling the GM how the encounters react, or what the encounters’ strategy should be. I published a couple adventures by Alphonso Warden; The Awakening and The Rebel Faction. Alphonso is notorious for explicitly stating what adversaries’ strategies are and how they react to players.

This is fine if a player is playing WITHOUT a GM. But where you have a GM and a group of players, it just doesn’t work. […] Finally, not every encounter has a foe, not every encounter has treasure, but every encounter needs a reason. Never, ever, write “this room is empty.” Really? A room is completely and totally empty? I doubt it. Put something mundane in there if nothing important is going on. The players will figure something to do with the most boring of chamber dressing.

Benoist Poire of GP Adventures — Look for HDi in place of CR, and pay attention to special abilities. Leave space between encounters for PCs to retreat, flee, barricade themselves, avoid tough opponents, ambush others, etc. Don’t neglect the possibilities of rendition or parley on the part of both PCs or opponents if things goes south for them, and also if/how nearby inhabitants of the dungeon notice and react to trouble around them in nearby lairs and areas.

This is what makes the CR (Challenge Rating) system of 3rd edition a theoretical thing at best: it doesn’t account for all these practical factors in play.

Dustin Knight —  To me it is about the interplay between story and stats. I almost always start with a story, but then I ‘ll find myself fleshing out the story, making it more than it was because the [1e FRPG System] forces monsters and characters alike to be more than a couple sentences in a tactics box. The bandit has a charisma score. Memorable encounters go hand in hand with story. Random bear attacks are never as memorable as when a negotiation breaks down into a fight. It ‘s why I loath random encounter tables so much. But if you know your mechanics well enough, you can use them (subconsciously or otherwise) to make a more challenging, memorable or otherwise interesting encounter.

Cullan Blackthorn — As for building encounters, I either roll randomly, or I use them for story value. So even though 3.5 edition has tried to turn D&Dâ„¢ into a “science” (x monsters of y level = appropriate combat level for a 4 man party of z level characters) I still usually make it up as I go and my encounters are either:

  • Shockingly easy —  as in, I never thought the players would actually attack it.
  • What I THOUGHT was appropriate, but turned out to be shockingly easy —  I’ve had nights where no matter what I put down in front of them [the players] it died in exactly 2 rounds. Either good rolls or death spells.
  • Overwhelmingly hard combat levels, either because it was something that I wanted to deliver background exposition or ultimatums to —  so I had to make it so tough that they would never dream of attacking it if they had a choice or…
  • Overwhelming combat levels, because unlike the players, my bad guys use military tactics, foresight, planning, and teamwork. And they fight to kill. That’s my standard.

Ira Lee — The world! Screw everything else. If there is a dragon in dragon cave, then the level 1 players should encounter it and if that dragon was an angry evil dragon before the level one players entered the cave they should die a fiery death. If the random table says  orcs travel in bands of 2-12 and you roll twelve, there are twelve orcs. So what are the players to do?  So the players have the free will to do whatever they want; hide, try to talk to them, spy on them, engage them in combat.   Not every encounter though has to be combat oriented; it could be weather, a heard of deer, an interesting flower, the remnants of an adventuring party that engaged 12 orcs, and died, the remnants of 12 orcs who faced an adventuring party and died, a dragon flying over head, a unicorn off in the distance, etc etc. It could be a clue for their adventure, an NPC from one of the players past.   [C]hallenge rating based encounters [is stupid too]. Stupid things happen, and you never know how the dice are going to roll and you don’t know how brilliant [the other] players are going to be. Once you get up in level it ‘s nice to be able to meet a small band of goblins   and just wipe the floor with them[.]   The players should always die from natural causes: natural 1’s natural 20’s falling from a height of 100’ or more.


(to be continued in part 2)

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