Time Enough: Anatomy of an encounter
Updated: Mar 6
Time Enough is a D&D 5e adventure from The Gallant Goblin. A summary of the adventure and an index of all blog posts about it can be found here.
Three pillars of adventuring
In this article I use the first real encounter in Time Enough to discuss encounter design philosophies. Whenever possible, I try to incorporate all three pillars of adventuring—exploration, social interaction, and combat—or at least make them rewarding to some degree.
So to set the scene, the players have fallen deep underground due to an explosion. They find themselves near a kraul hive, the kraul being an insectoid race that feels unappreciated by Ravnican society. The kraul are on edge, a natural response given an explosion of unknown origin has torn apart their home, their leader is missing, and strangers are invading their territory.
This seems to set the stage for a fight, but why? All evidence points to the kraul being victims, same as the players. They should be natural allies if they can settle their nerves.
Now the players have just exited a faux combat encounter in which they got summarily stomped—I will discuss it and my reasoning for opening an adventure in such a way in a later blog post—so they may also be on edge or just looking to kick something in their frustration. This is a fair response, so combat is a decision for which the adventure must account. And since the last encounter essentially snatched away a fight like Lucy takes the football away from Charlie Brown, we want to make sure this encounter does not do the same or it will become a trend.
I'm a lover, not a murder hobo
The intended design of the situation is a social scenario that contains exploration elements. The kraul may have weapons pointed at the player characters, but no one is rolling initiative yet. The players have an opportunity to defuse the situation and learn more about the kraul, the Golgari guild to which they belong, and maybe get some hints about the situation they're in.
A good story uses foreshadowing and never neglects an opportunity to lay the groundwork for future plot elements. The Golgari play a huge part in the adventure, so introducing the players to the Golgari and forcing them to make a choice—fight or negotiate—that will reverberate with all future Golgari they meet makes narrative sense. It gives players "aha" moments down the line when they realize their decisions matter.
But that's all very theoretical. We also need tangible feedback to give players that dopamine rush which keeps them addicted to D&D. Uh, I mean, to make them feel warm and fuzzy about not choosing murder.
So players who choose to talk to the kraul get rewarded for their decisions:
Social reward: They gain lore information
Social reward: They gain NPC allies who may interact with them down the road
Exploration reward: They may explore the cavern, discovering a mushroom farm from which they can harvest various buffs to aid them in the adventure
Exploration reward: They get to interact and experiment, at their own pace, with weird temporal effects spawned by the explosion
Great! I'm a firm believer in giving thematically appropriate rewards consistent with player preferences. If players choose a social interaction or exploration option, presumably they enjoy or can at least appreciate those pillars of adventuring, so you give corresponding rewards to create a positive feedback loop. That said, most of these rewards have combat uses, so we're not neglecting that pillar either.
Nobody expects the kraul inquisition!
Maybe your players did choose to kill these kraul instead. Those little flumph wannabes were waving spears in their faces—what are put-upon adventurers supposed to do?
So here I want to point out that valuing all three pillars does not mean using them equally at all times. Variety is the spice of life, and the only way to be sure everything is 100% balanced is to make them exactly the same, which no one really wants.
Every encounter is going to lean a certain way. You find yourself at a dinner party, the hosts will frown upon you beating up the guests. You find yourself dinner at a party, exploring the joys of bondage is not going to be joyful for very long.
This encounter does not lean in favor of combat. It reeeeally doesn't. But that doesn't mean it can't still be interesting and informative.
I considered making this a straight up regular fight, but that tells the players nothing new and is not mechanically interesting. You start with three CR 1/2 opponents, which shouldn't be a big deal for a level 3 party even if one of the enemies can fly.
But surprise, these kraul summon reinforcements! This ability isn't in their stat block, but it's logical that a hive-like insectoid species is not going to be far from friends, especially when they're defending their home.
I chose to include this development for a few reasons:
It is thematically appropriate and encourages players to think holistically. Fights are not just about what's right in front of them, and even if they have stat blocks memorized, stats do not define how a creature can behave.
I wanted the experience to feel dynamic. Instead of the adventure structure being "encounter, move on, encounter," this was a chance for the fight itself to progress the narrative. By unleashing essentially an unending horde of foes, the fight would push the players to move to the next room which then leads into the next encounter.
There were other variables that required this fight to be on the overwhelming rather than easy side which I will discuss next.
As I mentioned in my prior post, this adventure includes many high level NPCs, but my design philosophy is to have them add flavor, not bog down or overshadow the players. This fight is the first test of that philosophy.
The players at this point are accompanied by one NPC. This is in fact the NPC who just summarily stomped them in the previous encounter. So at the first sign of reinforcements, the NPC heads in the direction the reinforcements come from and seals it off with a vine wall. More reinforcements keep coming, assaulting the wall, so she is kept busy and out of the fight. Meanwhile, enough reinforcements arrive before the vine wall goes up to bring the fight to the actual level of difficulty I intended.
Splitting the battlefield also allows the players to obtain a victory—defeating the foes in front of them—while still foreshadowing and resulting in the overwhelming horde that will lead into the next encounter.
We don't want fights to drag forever though, or give the sense that the NPC is a crutch the party can rely on, so the fight is time limited: after a certain number of rounds, the NPC's wall will fall. This preserves an element of danger, conveying that player skill still determines how a fight ends. It also gives the DM an out in case the encounter goes off the rails.
The perils (and bounties) of combat
So we've described the fight and how I approached it to meet my story and design philosophy goals, but what are the consequences?
I reiterate that this fight should not have happened. The player characters have murdered a bunch of innocent people defending their homes. Such a situation does not lend itself to providing great rewards, but it's also a choice that is so standard in D&D that it shouldn't be outright punished.
From a story perspective, this decision pushes players toward what I view as one of the sub-optimal endings for this adventure. It doesn't close off the optimal ending—it's far too early in the adventure to shut that important a door—but it makes it harder to obtain. Players will discover down the road that being covered in the blood of a bunch of Golgari prevents them from obtaining a valuable Golgari ally, potentially closing off story opportunities. That seems like a logical consequence.
However, remember that I value consistency. Maybe these players like to fight. And if they like to fight, hopefully they are good at it, so let's build on that. This decision pushes the players toward an ending that is sub-optimal from a narrative perspective, but it also happens to be the ending with the most fighting. The other endings are more political, which isn't everyone's cup of tea, so maybe this branch is perfect for a party that enjoys combat!
So that's one "reward": choosing to fight now makes it more likely you fight again in the future.
The other reward is making sure that the better the players are at fighting, the more prepared they are for future fights. The NPC who accompanies the players knows a bit of necromancy. As the fight progresses, the NPC will use the life force of the newly deceased kraul to grant the player characters temporary hit points that persist through long rests. Bonus: this mechanic is narratively consistent with Magic lore. The more the players kill, the more hit points they have to carry into the next fight. That's a tangible reward that's narratively and mechanically satisfying but still conveys the darker tone of the choice they made.
As for the other pillars, the players still get to explore the cavern, just under a lot more pressure. They can still discover the mushroom buffs and play with the temporal effects, but they have to do so in the framework of a fight. There are also social implications to the fight in their interactions with other NPCs both during the fight and long afterward.
Still with me?
I'm excited to share my thought process on designing encounters for this adventure and hope it makes you equally excited to see the finished product. I laid out rather ambitious goals in my introductory blog post, and such ambition needs to be backed up by proof of competence. I hope this inspires some confidence that Time Enough will be both a thrilling and fair experience at your table!
If you have comments, questions, or advice, you can reach me on Twitter at our joint account, @gallantgoblin.
Want to check out other entries?
Previously: What's unique about Time Enough?
Index: Project Blog: Time Enough