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How To Come Up With Encounters On The Fly In D&D

How To Come Up With Encounters on the Fly in D&D

No matter how much prep work a DM puts in, there’s always going to be moments when the players stumble (or stride confidently) into a scenario where the DM has nothing prepared. Here’s some tips on creating story ideas to fill in the blanks!

Listen to Your Players’ Expectations

Sometimes the party comes up with things that you hadn’t expected, but are actually more interesting than what you had planned. For example, let’s say a party decides to explore a city’s sewer system to see if it holds any treasure or hidden points of interest. Unfortunately, you don’t haven’t planted any plot hooks or treasure in the sewer…

But let’s say you like the idea a miniature dungeon crawl in the sewer system. As long as it’s not too disruptive, take cues from what gets your players excited and turn it into a reality, all while listening to (or subtly asking) what they’re expecting to find or accomplish. Once you know what the player’s are expecting, you can build your encounter around it.

Plant Seeds for Later

Let’s say the party has piled into the sewers expecting to find some interesting items that have been cast away. This is where you, as the DM, can plant a “seed” for later. Seeds are little mysteries, clues, or items that the party doesn’t fully understand yet. Some examples might be coming across:

  • a recently stolen blacksmith shipment
  • a partially destroyed treasure map
  • a grimy brown pile of skulls

Each of these items is a “seed” that can grow into a miniature quest or an interesting encounter down the line. The advantage of planting seeds is that the ‘seed’ can be almost anything, and you, as the DM, can delay revealing its full nature until you’ve had some time to figure out what you want it to do. Until then, it’s a mystery to tantalize the party.

If you need some help thinking up interesting things for your players to run across, try our Dungeon Discoveries decks, like Wilderland Voyage.

Simplicity Is Key

When you’re coming up with scenarios on the fly during a session, make sure to keep them simple. You don’t want to introduce, say, a previously nonexistent subterranean temple full of cultists living in your city’s sewers just so your players can have something to fight. Suddenly, you’d need stat blocks for those cultists, spell lists, a battle map, etc.

When you’re making up encounters in D&D, you want a minimum of loose ends and a definite end point, otherwise players will keep pulling at the strings until they’re satisfied there’s nothing left to discover or learn. Think of these unexpected little detours as cul-de-sacs that force the players to turn around and return to the main story.

Need More Help Creating Cool D&D Encounters on the Fly?

Improvisation is one of the toughest skills to learn as a DM, but you don’t have to come up with cool story ideas all by yourself. We have a whole line of Dungeon Discovery decks that generate ideas for ‘story seeds’ and unique loot. Each deck comes with 50 cards that allow you to create items, locations, and treasures that can spur ideas for a unique encounter.

Christopher Mahon

Chris Mahon is a fantasy writer, speaker, and essayist living in Brooklyn, New York. His non-fiction work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, SyFy WIRE, Outer Places, The Portalist, and others. He's also spoken at New York Comic-Con, Columbia University, and the Glasgow International Fantasy Convention. In his free time he runs The Occult Triangle Lab, a blog on trigonometry, fantasy, and ungodly amounts of milk.

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