Encounters are the bread and butter of Dungeons & Dragons. Every session in its true form broken down is just a set of encounters. So, coming up with exciting encounter ideas is one of the most important skills as a Dungeon Master in D&D.
Let’s start examining what we need to make good encounters that your players will love. At the end I will present 7 encounter ideas to you.
Framework for good D&D encounter ideas
The most important part for a good encounter is the setting. This is typically the first (not asked) question answered in any campaign. Where are we? There are always very generic answers like “in a forest” or “in a town” but the Dungeon Master should always know about something more that is going on.
The Gnarley Forest as the setting
For the purpose of this, we will use the Gnarley Forest as our encounter setting. It is a place in the Greyhawk setting. If you want to see the place in action, you can check out my free adventure.
So as a Dungeon Master, if you state the adventuring party is merely “in the forest” without any further addition, good players might ask more questions. What is the forest like? What do I hear? How humid is it?
Especially, new DMs have their hands full with all kinds of stuff, so this answer might have been heard at many tables: It is just a forest. Believe me, I was both the perpetrator and culprit of this sentence. It breaks immersion immediately.
That means as a good DM, you should know the adjectives of any setting you throw the players into, no matter how important it might be to the main story. Because to the players it doesn’t matter if the place is crucial to the story. Heck, sometimes when you describe a place good enough, the players will fall in love with it and it becomes important.
The Gnarley Forest
As an example, the Gnarley Forest is a place of huge and thick oak and ipps trees. The tree trunks can have the size of small huts. A river called the Jewel is running through it with many type of ferns covering its borders. Because the forest is so old the tree canopy blocks out most of the light and it is quite obscure even at noon. Therefore, there is not much of small vegetation making the earthy ground easy to walk on. Typical small mammals like mice, rabbits, foxes and squirrels fan be found but also wolves and bears.
With this simple description every player has immediately an idea how the forest looks like and we can move on to the next step.
Populating the setting
Every setting needs inhabitants that either live in the setting or go through the setting. This is also a thing that can be improvised by experienced DMs but be cautious. Good players realise that you go of your cuff and give the encounter less value than it could have. Improvising characteristics of NPCs might be fine but in my opinion improvising groups or tribes is not.
So populate your setting with anything you like and deem interesting. Also, look at the surrounding areas to get more ideas how the population interacts with the outside world. Lastly, create conflicts and alliances between your factions in the area.
Factions of the Gnarley Forest
There are many human factions in the Gnarley Forest. From the Gnarley Rangers trying to keep the peace, to woodsmen living in small settlements or alone at the borders of the woods. A sorority of swanmays (wereswans) lead by a priestess live somewhere in the depths of trees, devoted to spy on the evil that lays in the forest.
Four clans of wood elves exist, living together in various communities. They usually mind their own business and don’t align with folk from the outside.
A hidden underground settlement called the Blackthorn cavern is the base of a big number of orcs and gnolls. They plan to excavate more of their cave and need human slaves to do their work.
Also in the forest is a now lost village called Skorane that is only inhabited by undead and a crazy necromancer.
These are just a few of all the factions in the area. Druids, faerie folk and werebears can also be found. Monsters typical to forests like owlbears are also likely.
After laying out all the factions and how the Gnarley Forest looks like, we are ready to build encounters. I think you realise by just reading through the paragraphs above how the ideas pop into you head. Frankly, after the base is created, the actual encounter building is very easy.
Try to mix and match the factions, create small subareas in your setting and let the scene play out. Don’t forget you oftentimes don’t have to plan out much what is going to happen. Let the players act to their surroundings and play it out naturally. If the players love an aspect of the encounter and they pursue a way further, that is where you can improvise a little.
For the unlikely situation your players pursue a route that you are not comfortable with yet, call for a 10 minute break and make something up. There is also no shame to end a session early in desperate cases.
So without further ado, here are some encounter ideas.
7 D&D Encounter Ideas for the Gnarley Forest
- A wounded swanmay lies at the riverbed of the Jewel in its hybrid form. A group of orcs attacked them. Normally orcs don’t have magical weapons but these did. They can’t be far.
- A Gnarley Rangers fights a big growling owlbear. His friends is bleeding out and it doesn’t look good for him either. The party just arrives.
- The group comes across a small mystic looking pond. It feels like there is magic in there. When they approach it, a voice with an elven accent comes from one of the thick branches of the next oak tree. “You shouldn’t be here!”, shouts a young wooden elf.
- The party comes across a set of well laid traps. After passing two of them in a minutes walk, a disgruntled woodsman appears. “No wonder there is no game here. What is your deal anyways.”, he exclaims disgruntled.
- Orcs attack! A scouting party of Blackthorn found the party and believe they are strong enough. They are hiding behind thick roots of the trees and see potential slaves in the adventuring group.
- A gnome traveler waves from a thick branch above. He is searching for the swanmays and would love to see them. After reading in a book about them.
- Two druids examine trees. The trees seem to be sick. As the group arrives to greet them, two trees awaken and attack! The necromancer seems to work on new experiments.
So there you have it. 7 easy to plug in encounters for your next session. Do you have to play in the Gnarley Forest? Does it have to be in Greyhawk? No way. You can do whatever you want. It is your table, it is your game.
See you in the Green Dragon Inn,