OK, so most of us probably understand what an encounter is, at least at a certain level. The primary thing that comes to my mind when someone says encounter is that of a monster, or group of monsters, that must be fought to the death. Personally, I have put a lot of effort into redefining what encounter means in the context of a game in order to get away from treating all encounters as combat situations. There are all kinds of encounters that can happen when you utilize the term in its normal definition. You could encounter a monster, adversary, salesman, puzzle, obstacle, or trap. These could result in the use of combat abilities, socialization, role play, or skills.
Those two lists only begin to describe what can come from an encounter, so we should probably narrow it down a little better. After all, there is probably going to be some form of context in the game that relates to encounters and how many there should be. This is especially true in games like Dungeons & Dragons. Here is how I tend to define an encounter in RPGs: an event that takes place after something is happened upon which requires party resources to be utilized.
Let's break down my definition and go into why I do it that way. First of all it is purposefully vague to allow for all the variety of possibilities. However, it includes three specific things: an event, an instigator, and effort. Each of these things is key to creating a fully realized encounter. I set these requirements for encounters, because I feel that these are all necessary for advancement of some kind. That advancement could be story, XP, or loot and often all of the above. Encounters or events that don't have all three of these happen, of course they do, but even the simplest games are driven by complexity. Whether you are deciding to reward XP, give out loot, go to another scene, hand out cyphers, or provide time to rest, this definition works.
Requirement 1: The Event
The event is the whole process that takes place. It begins with the instigator (see below) and ends with some form of resolution. Actions must be taken by the players during the event. Witnessing something does not count. Being captured suddenly, and narratively, doesn't count. These things can drive the story forward but aren't something the players have any agency in per se. There is no restriction to the proceedings of the event. PCs might even end up not acting, the simple choice of being challenged but not responding or ignoring commands is itself an action (of choice) at the very least. Generally, the event requires that there are consequences to the PCs actions or inactions, that they have agency, and that that agency is rewarded and/or punished. Eventually a resolution will occur that ends the encounter, or perhaps even become the instigator to another.
Requirement 2: The Instigator
The instigator in my definition is what begins an encounter and it comes in many forms. This is the thing that the party happens upon in their journey. For a combat encounter this is when the PCs happen upon monsters, monsters happen upon the PCs, or they stumble into each other. Of course the instigator itself doesn't necessitate violence. It could end up as a social encounter with roleplaying involved and some trading of information. What evolves from it is varied but there has to be something that begins the process. Monsters and NPCs work well, but it could also be an object, a location, or a trap that the PCs discover. It could be a choice being made, like the fork in a road, or an event such as an avalanche coming down the mountain towards the party. Regardless, the instigator is something that requires the PCs to react in some way.
Requirement 3: Effort
This is the most important part of how I judge what qualifies as an encounter when I prep, as well as when I reward. To be a true encounter the players must put in some form of effort and this can come in two major forms: player effort and character effort. Often the two overlap, but they don't have to in my opinion. Player effort comes from personal decisions, roleplaying, or reacting in character. These are things that don't generate die rolls but do generate responses and results. It is OK to have a social encounter with no dice rolled and effort is certainly still involved. Character effort is much easier to track. This comes in the form of dice rolled and usually generates the use of special abilities. Getting hurt, needing to use Hit Dice, spending inspiration or benefits, and casting spells all qualify. These things may be restored at the end of the day for the character, but they limit what the characters can do in that day. Why have them if you don't use them? Both types of effort can easily cut into character supplies like food, water, gold, or even rope. This is important to consider as well.
Why Define The Encounter?
Personally, I mostly play Dungeons & Dragons, so it is important to define encounters. The game is designed around combat encounters, especially. A certain number of them at certain difficulty determines a good, hard day for the PCs. It is the basis for experience and treasure. My games, however, tend to involve less combat events in one day and focuses on a number of things. I have players who also like to go off on tangents when there are things like festivals around. I want to be able to plan for such events, give them complex and varied encounters, force them to make decisions on resources outside of combat, and reward them for all of it. Using this definition helps me plan an in-game day. I can plan for a social encounter, hazard encounter, and combat encounter. I can plan on them using resources and the rewards they earn from the effort I expect them to require. In the end, this definition is all about me planning a set of events that challenge the players in the short term and as a whole, as well as to maximize the spread of rewards to maintain play as varied as the challenges.
In the next entry for this topic, I am going to go into how I shape some different encounters. Some of that work comes in planning, but some of it comes after the fact. I will show how I reward encounters and give some examples on how I adjust that reward on the fly. There will also be some discussion on multi-aspected encounters and how that effects the challenge and the reward. I like a wide definition, but I don't want to level the party every 5 minutes!