My definition of a broken encounter is the following: the clever players either discover some weakness in the encounter allowing them to bypass, defeat, kill or otherwise mutilate your
carefully crafted encounter with little or no effort. Alternatively, the party has the “perfect weapon” at hand, ready and able to easily defeat the encounter. Whatever the reason, the plot’s chain of events shatters and the game is off track. Here are a few examples I ran into over the years.
- Attacked by undead using 3.5 OGL rules and the cleric is a negative energy turning machine. Every monster is not only turned, but controlled!
- Monster desperately wants the plot Macguffin and advances on the party with murder on its mind. Rather than fight, party threatens to vaporize said Macguffin. DM now has a problem.
- Mighty beast stands under a freestanding stone gateway. The gateway is a 20-ton block supported by two 10×10 pillars. Sorcerer wins initiative and gets off two disintegrate spells. Freestanding stone becomes free falling and the monster does not move quite fast enough. Sponges required for cleanup.
- Party enters room and room seals, water floods the room. DM cackles as the lethal 3.5 OGL drowning rules kick-in…on some other party. Entire party either has gills or water breathing magic item. Party more annoyed at smell of wet dwarf than frightened by encounter.
This post is not about how to break an encounter or how to write a break-resistant encounter, it is about recovering from a broken one. First, do not invoke “DM privilege” and execute some plot stupidity in an attempt to “un-break” the encounter. It is insulting to your player’s intelligence and is egomaniacal. Player cleverness, preparedness or blind luck deserves encouragement, not elimination by fiat. The classic example for me emerged at a convention. Suddenly, sewer walls in a major city started blocking outbound teleportation because teleportation trashed the module’s plot. Admittedly, it was a poorly conceived encounter with a glaring weakness, but the DM’s solution was even worse.
I prefer a more nuanced approach to my broken encounters. Take the examples above, escaping the flooded room is the encounter. Without imminent death from drowning in the equation, the encounter is an annoyance…until that door opens and the undead swarm of Piranha start snacking! Perhaps a giant spider lurked on top of the pillar and now sees some new prey. When the monster could no longer get what it wanted through violence it stops and negotiates. A good DM needs mental agility and here is your moment to shine. Prove to your players that no matter how clever they are you can handle it.
Broken encounters are as much opportunity as problem. Look beyond your existing plot and to what might happen after the encounter. Take our stone gateway example. When the encounter breaks, transform the gateway from a piece of terrain into a holy site for the local death god. Nothing like vaporizing a holy relic to encourage a friendly holy war against the party. As they say, no one ever gets away clean. There are always consequences.
No matter how bad it gets, remember a broken encounter is not a broken campaign. Learn from it and move on. Ever forward!
Trask, The Last Tyromancer