Dungeons & Dragons Online

Some Ideas for Encounter Variety from Video Games

After thinking about the type and quality of combat encounters I've run over my past campaigns, I came to the conclusion that an unfortunate number of them boil down to the classic "Killbox" scenario, where the players face off against monsters, kill them all, and win, often with loot as a reward. It is classic D&D, but it can get repetitive or stale depending on how your players like to engage. Some power gamers may really like maxing out their damage numbers, but others may prefer challenges that require thinking or teamwork, and find the killbox style boring.

So, I thought about video games and how many of them create engaging scenarios for individual players, often on a team, to get through a combat encounter. So here is my list, with a nickname (borrowed from popular existing games), a short description, and quick example of an example for a unique encounter in D&D. Feel free to comment your thoughts or additional ideas, I can always expand the list.

Mode: Description: Example:
Killbox Classic D&D Combat The 4 Players fight 4 Goblins in an alley. They kill the goblins and loot.
Free For All PVP The 4 Players fight each other; maybe mind control, maybe a fey deity thinks it would be funny, but usually no lasting consequences for this kind of combat
Warzone PVP and PVE Same as Free For All, but environmental hazards. Maybe the threat is the impending insanity from the realm of Pandemonium, with horrible winds
King of the Hill Tower Defense The 4 Players stay in one location, defending it from waves of enemies seeking to steal and artifact or destroy a fort
Gun Game Killing monsters unlocks better powers For each monster slain, a player gains a temporary bonus of some kind (health, damage mod, ability)
Plant the Bomb (Defense or Offense) Infiltrate and do damage, or prevent that from happening to you The 4 Players fight to prevent Goblin Kamikazes from reaching the shield generator
Hostage/Capture the Flag Need to rescue an NPC, or capture one The 4 Players run away with an NPC as arrows fall around them, or they have to stop a group fleeing with their friend towards a portal
Hide and Seek Find hidden stuff, or Hide from a giant monster The 4 Players scramble to hide themselves before the Vampire Lord returns to his chambers
Duos/Trios Divide the party, execute on dual objectives at once To open the doorway, the players need to pull on either side of the canyon at once, while fighting off monsters
Fill the Meter Kill Monsters or Sacrifice Items to power something up The 4 Players murder minions, and the minions souls get sucked into a Lich Phylactery, summoning the Lich
Kill Confirmed Careful murder of creatures as an added layer of complexity An NPC requires 8 core stones from the Modrons. If they are even a little bit dented during extraction, the players don't get paid.
Boss Mode Need to hit the weak spot The Giant Spider Mother has a big glowing red eye. Hit it for extra damage
Timer Use a real world countdown to put on the pressure Trying to escape this flooding room? You have 10 real world minutes to get out. Now you have 9 min and 50 seconds.
Beat 'em up Waves of tiny monsters, let the players go to town The Lich sends literally hundreds of skeletons at the level 20 party, who mop them up in no time
Survival Stripped of food and resources, how can the players fight hunger and exposure?? A trip through a black hole ripped away the players items and supplies. Now they have to survive on a desolate island in the Astral Sea and figure out what to eat.
Puzzle Sequential tasks or unique objectives to be met before encounter can end Answer the Sphinx's riddle and place the answer on the shrine before the elementals destroy you all – yes, the answer was hourglass good job
Simulation Players control NPCs or minions and get unique stat blocks for the encounter All the wizards control their familiars and go through a mini dungeon in the vents of the Theive's Guild
Battleship Give the players control of artillery, vehicles, and mounts The bard steers the ship around the reefs while the barbarian fights off the harpies. The Artificer fires off another cannon salvo at the distant pirate ship
Wargame Strategize, formulate plans for NPCs or battallions to act for them, engage where necessary. After much planning, the scrappy townsfolk divide into four units and hold off the invading zombies while the party can focus their firepower on the Lich
Sportsball Reimplement soccer or some sport, make it a competition with another NPC player group or environmental obstacle The Ball goes in the Hole, and you get 1 Point. Don't let the other team get points by putting their ball in your hole. Yay Sportsball!
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Three Detailed Examples from the above table:

1) Battleship: A kraken is attacking the seaside town of Brightshore. The players must hop aboard the battleship and sail out with the armada to defeat it. They are attacked by lesser sea monsters along the way, and they fight them off. As they near the Kraken, the Sorcerer gears up for all the fireballs, while artificer focuses on loading and firing cannons at the distant Kraken. The bard takes over the steering wheel, from which the captain and several other crew members have been swiped away by flailing tentacles. In this way, each party member can choose to fill a more traditional role or contribute to the overall party success of not sinking or running into other ships. Steering the ship or firings can be as effective, potentially more effective, than just firing arrows at the kraken for 6 rounds.

2) Timer: Having completed the dungeon, the cavern begins to collapse. The party must flee the chambers in reverse order, potentially fighting through some of the monsters they avoided on the way in. A real-world clock is ticking down, putting the pressure on and forcing players to declare actions quickly and coordinate. Emphasis falls on getting past obstacles and monsters and fleeing, and not on just killing everything in their way.

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3) Gun Game: Having found their way to the realm of Celestia, the players are tasked with a trial by the god of combat. He promises them a reward for success, and each monster slain with bring them power. In the trial, increasingly difficult monsters, as well as weaker monsters, enter the fray. Each monster slain gives a bonus to the slayer, such as hit points, damage modifiers, flight, spell effects, and more. By the end, the players are buffed to ridiculous levels, to make them feel like badasses and give them power enough to take down a huge monster. These are all temporary and fade after the encounter.

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