I wanted to talk about my progress on The Ascalon Horror, but this turned into an informative entry about the nature and importance of encounter. I’m going to talk about what an encounter template is, and why it’s important.

Locations are places you visit on the game board, and each location has a small table of encounters. When you visit the location, assuming you aren’t performing some other task their with a higher priority, you roll a six-sided die, consult the relevant chart, and are rewarded with a minor change in the game state.

Maybe that change is higher or lower health for you and your party, maybe the Dissension level or the Invasion track will increase, maybe you’ll find, lose, or spend some of your character’s wealth, or maybe you’ll fight a monster. “Encounters” are a staple of action, adventure, and roleplaying games the world over. Good stuff.

Chances are good, you’ve played a game that uses something like the encounter system and didn’t even realize it. An encounter is a challenge with a context. Even “random encounters.” When you have a game with a story and characters, if it provides story- or character-based challenges, those challenges are encounters.

When Link fights his way past the guards in the beginning of A Link to the Past, that’s a string of combat encounters. When Kratos dodges arrows from undead archers and shimmies, jumps, and climbs along broken ships in the beginning of God of War, that’s an encounter. An encounter is a challenge that’s been given a context.

Encounters in heavily character- and story-based games will often make or break the game. If the game fails to create a believable context for its encounters, then they’re reduced to their base form: a mechanical challenge of the player’s skills. Most games that rely on characters and story however, tend to lack for gameplay.

On a game blog somewhere, I read that it’s better to create a puzzle template than a single puzzle, even though it’s more difficult. The reason for this should be straightforward: a single puzzle can only be solved once. A puzzle template can provide a number of similar puzzles and therefore more challenge.

The same can be said for any sort of challenge. While an action game may have dozens of different enemies, if you only ever fight one at a time, you may get bored with the lack of tactical variety. If you’re to fight several at a time, you’ll still be able to pick out patterns, unless… there’s a random element to their assignment.

Too great a random element will unbalance your game, and you’ll face a completely different problem. So, the solution is to create a balanced template, and to fill it with challenges that can individually and collectively be challenging to a player or players.

Never shall the lesson endeth.