Personal Encounter Design Workshop

In mid-December I received a great e-mail from a reader named Brian that I talk to regularly on my twitter account, he was planning for an upcoming D&D adventure and wanted some specific help with designing an encounter. I’m not sure what exactly prompted him to send it my way, but I was more than happy to read through and share some of my ideas to help spice up his encounter.

Just today I received a follow up e-mail that he is planning to run the encounter tomorrow and that he wanted to run his updated encounter by me again. I was all to happy to oblige, and I also realized that the exchange of e-mails might be something some of you would be interested in seeing. So here it is, with his permission of course.

Here’s his original e-mail to me (with some minor edits for clarity):

I’m running the prelate module “Thunder Below”, with my party this Thursday. We are playing 3.5 d&d, and I wanted to create a challenging boss fight with this elder green dragon in the encounter. It seems like whenever we fight a boss one on party, it goes down pretty quickly

I wanted to set my fight in stages. Have the party beat the dragon down the drain, and when it reaches a certain point, have it transform or mutate into a different color of dragon, say green to black or something.  And when the dragon was down to another certain point, it could also gain extra abilities right before it dies

I was also thinking of having the fight in this cleared glade in the middle of the forest, and have these random craters in the bog spew poisonous clouds at random from the earth to add some spice to the encounter.

Thoughts? 🙂  -Brian

After reading his e-mail and giving it some thought, I sent him back some of my suggestions:


That sounds like a pretty sweet encounter! I haven’t run 3rd Edition in 8 years (and I’ve never run 3.x) but I have played in a 3.x game more recently, so I can’t really offer that much monster design advice other than to say when I did run 3E I almost always ended up just BSing the monster’s stats. It’s less satisfying as a DM, because you feel like you’re cheating, but for the most part the players should never notice (especially if you have a DM screen). What that means is – the monster won’t die too early or take too long to kill, because even though you may have a max HP for the monster, you adjust its HP (or how much damage it’s taking) round-to-round to keep the combat fun and interesting.

When you’re doing a multi-stage encounter, my advice would be to try and design the stages so that they will happen at key points in the combat – realistically a stage should change right before the party starts to get bored with the combat as it exists at the moment. If your party is really good and avoids getting bored in longer combats, then I’d say build the first stage or two on them pretty quickly so they feel the escalating of the combat and it feels like it just keeps getting cooler and cooler, then the encounter will have a much more effective climax.

Some more general suggestions – make the Dragon’s phase changes meaningful (and logical), not just changing colors for the sake of it. My suggestion would be to set the scene in the cleared glade with the bogs spewing poisonous clouds at random, a pretty interesting setting (and a dragon foe should always be interesting). Maybe at some point the players start to get the upper hand, and they push/strike the dragon back and a large poisonous bog opens – have the dragon fall in. The players might think they’ve won, or watch impatiently, but then after a nice and short dramatic pause (maybe if they start to leave the area have it happen just as they’re about to leave), and the dragon comes back out of the bog infected (and for all intents and purposes it is then a black dragon, but maybe its scales have been tarnished by the poisonous bog so it’s doesn’t appear fully black or fully green anymore).

Then I would say right before the dragon dies, maybe it gains the ability to have the bogs burst and spew forth tons of poisonous stuff, so the dragon literally turns the environment against the party just before it dies. Then right at the end maybe have it become completely covered in swamp poison goo and explode or something, but give them good warning so the party can stand back a bit if they’re quick/smart enough.

I hope this helps some, I’ve been running 4E for the last 2.5 years so I’m not sure if my encounter/monster design has become skewed by the different design philosophies, but I tried to keep it rules generic enough that it would still help.

Thanks for sharing and definitely let me know how it goes!  -Danny

Brian seemed to like the advice and thanked me for providing it, and I expected that to be it. However, I was very pleased today to see a second e-mail from him with some revisions and further sharing of thoughts:

Hey its Brian again. I’m gearing up for my session tomorrow night and wanted to run some more thoughts by you.

I’m going to make the encounter with the Green Dragon a tiered fight as you said, and it’s going to take place in a swamp.

I’m going to have some “pimple” pods around the swamp that will bust open with poisonous gas if touched or broken, to add some flavor.

The party will find the remains of the harpy they fought last time, torn into bits in this swamp. Unbeknownst to them, that the Elder Green Dragon is about 10 feet right behind her remains, invisible. Now her remains and his spot are going to be on dry land, so as not to give away the dragon’s presence, standing in water, etc. I will let them make a check or two to hear, or feel it’s breath before it pounces though. (Because come on, even though it’s a level 11 Sorc, how hard is it for a dragon to hide). Or maybe what I will do is have had him cast an alarm spell on her corpse, then he can use dimension door to pop behind the party when he senses someone is examining the remains.

In this area, will be four more huge pimples. During the fight, a random one will pop, spewing gas, or some other unpleasant Con draining damage around for fun. (Got any tips for a monk here. One of our players is a high level monk who doesn’t need to breath, eat, and is immune to poison, etc.  (3.5 monk))

When the players get the dragon down enough, there will be a quake, and the earth will swallow him up.

The party will then try to recover, but after a minute or so, a MASSIVE pimple will pop up in the water behind them, and the dragon will come out for round 2. This is where I’m getting stuck. I want to give hime some cool new abilities, but I don’t want a TPK right off the bat because he is so bad ass. I’ve already slightly upped his AC, Health, and attacks, but I can’t seem to think of a HOLY SHIT power he can have when he comes back. (He’s already CR 20, and this part is mostly 17 and 16 players)

Any thoughts or comments are appreciated. Thanks!!

I first read this e-mail on my phone while away from my computer, but a bunch of new ideas immediately sprung to mind so I sat down and wrote Brian a quick response as soon as I could (knowing that planning the night before/day of is always stressful for a DM). Here’s my final advice for the encounter:

Sure, sounds like an awesome fight already but a few things that came to mind for me.

If you want to make it an even more dynamic fight, you could have multiple (and I mean a lot) of the poison pods growing all over the place, from small warts up to huge size before they explode. You have so many because it should become pretty clear to the party that if they don’t start popping some of the closest ones, then they’ll be in trouble. Though it’s a cool idea, this would possibly make it an insane encounter for any DM to have to deal with running, and may not be fun for your players unless they really like fighting the environment as much as monsters. This could stop after the dragon dies the first time, or even shortly into the fight they would lessen, and then the Dragon would be the focus of the second part. As I said, this could be too much work for you as the DM so be careful if you go this route.

For the invisible dragon, that sounds like a fine set up but my first thought was you could have it standing in water but describe it in a way that is not so apparent to the players. Maybe describe it as “you see a series of small whirl pools, only a foot or two deep, that go all the way to the bottom of the bog” and it seems more like a natural/supernatural phenomenon than a monster standing in the water, and maybe once they get closer (if they roll high enough on perception) they can make out what it is or even an unwary player might walk right up to the dragon and initiate the fight just by touching the invisible creature. It’s a bit tricksy, but if done right I could see thi sbeing a funny and quirky way for the fight to start. 🙂

The pimples in general sound fine, but with regards to the Monk my philosophy (and it’s something that’s been learned mostly through talking about DMing with Dave and Phil for the last few years) is to not totally negate a player’s abilities but give them a chance to stand out and shine. That means it might be perfectly fine if the Monk is the one that’s immune to the poison pimples, but he should have his hands pretty full with the dragon no matter what and all of the other players still need to worry about it. That said, if you REALLY absolutely need to put some hurting on the Monk, the swamp could always do acid damage or he could have trouble moving around some parts of the swamp because of the difficult terrain.

If I remember correctly you’re running this in 3.5, which also if I remember correctly one of the worst things for a player is when a Dragon refreshes his breath weapon. So you could always fall back on that classic. Certainly keep it just short of a TPK if you can, but adding cool and new abilities would be awesome too (as you seem to have figured out already). Maybe his breath weapon causes the area hit (around the PCs) to start growing more of the pimples, which not only gives you the “oh crap I was just hit with a breath weapon” feel but also the “get the hell out of the area in the next round or two” motivation. I’d also love to see the dragon gaining some feature or ability that can be seen as a direct result of it being swallowed up by the swampland itself. Maybe it’s scales have become more swamp like and he is leaking poisonous/acidic goo all over his body which could either damage players in melee with him or when he flies/moves pieces of it rain down and do small amounts of damage to the party. Hell you could have the dragon shake like a dog every once in a while to throw sludge all over nearby characters.

I think that’s everything that came to mind for me, thanks for keeping me up to date and for sending the e-mail!


I suppose the core reason behind my sharing of this correspondence is because I believe some people may still be toiling away at their RPG plans alone. Hopefully this provides a bit of insight, perhaps some that people hadn’t considered, into what a second or third pair of eyes can provide for your RPG planning. These e-mails struck a cord with me because they very closely mirror what I’ve gone through in the planning of my D&D game when I run ideas by Dave, Phil (the Chatty DM of course), and Quinn from the At-Will blog.

More often than not even the smallest suggestion from a friend can turn into a game defining idea in your RPG games. Hell, the major arc of the paragon tier in my ongoing 4E D&D campaign came from Quinn’s awesome suggestions to have a series of Astral Dreadnaughts being summoned into my game world. He certainly didn’t plan out the specifics of each adventure with me, but without his advice a large part of my campaign could have been an adventure-to-adventure pain in the ass to plan. Instead I had a rough, but well thought out and very interesting, frame work to run a series of adventures off of and that made my life a heck of a lot easier. Thanks Quinn!

I hope you enjoyed this look at encounter design advice, and if you have some additional ideas for Brian and you’re quick enough you might be able to get them in before he runs his game tomorrow! If you’re planning your own D&D (or any RPG) game and are hung up on an encounter, adventure, or a whole story arc, always feel free to shoot me an e-mail or even bug Dave/Phil/Quinn about it and you’ll probably get even better advice than what I could provide.


  1. Dixon Trimline says:

    This is SUCH a valuable resource! It’s the whole “two (or more) brains are better than one,” and there are so many times I just want to run one idea or other by someone else who isn’t actually playing in the game. The exchanged ideas about the dragon encounter definitely got my thinking bits working. I absolutely love the idea of the dragon as controller, sprouting more death pimples with the breath weapon. Amazing.

  2. Thanks Dixon, I’m glad you enjoyed it! While posting this I look at it as a bit of an experiment, I’m not 100% sure how many readers like to see something like this but it is interesting stuff to me so I thought I’d share. Also I’d love to help others with encounters/adventures/world building in a similar way so I’m hoping this inspires a few other people who are stuck or killing themselves over trying to plan their games to reach out and get some advice from people.

  3. Don’t know if this will get to him in time or not, but here’s a quick thought I had to add to the above suggestions.

    Have the swamp pimples deal acid damage, while the green dragon’s breath is obviously poison damage. After the dragon is swallowed up, he not only gets to spawn more pimples, but his breath weapon now does Poison AND Acid damage, signaling his partial change into a black dragon. IIRC DR/immunity in 3.x required resistance to both types to function — though its been a long time since I played 3.x so I could be wrong here.

    Other than that, not sure what else to add to the already great advice. Maybe an added acid spit attack of some sort after the transformation. Less powerful than the breath (maybe even single target) but gives the dragon something to consider when it sees poison isnt cutting it with the monk. Perhaps add acid resistance after the change too.

    But yes, brainstorming with others is always an excellent idea. The only potential problems are running into too many ideas at once. Which all in all is not a bad problem to have.

  4. Thanks! I bet the encounter turned out really cool. I typically run my campaign ideas through another set of eyes, but rarely have I considered talking through encounter ideas with another person. Probably because most of my friends that enjoy playing RPGs are also my players, but I definately see the value of getting more eyes on it!

    I was personally thinking he could improve the second stage of combat by having the exploding “pimples” heal the dragon. So while the party wants to move away from them to avoid damage, the dragon wants to position himself near them to regain health. That would force the players to attack the environment as well as the dragon to end the fight.

  5. of course this post comes up when I’m mostly off the grid! 🙂

    Well, I can definitely say “no problem” –besides being a buddy of mine, I just LOVE talking crazy ideas.

    I like your breakdown of the dialogue process here a lot. This is so how my brain works. Being able to talk about a situation just creates new connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise. Sometimes it is the alchemy of two brains merging ideas, other times it is just the process of forming words to abstract shapes and ideas (I uh, talk to myself a lot for this reason), but the act of sharing creative thoughts with someone else helps get you unstuck or puts you on new paths.

    Sorry I missed this earlier! Awesome stuff though.

  6. Good talk! It has a lot of good ideas on expanding on the solo monsters issues with 4th edition. I have only had my own group fight 2 solo monsters, and when they did I went crazy with them. Another good resource for making monsters in stages is this article on “boss monsters” from The Angry DM:


  1. Personal Encounter Design Workshop from Critical Hits » RPG #RPG

  2. RT @criticalhits: New Critical Hit: Personal Encounter Design Workshop

  3. […] Personal Encounter Design Workshop from Critical Hits ” RPG ( […]