As a Dungeon Master (DM) for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), one of your jobs is to design encounters for your players. But how do you make one your players will love?
Here’s how to write a D&D encounter they will love:
You write a D&D encounter by integrating the encounter with the adventure, characters, setting, conflict, and overall campaign. Prepare both carefully crafted and random encounters for your campaigns. Include a mix of encounter types (battle, exploratory, puzzle-solving, social, and mystery).
In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about how to write a D&D encounter, including a checklist and free template.
What Is a D&D Encounter?
If you want to become a masterful D&D Dungeon Master, you must understand the mechanics behind great encounters.
Think of an encounter like a scene in a book or movie.
A D&D encounter is a short sequence of events where the players engage in an activity.
The activity can be:
- Fighting a monster
- Chasing someone or something
- Solving a puzzle
- Seeking information
- Exploring a territory
- And almost anything else
You get the point. An encounter is a microcosm of the entire campaign or adventure.
How To Write a D&D Encounter: 15 Best Techniques
Writing D&D encounters can be a lot of fun, but it can also be challenging to come up with the right events.
It is not as simple as just sticking some monsters in an area and throwing down some treasure. There are a lot of factors that go into designing an encounter that your players will love.
This article will go over everything you need to know about writing D&D encounters, including the following 15 techniques.
1) Grow the Encounter From the Story
Make your encounter exciting by making it part of the overarching storyline.
The players are the main characters, so create an adventure for them. The more connected the encounter is to the overall campaign, the more meaningful it will be to your players.
Therefore, find a way to connect the encounter to:
- The main goal of the adventure or campaign
- The main conflict
- The character’s themselves
Each encounter should force the characters to grow and change. Each encounter should also drive the adventure forward.
For example, if one of your characters comes from a burned and looted village, then maybe the characters encounter a similar situation in the campaign.
2) Use the 5 Pillars of a D&D Encounter
The five pillars of a D&D encounter are:
- Goal—The main objective of the encounter.
- Conflict—The problem or threat in the encounter.
- Stakes—What’s at risk if the players fail to reach the goal or resolve the conflict.
- Setting—Where the encounter takes place.
- Time limit—How long the payers have to reach the goal/solve the problem.
Filling all five pillars will help you create a memorable and exciting experience for your players.
3) Tie the Encounter to What the Players Know About the Villain (or Monster)
The more your players know about your villain or monster, the easier it will be for them to come up with creative solutions and tactics.
For example, if an evil witch is kidnapping children in the village, perhaps your players will know (or find out) that she freezes her victims to death after capturing them.
If you can, find a way to use this information later in the adventure (maybe she captures one of the players). The players can also use their knowledge of the witch against her.
4) Make Thematicatic Connections Between Encounters
The more your encounters have in common (on a thematic level), the stronger and more interesting they will be.
For example, if the campaign is about stopping an evil cult that worships demons, then each encounter might have something to do with demons, cults, or the dark side of mindless mob mentality.
5)Drop Them in a Cauldron
Learning how to write a D&D encounter starts with creating an interesting environment.
The terrain and topography of the encounter should impact how it is played out, if possible.
An open space encounter can be used to add suspense, while a cave dungeon will naturally cause players to slow down and look around carefully for traps or ambushes.
Encounter writing also includes the use of elevation and obstacles, such as walls or trees, to break up the line of sight and make one encounter more difficult than another.
6) Mix and Match Encounter Types
While you want your dungeons and dragons’ encounters to connect, you don’t want an endless repeat of the same events.
That will get boring fast.
Mix up your encounter types. Keep your adventure fresh and your players on their toes.
Plan a variety of encounters by:
- Using different terrains and dungeon maps
- Leaving out certain monsters or NPCs
- Involving specific monsters or NPCs
- Changing the time of day
- Using different goals and objectives
You usually want to include a mix of encounter types:
- Chase scenes
- Roadside encounters
- Night encounters
7) Follow the 4 Tips for Better Combat Encounters
Combat encounters are a staple of Dungeons & Dragons. They are exciting, fast-paced, and can include a variety of interesting and creative ideas.
To make the encounter more interactive and fun, follow these four tips:
- Give the players a chance to co-create the encounter at the moment.
- Make sure there are three levels of the encounter: The surface level, middle level, and deep level.
- Add an element of chaos or randomness.
- Use everything in the scene (objects, people, etc.) to make a memorable encounter.
As an illustration of the three levels, consider an encounter where the players stumble upon some ruins.
On the surface level, the players explore the ruins. On the middle level (just below the surface), they discover clues that help them with the overall adventure. At the deepest level, they overcome a challenge together, which strengthens their group bond and connection.
That’s how to write a D&D encounter.
8) Bring In Better Creatures
The creatures you choose will also have an impact on how challenging a D&D Encounter is for your players.
Creatures with area effect spells make great D&D encounters, as do encounters with a lot of small, scuttling creatures. Creatures that can fly also make encounters harder (and more interesting) since there is less cover from ranged attacks, and it’s easier for them to escape or pursue players.
I like to introduce familiar and unfamiliar creatures in encounters throughout an adventure.
Read about how to create balanced encounters later in this article.
9) Randomly Roll Monsters
To create D&D encounters on the fly, you don’t always need to plan them out in advance. Instead, you can use a random table to roll up monsters or NPCs.
For example, if your players are traveling through the forest and you want an encounter, simply roll on a random table and choose something that makes sense for the region.
Of course, using an on-the-fly roll approach means you have less control over the outcome, so keep that in mind.
Many DMs plan for a few random encounters in case the players move through the adventure faster than expected.
10) Add a Twist
As you write D&D encounters, always think about ways to make them more memorable.
If you have a room with railings on either side, roll for a chance that the railings have large holes in them.
If your players have to traverse across a bridge, roll for a chance that it’s destroyed and hanging on by a thread. Take something familiar and turn it on its head.
Keep your players guessing until the very end.
11) Ethically Steal From Other Games (and Sources)
The great thing about D&D is that it draws inspiration from all sorts of fantasy fiction, movies, and video games.
It’s okay to ethically “steal” or borrow inspiration from these sources and adapt them for your D&D encounters.
If you want a creature that can turn invisible, you can look up a common monster with that ability and adapt it to the D&D world.
You can also look at myths, legends, and history for inspiration.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you write a new D&D encounter.
12) Use Treasures and Rewards to Drive Player Goals
Treasure is an important element of D&D encounters.
Similar to the use of monsters, the treasure should be used to add interest and motivate the players’ goals.
Determining the right amount of treasure in an encounter will depend on what you’re going for in the scene. Offering too much might result in your players having an easy time or growing entitled.
Too little treasure may cause your party members to feel unsatisfied after fighting through multiple difficult battles.
Generally speaking, the Dungeon Master Guide says:
“Over the course of a typical campaign, a party finds treasure hoards amounting to seven rolls on the Challenge 0-4 table, eighteen tolls on the Challenge 5-10 table, twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table, and eight rolls on the Challenge 17+ table. (p.133)“—Dungeon Master Guide (How to Write a D&D Encounter)
This formula will give your players a decent amount of treasure after each encounter, but not too much as to make them unstoppable.
13) Check the Difficulty Level
Determining the difficulty level for D&D encounters is also important.
If you want an easy fight, plan for weaker creatures where the number of players is higher than the number of enemies.
If you want a difficult encounter, then aim for one or two monsters per player in the party.
If you are designing an extremely difficult scenario, try including several high-challenge rating creatures that work well together. This will force your players to think quickly if they want to survive.
Some encounters may require more planning than others before running them with your group due to their complexity or difficulty.
14) Use Your Best Judgement
Be considerate of your players to avoid overwhelming them with an encounter that is too difficult.
At first, it may take some trial and error before getting things just right, but once you do, designing D&Ds encounters will quickly become second nature.
DMs should always use their best judgment when creating encounters.
After all, you know your players best.
15) Improvise, Improvise, Improvise
Although there are guidelines for how encounters should go at different difficulty levels, if you want them to run smoothly, you must be able to improvise.
Improvisation means thinking on your feet.
If you’re a DM, you should be prepared to run any part of the game without a plan or structure. Even if there is a plan, be prepared to make changes on the fly.
For the best results, try using “the three pillars of improvisation” when running D&Ds encounters.
These pillars will help you improvise no matter the circumstance:
- Agree and escalate (Accept your players’ ideas and run with them)
- Dare to discard (Don’t be afraid to change things moment by moment)
- Have Fun!
Above everything else, running D&D encounters should always be enjoyable.
Check out this video with even more ideas on how to write a D&D encounter:
How To Write a D&D Encounter (3 Good Examples)
One of the best ways for new or experienced DMs to learn how to create encounters is to see real-life examples.
When writing encounters for your roleplaying campaigns, it’s helpful to keep things simple. Only include as much information as needed and leave lots of room for improvisation.
Check out these three examples.
Example 1: D&D Encounter for Level 1 Players
Summary: The players find a secret maze of tunnels behind a bookcase. The players get lost and must find their way out.
Goal: The players must find their way out of the maze.
Conflict: The party is lost in the maze.
Stakes: Staying lost for a long time.
Setting: A dark maze of tunnels behind a bookshelf in the Inn.
Timing: There is no established time limit.
DM Notes: Allow the players to roam for a while in the dark. Then, roll a 6-sided die until they get free. An even-numbered roll means they stay lost. Three odd-numbered rolls in a row means they find their way out.
Example 2: D&D Social Encounter
Summary: The players must interview two witnesses of a robbery (who have different stories).
Goal: To find information that leads to an arrest.
Conflict: The robber is on the loose.
Stakes: The robber might strike again.
Setting: The streets of a busy city called Fairbury.
Timing: The players have 24 hours before the robber strikes again.
DM Notes: One of the witnesses is an accomplice of the robber. If threatened, he will lead the players to the robber’s secret hideout.
Example 3: D&D Puzzle Encounter
Summary: One of the players gets buried alive. The rest of the group must solve a series of clues to find the buried player in time.
Goal: Rescue the buried player.
Conflict: The player has been buried and could perish.
Stakes: The player will die if not rescued in time.
Setting: A small town named Balterbridge where the players were not welcomed.
Timing: The group has 2 hours to find the buried player.
DM Notes: The player is buried in a coffin underground with no light source. The box is wooden and is covered with grass and dirt. The clues the players must find are: 1) A small piece of a town map with an arrow drawn on it; 2) The arrow on the parchment points to a building across from the town pub; 3) A bloody handprint with fingers pointing behind the pub; and 4) A freshly dug grave behind the pub.
How To Write Balanced Combat Encounters in Dungeons and Dragons
The best way to write a balanced combat encounter is to know your players, the basic DM guidelines for encounters, and to match encounters to your player group’s level of skill and experience.
Every group has a different dynamic.
To write balanced combat encounters, you should understand your players’ play styles and try to provide them with challenges they will enjoy (without overwhelming them).
Here are a few tips for more balanced encounters:
- Test out different challenges to see how your players respond.
- Scale back encounters if they get too difficult.
- Scale up the challenge level of encounters if they seem too easy.
- Plan a mix of harder and easier encounters throughout a session.
- Make sure your players know what they are getting into before the fight.
- Mention if the encounter is meant to be easy or harder.
- Offer options for characters who are too weak or injured.
- Avoid one difficult encounter right after another.
D&D Encounter Template
Here is an easy-to-use and free downloadable template for how to write a D&D encounter:
As you can see, there is a place to put your summary, goal, conflict, stakes, setting, timing, and DM notes.
You’ll also see a space to write out a “prediction.” This is your prediction for the outcome of the encounter.
Feel free to use it as much as you like—I created it for you and your group to enjoy. I hope it makes plotting your encounters easier and more fun.
How To Write a D&D Encounter Checklist
Use this checklist when developing your encounters:
- Can you summarize the encounter concisely in one or two sentences?
- Is the encounter scripted enough but not over-scripted?
- Does the encounter include a clear goal for the players?
- What is the conflict of the encounter?
- What will happen if the players fail?
- Where does the encounter take place?
- What’s important for the players to know about the setting?
- How does the setting impact the encounter?
- How much time do the players have to finish the encounter?
- What else do you (as the DM) need to know?
- Would a new DM immediately understand the encounter from just reading it? (Without any further explanation)
- Do you know what to do if something goes wrong? Do you have a plan B?
How To Write Memorable D&D Encounters
There is a difference between writing an encounter and writing a really good encounter.
Often, the difference comes down to planning, integration, and execution.
The better you plan (for multiple outcomes), the better the encounter. The better you integrate the event into the overall adventure, the better the encounter. The better you execute the encounter, the better the experience for your players.
Don’t just say “The party goes into the crypt and fights ghouls.”
Instead, say, “The crypt has been around for hundreds of years. It was built to honor a long-dead king. But now, people have stopped visiting.”
And then, partway through the encounter, have an old man approach them in town and tell them to leave.
The party hears a noise coming from the crypt—and then, later that night (assuming they don’t leave), restless ghouls moaning from the afterlife.
The bottom line is to use sensory details and storytelling devices to turn an ordinary encounter into an extraordinary experience.
How To Write a D&D Encounter (Resources)
Here is a quick list of resources for developing unforgettable encounters:
- Dungeon’s Master Guide & Rulebooks (full set)
- DND Encounter Generator (Free download)
- D&D Notes Template (Free download)
- D&D Campaign Template (Free download)
- 100 Road Side Encounters PDF (Free download)
- DND Encounter Template (Free download—see download link in this article)
100 D&D Encounter Ideas
As encounters are always different, it can be difficult to create one from scratch. So, here are 100 ideas for your next D&D campaign.
100 D&D encounter ideas:
- The party fights an ogre in a crowded market square.
- The player characters get mistaken as hardened criminals and thrown into jail.
- The party wakes up one morning to find an army of zombies surrounding the town.
- The party is sent to negotiate with a dragon for his hoard.
- A local lord offers the players 100 gold pieces if they can capture a thief.
- The party finds itself in the middle of a civil war.
- A wounded warthog is blocking the road.
- The party must move a huge boulder blocking a popular trade route.
- The party is sent to spy on a bandit camp.
- A giant has been spotted near the settlement and they need help dealing with it.
- The party is being hunted by a band of marauders.
- The party finds an empty village.
- The players are sent to investigate a drunken brawl.
- A wild boar has been terrorizing the local farms. The players are paid to hunt it down.
- A merchant is selling magic items that are suspiciously cheap.
- The party comes across a small mining town where everyone is acting weird.
- A traveling merchant has lost his cargo.
- An old friend offers the party a magical item to take out a group of bandits.
- A necromancer is raising corpses from the grave.
- The party comes across a group of burned-out ruins in the forest.
- The party discovers a secret door leading to an ancient tomb.
- The party is being followed by a group of goblins.
- A group of thugs tries to shake down the party for protection money.
- The party is paid to investigate a local haunted house.
- The party must escort a nobleman’s carriage.
- A worshiper of an evil god is creating undead creatures.
- The party rescues a prisoner that claims to be innocent.
- The merchant needs help making it across the wilderness without getting robbed.
- There’s a pack of wolves attacking livestock in the area.
- A wizard is developing a new spell and needs the players to help test it.
- A group of knights challenge the party to a friendly joust.
- The players stumble across an abandoned tower in the woods.
- The party must escort villagers from their homes to a local castle.
- A noble is offering 100 gold pieces for anyone who can clear out a group of orcs.
- A wizard’s favorite familiar escapes and runs away with his spellbook and scrolls.
- A broken dam has flooded the town’s mill.
- There’s a dead body in the street.
- The party stumbles across an abandoned campsite with supplies.
- A farmer is being haunted by a ghost.
- The players are asked to escort a group of messengers through enemy territory.
- There’s been an accident at the village mill and it needs fixing immediately.
- The party is hired to explore a flooded cave.
- An important religious relic has been stolen from the local temple.
- The players are asked to help search for a missing child.
- A merchant needs protection on his way back from the market.
- An unarmed man is running around the city screaming that he’s being chased by ghosts.
- One of the player’s relatives shows up unexpectedly.
- Someone has set the player’s supplies on fire.
- The players discover an underground chamber full of human bones.
- A fairy visits the players at night.
- The party is asked to help move some heavy boxes into the castle’s keep.
- Someone is poisoned and needs an antidote immediately.
- An earthquake has leveled homes in the city.
- Two factions are fighting for control of the town.
- The party must escort a caravan through a swamp.
- A local lord is being haunted by the ghosts of his murdered family.
- An evil baron has released an army of orcs to terrorize the countryside.
- The players find evidence of a possible serial killer in town.
- The party hears an explosion in the distance.
- A wizard is turning innocents into animals.
- A local lord sends assassins after the party for stealing something from his castle.
- The players hear that an army is approaching the city.
- A king’s diplomat needs to get across the country quickly.
- Someone has torn down the player’s house and stolen their stuff.
- A ship is found capsized.
- The party must solve a series of riddles.
- A village has been attacked by a pack of rabid wolves.
- The players stumble across a group of bandits robbing an isolated farmhouse.
- A traveling merchant hires the party to deliver something to a far-off city.
- The party witnesses a ritual being performed by dark cultists.
- A forest fire breaks out near a village.
- The players stumble upon a baby dragon hatching from an abandoned egg.
- A nearby city sends an assassin after the party.
- The players must talk their way out of a crime.
- The party finds a shipwreck hidden under the water.
- A player wakes up on a roof with no memory of how he got there.
- The party interrogates someone who knows the answer to a mystery in one of the player’s pasts.
- The party must covertly infiltrate a guarded castle.
- The players come across the aftermath of a battle between trolls and barbarians.
- The party must convince a group of ogres not to eat them.
- A sick and dying horse is discovered in the wilds.
- The players discover a circle of stones with mysterious carvings.
- One of the player’s items is missing something important.
- The players are being hunted by a group of life-sized toy soldiers.
- A dangerous criminal is on the loose and on the player’s tail.
- The players are trapped in a burning building.
- A player is mistaken as the target of a group of high-level assassins.
- The players discover a hidden entrance in the town library.
- A player catches a glimpse of his true form when he’s about to die from a fall (and then is recued).
- The players find an unusual map in the pocket of a dead body.
- The party must convince a small city to rebel against their overlord.
- A player is being hunted by an orcish war chief and his army (maybe for personal reasons).
- The party discovers a set of stairs hidden in the basement.
- A player wakes up and finds herself alone in the woods with no items.
- The party goes invisible for several hours without explanation.
- One of the players gets kidnapped.
- A troop of monkeys follows the party all night.
- The party meets another group of adventurers who resemble them in oddly specific ways.
- One of the players gets buried alive.
- A player is possessed by a ghost who asks them to perform a task in exchange for his help.
Final Thoughts: How To Write a D&D Encounter
By following the advice in this guide, you should be well-equipped to write an unforgettable D&D encounter.
Just remember that there will be a bit of trial and error as you develop the skill of writing great encounters. Before you know it, you’ll be crafting original encounters that your players will love.
For more articles on D&D, check out these related posts:
- How To Write a D&D One-Shot They Will Love (Ultimate Guide)
- How To Write a D&D Backstory (Ultimate Guide)
- How To Write a D&D Campaign They Will Love (Ultimate Guide)
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