Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 10: Game Mastering / Running Modes of Play


Source Core Rulebook pg. 493 2.0
Encounter mode is the most structured mode of play, and you’ll mostly be following the rules presented in Chapter 9 to run this mode. Because you usually call for initiative during exploration before transitioning into an encounter, guidelines for initiative order appear on page 498 in the discussion of exploration mode. Rules for building combat encounters appear on page 488.

Stakes: Moderate to high. Encounters always have significant stakes, and they are played in a step-by-step time frame to reflect that.

Time Scale: Encounter mode is highly structured and proceeds in combat rounds for combat encounters, while other sorts of encounters can have rounds of any length. In combat, 1 minute consists of 10 rounds, where each combat round is 6 seconds long, but you might decide a verbal confrontation proceeds in minute-long or longer rounds to give each speaker enough time to make a solid point.

Actions and Reactions: In combat encounters, each participant’s turn is broken into discrete actions, and participants can use reactions when their triggers occur. Reactions can occur in social situations, though their triggers are usually more descriptive and less tactical.

Choosing Adversaries' Actions

Source Core Rulebook pg. 493 2.0
Players often coordinate and plan to be as efficient as possible, but their adversaries might not. As the GM, you’re roleplaying these foes, and you decide their tactics. Most creatures have a basic grasp of simple tactics like flanking or focusing on a single target. But you should remember that they also react based on emotions and make mistakes—perhaps even more than the player characters do.

When selecting targets or choosing which abilities to use, rely on the adversaries’ knowledge of the situation, not your own. You might know that the cleric has a high Will save modifier, but a monster might still try to use a fear ability on her. That doesn’t mean you should play adversaries as complete fools; they can learn from their mistakes, make sound plans, and even research the player characters in advance.

Adversaries usually don’t attack a character who’s knocked out. Even if a creature knows a fallen character might come back into the fight, only the most vicious creatures focus on helpless foes rather than the more immediate threats around them.

Running adversaries is a mix of being true to the creature and doing what’s best for the drama of the game. Think of your encounter like a fight scene in a movie or novel. If the fighter taunts a fire giant to draw its attention away from the fragile wizard, the tactically sound decision is for the giant to keep pummeling the wizard. But is that the best choice for the scene? Perhaps everyone will have more fun if the giant redirects its ire to the infuriating fighter.

Bypassed Encounters

Source Core Rulebook pg. 493 2.0
What happens if you’ve planned a fight or challenge and the PCs find a way to avoid it entirely? This could leave them behind in XP or cause them to miss important information or treasure.

In the case of XP, the guidelines are simple: If the player characters avoided the challenge through smart tactical play, a savvy diplomatic exchange, clever use of magic, or another approach that required ingenuity and planning, award them the normal XP for the encounter. If they did something that took only moderate effort or was a lucky break, like finding a secret passage and using it to avoid a fight, award them XP for a minor or moderate accomplishment. In an adventure that’s more free-form, like a sprawling dungeon with multiple paths, there might be no reward for bypassing an encounter, because doing so was trivial.

You’ll have to think on your feet if information or items get skipped when players bypass encounters. First, look for another reasonable place in the adventure to place the information or item. If it makes sense, move the original encounter to another part of the adventure and give the PCs a major advantage for bypassing the encounter in the first place.

Ending Encounters

Source Core Rulebook pg. 494 2.0
A combat encounter typically ends when all the creatures on one side are killed or knocked unconscious. Once this happens, you can stop acting in initiative order. The surviving side then has ample time to ensure that everyone taken out stays down. However, you might need to keep using combat rounds if any player characters are near death, clinging to a cliff, or in some other situation where every moment matters for their survival.

You can decide a fight is over if there’s no challenge left, and the player characters are just cleaning up the last few weak enemies. However, avoid doing this if any of the players still have inventive and interesting things they want to try or spells they’re concentrating on—ending an encounter early is a tool to avoid boredom, not to deny someone their fun. You can end a fight early in several ways: the foes can surrender, an adversary can die before its Hit Points actually run out, or you can simply say the battle’s over and that the PCs easily dispatch their remaining foes. In this last case, you might ask, “Is everyone okay if we call the fight?” to make sure your players are on board.

One side might surrender when almost all its members are defeated or if spells or skills thoroughly demoralize them. Once there’s a surrender, come out of initiative order and enter into a short negotiation. These conversations are really about whether the winners will show mercy to the losers or just kill or otherwise get rid of them. The surrendering side usually doesn’t have much leverage in these cases, so avoid long back-and-forth discussions.

Fleeing Enemies

Source Core Rulebook pg. 494 2.0
Fleeing enemies can be a problem. Player characters often want to pursue foes that flee because they think an enemy might return as a threat later on. Avoid playing this out move by move, as it can easily bog down the game. If every adversary is fleeing, forgo initiative order and give each PC the option to pursue any one fleeing foe. Each PC can declare one action, spell, or other ability to use to try to keep up. Then, compare the PC’s Speed to that of the target, assess how much the pursuer’s chosen spell or ability would help, and factor in any abilities the quarry has that would aid escape. If you determine that the pursuer catches up, go back into combat with the original initiative order. If not, the quarry escapes for now.

If the PCs decide to flee, it’s usually best to let them do so. Pick a particular location and allow them to escape once they all reach it. However, if they’re encumbered or otherwise slowed down, or if enemies have higher Speeds and a strong motive to pursue, you might impose consequences upon PCs who flee.

Social Encounters

Source Core Rulebook pg. 494 2.0
Most conversations play best as free-form roleplaying, with maybe one or two checks for social skills involved. Sometimes, though, a tense situation or crucial parlay requires a social encounter that uses initiative, much like a combat encounter. As with any other encounter, the stakes of a social encounter need to be high! A failed social encounter could mean a character is imprisoned or put to death, a major rival becomes a political powerhouse, or a key ally is disgraced and ostracized.

Using the structure of an encounter is helpful because it makes the timing clearer than in free-form play, and each character feels like they’re contributing. When running a social encounter, establish the stakes up front, so the players know the consequences of success or failure and the circumstances that will cause the encounter to end.

You have much more flexibility in how you run a social encounter than in a combat encounter. Extending the length of rounds beyond 6 seconds, allowing more improvisation, and focusing less on special attacks and spells all differentiate a social encounter from a combat one. In most cases, you don’t need to worry about character’s movements, nor do you need a map. Some examples of social encounters include:
  • Proving someone’s innocence in front of a judge.
  • Convincing a neighboring monarch to help defend against an invasion.
  • Besting a rival bard in a battle of wits.
  • Exposing a villain’s deception before a noble court.

Initiative and Actions

Source Core Rulebook pg. 494 2.0
Initiative in a social encounter typically has characters rolling Society or a Charisma-based skill, such as Diplomacy or Deception. As with other encounters, a character’s approach to the conflict determines which skill they’ll roll. On a character’s turn, they typically get to attempt one roll, usually by using a skill action. Let the player roleplay what their character says and does, then determine what they’ll roll. Allow them to use any abilities or spells that might help them make their case, though keep in mind that when most people see the visual signs of a spell being cast, they think someone is using magic to try to influence or harm them, and they have a negative reaction.

Good social encounters include an opposition. This can be direct, such as a rival who argues against the characters’ case, or passive, such as a mob that automatically becomes more unruly as each round passes. Give the opposition one or more positions in the initiative order so you can convey what it is doing. You can create game statistics for the opposition, especially if it’s an individual, but in situations like that of the unruly mob, you might need nothing more than establish a set of increasingly difficult DCs.

Measuring Success and Progress

Source Core Rulebook pg. 495 2.0
You’ll need to decide how to measure the characters’ success in social encounters, because there’s no AC to target or HP to whittle down. Chapter 4 includes guidance on setting DCs for social skill actions, often using a target’s Will DC. If you need a DC for people who don’t have stats, such as a crowd or an NPC for whom you haven’t already generated statistics, use the guidelines on setting DCs, found on page 503. You can either pick a simple DC or use a level-based DC, estimating a level for the subject or how challenging it should be to sway them.

The attitude conditions—hostile, unfriendly, indifferent, friendly, and helpful—provide a useful way to track the progress of a social encounter. Use these to represent the attitude of an authority, a crowd, a jury, or the like. A typical goal for a social encounter is to change the attitude of a person or group to helpful so they assist you, or calming a hostile group or person to defuse a situation. Try to give the players a clear idea of how much they’ve progressed as the encounter proceeds.

Another option is to track the number of successes or failures the characters accrue. For instance, you might need to trick four guards into leaving their posts, and count each successful attempt to Lie or Create a Diversion toward a total of four necessary successes. You can combine these two methods; if the PCs need a group of important nobles to vote their way, the goal of the encounter might be to ensure that a majority of the nobles have a better attitude toward the PCs than they have of a rival—all within a limited time frame.


Source Core Rulebook pg. 496 2.0
When you set stakes at the start of a social encounter, give an idea of the consequences. Beyond whatever narrative benefits player characters might gain, a social encounter usually includes an XP award. Because these are encounters along the same lines as combat encounters, they grant a sizable amount of XP, typically that of a moderate accomplishment, or even a major accomplishment if the encounter was the culmination of long-term plans or a significant adversary got their comeuppance.

The outcome of a social encounter should direct the story of the game. Look for repercussions. Which NPCs might view the PCs more favorably now? Which might hold a grudge or formulate a new plan? A social encounter can seal the fate of an NPC and end their story, but this isn’t true for player characters. Even if something looks truly dire for them, such as a death sentence, the social encounter isn’t the end—there’s still time for desperate heroics or a twist in the story.