4e and the Art of the Situation: Set Pieces

4e and the Art of the Situation: Set Pieces

If you're enjoying the content here, check out our new site, Thoughtcrime Games. Thanks for visiting!

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

Last article we talked about how to create situations.  Now, I want to move over to setting up encounters.


The biggest reason improv seems near impossible in 4e is the game’s dependence on maps (we won’t get into gridless right now :) ). The assumption for many with 4e is that every fight is a set piece, with more “production” placed around the battles than any other edition of D&D before it.  To even get part of the way to a nice looking battle requires planning. What happens when your characters get into a fight all of a sudden? What then?

Most 4e GMs take great pride in building awesome and elaborate set pieces with Dungeon Tiles, Dwarven Forge, and more I used to print custom color maps with Dundjinni.  I own an automated paper cutter just so I could build scenery. Have you looked at the sets that Mike Shea uses? Seriously awesome. I don’t expect GMs to give that up — I don’t — but what you should have is a good backup.  If players want total freedom, they have to cut you at least a little slack on presentation.

What I suggest is this:  build libraries of maps in different locals. In part I do this by hoarding poster maps (generally means buying lots of adventures though) and combine those and Dugeon Tiles to have a collection of maps for regions we’re in or near. If players are in a city that’s near a swamp,  it’s reasonable to have a few city maps and a few swamp maps on hand. If you can, recycle these maps whenever possible — you can always add different terrain and objects to vary the terrain. Most players aren’t going to stress repeats, especially if it means you can more easily support whatever crazy things they are going to do. When you have this base of extra maps, you can still build something that looks decent without fearing players will go off rails, leaving you totally unprepared.

The other thing you need are monsters to fill those maps with. This is very easy if you subscribe to DDI; just keep your laptop nearby with the compendium and you are just a few clicks away from filling out an encounter. What I recommend that you do on top of that is to prepare a list of the basic encounter types according to the DMG, along with the encounter XP budgets appropriate for your PC’s level. It takes a few extra minutes of prep, but here’s how it can work in play:

You see that the players are investigating a topic that you meant as a minor detail. Rather than stifling their efforts, you decide you can expand on it. The investigation is going to bring the ire of some thugs, you decide. So, while the PCs are discussing what they will do, you use the compendium and your  encounter list to draw up a quick encounter. You want it to be a quick skirmish, so you use half the XP of a normal encounter. As the PCs make their skill checks and roleplay, you’ve gotten a little encounter for this new direction that they’ve taken. They take a turn into an alley, and you pull out your reserve map…

With a little bit of forward-thinking and structure, you can turn even the heavy prep aspects of 4e into something more conductive to low-prep, on the fly GMing.

What tools do you use to prepare battles on the fly?

I promise not to be annoying with this…but have you checked out Etherkai yet?  For $2 you can support the site and get an awesome solo to terrify your players with.  

Similar Posts:

About the Author

A Jack of All Trades ,or if you prefer, an extreme example of multi-classing, Gamefiend, a.k.a Quinn Murphy has been discussing, playing and designing games straight out of the womb. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of this site in addition to being an aspiring game designer. As you would assume, he is a huge fan of 4e. By day he is a technologist. Follow gamefiend on Twitter