Building an encounter has three main ingredients

Have you ever come up with a general idea for an encounter, but aren’t sure how to flesh it out or weave it into the larger narrative? It’s been said time and time again that Dungeons and Dragons is built on three pillars of play: combat, social, and exploration. As long as you know the environment and how subjects might fight or socialize, you as the DM can improvise any encounter well enough to roll with the punches. 

Here is an example of my own DM notes for this weekend’s first encounter: It starts off explaining the environment and how it can be explored, and then my notes mention some monsters in the distance which can branch into a combat or social encounter (or a blend of the two). You don’t need to know the specifics of my campaign to understand my writing, but if you have questions – always feel free to ask!

The PCs are high up along the peaks of the Orc’s Crown. They follow wood-and-hemp bridges that connect plateaus of rock, and follow narrow trails up along cliff walls. Eventually, they’ll easily spot a large company of ogres wearing crude backpack mounts, carefully scaling a 120 ft. vertical rock surface. Currently the ogres about thirty feet high.

  • DC 10 Perception spots seven ogres in total, each carrying orcs on the mounts. They are all armed with primitive weapons.
  • DC 12 Insight reveals the company seems rushed and uninterested in observing their surroundings.


  • DC 12 Perception spots an old steel and hemp pulley system built into the rock wall. DC 14 INT check to learn how to use the machine; it requires a PC to stay at the floor to operate the controls. The elevator can fit up to two Medium sized targets and move 40 ft. per round, but moves faster with only one (60 ft./round)
  • PCs who climb the wall must pass a DC 10 STR check for every 20 ft. they climb. For every 10 ft. beyond the first, the DC increases by 1. Players can choose to try and beat a DC 13 CON check to increase their climb speed by 10 ft. for that turn. If they fail, they must pass a DC 15 DEX save to fall 10 ft., otherwise they fall to the floor and take 1d10 bludgeoning damage for each 10 ft. fallen.


The orc company will be uninterested in talking, but they also want to avoid a fight which would weaken their numbers and waste their time. If the party is hostile, the orc company will attack the group until they die. A DC 18 Persuasion check could later convince an orc to parlay and talk with the party; the DC drops to 10 if there is only one orc alive to parlay.

If the company isn’t already hostile, they could tell the group the following.

  • They will openly admit their allegiance to Rogmesh, their clan leader. They are meeting Rogmesh at Oogugboo Summit, an innately magical mountain, to later escort her to Curlamog’s Lair to confront Ergoth.
  • They’ve learned that Ergoth has sent a tanarruk to kill Rogmesh’s tribe and take her to Curlamog’s Lair. 


  • 2x Ogres
  • 4x Orcs

Sneaking up on the company would be fairly easy with a Passive Perception of 9. If the company is attacked, most of the group will attempt to continue their climb to the top of the rock wall. Two ogres and four orcs will descend 30 ft. to attack the party and bide time for the rest of their group to escape.

The orcs will not stop fighting until they die, often speaking in their own language to each other about martyring themselves to protect Rogmesh. The ogres will not retreat from battle, but will move onto a weaker opponent if they are challenged by their melee target.

My ‘environment’ challenges usually translate into skill challenges, and typically I try to include solutions that require a combination of two or more abilities like STR and INT. For this particular encounter, I permit beefier characters to use their Strength and Constitution to brave the rock wall, and squishier characters to use their Intelligence to create a simpler route for themselves and others to follow. 

My ‘social’ challenge here is totally optional, as is the ‘combat’ challenge. Whatever my players decide to do, I can refer to these notes and see how the orcs and ogres would respond. If the social encounter goes well, the PCs could learn more secrets about the big players in the story… otherwise they could simply have a straightforward brawl or a mix of combat and social. 

Has this guide been helpful? Would you do anything differently? Share with us here and add to the discussion!