Another type of planned encounter is the trigger. It can be used with a key or
by itself. A trigger is a simple either/or or if/then type of statement. It is
used for more interactive types of encounters, where the action of the event
is what is important, such as the kidnapping described below.
The next episode occurs at 1 o'clock in the morning: If any character is still
awake, he hears a muffled scream coming from the balcony of the room next
door. If the characters investigate, they will discover two hooded men (6th-level
thieves) attempting to drag a struggling young woman over the railing. One man
has her firmly gripped from behind, his hand clamped over her mouth. The other
is hoisting her legs over the side. A confederate waits with the horses on the
ground below. If the characters do nothing, there will be a crash as she kicks
over a flower urn, followed by a muttered curse and then the galloping of horses.
If the characters are noticed, the unburdened man wheels to face them, drawing
two swords, one in each hand. The woman attempts to break free, only to be
struck unconscious by the other man. The man on the ground quietly cocks a
crossbow and aims it at the party, keeping an eye out for spellcasters.
Here everything is dependent upon previous and current choices of action. Is a
character awake? Will the characters investigate? How will they react to the
kidnappers? Each decision molds subsequent events. The characters might leap to
the young woman's rescue or they might rouse themselves only in time to see the
kidnappers gallop off with her tied to the saddle. Their actions could alter
planned events. Coming to her aid, the characters rescue the lady. As DM you
must be ready to tell her story. Why was she attacked? Who were they? Are there
any clues the characters can find?
To write this type of encounter, first outline the basic sequence of events
that would happen if the characters did not interfere. Next, think like a player
and try to anticipate what the characters might do. Would they aid the lady? If
so, you will need combat information—how the attackers will fight and what
weapons and tactics they will use. What happens if the characters try to sound the
alarm or talk to the kidnappers? What will the lady say if rescued? At least a
brief note should be made to account for the probable reactions of the player
As complete as you make them, triggers are not without their weaknesses. While
very good at describing a scene, a trigger does not provide much background
information. In the event above, there is no description of the room, the
attackers, the lady's history, etc. There could be, but including it would be extra
work, and description would also get in the way of the action.
A less critical problem is that DMs can't anticipate every action of the
player characters. No matter how carefully a trigger is constructed, there is always
something the characters can do to upset the situation. In the example above,
what if the characters panic and a mage launches a fireball at the attackers? In a flash of flame, they and their victim are killed and
the building is on fire. Prescient is the DM who can anticipate this event!
There is no simple solution for unpredictable players (nor would you want
one!). As a DM you are never going to be able to predict every player decision.
Experience, both as a player and a DM, teaches you what the most likely actions
are. Beyond these you must improvise, relying on your skill as a DM.
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