"The Encounter" is a Cognitohazard

I ran tabletop RPGs for over a year before ever having heard of “an Encounter.” In an ignorant state of nature I envisioned overwhelmingly at a large scale and drilled down as specifics arose, with a greater degree of fluidity between ‘states’ I did not formally recognize as being differentiated. Crossing a city and stabbing a guy on a pier or doing something in a boat were all at the same level in my brain and nothing was a zoomed-in snapshot.

After learning of “the Encounter” I thought:
“that’s neat, but it doesn’t really apply to how I run games.”

And at first that was true. I designed the world in front of the players based on broad scale principles and let the specifics happen. I continued to lay out physical spaces according to how I thought they’d really exist and populate them with just whoever I thought was there, but slowly I shifted towards slicing them up into bite-sized, bullet point-able capsules. It had its appeals and very easily slotted into how popular systems I started to run wanted me to think about them, evaluating the world as a series of gradated and encapsulated threats full of people who mysteriously never go to investigate the commotion 3 rooms over.

Now as a game designer I talk about and use the idea of the Encounter all the time. I give advice on how to conceive of, formulate, and construct them. How to build a world that is essentially a series of pots stitched together by straws with a vague glossy overview when we’re beyond its confines—but that gloss above used to be The Whole Game, and if we happened to draw a field to show some people the party was fighting in, it was just what happened to be occurring at the moment.

The Encounter is so effective a contagion I struggle to describe games without it now, and I am wont to Encounter-ify whatever I see. But just because a certain lens can be used to view the world, does not mean the world only exists within its context. Similarly, the things beyond its view continue to exist, even if we lack a way to elucidate it—we simply cannot “turn out heads and see it” lurking just besides us. While I slowly drift back away from using Encounters or thinking in them, it is supremely difficult to convey a usefully gameable amount of information in a module without room-jars filled with bullet points and overview maps that rather inherently encourage one to zoom in conically upon just a certain room at once.

My issue with the Encounter is not that it exists as a mode of conceptualizing playscape, but rather than it exists as an interminable well down which all possibility disappears. I believe that to accept the concept of the Encounter as its own entity that can coexist it is first necessary to consider it is a completely arbitrary way to conceive of these worlds that should be examined for its value and impact on gaming as a whole. Because much like a juggernaut RPG leaving lasting first impressions that leads to people electing to not engage with other new games wholly on their terms as they see it as “just another form of [Game 1],” the Encounter is essentially a communicable Cognitohazard that we share to smother a broader conception of the world and players’ flow through it.

I’d be remiss to post this without proposing any alternatives, so I’ll say this:
The further a world drifts towards encapsulation on the smallest scale, the further it drifts from an ecologically sound whole that the human mind can keep meaningfully whirring in its head. The convenience of imagining the whole world as what’s essentially a MUD has long since been outweighed by the blinders it represents, and I would encourage anyone seeking to see what I mean to dispense with the idea that there will be any sort of quotas or fixed inflection points or a dramatic separation from the actions of one moment to the next. Let it run like a river, and yes, that river could be perceived and analyzed in the terms of Encounters—but that does not mean they are, nor does that validify anything about the influence of Encounters upon the game.


Oh man, this struck right to the heart for me. You put another facet onto an ongoing discussion I’ve been having about emergence.

You said the encounter

exists as an interminable well down which all possibility disappears.

In my view, this is specifically because the encounter acts as a predicted state-of-the-game. “Possibility disappearing” is nonemergence, in so far as it doesn’t care about what comes before it: it’s a predicted, designed space. The encounter is a scene in the story, and therefore can only exist if it’s written. We don’t exactly experience encounters in real life, and when we feel like we have, it’s particularly odd (I’ve had friends remark, “that felt like it was out of a movie…” before).

Of course, GMs like to write what’s going to happen. It’s our instinct as designers to design, and it doesn’t help that such fiat is a staple of videogames, movies, books and other sorts of media we reference when we create our TTRPGs.

So, right to the point. Fun post and I couldn’t agree more!

Indeed, I think you also hit on the trend’s origin—it’s a /scene/, which is part of (largely) non-interactive media with fixed parameters.

“Enter PARTY, pursued (or not) by Boulder; four rats rot here besides.” etc.

As someone who is deeply improvisational and actually finds it harder to prep in advance (unless it’s a map/Art-heavy game like I stream these days), I guess I find the Encounter’s uses to be more of invasive little thoughts in the back of My head. Replacing a better idea by virtue of ease. The microwave of heating up a world of adventure compared to the manual application of a skillet.

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