[RPG] How to add story to every encounter so that they don’t seem like I’m just piling monsters on the characters for xp


I am running a Viking themed 3.5 adventure and the party is traveling to confront a barbarian king on the way though they have just been fighting wild animals and it feels like these encounters don't mean anything. I had a ranger hunting them with his wolverine companion but that was the only encounter that had any story. Any advice on adding story to my encounters?

Best Answer

Use the journey to deepen your players' knowledge and understanding of this barbarian king. Let the encounters illustrate his (and his underlings') personality and decisions. Maybe show him to have multiple sides, to be a person of grays instead of black and white, if you haven't done so yet.

An example: Have an encounter centered on refugees fleeing this king. Say, their cart (or ship or whatever) got into trouble, and they can't proceed, and the king's men (a small capture party) are catching up with them. Give your party the chance to help the refugees escape and/or fight the hunting party... but give it a twist (one, at least): Show that the refugees are, in fact, slavers: they have a few chained youngsters hidden (or out in plain sight?), who apparently haven't been treated well. These youngsters are from the king's people. Twist, once again: Even though the refugees are slavers, the youngsters are rapers and thieves who did hurt the refugees' families - that's why the slavers think enslaving them is proper punishment. In the eyes of the king's men, however, the refugees are just outlaws, though... but so are the youngsters, who would have to face even harsher punishment at the king's hands than slavery. Reveal this all relatively quickly, and have the king's men arrive (by an unexpected shortcut) in the middle of the debate. Try to turn it into a standoff, if possible, with talk first and combat later (or not at all.) Show what this king and his laws are like through the words of the opposing NPC parties.

Another example: Have your party come across a pillaged, burnt out village, with a few looters still there, picking what they can, killing the wounded etc. Reveal that this village belongs to the barbarian king, and that the cruel looters work for the same power (god, jarl, thane etc) as the PCs. The village was relatively unprotected because its fighting men went off to conduct a burial, from which they won't be back for at least a day. (Have the party learn this from someone: either a villager or a pillager.) Reveal that the looters - even though they're on the same side as the PCs - were about to plant evidence incriminating the PCs, at the behest of some internal rival (a nice way to introduce a mysterious one if you haven't done so yet. ;)) Make a villager or two a reliable witness of this - and then have the looters make a secret attempt on their lives. Then have the scouts of the villagers' returning warriors turn up and witness how the PCs handle the situation. Then show how the barbarians react to what they've seen. Maybe they'll like, in their grief, the PCs' actions, and try and put in a word for them with the king. Or not. It's up to what you wish the king and his rule to be and seem like.

So... something like this. Use the encounters you come up with to foreshadow the confrontation with the king. Once again, have NPCs and situations reveal what he's like, illustrate - through NPCs' actions, words, and opinions (of him and of his rule) - what the PCs can expect.