A few nights back, I was talking to Louis on Skype, on our regular weekly chat about NeoExodus and he sounded surprised when I told him that I had completed nine encounters for Encounter at Ramat Bridge. I believe his exact words were "Are you sure that's enough?" in a sarcastic tome, implying that I had too many encounters.
So it has been tickling the back of my mind. Enough that I feel I have to expand upon this seemingly simple question. What is an encounter? Let me start with the boring part, according to the Oxford Dictionary, an encounter is an unexpected or casual meeting with someone or something. (Note for purists, Myriam-Webster has a very similar definition).
At the start of 4e (and I mean pre-release (March-May 2008)), as we were writing the first LFR adventures. We tried to wrap our heads around the new encounter concepts. Someone at WotC told us that an encounters was "Anytime a player gets to roll a dice, everything else is without importance." Though not incorrect, it is far too simplistic and erroneous. Not quite invalid, but not quite right either. True, PCs often roll dice in encounters. To reduce an encounter to rolling dice is like saying that role-playing is about rolling dice. (Yes I edited the 4e humor here).
It could easily be argued that everything that happens in an RPG adventure, happens in an encounter and the rest is just filler added by the GM as transition (like the core of what our WotC-guy said).
Before going on further, we must define the elements of an encounter before coming up with a valid definition. First, the PCs have to be faced with something, whether a situation, a challenge, or a combat they have to overcome. Second, overcoming the encounter should change the situation in the story. If all the PCs can do is nod their heads, that's is not really an encounter. Third, this has to be in an RPG adventure. Any definition we come up should cover the following encounter types: a combat with a random enemy, a combat with the big bad guy (and/or his minions), a gambling evening at the local inn and an evening at court. One thing I do not consider to be a valid encounter is the "boxed text meeting".
A combat with a random enemy This is the good old random encounter table, but also includes some OTE (Obligatory Thug Encounter). This combat is unexpected in the grand scheme of things, but does it advance the story? The PCs cross the forest and are beset by a pack of wolves. Unless someone dies or the wolves have a clear signification in the story... whether they show up or not does not advance the story.
A combat with the big bad guy (and/or his minions) After months of questing, the PCs finally corner the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) and take him down. It advances the story, but it should be far from unexpected. The PCs have prepared for this and get ready for the showdown.
A gambling evening at the local inn Filled with gold earned in a previous adventure, the PCs hit the local watering hole and try to gain more by playing a game or twenty. Is it unexpected, perhaps in that the GM may or may not be expecting such an activity. Unless when such activity is used by the GM as plot device or hook, the PCs play a game of dice and earn money. Doesn't change the story.
An evening at court The PCs dress up for an evening. Here, the cutthroat world of politics and intrigue sets the stage for the PCs to perform. heading for the world of nobility, is rarely something casual or unexpected, rarely does such an encounter leaves the plot unchanged from its previous situation.
The boxed text meeting is something many writers include in adventure as an encounter. This is generally presented in the form of a long GM-to-Player text (boxed text). To make the scene "dynamic", they add a break and something like "Once the PCs agree, continue." At the end, the situation has changed and the PCs move on to something else. I've talked about Living Arcanis... well that is pretty much one of the hallmarks of Arcanis (it is one of its curse and positive of the campaign). Whatever the goal is here is not to give Boxed Text theories... That is for a full series of articles! The alternative to the BTE is the "Knowledge Roll Encounter"... Instead (or in addition to) boxed text, the PCs get to make a few Knowledge to correct/ confirm/ add information to what they saw/ heard.
Now back to the topic, the BTE frequently does include a meeting or challenge, unexpected happenings and usually changes the situation and the story. But it does not give the PCs must say over what they do. Since the players don't do anything that's not scripted, those "encounters" should be written as part of other encounters.
With those elements in mind, I can attempt the following definition. Encounter (RPG) Part of an RPG adventure where the PCs act upon a challenge that changes the world through their action.
There are a few key points. First, its part of an RPG adventure specificly. Next, the PCs get to act upon the challenge. Finally, the result changes the world around them, though it sounds dramatic, the world is meant as the environment, the world around them, not the whole world (though sometimes it is).