An encounter is a subdivision of play in which the player characters (PCs), generally working together as a party, are faced with a challenge, often represented by one or more non-player characters (NPCs). An encounter challenge may simply be an opportunity to role-play or perform for the benefit of other players in the group, but more often the challenge is a conflict with an NPC or another sort of obstacle to overcome.
Common types of encounter include:
- combat, in which the PCs must fight to overcome NPCs;
- social encounters, in which the PCs talk to NPCs, usually to get something they want from those NPCs;
- traps or puzzles, in which the PCs must find clever ways to bypassing certain obstacles or suffer harm if they cannot.
- exploration, in which the PCs interact with their environment and gain information
In game design, an encounter will usually include rules and game mechanics (perhaps in the form of statistics attached to the NPCs involved) that determine what happens when the PCs interact with the encounter in certain ways. In a basic example, a PC fighter wants to attack a goblin as part of a combat encounter; the basic rules of the game may specify how attacks are supposed to work, but the rules of the encounter specifically determine how well the fighter must roll on their dice for the attack to be successful.
In storytelling, an encounter can be considered a unit of story that has a beginning (establishment of the situation), a middle (the actions of the characters in the scene), and an end (the conclusion once all those actions have been resolved).
The term encounter is often used synonymously with scene, but while it is common for one encounter to take place with one scene, that is not always the case. An encounter might last longer than one scene, particularly if it lasts a long time or has the PCs changing location. Similarly, a scene might include more than one encounter.