Pathfinder 2E Creating Random Encounter Tables in PF2e

JThursby

Adventurer
I've been looking into converting other content into PF2e and one of the sticking points for me is creating random encounters. Because of the tight math of PF2e rolling on a table that has wildly differing encounter levels is not desirable. Thankfully the encounter math works in our favor as well. We can create random encounter tables that do not need to make any assumptions about the party's level or it's size, but rather use both as part of their roll method to create the exact level of encounter needed. I know the way PF2e does encounters is divisive, but I hope that GMs can adopt or modify this method of encounter rolling if they want to produce random encounters similar to older editions without worrying about messed up balance.

Encounter Math​

There are five tiers of encounters for players: Trivial, Low, Moderate, Severe, and Extreme. These tiers are relative to the party's level, and the party being over or under leveled causes the tier of the encounter to shift on a 1 to 1 basis; a Moderate encounter for a 2nd level party would be a Low encounter for a 3rd level party, or a Severe encounter for a 1st level party. This is assuming a party of 4 players. For each player missing we treat the party as one level lower, and for each player beyond the fourth we treat the party as one level higher. So for a 2nd level party with 5 players a Severe 2nd level encounter would be Moderate, while a 2nd level party with 3 characters would have the same Severe encounter would become Extreme.

Turning Moderate Encounters into a Level-based Nested Table​

This brings us to making random encounters. The best way to make a random encounter table for this game IMO would be to create a set of Moderate encounters balanced for four players for every effective level the party would face in the campaign. For a level 1-20 campaign, this would range from level -1 to level 22. Then when you want to produce an appropriate encounter for the party, simply use a roll method that factors in the party's level and number of players. As an example, if I wanted to produce a Low, Moderate or Severe encounter for the party, I could do so by rolling on this -1 to 22 table with 1d3-6+(Party's Level)+(Number of Players). For a 5th level party of 4 players the results would be 4, 5 or 6. A moderate 4 encounter is a Low 5 encounter, and a moderate 6 is a severe 5, matching my needs perfectly. So when I roll a 6 for instance, I would could then reference a list of Level 6 Moderate Encounters and roll there as I see fit. It would not matter what came back: a level 8 enemy, a Weak level 9 enemy, 4 level 4 enemies, etc, all of them would correspond to the correct encounter budget. If I want to show they are in an area that is relatively safe I can reduce the result by 1 (allowing only for Trivial, Low and Moderate), or for an area that's fairly dangerous increase it by 1 (for Moderate, Severe and Extreme). If you want to change the weighting of individual results you can just adjust the roll method: for more Moderate encounters than Low or Severe, I can roll it as 2d2-7+(Party Level)+(Number of Players). If you so desired you could also cap the level ranges for an area: If I never wanted greater than Moderate 8 encounters in an area I could just specify that results =>8 all pull from the Moderate 8 table, and I could set a level minimum just as easily.

By using this method you can have prepped long lists of balanced and exciting encounters without having to know the party's exact level or size beforehand. This is great for a variety of campaigns, but is of particular use for Hexcrawls, Westmarches, or any campaign with a large amount of overland travel/variable party composition. For making the encounters themselves you can use a tool like this encounter builder to make sure that you're reaching the Moderate XP range for each encounter. This also makes it easier to share encounter tables with other GMs, as it makes as few assumptions as possible about the party and thus applies to more groups. Hopefully you guys find it helpful as you get more into running your own PF2e games.
 

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Andvari

Explorer
What I've been doing so far for wandering monsters is have a d12 decide between a few sets of monster groups themed to the location, and then have the number of monsters in each encounter vary from trivial to severe.

For example, at level 1 I have a haunted keep infested by various critters. The wandering monster table looked like this:

1-5: 1d3 giant flies
5-6: 1d3 giant frogs
7-12: 1d4+2 skeleton guards

At level 4 I have a hobgoblin stronghold with a bit more meat to the wandering monster table.

1-3: 1d6+2 hobgoblin soldiers
4-6: 1 hobgoblin archer and 1d6-1 hobgoblin soldiers
7-8: 1d6+2 hobgoblin soldiers and 1d3 goblin warriors*
9-10: 1d2 bugbear thugs and 1d4+1 hobgoblin soldiers
11: 2d4+2 goblin warriors*
12: 2d3 bugbear thugs.

* The goblins aren't really a threat and immediately flee if faced with aggression.

I usually have 3-5 players. When there are only 3, I have an NPC of appropriate level fill the missing spot and can still run the encounters as written. When they are all present, I just add an extra monster or two or make one or two of them elites, just as I would for a set encounter.

For wilderness encounters I use larger tables with 2d10 to determine monster type, leaving rarer monsters closer to 2 and 20, as those numbers are less likely. Depending on their level, they can come up against unwinnable encounters here, but I see that as less of an issue during overland travel as it's easier to come up with ways for the party to avoid a battle. The important part is making it clear to the players the monster is likely beyond them. For example, if they wander into the mountains, they might encounter a frost giant despite being only level 4. But the giant might be busy and disinterested in the party, or appeased by a tribute.
 

Dragonsbane

Proud Grognard
This is just my opinion, but it has worked well so far with PF2 and I just finished a 40 session Abomination Vaults campaign. I am not telling anyone how to have fun, or their fun is wrong. Hear me, my friendly moderators. :)

For random encounters, throw encounter difficulty out the window. I simply tell my players that some encounters will be for them to crush, some will be balanced, and some are designed to just be survived or flee from. If PCs/players don't ever have to run from a fight, you are playing Skyrim.

I roll for a chance of random encounters for my players during explorations just about anywhere, anytime they rest in an unsecured location, and during far travels overland. Many PF2 people will scoff at hitting the PCs when they are not at full strength. My groups seem to have no issue with it, but they don't nova all their abilities every fight as well. This is our way of having fun, high risk and no kid gloves. Have fun your way!
 

payn

Legend
This is just my opinion, but it has worked well so far with PF2 and I just finished a 40 session Abomination Vaults campaign. I am not telling anyone how to have fun, or their fun is wrong. Hear me, my friendly moderators. :)

For random encounters, throw encounter difficulty out the window. I simply tell my players that some encounters will be for them to crush, some will be balanced, and some are designed to just be survived or flee from. If PCs/players don't ever have to run from a fight, you are playing Skyrim.

I roll for a chance of random encounters for my players during explorations just about anywhere, anytime they rest in an unsecured location, and during far travels overland. Many PF2 people will scoff at hitting the PCs when they are not at full strength. My groups seem to have no issue with it, but they don't nova all their abilities every fight as well. This is our way of having fun, high risk and no kid gloves. Have fun your way!
This is reasonable if the GM is upfront about it. I find the PF2 math and crit system is so tuned that you can tell very quickly when a fight is over your paygrade. The rub is it's not very combat as war like, but PF2 is not trying to be that style of game either. Upfront expectations and I totally agree.
 

Andvari

Explorer
If you properly telegraph the strength of the encounter, it should not be necessary for combat to begin before the players believe they can’t win.

Though some monsters may be harder to do this for than others.
 

Philip Benz

A Dragontooth Grognard
What I have done in the past, rather than have a 70's-style encounter table with "1d6 scrufflemunchers" (or whatever) is to have a list of pre-prepared encounters that have at least some peripheral relationship with the plot and the adventure.
For me, table time is the most essential resource to manage. I don't really want to have truly random encounters that don't advance the plot. But low-risk non-essential encounters that give some local flavor, provide additional clues or make the players think about what they're doing and how they intend to advance their cunning plans, those are grist for the mill.
 

JThursby

Adventurer
For random encounters, throw encounter difficulty out the window. I simply tell my players that some encounters will be for them to crush, some will be balanced, and some are designed to just be survived or flee from. If PCs/players don't ever have to run from a fight, you are playing Skyrim.
I agree in principle, my only gripe with a table with a high delta from it's minimum and maximum level is that the point of lethal encounters the party may need to flee from can easily be just 2 to 4 levels above them. Encountering something that's above that is so absurdly outside of what is even fightable that character survival or death may come down to the initiative roll. Since every roll and DC is a function of level, it is hardly even possible to sneak past such encounters unless they are a mass of lower level enemies.
For me, table time is the most essential resource to manage. I don't really want to have truly random encounters that don't advance the plot.
This mindset is the reason why I think a party size and level constrained encounter table is the way to go. I am in general not a fan of the Gygaxian school of "death trap within a fake out within a fake out" type of encounter, I find it makes parties timid or paranoid. I generally want my adventuring party to be bold and seek out things to interact with or fight. If the players are spending their table time to avoid engaging with the game I feel like I'm failing as a GM. Since the game could not function without some degree of contrivance, I do not feel bad about part of that contrivance being shooing away outright trivial or fatal encounters.
 

Andvari

Explorer
You can set up encounters so the party has the opportunity to evade before an initiative roll becomes relevant. Say a 1st level party encounter a bulette. Perhaps it’s feeding on some of horses. As long as the party doesn’t draw undue attention to themselves or remain until it’s done eating, they can simply leave. You do need to make sure to make a show of its size and power to make it clear the bulette is beyond them.

Of course, you may not want to have such encounters if you feel they are an inefficient use of game time.
 

What we did for our hexcrawl west marches:

1. We designated leveled zones, and then used the +4 -4 mathematic break points, and created encounters that followed those guidelines for the table, but not religiously-- its possible to get in over your head in a zone thats supposed to be appropriate for you, but not by excessive amounts.

2. We started using the chase subsystem from the GMG as a retreat system, and made sure to use the version where the opposition advances at a steady rate so running away is always a more appropriate challenge than fighting a higher end creature.

3. We made it so everyone can sense everyone else's level directly, along with dungeons and such before they set out, everything is balanced for four players of the designated level, with some intentional exceptions. Regardless of the parties actual level or composition, players can adjust their play accordingly when they see that something is higher leveled than they are-- and higher level creatures are generally less aggressive toward lower level PCs because quite frankly, they aren't as much of a threat, which also makes the lower level PCs a bit safer.

We've been playing this way since late last year and its been working out super well barring some issues with my own depression making upfront prep hard, and recruitment for online community games always being a challenge, it sounds some of us came to some of the same conclusions.
 

This is reasonable if the GM is upfront about it. I find the PF2 math and crit system is so tuned that you can tell very quickly when a fight is over your paygrade. The rub is it's not very combat as war like, but PF2 is not trying to be that style of game either. Upfront expectations and I totally agree.

The big issue, as usual with such things, is you're going to need to handle things such that fleeing a bad encounter can actually, well, work. There's not a big amount of support for it within the rules proper, and if handled as just part of the normal combat encounters, its going to fail pretty often and pretty badly.
 

2. We started using the chase subsystem from the GMG as a retreat system, and made sure to use the version where the opposition advances at a steady rate so running away is always a more appropriate challenge than fighting a higher end creature.

This is quite what I was talking about. People who wonder why flight isn't an option are often making an assumption about its practicality that frequently doesn't sync up with the game mechanical reality; doing what you did here is addressing that.

3. We made it so everyone can sense everyone else's level directly, along with dungeons and such before they set out, everything is balanced for four players of the designated level, with some intentional exceptions. Regardless of the parties actual level or composition, players can adjust their play accordingly when they see that something is higher leveled than they are-- and higher level creatures are generally less aggressive toward lower level PCs because quite frankly, they aren't as much of a threat, which also makes the lower level PCs a bit safer.

The problem here I can see is with things that are, in one fashion or another, predators. The low-hanging fruit is always attractive.

We've been playing this way since late last year and its been working out super well barring some issues with my own depression making upfront prep hard, and recruitment for online community games always being a challenge, it sounds some of us came to some of the same conclusions.

At the very least the discussion in this thread has been pretty rational about it and shows everyone at least moderately understands the mechanical realities of the system.
 

This is quite what I was talking about. People who wonder why flight isn't an option are often making an assumption about its practicality that frequently doesn't sync up with the game mechanical reality; doing what you did here is addressing that.



The problem here I can see is with things that are, in one fashion or another, predators. The low-hanging fruit is always attractive.



At the very least the discussion in this thread has been pretty rational about it and shows everyone at least moderately understands the mechanical realities of the system.

The first thing is actually recommended by the rulebook, because having the opposition make steady progress is just easier and the difficulty of the chase is meant to be derived from the objectives-- it makes progress easier to track, it also just has this positive side effect. Paizo stumbled onto a really great system by basically having the GM shift the frame of reference when the players decide something is too much for them.

In terms of predators it just hasn't really come up because I take for granted that they generally still want to knock out foes that might threaten them as a matter of survival instincts, whereas just trying to finish off or drag away a PC is too inefficient and likely to get them killed due to the way dragging and such work, I know some GMs feel its something the monsters would do, but I haven't really seen it. So I think that would be rare, and would probably end up as a blunder by team monster, which is ok in its own right.

We had an interesting side effect pop up most recently, where there's been a push by players to pick up downed PCs once a retreat is triggered, instead of working towards the objective of escaping immediately, which is kind of interesting because it adds another layer of safety net if the PC hasn't actually died in the initiative, and theoretically just works, because they're making it harder to escape by wasting dice rolls they might need to overcome the objectives.
 

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