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Random Encounters: Friend or Foe?

In the earliest days of D&D, adventure modules came with Wandering Monster tables, meant to create urgency and risk for parties that take their time, prodding each flagstone of the dungeon floor with their trusty 10' pole.

Since then, we've see the rise of Random Encounter tables used to do things like provide a sense of the population and flavor of a region or location, as well as keep the players on their toes. And they were handy for us as younger gamers -- we could always rely on them to fill game time with something exciting and new when we didn't have grander plans for our game's story.

For many of us, though, they have fallen out of vogue over the years -- random encounters seem to be a lot less interesting in games when you're really trying to focus on an ongoing story arc, after all.

But, if the public playtest is any indicator, it looks like they're coming back.

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4th Edition and Random Encounters

One of the key reasons random encounters have been used so little in 4th edition gaming is because combat encounters have been highly engineered -- with very specific maps and encounter design making it difficult to throw together a satisfying encounter on the fly. Also, when a typical combat encounter takes an hour or more to play out, it's difficult to justify spending so much time away from the "real" action of your game's story. And since encounters can take a lot of work to set up in 4e, creating a stack of encounters that will not all be used is a lot of extra effort.

So, encounters the players have while traveling in 4th edition were, more often than not, just as carefully planned and engineered by the DM as those that take place at static locations. They were far from random, in most cases -- instead, they were part of the script for the adventure, a planned stage.

But 4th edition was actually an anomaly -- whether DMs are using them or not, encounter tables are part of the descriptions of regions and areas presented in my 3.5 and Pathfinder products.


Using Random Encounters Well

I've played in games that have used random encounters well, and I've played in some that used them badly. Hell, I've run them both ways.

One DM I had years ago (3.0) used to agonize over his tables -- but the encounters he built for his random encounter tables were mostly carefully designed encounters, many of which would advance one plot line or another. When I started playing with him, I grimaced to myself about the reliance on those tables, and felt very self-righteous for that feeling. His dedication to those tables was so dogged it seemed artificial to me.

And then, after a few months of playing, our characters were faced with a journey from one city to another. We looked at the hand-drawn map and I realized I was counting out the days we would have to travel, and thinking about how many encounters we would have to face along the way. A strange bit of alchemy had taken place -- random encounters had made the distance between the two locations real. We had to talk seriously about what sort of supplies we might need to take, and think about the sort of encounters we might run into based on the routes we selected.

So I had to reevaluate my feelings about my DM's dedication to his tables -- they'd taken a part of the game world that in other games is hand waived and ignored -- the challenges of travel, especially over hostile wildernesses -- and turned them into the sort of grueling challenge that we as players had to take quite seriously.

Doing it Wrong

There was a time in all of our gaming lives when it was enough to send the PCs out of their home base to wander the wilderness bumping into assorted random monsters until they needed to retreat for rest and healing. For me, that was the 80's. For you, that might have been last week, but however long ago it was, it's quickly not satisfying when you want more from your game than a string of unrelated combat encounters.

One key thing I've figured out over the years is that just because an encounter is random doesn't mean it's not part of the story. After all, once your players pick up their dice and start to interact with it, the scene becomes part of the story -- even if the opponent has no relation to any part of an ongoing story. The only question is whether is an interesting, useful part of the story or not.


Sometimes the Road is the Story

There are plenty of examples of narratives in which the trials and challenges face on the road between two places are the meat of the story. From the Hobbit to Planes Trains and Automobiles, the encounters on the road may seem random and unconnected, but they're all opportunities for the PCs to discover things about themselves as they travel towards their destination.

This isn't always satisfying in game terms, though -- depending upon how engaged your players are in exploring the nuances of their characters as they are reflected in the odd encounters they have on the road.

One of my favorite examples of this sort of narrative is the Three Musketeers. In the second act, the Musketeers and D'Artangnan must race from London to Paris to deliver the replacement diamond studs -- and along the way they are attacked by the cardinal's agents repeatedly, and in each encounter the party must leave behind one of the Musketeers -- so that only D'Artagnan arrives in Paris with the studs.

That sort of road adventure could absolutely be told with a full script of road encounters. No question about it. But there's a dynamism that comes from rolling to see if you have an encounter, and making rolls to see if you can evade it or handle it without fighting -- that has a lot more emotional energy than having the party carried from one scripted encounter to the next.


Random Encounters Create Player Freedom

While the DM runs scripted encounters, the players are put in a position where they feel as though they should stick with the script for the sake of being good game citizens -- and they know that if they wander away from the script, they're messing with what the DM has planned. There's TONs of advice for DMs that encourages them to do things like reuse encounters in different locations -- that tavern wasn't on the road you were supposed to travel on, now it's over here where you chose to go! Surprise! -- but still, there's a feeling of playing against each other the scripted encounters idea creates.

But when the DM uses random encounters to handle exploration and travel, the players suddenly have the freedom to make choices about where they're going without being in a position where they're interfering with what the DM has planned. Sure, the encounters may not be integral to the overall plot, but there's something there. Before you roll on the table, no one knows what's there, for sure, but no matter which direction you choose, the DM is ready to find out what's on the road ahead with you.

And when those player options can make a difference -- for example, taking a short cut through dangerous territory, or going the long way around through relatively safe zones -- that becomes an interesting part of the game.


Looking Ahead: D&D Next Exploration

The D&D Next Exploration rules seem a bit thin to me -- they're there, though, and it's a safe bet that the final version of the game will include them, probably a more developed descendant of these basic rules (I hope).

I find myself wanting to see a variant that brings back the old school idea of a "marching order". The more I think about this -- especially as we explore playing without a map and minis (at least not for every encounter), having a sense of how the party organizes itself and distributes responsibility on the road seems really fruitful. Once you've established a marching order, it's possible to move a lot faster through road travel, rather than having to make a bunch of rolls during travel phases that just don't matter.

But that's just me -- What's your take on Random Encounters? Do you use them? Why or Why not?
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
But that's just me -- What's your take on Random Encounters? Do you use them? Why or Why not?

Read more: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?340466-Random-Encounters-Friend-or-Foe#ixzz2dY9r9JR6
All my encounters are premade, often months or years before the session. However, they are not purpose-built, meaning that I do not always know which combination of creatures I will use, or when, or what I will use them for exactly.

So it depends on one's definition of "random". I won't roll on a table to see what the party encounters. However, I will sometimes throw in an encounter with no real plot-driving purpose, simply to get in some combat or get rid of some old stats.

To me, the goal is making the world feel natural. On one hand, this means that I don't use monsters out of the book and need to prepare them in advance. It's very important to sell the notion of each creature being an individual with slightly different statistics, rather than a faceless minion. Conversely, it's also important to sell the notion that encounters just happen randomly, rather than being part of a tailored game experience. That's how I get to where I am.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
When I use random encounter tables, I'll typically roll them ahead of time to save me time at the table. I'll prep them for the region and climate and then I'll roll the chance of having an encounter, then roll the specific encounters, and jot down the timeline in which they will be encountered. That allows me to engage in a little foreshadowing too. If they have a encounter with lions coming up, I may include a spotting from a distance, or an eaten carcass lying around several hours of travel before they have the actual encounter.
 

Johnny3D3D

Adventurer
Depends upon what I'm playing. It's been a while since I've used random encounters in D&D. I like the idea of them, but for a while now they seem to be somewhat at odds with the direction the game(s) are going in when it comes to D&D.

Other games? Certainly.

Though I'll also say that my "random" encounters are usually well informed by the world around them. If a particular area is known for a lot of a particular creature type, those will come up more often. If recent events say that that creature type migrates somewhere else during this time of the year, random encounters might happen less; include less of those particular creature types, or both.
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
When I use random encounter tables, I'll typically roll them ahead of time to save me time at the table. I'll prep them for the region and climate and then I'll roll the chance of having an encounter, then roll the specific encounters, and jot down the timeline in which they will be encountered. That allows me to engage in a little foreshadowing too. If they have a encounter with lions coming up, I may include a spotting from a distance, or an eaten carcass lying around several hours of travel before they have the actual encounter.

For me, a random encounter was for when I didn't have one prepared. If I have time to roll them ahead of time, then I'm choosing them , not rolling them.
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
For me, a random encounter was for when I didn't have one prepared. If I have time to roll them ahead of time, then I'm choosing them , not rolling them.

There is to be a tradeoff when you prepare the encounters ahead of time. On the one hand, you can have a better encounter, because you've prepared it, but you also lose the tension and game drama associated with actually rolling the dice.

One of the things I look forward to with D&D Next is the idea that encounters might again be simple enough that preparation is not critical for a good encounter.

-rg
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
I have random encounter "tables" created - but a "table" entry may have 5-6 lines of text describing what it is and how it works in the given region. In other words, I don't have a chart that says "6 orcs". I have an entry that says "Red-Axe orc hunting party. Preferred game: deer. Preferred method: stalk and drive towards waiting archer. 3 beaters, 3 archers typical. Might also contain one shaman. Lvl 1-3".

A description like this tells me what the encounter is doing, how to set up running into it, and why it exists in the campaign world. And yeah, I will often preroll random encounters, weather for the day, and other minor bits and pieces, when we're doing long travel scenes... if we're in town, I may take the time to roll random street scenes, too. Though in town and in dungeon, I'm more likely to just ad-lib "color" scenes. And sometimes those become the whole adventure! Yikes!

I'm really enjoying Dungeon World right now, which really makes using these sorts of tables VERY much a part of the game, with its underlying commandments of "leave blanks" and "ask the players questions".
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
I have random encounter "tables" created - but a "table" entry may have 5-6 lines of text describing what it is and how it works in the given region. In other words, I don't have a chart that says "6 orcs". I have an entry that says "Red-Axe orc hunting party. Preferred game: deer. Preferred method: stalk and drive towards waiting archer. 3 beaters, 3 archers typical. Might also contain one shaman. Lvl 1-3".

That sounds great -- a lot of the really effective uses of random encounters I've seen have had approaches like yours. So the encounters are a real reflection of the region and what's going on in it -- not just a collection of monsters that inhabit that type of terrain. And many of those encounters will tie into a specific plotline.

-rg
 

Jhaelen

First Post
When I use random encounter tables, I'll typically roll them ahead of time to save me time at the table. I'll prep them for the region and climate and then I'll roll the chance of having an encounter, then roll the specific encounters, and jot down the timeline in which they will be encountered. That allows me to engage in a little foreshadowing too. If they have a encounter with lions coming up, I may include a spotting from a distance, or an eaten carcass lying around several hours of travel before they have the actual encounter.
That's exactly how I'm using random encounter tables :)
Basically, they serve mostly as a way to give me ideas. I'm using the randomly rolled encounters and see if I can turn them into a kind of narrative, although that more often develops while we're playing. I take note of what seems to catch the interest of my players and will create follow-up encounters or even a complete adventure around it.

I also roll up about two times as many encounters as I think I'm going to need. This means that I will always have something ready when the players are doing something unexpected.

Since I'm not rolling for anything during the actual game session a major advantage of the approach is that it's difficult for the players to decide how important an encounter is. It's rare that they will just handwave it as 'just another random encounter'.
 

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