Thursday, May 29, 2014

GM Notes: Random Encounters

A friend recently asked about random encounter tables for Dungeons and Dragons, I posted some suggested places to look according to the best remembrance available to me, then it hit me, I have rarely used random encounters.

This struck me a bit funny, I mean, Dungeons and Dragons is based off of Random Encounters...right?

Absolutely not.

I mulled it over a bit and realized that I never really used random encounters because there was no reason to.

I know where I want my story to be about, why waste time with pointless encounters?  If the PCs are fighting against the Thieves Guild and have to go through a nearby forest to get something...why fight random orcs or goblins, when you can fight orcs or goblins that are in league with the guild?

This, of course, takes a little more preparation, but in the end it will fit the story and still seem like a 'random' encounter.

Random encounters are, I believe, meant to show that there is a world outside of the story, to "bring the world to life."  I fail to see how this can be accomplished when you roll some dice, check a chart, and put the game on hold while you get all the stats and encounter notes drawn up.

If I am going to pause a game for 5-15 minutes, I am going to take a break as well, not sit at the table gouging my eyes out while getting writers cramp.

Now, I realize that there are reasons for random encounter tables and I am not saying that they should not be used at all.  What I am saying is they should not be used during the game because it kills momentum, possibly sends the players on a wild goose chase and has a good chance of putting a player death in the hands of some nobody wolf or catablepas.

The best use of encounter tables I can think of is before the game, while you are still writing the notes for the adventure.

Three days of travel through woodlands?  No problem.  You know the PCs are going to have to do this, so you grab your d6, roll 4 times for each day (morning, afternoon, evening, overnight), consult your tables and voila!  The 'random' encounters have now become regular, planned encounters.

The helps in a couple of different ways:

Party Strength - low to mid level party, and you just rolled an early morning red dragon.  Following 'random encounter' usage, your party is now toast (literally).  But now, with the 'planned encounter,' you can tailor to the group.  Instead of said dragon pouncing out of the forest onto the party for an early morning snack, the party is awakened by a roar and leathery flapping of wings as the dragon flies over the forest.  This still provides the feel that there is a world out there unrelated to the story, but has the benefit of not killing the party without a fighting chance or breaking momentum.

Party Gear/Abilities - especially important in low-level or low-magic campaigns.  Using the random encounter method you may end up pitting the PC's against something they have no means to damage and then the monster just trounces them back to character generation.  Never fun, players prefer to die by adversaries, not random stuff.

Storyline - here is where it gets good.  So, lets say the random encounter is 5-10 orcs, you roll your trusty player-killers and get a total of 7.  Since this is before the game starts, you jot down that 1 of the orcs is bigger and stronger than the rest, the leader.  Another is his second-in-command, and the rest are just scabs breaking union lines because the rest of the orcs are on strike.

Taking it a step further, the main orc is written in as a hireling of the Thieves Guild and his small band of bandits bandies about preying on merchants and passerby's for the guild as well as scouting the area protecting the forest hideout.

Due to them actually being in the guild, they may even be better equipped than the standard orc.  Maybe a couple low level magic items, a few healing potions, a map to the hideout or a letter of reference including basic instructions from the Lord Mayor.

And that is how it works, the 'random encounter' of the orcs has now become a 'planned encounter' that actually moves the story forward instead of breaking momentum, and as a bonus even provides more threads in the story to follow.

Enjoy your game.