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World Building 101 – Random Encounters and You

posted Thursday, July 15th 2010 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Random encounters are a time-honored tradition in RPGs. When a party of adventurers goes gallivanting across the countryside, or through a stretch of otherwise empty dungeon, or wandering aimlessly through a city, one way for the DM to keep the game from becoming a rather bland travelogue is to throw in random encounters. At the same time, this idea can be difficult for a DM who prefers to be more carefully prepared for his or her game sessions, with combat encounters typically being more carefully planned set-pieces—random encounters don’t always fit into their world view. Today we will discuss a secret that will help you make more memorable random encounters if you already use them, or may help convince you to start, if you don’t.

Some encounters are more random than others. To put it more clearly, random need not be synonymous with unplanned.

Sure, it’s easy enough to write a random encounter chart with nothing more than a group of enemies as each entry, and sometimes that’s enough—if your party is exploring a dungeon, for example, you don’t have to worry about coming up with the features of the area on the fly, since they will be dictated by the environment and the room the PCs are in at the time. For those with more of a mind for preparation, though, you might think of some unusual scenarios that could be explored within the dungeon but don’t fit into the main theme—perhaps something that adds extra flavor fitting your campaign world, or even that introduces or advances a minor subplot in some way, but is not necessary to see it completed. If your setting features the spirits of the dead heavily, for example, your players could randomly encounter the ghosts of a group of slain adventurers in a section of dungeon that they have already cleared out, perhaps gaining insight into the history of the place, or a quest to communicate news of their demise to their loved ones.

For a countryside encounter table, though, you may want to invest a bit more time into your random encounter design. Instead of simply having a bandit attack, you could have your players stumble across an old abandoned windmill that bandits have converted into a base, and play out the combat in and around the windmill. You might have a group of gnolls harassing a family of peasants on the road, and the party might earn extra rewards for successfully defending the poor folks. And again, you might use it as an opportunity to flesh out your setting a bit more for your players.

It’s also definitely worth keeping in mind that an encounter doesn’t invariably need to lead to combat. You might include such entries as friendly travelers—traders or adventurers, hunters or local farmers. You could include strange noises, phantom lights, or ghostly visions of events long past, or any other atmospheric element you like. You could also include events that play out more along the lines of skill challenges—a young hoodlum cutpurse makes off with one player’s money pouch, and the players must engage in a chase to catch the little rascal, perhaps, or they stumble across a mysterious chest or door locked with a combination of magic and mechanics, holding some treasure within if only they can figure out how to open it.

A bit of preparation can obviously make random encounters much more entertaining and flavorful, then, but they are not without their own inherent problems, at the same time. One such problem arises in the form of experience rewards. If you run a large number of random encounters without considering the affect it will have on your experience totals it is possible that your players may outlevel the main adventure you have planned simply through wandering around aimlessly. You can avoid this in a number of ways—planning to include a certain number of random encounters as part of the total adventure experience, budgeting random encounters to a smaller total of experience share, limiting the number of combat encounters included on the table, or simply fudging experience in general.

Another potential problem is that you may prepare a number of encounters that go unused. This is alleviated somewhat by the ability to lift unused encounters and drop them wholesale into later adventures—assuming that they are not explicitly tied to the location of the current adventure—and by avoiding overpreparation. It’s not necessary to prepare dozens upon dozens of encounters at any given time, especially if they are intended for use as random encounters. You will still want to make the main focus of your design the encounters that you can be sure your group will get a chance to see.

Random encounters can be great fun, and a bit of preparation can go a long way in making them feel more connected, both to the specific adventure and to the world as a whole. Care in preparation can avoid most of the larger pitfalls associated with them, and proper use of these elements can make your world feel broader and more alive—like there are things happening independent of your player characters, without taking the spotlight away from them.

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