Have you ever designed an adventure, with all the encounters planned ahead of time? The locations and circumstances would vary based on the party’s choices. But you had a sense of the forces and entities the party would encounter along the adventure? As a new DM, that was my natural tendency.
It made sense to having everything prepared ahead of time. I knew all the characters involved and the roles they would play within the scenario. It made me confident in my preparation. I felt ready to run the next adventure knowing all the pieces. As I’ve come to realize, there are limitations with this type of thinking and organization.
The Straight Line Problem
There is a couple problems with relying on only prepared encounters for an adventure. They both relate to what I call the straight line problem. Once we have done the work to prepare material, we can form unconscious biases. These biases will steer the game towards using that material. Even if we have the awareness to avoid railroading the party, we can fall into the straight line trap. By giving yourself perfect knowledge on what could happen, we are limiting ourselves on what will happen at the table.
Preparing out all your encounters will limit the way you see your adventure. Everything has a place and purpose. You can mix and match the components around. But if your players press enough buttons they will experience the encounters. The main problem I’ve found with this style of preparation is that it limits the way I create my adventures. I felt like I needed to have everything mapped out. It leaves little space (and trust) for improvisation at the table.
Preparing out all your encounters leaves no variation. It lacks a certain dynamic element that can spice up an adventure that is otherwise bland when run “by the book”. Of course, we can always improvise at the table as we need. If you need a group of bandit thugs, its not difficult to pull them out of your hat and run the encounter. But, what if we purposefully introduced randomness into the adventure? What if we did it in a crafted manner that enhances the story, not detract from it? We can do that by randomizing our encounters with encounter tables.
Randomize Your Encounters
Lately, I have been reading a lot of other RPG blogs. I have enjoyed learning perspectives coming from the OSR (old school renaissance) scene. Old school D&D has a very different feel than its modern counterparts (3e through 5e). The early editions were much more focused on exploration and traversing the strange world around them. As the party explored, they had a chance of encountering creatures on their travels. Enter the random encounter tables.
Encounters can occur anywhere. They can occur in overland travel, dungeons, urban environments and so on. At a specified interval, the GM makes the encounter check(s) and see if there is an encounter.
The random encounter tables got my head turning. What if, we add a roster of characters that are relevant to the adventure at hand? This way, we are generating encounters that are relevant to the adventure at hand. As a GM, this fosters an element of randomness. One that can dramatically shift the adventure. The impact will depend on how well we create our random tables ahead of time. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be a lot of extra work. In fact, we will probably save prep time. If we remove a couple of set encounters and using results from our random table instead.
What to Include in your Random Encounter Tables
The most obvious element to include in your table is the list of monsters that can appear during the adventure. To use random encounter tables to good effect within our adventure, we are going to need to have some context on which we improvise from. Justin over at the Alexandrian lays out four good questions for contextualizing the content:
- What makes them unique?
- Where are the they coming from?
- What are they doing?
- What’s their reaction to the PCs?
We can build out answers to these elements within our table. Then, you can make separate rolls for each question (or read straight across the table entry).
Example Random Encounter Table:
Encounter Chance: 1 in 1d6
This table provides plenty of context to generate our encounters. But it has enough flexibility to let you improvise at the table as the situation dictates. Some of the context asks you to re-roll on the table. Its possible that you roll allies in a hostile situation. This isn’t a bad thing. Why would the group of allies be quarrelling with one another? It lets you add interesting depth you may not have thought about. Of course, if you have an individual, like Edmund our paladin, he can’t chase himself. Reroll to get a new result.
Credit to 1d8.blogspot.com for the “What are they doing?” column. Minor modifications by me.
Side note: this table uses a 2d6 roll for generating results. This means that some numbers are more likely to appear than others. You can craft your table with probability in mind. Use it if you want to tilt the odds to represent events that are more likely to occur during the adventure. If you don’t like that, you can change it to a 1d12 for even-chance odds.
Random Encounters in Practice
If you want more inspiration on random encounter tables, one of my favorites is The Dark of Hot Springs Island. Its a system neutral hexcrawl that features random encounter tables. The tables will generate your encounters and locations as the party explores them. While I have not had a chance to run it yet, it is full of awesome content. You can get a 20 page sample here (link to pdf) that shows off some of the tables that you’ll find inside. Note: I’m not sponsored or an affiliate, I just like the product.
Feature Image Art Credit: Ede László