Monday, April 2, 2012

A Week of Random Encounters

This is Random Encounters week at Howling Tower. I believe random encounters are an important part of D&D and most other RPGs, so I'm devoting a whole week to them.

Monday: This brief outline plus some thoughts on random encounters vs. wandering monsters.

Tuesday (at Kobold Quarterly): The reasons why random encounters are important and why you, as a DM, should include them in your campaign.

Wednesday: How to build random encounters so they're engaging and enjoyable for everyone.

Thursday: Making random encounters an integral part of the campaign without diminishing story elements that are "more important."

Friday: Useful random encounter resources to have at your disposal.

Random Encounters, Wandering Monsters

Comic by J. D. Webster, from the mailing wrapper of
an old issue of The Space Gamer. Used
without permission. I hope J. D. won't mind.
Random encounters got a bad rap sometime around the 1980s. There had always been a quiet undercurrent of negativity, a sort of whispering campaign against them, as far back as when I first ran into D&D in the '70s.

In fairness, that bad reputation wasn't entirely undeserved, since "random encounter" was largely synonymous with "wandering monster."

Standard wandering monster tables were organized either by level or by terrain but seldom by both. Level-based tables produced a lot of nonsensical encounters, like ropers in the Governor's Palace or a plesiosaurus in the desert. Terrain-based tables resulted in a lot of mismatched massacres; the characters slaughtered whatever crossed their path until they had the misfortune of bumping into something big enough to slaughter them.

Too many DMs misused and overused wandering monster tables. Some tried to run entire campaigns off them. No time to prep for tonight's game? That's OK, just run the characters into some wandering monsters. There's a 20-page appendix devoted to Random Monster Encounters in the original Dungeon Masters Guide, after all. If you played in such a campaign, then you're probably justified in having a low opinion of random encounters.

The solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the safety posters down at the baby bathhouse remind us. It's to use random encounters sensibly.


  1. I've been running a game via Google + which uses a lot of random tables. They are fine as long as the GM fills in the details on the fly, so that they aren't just bland "23 kobolds".

    My latest idea for flavorful random encounters: use In a Wicked Age Oracles

  2. I think random encounters (which I'm conflating with wandering monsters) can be irritating when they are used out without any regard to their function.

    To wit, I've been in games that were entirely railroaded, where hardly any PCs died (and most certainly not to a random encounter) and everyone leveled up when it suited the DM's story -- and still the DM used random encounters because of, I dunno, tradition?

    The better ones added flavour to overland trips and such, but most felt like a total waste of time.

    I'm really looking forward to your series of articles (not least because the delineation between wandering monsters and random encounters is not entirely clear to me)!

    1. Sounds like you ran headfirst into the core of the problem. One of the frustrations of publishing RPGs is that no matter how strong your products are, you know that there are tons of weak DMs out there -- probably more bad ones than good -- who will make it excruciating no matter what.

  3. When I was young and playing AD&D/Basic, we typically didn't use the random encounters or wandering monsters. If we did it was rare and really just make a long overland journey feel like a long journey filled with action, as said above.
    Now, having played for 30+ years and having returned to playing the B/X version/Labyrinth Lord, I'm all for wandering monsters and random encounters. In fact, I'm running the Barrowmaze for my group (excellent so far I must say) and because of the nature of the adventure, rolls are made every hour, plus every combat and every time the players search an area. Granted, some of the results can be just dungeon dressing but it's really worked to get the players on edge and adds to the adventure. One example would be a random encounter with some tomb robbers. They opted to talk to them and in the discussion, I made another roll which prompted a group of skeletons to come by. The tomb robbers got hit from behind (both groups being caught unawares) and after the combat, the remaining robbers joined the party as henchmen.

    1. Barrowmaze is an example of random encounters/wandering monsters used well. I've only read about a third of it, and haven't played any of it (I hope to get back to it soon), but it's already impressed me as one of the best of the big dungeons coming out of the OSR.

  4. My original D&D experience was with a DM who used ONLY random wilderness encounters. The PC party simply wandered down a road, running into monsters generated randomly from his extensive tables -- I remember he was particularly proud of a dragon with a napalm breath weapon, which tended to kill most of the parties it came up against.

    In my later experiences with better DMs (and they've ALL been better than that first Killer DM), random encounters have been an occasional occurrence -- not so often that they threw off the game, but often enough that they cd influence what happened. I think they add a random element that reduces predictability, and I consider that reason enough to keep them in as an element.

    Have to say, though, that other games I've enjoyed (CALL OF CTHULHU, PENDRAGON) got along jjust fine without random encounters, so I think there's something specifically in the wonderful chaotic world of D&D that makes it suitable there where it wdn't be in a more staid and predictable game.


    1. Well, I've just begun blogging about my quest to RECOVER my Killer DM mojo, but ONLY random tables sounds bad.

      I think the players need to have choices - e.g. which area to explore (and thus which tables encounters are rolled on), how much time to spend on scouting, recovery etc. (and thus how often encounters are rolled for) and so on.

      Without such choices, you're just playing Russian Roulette (as with your Killer DM of yore).

  5. I run S&W game via Google + Hangouts (similar case as Billy's). It is a sandbox game, where much if not most, content is based on the random encounters. I have organised them along terrain lines with disregard of challenge level, assuming if the happen to meet giants, it's bad luck, as in life. However my random tables include not only monsters but situations also. While travelling along a road, PCs may encounter wandering band pilgrims (which was the case last night) or have a rough day, fixing broken wheel or fight of marauding gnolls. It is my duty to explain result of roll in the table, so "ropers in governor palace" will seem to be legit, logical and entertaining.

    Random tables are just tools, it takes a GM to use them right, the won't make game good on their own.

  6. I've never run into the negativity you describe. Of course, if one started with reading early modules, one might notice that random encounter tables were created for specific locations. Also, if one read the tables in the DMG, one wouldn't end up with a Roper in the governor's palace, because urban areas use a different table, and ropers aren't on it.

    Used as intended, random encounters reward players who are able to keep the game moving, and who move quickly and quietly toward their objectives. They punish those who lollygag, who try to live the "15-minute adventuring day" lifestyle, and those who exhibit little or no caution.

    They also increase setting verisimilitude if used well.

    It may be true that there was insufficient advice for the use of wandering encounters in some early products; I think that anyone who bothered to actually read Gary's advice in the original DMG should have been able to understand what they were for, and how they should be used.


    1. I don't especially disagree with that assessment. The goods were there for those who paid attention. But the evidence from countless letters to Dragon and feedback from conventions is that many, many people didn't read that advice in the DMG, didn't accept it, or just didn't understand it. Which brings us back again to there being relatively few really good DMs.

  7. I almost never use random/wandering monsters *inside* the dungeon/city, but quite often *outside*. I think one of the factors that influence my early groups on this was that no one felt like tracking 10-minute turns in order to roll at the appropriate time. It was easier to spring them at dangerous or boring moments.

    When I really started to learn how to be a GM, I was running Twilight:2000, and the random tables there are the standard that I still compare other tables to. I would roll up a handful, based on the direction or terrain I expected the party to go, and use that to help me tell the story-- what information do they know? Where did they come from, and what bits of information (i.e. maps) might they be carrying? Does any of their gear carry information, too? How do all of these connect to what else is going on in the background?

  8. Where random encounter tables fall apart for me is this: look at that table. Don't some of them fit the current campaign better than others? Don't some of them interest you (or the players) more than others? Don't some of them evoke a reaction from you, causing you to want to tell a mini-story with them?

    Then why are you rolling? Instead, take one of them and develop it into a cool encounter, side trek, or RP event. Spend some actual time, even if limited, on that one encounter. Capture the feel of it being random, and do break up your campaign's story with the encounter, but don't just randomly plot something on the battlemat and expect a great time (because if you do get a time, it will be random luck!).

    1. That's a subjective judgement, though. For example, even in tactical combat, some dice results will produce a more dramatic or "fitting" story than others, but we're willing to leave outcomes almost entirely to chance at that level. As the camera pulls back, at some point we decide that dice are no longer appropriate. I'm willing to let the camera pull back a long way before taking dice out of the picture.

    2. It's possible, but less possible. An unprepped session can be great, but prep usually produces results. If you sit down at a table at a convention, do you want the DM that prepared or the one that's winging it? Most want the prepared DM. I'm also troubled by the player perspective. Your PC has to travel from A to B. You want to experience that travel and see what dangers the road brings, not to roll on a table. The rolling is a distraction. And if the player isn't seeing the roll, then what was the point of it? The DM is probably better off just creating a great encounter. Either pixies or orcs or flail snails was better - so choose the best one (trick: the correct choice is Flumphs!) and prepare that one.

      Now, I do think it can be fun sometimes. I had fun with this system because it stressed the exploration and the rolling made it clear that their path and terrain mattered. But even then the players had mixed feelings about it - they certainly didn't want it every time. They wanted more story, even from the "random" encounters. And, they wanted very few things to not weave into the story of the campaign. For example, in their ideal version a random encounter with brigands would uncover an item stolen from the village where they are headed, thus relating to future events.

  9. Well it's as simple as this. Random encounters keep the game flowing when used properly. Bad GM's are bad GM's period. As for using pre built campaigns its lazy and boring. I can't stand any of those pre-built campaigns this is D&D not a crappy linear campaign or video game. Maybe if any of you took the time to learn how to DM on the fly and were actual masterful storytellers you would not need those tables. I use them simply to add spice to anything currently going on and they always make sense and tie in. Although most DM's are poor DM's and can't run a story to save their life nor create their own. So it's simply whether or not you should be a DM. Leave the DMing to the people who actually have a vivid imagination that can create plot after plot with several subplots and really bring a story to life. Been DMing over 12 years and even at 1 point ran a campaign that spanned 2 years played every saturday and sunday all day. The human imagination is inexhaustible if you are the individual that knows how to use it. When you play with no pre-built campaigns for over 12 hours a day or longer 2 days a week you train your mindto become the most masterful campaign imaginable. So take your heads out of those tables and actually PLAY and BECOME a true DM!