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.
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.