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Troy’s Crock Pot: In Praise of Random Encounters

In the December edition of Atomic Array [1], game designer James Maliszewski of Rogue Games explained why he included random encounters in his latest adventure, “The Cursed Chateau,” [2] which is billed as an old-school  funhouse-styled scenario along the lines of the classic module “Castle Amber.” [3]

Interestingly, he said he did it for the GM’s enjoyment. Maliszewski said he loves to include random encounters because it allows the course of a published adventure to take surprising twists and turns, even to the GM who has read it all the way through and knows the end.

I’ve always liked compiling lists of random encounters for my games, but I’d never given a thought as to why. All the early examples of published D&D modules had encounter lists, so it was natural to parrot that. Maliszewski’s explanation was one I could latch onto wholeheartedly.

Moreover, it bucks the trend that says everything we, as GMs, do in preparing adventures has to be for the enjoyment of the player characters. GMs are gaming, too, and this acknowledges our desire to have fun alongside everyone else at the table.

The dynamic dungeon

My favorite use of randomized lists is to, frankly, generate hallway activity in a dungeon. A list of four to 10 NPCs (or monsters), some crucial to resolving a scenario, some not, is the easiest way to create the impression of dynamic activity. This is especially necessary in an investigation-styled scenario, when knocking down dungeon doors to fight the person on the other side isn’t really an option.

Imagine an investigation surrounding a murder at the king’s winter court. Activity is focused on the keep’s Great Hall and the rooms in the adjoining floors. People will be moving about at all hours.

The situation requires five NPCs with information or possessions the PCs need. After putting them into the list, add five more encounters for color. It might look something like this:

1. Lady Mirabella. Day, carries a book to the salon, where she intends to spend a quiet afternoon reading. Her ring is a holy symbol. Night, wearing a light cloak, she moves secretly down the hall for a secret liaison with her lover, Lord Antax.

2. Lord Antax. Day, still carries the dagger used to kill the steward, as well as the stolen key. Night, waits in his chamber for Lady Mirabella, who possesses a ring that is actually a second key to the relic box. He plans to take it from her.

3. Two guards carry a jeweled chest and a priest reciting an incantation. Day or Night, under the king’s orders, they are carrying the relic box to a secret hiding place in the clocktower annex.

4. Vrabel, a minor lord, who also seeks the relic. Day, follows Lady Mirabella in hopes of getting a good look at her ring. Night, carries a rapier and plans to confront Lord Antax about the murder of the steward.

5. Giselle, wandering minstrel. Day, entertaining in the Great Hall. Night, looking for the secret passage in the Great Hall she spied earlier. (She doesn’t know that it leads to the clocktower annex).

6. Two guards with halberds making the  rounds. At night, they carry lanterns.

7. Chef and four assistants. Day, carrying a magnificent roasted ham on a platter to the Great Hall. Night, cleaning the kitchen and preparing for breakfast.

8. The Blue Peacocks. An adventuring party just returned from abroad laden with treasures. They are filled with self importance and dismissive of the PCs.

9. The Watchful Queen. Day, weary of court, seeks solace in the salon. Night, instructing the chamberlain to have the guard watch Lord Antax.

10. Lord Wallstaff. Day or night, carries a mug brimming with ale, whose speech is slurred by drink.

Consult the charts, m’lord

So, do you advocate the use of lists of random encounters in your games? If so, what are some war stories you’d like to share? Did you, as Mr. Maliszewski suggest, find yourself surprised at the course of events? Was it rewarding? I’d also love to hear of some cautionary tales, too.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: In Praise of Random Encounters"

#1 Comment By steamcrow On January 12, 2010 @ 9:58 am

Maybe I am completely “old school” myself, but random charts DO make gaming more interesting for the GM, and surprising for everyone around the table.

I’ve even enjoyed a couple random-effects items (like a chaos wand) that had crazy effects that no-one could predict. (Such as growing a full sized apple tree in the middle of the dungeon hall pursuit.) Many of these have created the most memorable adventures of our gaming careers.

I also find the list-making (for building the chart) an excellent brainstorming activity, to really think out what one *might* encounter in the environ.

It gives us a chance as GMs to really sit back and think about the setting in a full, rich way. Even if you don’t like random encounter charts, it’s a meaningful exercise, I think.

#2 Comment By Robert On January 12, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

I prefer to call them “wandering encounters” rather than “random”. While there’s usually a random element to them, they should generally not be entirely random. At a minimum, you’ve chosen a table out of a book based on dungeon level or wilderness terrain type. Ideally, you’re using a table specifically designed for the specific area with some encounters specific to the area. (Check B4: The Lost City as one example.)

Wandering encounters may be every much as planned as fixed encounters. The only difference is that they aren’t tied to a specific point on the map but merely the general area. Like fixed encounters, they may end up being friendly or violent or anywhere in between. They can be designed to be every bit as interesting as fixed encounters can. They can contribute to the narrative that comes out of the game every bit as much as fixed encounters can.

A world with only fixed encounters would seem a very strange place to me.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On January 12, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

I like your idea for random encounters– it’s a good way to mix good rumors and bad, or important and unimportant in a way that makes the world seem more complex– and a little less scripted.

I recently used them when my PCs wandered across the Plane of Shadows; it did a good job of underscoring how dangerous and alien a place it was.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On January 12, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

I tend to use random encounter lists, but with preplanned times or places that the encounter occurs. I don’t use them all that often though. Usually I know what is in the Dungeon or area and make it relevant to the PCs when it makes sense, based on the flow of the game.

#5 Comment By umbral.fury On January 12, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

I once had an idea for a sand box game that I never ran because of the work involved, where the main encounters, except for certain dungeons, were rough rings of random encounters around major cities. That being said, I like the idea of encounter tables, but I dislike actually sitting down to write them so as to make sense in your game.

#6 Comment By pseudodragon On January 12, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

I concur with Robert’s views for the most part. I often set up a table of colorful encounters that I can drop in as the mood hits me. They aren’t critical to the success of the dungeon and are used more to challenge the PCs and to provide some flexibility in running the adventure. That way, if the PCs are getting through the adventure much faster than I anticipated, I can add some encounters on the fly without they’re seeming to come out of left field. On the other hand, if the adventure is dragging out, I can omit the extra encounters altogether. I don’t always select them randomly, rather I pick and choose which ones fit the setting, circumstances, and character mood of the moment. Sometimes, too, they can make for great comic relief or a chance to spotlight a specific PC.

#7 Comment By outrider11 On January 13, 2010 @ 12:35 am

I go with prepared random encounters. I make up my encounters and put them on 4×6 cards. They are broken up into general categories like hills, plains, and those that are specific to the adventure. I prepare several of them at a time and then decide which to use and put them in a stack to be used.

#8 Comment By BryanB On January 13, 2010 @ 11:49 am

[4] – The Plane of Shadows is a very dangerous place indeed. My only TPK under 3e D&D rules was on the Plane of Shadows.

I like random encounters for the most part, but one has to prepare the possible random encounters out ahead of time when they are using certain game systems.

#9 Comment By Bercilac On January 13, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

I once made a wilderness random encounter table for an adventure set in a swamp. Naturally, it included NPC hunting and fishing parties, crocodiles, a bit of undead (always an unfair association in fantasy; swamps are amazingly lively ecosystems), super-sized snapping turtles, giant insects, etc.

What made it fun was that I also included a whole bunch of things that had no mechanical effect. A school of fish, a bird, a rustle in the bushes, and other random things like all of the birds suddenly going silent, the pcs entering an area of blasted and rotting trees, etc. These were useful because the players were keyed to me rolling a die and adding ominous description as signaling an encounter. Sometimes they would stop and do search checks or whatnot in response to my shenanigans. This gave the place a far more alien, dangerous feel, and slightly desensitised them to “dangerous” description.