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