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Howling Tower: The Case for Random Encounters

Howling Tower 3Once upon a time, random encounters were standard fare in roleplaying games. Somewhere along the way, they fell out of fashion. Players, DMs, and game designers decided that random encounters embodied the worst of lazy DMing. They were indiscriminate party killers. Most of all, they were dumped because they were irrelevant to the ongoing story.

From my perspective, random encounters should be kept around because they’re irrelevant to the ongoing story.

Drama builds up from incidents both big and small. If every incident in a story is big, then there are no highs and lows; the dramatic pacing is flat.

Beyond that, limiting events to the ongoing story robs players of the chance to assess the world and decide for themselves what is and isn’t important. The story is spoon-fed to them, and their part is only to chew and swallow. Players pick up on that quickly; they’re not stupid.

Before diving into the wider range of reasons for including random events in a campaign, I want to draw attention to the distinction between random encounters and wandering monsters. Wandering monsters are just that: monsters that wander into the characters’ vicinity or vice versa. Random encounters can be anything. They can be quick and simple or they can be just as detailed and engaging as scripted story encounters. All wandering monsters are random encounters, but random encounters are much more than wandering monsters.

Random encounters provide pickup XP. Sometimes you want characters to be at level X before they move on to the next big adventure, but for one reason or another they’re still at level X–1 at the end of the last outing. You could just drop the missing XP into their laps and move on, but no one likes being a charity case. Instead, let the characters earn that XP by handling a few random encounters before the next stage of the campaign kicks off or while they’re on the road to the next mission.

Random encounters shield the DM against feelings of bias and cruelty. Regardless of whether an encounter comes from a random encounter list or from the DM’s script, it all originates from the DM. But if every monster strikes by DM intent, then players can feel picked on when things go badly. They know that the DM intended to inflict a deadly, scripted encounter on them no matter what. Random encounters slip an element of fate between the characters and the potential badness. This is doubly true when random encounters cover a wide range of danger and reward. The tumbling dice might steer characters toward a few drunken bandits loaded with loot, or put them in the path of a rampaging hill giant driven mad by a permanent haste spell. In either case, it’s the dice at work, not the DM. This gets even better if the DM calls on players to roll the dice for random encounters. Then whatever happens is their fault.

Random encounters discourage loitering. This axiom applies to wandering monsters more specifically than to random encounters overall. Everything takes time: pausing to bind wounds; searching for doors, traps, and treasure; negotiating with enemies or interrogating captives; studying a map. In enemy territory, time is danger. Every minute that passes is another minute when the enemy might find you. In most situations, characters take the fight to the enemy. Players grow accustomed to the idea that if they sit tight and don’t open any more doors, then they’re safe. That should be a dangerous assumption. Monsters move around unpredictably, sometimes for no apparent reason. The best and fairest way to determine whether enemies blunder into the characters is through random chance.

Random encounters burn party resources. Actually, this is something of a canard. Random encounters usually don’t occur often enough to be a significant drain on daily resources. It all depends on how they’re set up. See Wednesday’s Howling Tower blog for more about how to use random encounters in this fashion.

Random encounters keep things interesting for the DM. Sometimes it’s good for the DM to surprise himself or herself. Part of why players enjoy RPGs is because they can never be sure what will happen next. Random encounters spread some of that tasty jam on the DM, too. Sure, the DM created the random encounters list and knows everything on it, but that doesn’t mean he or she can’t be pleasantly surprised by its ability to throw changeups.

Random encounters foster improvisation. Players and DMs oxidize a lot of mental energy thinking about what’s coming next. A random encounter jumps up before the next planned-for thing arrives, forcing everyone to think on their feet while dealing with right here, right now. Surprising situations can spur surprisingly creative solutions.

Random encounters make the world seem real. This brings us full circle, back to the most important reason for random encounters. A story can be spun by leapfrogging from one adrenaline-charged engagement to another, but when it’s done, all you have is a plot with no setting. The world of an RPG campaign should be larger than the story track that the characters are on. If the players never glimpse what’s beyond that story track, then they get no sense of the larger world. It’s like riding the train cross-country with the window shades pulled down. Characters can wind up shaping or even saving a world that they know or care little about and therefore have no particular reason to save beyond “it’s something to do.”

The same benefit applies to DMs. Building random encounter lists makes you think about the inhabitants, creatures, dangers, and rewards of the setting more deeply than planning story events alone. Random encounters show that there’s more to the world than today’s mission, and that makes it a more vibrant place for everyone.

For advice and thoughts on how to get the most from random encounters, see this week’s run at www.howlingtower.com.

About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!

15 Replies to "Howling Tower: The Case for Random Encounters"

James Bryant

April 3, 2012 at 10:20am

I really like this article, but I think there are ways to provide depth to the world without random combat encounters. Perhaps you are going to address this later, but I feel some random noncombat encounters or some seemingly random noncombat encounters can do wonders for world building as well.

Mark

April 3, 2012 at 10:32am

Random Encounters describe the world.

pdunwin

April 3, 2012 at 10:38am

I don’t think you give a fair shake to games without random encounters, and I don’t think random encounters are as far gone as you do.

I don’t have entirely random encounters off tables, but I do a lot of improvising and I know it’s popular with other DMs. Part of the trick to it is to have in one’s binder or brain a number of encounters that you think would be fun. Not just combat, as you say, but interesting sights, sounds, interactions or whatever. The randomness is provided by the PCs’ choices, and the need for the DM to quickly fill in the part of the world where the PCs are sticking their noses. I pull out or recall an encounter that fits, or make one up on the spot. It doesn’t get much more random than that.

Another way I use them, and I hope others do to, are as description in skill challenges. These partly involve player choice, but also some vagaries of the dice. The canny DM describes the progress of the PCs in terms of their rolls and their successes and failures. I find this spurs improv and the aforementioned pulling of previously considered encounters or scenarios.

So, I don’t think they’re gone. I think they’ve changed.

Steve Winter

April 3, 2012 at 10:53am

I’d say that if GM has done that level of thinking about the setting and achieved that degree of clarity and solidity about it in his own head (solidity in the head? that’s not exactly what I meant …), then he’s already accomplished the goal of fleshing out the world as a real-seeming place. So I agree 100% there.

I’d like to hear more about the skill challenge tie-in. One of the things that was driven home over and over during my tenure on Dragon and Dungeon was just how poorly most people, even accomplished DMs, grasped skill challenges.

Cascadian

April 3, 2012 at 11:29am

The reason they’ve fallen out of favor is that tactically complex combat (starting with 3rd edition) make combats too long to afford adding in combats that haven’t been planned in advance. Most gamers are too used to tactical combat to go back to the older, looser, and more fast-paced combat style. So random encounters have to go.

I use them in my current Pathfinder game, but I have to do some work in advance to make them less random. I come up with a small set of characteristic inhabitants of an area with side story hooks attached, and if they come up and players pursue them they can add to the depth of the world without forcing me to plan everything in advance. I only roll for them when the players are doing something that should carry a risk of random encounter, such as resting in a dangerous spot. It’s a spur to prevent the one encounter adventuring day and other out of character metagaming strategies.

The Hydra DM

April 3, 2012 at 11:29am

Having been running a sandbox 4e game with random encounters prominently featured for many months now, I have to say that they’re a lot more useful than a lot of people give them credit for. My favorite use of them is maintaining pacing in the face of skill checks. Can you search the room again? Yeah, sure you can, but that’s going to take time, and with time you start running out of food and water (survival days anyone? Greatest abstraction ever!), and what’s worse you might be found by monsters!

Admittedly, monsters in 4th edition aren’t the threats monsters used to be, and with the length of combats (the literal fastest I could see an at-level encounter going is about 20 minutes if I hive-minded both the PCs and the monsters myself, a more practical benchmark is an hour) it can really feel like it’s providing tension to the order of anti-lock brakes rather than a tug here and a pull there. It makes me look greatly forward to the tools of D&D Next (or 5e, or whatever), where the really important encounters can use all of the 4e-esque options, but the random encounters that are there primarily for pacing can have a faster method of resolution.

Wolfgang

April 3, 2012 at 11:31am

I mostly like them for the surprise factor, as you mention. And I admit, I would prefer a well-designed random encounter over a skill challenge most any day.

The other function that a published lists of encounters can provide is to help other DMs imagine the setting. Or at least, that was my goal for them in adding encounter lists to Frostburn.

Brendan

April 3, 2012 at 11:41am

@Cascadian

Traditionally, an encounter began with a distance roll (where the parties notice each other) and a reaction roll (whether the other party is hostile or friendly). Even wandering monsters need not become combat challenges.

It is still possible to improvise most of the rules for monsters as needed if combat breaks out (I do this all the time with 4E, and it can be done with 3E as well). Not all combats need to be grid combats either.

I can see your reasoning, and I don’t dispute the trend, but I think that referees should revisit their assumptions about this.

Alphastream

April 3, 2012 at 1:10pm

My issue with any list of random encounters is the division of effort. How could spending time on a menu of just 4 possible encounters be as good as taking one random encounter of your choice and spending all of your time on it? Any time I’ve worked on random encounters I get excited but later find the benefit to the party is nill – they didn’t actually want a random encounter… they wanted a cool encounter. The more time I spend on that one encounter, the better it will be.

It takes a lot of effort to make wandering or random encounters cool, and I’m still not convinced.

That said, I do agree that having encounters that feel random is good. It is a break from the story and really can tell a nice side story (even if just about a monster’s ecology). I just don’t believe the game needs random lifeless lists of “2d4 monster x”.

pdunwin

April 3, 2012 at 3:09pm

Steve:

I don’t claim to be an accomplished DM, but I feel like I grasped skill challenges and ran with them. They just address so many questions that past editions had with how to deal with non-combat encounters. Even if future edtions don’t use them, I will, and I’ll probably use the concept in other games.

Anyway, for instance, at the Dark Sun game day there was an overland travel SC. Overland travel is boring, but the point of Dark Sun is the harshness of the world. So, I used the SC as an opportunity to highlight the world. I described the sign of a running tribe of humanoids; how did the PCs want to go about avoiding them? I described the spires and pebbled ground of a serpent-creature’s feeding ground; how did the PCs want to keep ahead of it? I described a storm of obsidian dust; what measures do the PCs want to take to help them endure it? This was all in a single skill challenge and was only vague recommended in the adventure itself. In another time, each of those events might have been randomly generated from a table. They still could be, but in this case I just tossed up what I thought would be interesting. The journey could also have been spread out, with more detailed encounters at intervals, and the PCs encountering these features of Athas over the course of in-game days or across game sessions.

I’ve also done travel without skill challenges of course, and had a fun session describing the oddities my players encountered in the Feywild. Again, it was mostly improvised, but it could have been rolled off a table.

pdunwin

April 3, 2012 at 3:11pm

Remember all: a random encounter doesn’t need to mean a random /combat/ encounter. It could be as minor as a flock of a particular bird flying by. Even an “wandering monster” could be something that either isn’t a threat, is easily dispatched, or can only be run from.

Mike Franke

April 3, 2012 at 6:06pm

Yay, old school! For me this breaks down to a player centric campaign vs a DM centered campaign. If the players are driving the story there is less of a time table and more need for a lot of options. For this kind of campaign random encounters and tables are a fantastic resource!

einherjar

April 3, 2012 at 6:32pm

I have just ONE word to say: Wandering-freaking-Monsters!

Sir Wulf

April 4, 2012 at 12:16pm

I once had a spirited discussion with a gamer who utterly disagreed with the idea that a game’s structure could benefit from being separated from its “story”. The occasional “random” monkey wrench thrown into one’s plotted world works wonders for preventing player ennui and metagaming. If the players sense that every encounter fits together as part of a larger structure, the metagame knowledge will influence their behavior. On the other hand, if some events are truly random, they can’t know what will happen next. The band of giants camped on the road ahead might well be a critical part of the adventure, but it might just be the result of a few random dice rolls.

stumpydwarf

April 6, 2012 at 7:16am

I can’t remember the number of times my group 25 odd years ago had a wandering monster encounter with a red dragon and merely saw it flying over them or past them. Only to finally defeat it at 9th Level.

reminiscence hat off