Random Encounters Are Arbitrarily Annoying


I've been playing and DMing various games for nearly 14 years now. There has always been one thing I have never liked: the random encounter. I am not saying I don't think it's useful from time to time. . .characters should stumble upon random events occurring in the world, after all the world is happening all around them. Just because they're chasing the Villain Of The Month doesn't mean there aren't a million other things going on in the world as well. Bandits, monsters, and even other heroes are out scouring the world too.

I've been playing and DMing various games for nearly 14 years now. There has always been one thing I have never liked: the random encounter. I am not saying I don't think it's useful from time to time. . .characters should stumble upon random events occurring in the world, after all the world is happening all around them. Just because they're chasing the Villain Of The Month doesn't mean there aren't a million other things going on in the world as well. Bandits, monsters, and even other heroes are out scouring the world too.

The problem I have had with random encounters is that I would rather have them prepared beforehand. When I first started out, I use to roll for random encounters like a lot of games suggested. This led the players to spend a good portion of time fighting some monster or dealing with some problem that had nothing to do with my plot. It was frustrating to have to roll out all those useless combat rolls, or deal with the resulting discussion while my carefully designed villain was counting the black marble tiles in his impenetrable fortress.

I resolved to no longer have random encounters unless they met very strict criteria for my campaign and adventure. They were also no longer random. I planned them out and made sure they were mapped with specific outcomes and consequences. Consequences were something I felt were always over looked with random encounters. Stumbling onto a party of orcs in the forest and slaying them may be a random encounter, but what then? Orcs come from somewhere. What are their families saying? Were they part of a raiding party, or perhaps working for some other bad guy? Isn't he going to be upset now his little group of orcs is dead?

These types of questions used to keep me up at nights. Where were the repercussions? I resolved to map my random encounters out and create details for them that were outside my main plot. I developed detailed consequences for what would happen if players decided to kill the bandits they met up with on the road. I created involved subplots for helping a wayward stranger.

With just a few hours of extra work, I had created a much more detailed and fleshed-ut world. It was also much more rewarding for my players. The key was to create a handful of these random encounters for the various areas where my players would be traveling during that session.

Now I know players hardly ever follow the plan we would like them to. If that was the case, we'd have as much fun playing by ourselves as we would in a group. DMing a group of players is exciting because you never know what your players are going to do or where your players are going to go. But it's useful to keep a handful of these random encounters generically written for basic environments. I usually have 2 forest random encounters created, 2 city encounters created, and usually 1 random dungeon encounter. I of course modify these to have more of one or the other if my players are more likely to be in one type of terrain.

The key with these encounters is to have detailed consequences. They're not planned for any particular area or occurrence, and can be thrown in to just spice things up. They are also not essential to my overall plot. What they do have is detailed NPC's, detailed stories about how they got to where they are and where they need to go, and consequences for completion and incompletion of the event. These consequences have an impact on my campaign and adventure. In this way, they tie in to the overall story and world. If they are just events that have no bearing on anything, that's not very real. Every deed we do in this world has an affect on the overall outcome of our lives. Taking the time out to help someone means we've lost time in completing other goals.

A good example of this would be wandering into a surly merchant who's broken his wagon wheel on the road. The characters can simply ignore him and continue on, in which case the merchant might not get where he's going, and be robbed. He'll remember the players and possibly hold a grudge, as he owns a shop in the next major town. The players though, will manage to stay close on the trail of the thief their chasing. If the players ever return to his shop, they'll find they aren't welcome. If the players help him fix his wagon wheel, he will thank the players and avoid being robbed. In which case, if the players ever return to the area they'll find his shop prices are lower for them. The players will have no chance now of catching the thief they were chasing, and be forced to find some other way to locate him.

This detail will also allow you to make up realistic dialogue for the merchant and the players. Instead of saying, "I am on my way to the next town to sell some items," you can say, "I am on my way to Newshire with these plows and seeds. The farmers are doing their annual pumpkin planting and I wish to make it in time to sell them at market."

The idea here is to have details about where the person is going, where they come from, and why their going to wherever they're going. The more the detail the better you'll be able to answer your player's questions.

I find this all much more useful than completely random encounters. Random encounters tend to be slipshod events that are shoe horned into an adventure, usually to spice up those areas where the players, "follow the trail for the next few days."

These traveling periods can also have special random events created. A typical one I have ready is a thrown shoe for horses. Horses, like any type of transportation, sometimes have problems. A thrown shoe is a serious problem when you're on the road. It slows a party down. It forces players to locate blacksmiths in order to reshoe the horse.

Another traveling problem is bad weather. A good storm can throw players into a bad situation. Pelting rain, sleet, or snow can cause them to cease their travels and find shelter. Some DM's would just have them make skills rolls for this, but I sometimes prefer to make my players solve these problems on their own. Where are they going to stay? How are they going to stay warm? Even the most common of problems can be complicated when you're a lonely adventurer on the road.

There are of course the typical monsters you can throw in at this point. I tend to use simple wild animals for variety if I can. But as your players increase in levels, the simple pack of wolves isn't going to cause much mayhem. Of course by this time, they should have created lots of enemies from past adventures and subplots.

A high level adventurer bedding down for the night is a likely target for some old enemy who's been hunting them down the last few months or years. A random encounter with some arch-foe from the player's past will remind them that their actions have consequences. They should realize making enemies means having enemies for life.

Consequences are what it all boils down to. This is a game of cause and effect. Action causes reaction. Random encounters cannot be simply shuffled onto our gaming table and swept off afterward. It all has to tie in. That was always my problem with random encounters, no consequences. The players and the DM's need to remember everything they do has an effect. This game is supposed to mimic living the life of a hero, and just like life there is no free lunch in this world.

random battles are significantly more annoying in a computer RPG than on pen and paper. Besides, in a campaign run by more than 1 GM, sometimes things aren't coordinated with both of them for a mission where one's absent, and the other GM is left to either 1) run something important and risk messing up the plot or 2) random fights.

This article calls for a bit more preparation on the GM's part, but overall it's very good stuff.

I particularly like the part about 'events' on the trail as opposed to 'encounters'...we'd all do well to remember that adventuring difficulties need not take the form of combat.

I have a question, though: when you ask your players how their characters intend to keep warm, what do they say? Unless threatened with some game mechanic-related consequence (such as fatigue penalties, reduced CON, etc), mine would look at me blankly and say "who cares?" I'm wondering how you handle such a situation.

The first few times you do this you will get this look, but I don't handle it with fatigue penalties or reduced Con. I simply point out they won't be getting their daily hit points back because their not resting. A character who is damp and wind torn is not resting. Think about the last time you got stuck out in a downpour or were out in the cold without proper cover. You couldn't say you were resting. You were trying to keep from freezing or getting pneumonia. Hence, without proper cover the characters do not regain any hit points by natural healing. This may not seem very important first starting out. But after your next fight with a wandering band of goblins, you'll be looking for a way to get some hit points back which means they'll soon by trying to find cover. This also means wizards and priests won't be getting spells back as this requires rest time as well. If they're being pelted with rain, I find it unlikely they'd be studying their spell book in the rain, or trying to peacefully meditate.

That's a good solution. Thanks.

Well, amp, it's good to know there are other DMs out there who are as anal-retentive as myself. Sometimes I won't use random encounters if I want a campaign to keep on track and stay very plot oriented. Other times I prefer to detail all the monsters on the encounter list for easy access, of course with 3rd Ed monsters are playable right from the book. I also prefer using adverse weather to really slow up the group and put a more realistic spin on the game. Like the thick fog that happened to roll in off the coast in time to cover the advance of a squad of firbolg assassins, man they got their asses kicked, it was great. I also feel the need to flesh out random encounters to make the world more vivid and real. And at times the group will get totally off track and chase the elusive Red Herring, which I love if I'm not trying to keep them focused.

Good article.

I also detest random encounters, although for a slightly different reason. What I really hate is the basic idea of "roll up a random 'X.'" Because random encounters can lead to random battles with random creatures and random treasures...leading to a game that doesn't have much of a strong idea behind it.

Actually, my personal pet peeve on the matter is in the Epic Level Handbook. It has a table for Random Epic Adventures. AAAGH!!!

Actually, I believe the point behind the table in the Epic level book is to only cive hooks or ideas for the kind of adventures that epic characters might go on. A little something to help to DM out.

I agree about the problem with randomly rolling up encounters on the fly. If, as a GM, your well of creativity dries up and you feel the compulsion to roll up some random encounters for the night's gaming - at least do it before the players arrive!

Give yourself a bit of time to flesh out the encounters and at least superficially develop the NPCs. Jot down a few names and a battle-cry or bit of dialog for them to shout out during the impending combat.

Try to fit them into the setting, so if the PCs come riding into town with a half-dozen dead bandits slung over their pack mules, a little girl can rush up to one of the bodies and cry, "Daddy", or the town guard might blanche as he sees the body of his beloved but no-good lazy malcontent son. Or, what if a honorable but naive paladin rides up on the scene of carnage the PCs left behind and leaps to the wrong conclusion? A single 'random encounter' can provide the plot for an entire night's gaming with a bit of preparation and little extra effort.

Mark Harm - Marketing Director
Rampant Mouse Medieval Latex Weaponry

Hello amp21. I agree with your central idea that random encounters are more interesting if they are planned or at least based on local conditions. I have always followed this approach and I think many DM's do the same. For example, the trollmoors are supposed to be difficult to cross, and yes they do have bands of trolls living there. To cross, you need to be lucky, travelling in a large company, or very very tough. If you are exceptionally adventurous then they could be a good source of income, but don't be surprised it the trolls catch on and ambush you ! Imagine an ambush by several packs of trolls ! The best random encounters add colour and variety to a campaign. They provide dangers and opportunities for PC's and the PCs actios can have consequences on the local situation.

I disagree strongly with Iridilate's dislike of random encounters. I think that a bit of randomness and uncertainty adds to the fun. I am not particularly worried if the players get a little more treasure or a little more ep's or suffer some harm. I work it into the adventure rather than try to dictate events. It all adds to the adventure

Mark says:
"So if the PCs come riding into town with a half-dozen dead bandits slung over their pack mules, a little girl can rush up to one of the bodies and cry, "Daddy"."

I LOVE that. That is so cruel and twisted. I'm gonna use that the next opportunity I get.

Nice idea. I did something similar once. The PCs were hunting a werewolf, which had been preying on the villagers of this little hamlet. They found it, and killed it no bother, but as it died, it reverted back to it's human form. It was none other than one of the village women that one of the PCs was in love with! Hee hee hee!

Yeah two great ideas Olly and Mo.

I also like to "roll" my not so random encounters in advance and devellop them so they'll fit into the general plot (or start a sub-plot of their own) for my game.

I remember in one adventure I kept rolling Owl Bears on an encounter table (the 11 on a d20 kept poping-up every second roll or something). Eventually the players came to believe that the forest they were exploring was infested with the beasts. I found t to be logical, so I had to make up a deepspawn that only made Owl bears (it was old and sick), the entrance to its cave was almost crawling with the beasts, a memorable game.

I never use random encounters. I look at the suggested lists, nick whatever I like, and work it into the eco-system of the terrain setting.

You're likely to encounter alligators in swamps, as well as the wading birds they prey on, the bugs they prey on, and swamp trolls which are pretty much at the top of the food chain. Then you've got bog mummies, from the ancient, lost civilisation, which don't really fit into the eco-system, because the undead are unnatural, but the bugs feed off of, and likewise, the mummies feed of the bugs that feed off them.

(Remember that bit in The Mummy where the beetle crawled out of Imhotep's cheek, and into his mouth, and he ate it? I love that part, that was great!)

The Mummy was cool, all around. The Mummy Returns was poo, nothing but.

No it was not!

There was em... wait a minute...

I guess it wasn't that good. But is was a entertaining not so good movie

Please don't say the Scorpion King was cool. All the animation in the movie was good untill the big bad guy at the end? Waht the hell was the deal with that? And the face in the wall of water was a total rip-off from the first film.

I hated that friggin movie.

I'm a big fan of the Mummy franchise, as I've stated before. Except of course for the shitty cartoon series. But anyway, they're a great series of films, though The Mummy does outclass both The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King. But as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't get much better than flesh-eating beetles, undead pygmies, Anubite warriors, mysterious Egyptian illuminati, scorpionmen, and a bald, undead villain who eats bugs, but really isn't that much of a bad person, and played Darkman in a previous incarnation. I love 'em.

Oh and Patricia Valasquez, who plays Ankh-Sun-Amun, is a piece of ass, even though she does vaguely resemble a cat.

I kinda like the whole feline look. Now that I think of it that's probably one of the reasons they cast her.

I'll take Rachel Weisz in her drunken state, please...

Oh yeah, now I think of it, cats were sacred in Egypt, wheren't they? Bastet and all that!

Rachel hum... by the way she does a great job in Runnaway jury and Confidence

Yeah, every Pharoh's court had a bunch of them in tribute to the goddess Bast and they were allways treated with repect and kindness for fear of offending her.

You can see the result of this treatment in the personality of my four cats. They believe themselves to be sacred. But Bast is a cool girl, just don't piss her off.

I've seen the picture of her in Deities & Demigods... Miow!

It's like Sophie Ellis Bextor got a whole lot sexier!

Seems to me that it wouldn't take much to make Sophie Ellis Bextor sexier. She's just too scrawny.

You think, Eater? I think she's incredibly sexy. She's a smashing bit of posh totty if ever there was. Oooh... she makes these cute little sounds when she's singing... Oooh... Ever since I first heard her sing Murder On The Dancefloor, I would always want to do... (imitates Jack Russell terrier in season)... with her.

Careful Olly, don't make them apply the genital clamps... again.

I don't like the anemic/bulimic-looking chix, either. I would just break 'em...





Same fear here. Give me a Lisa Loeb anyday. Or Lisa Loeb all day. Or Lisa Loeb at all. Lisa is sooooooo cute.

Wow, I just spoiled the whole brooding goth thing didn't I?

Sadly, Eater, I have no idea who Lisa Loeb is. She's not very big in the UK. Shame really, I've never been against the odd bit of blackmail... now where was I? Ah yes...

Oh, Sophie... Lovely Sophie... with skin as white as ornamental alabaster and hair like the feathers of ravens...

I would write a song about you, my darling Sophie, had you not one of the hardest names to find a rhyme for in the entire English language. Why couldn't your parents have called you Marina? Then I could have just rehashed my old one and claimed it was written especially for you, and you would have believed me, and then we could get married, have bambinos and do sex all of the time.

But I digress...

You have not basked in the glory that is Lisa Loeb? Tragedy. She is not real big outside the US and Canada sadly.

And you digressed a while ago.

I do a lot of digressing. It's a good hobby.

So I've noticed.

Ya know...

You don't have to MARKET your whack-fantasies to anyone, so long as it gets the job done when YOU think about it.