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Thread: Ask a GM [09/08/2008]: Random Encounters

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    Ask a GM [09/08/2008]: Random Encounters

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    The_Richard asks, "Random encounter tables"

    What do you think of random encounter tables? Love them and use them all the time? Hate them and never even look at them? Use them on occasion to add variety? Ever thought of making them yourself to better tailor them to your game?
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    I don't actually use a random encounter table. It's not that I despise them or anything, I just tend to usually have at least ten or as many as twenty "random" encounters roughed out for any particular campaign. The reason I don't set them up as a table though, is so that I can use the encounter that is best suited for the situation the party is in. This way I don't have to come up with a plausible reason why some creature(s) that are normally found in a temperate wood setting, just so happens to found in the middle of the largest city in the area. Or worse, the party is making their way over a rocky surface and try to justify how the party is being confronted by a shambling mound, when there has been no vegetation for the past 10 miles.

    Now I know that if you are using a premade campaign, there is usually a random encounter table or so included with it. Just because it is there, doesn't mean that you can't utilize it in a slightly different manor.

    The other reason that I don't really use a set table is that if I use say 5 of the encounters from a group of 20 on a particular game session, then I make sure to replace them with a new encounter by the next session. This way the players don't grow bored with having to fight the same creature(s) for the duration of the campaign.

    One thing that I have noticed about almost all of the premade encounter tables is that they seem to usually be all combat type encounters. I like to include situations that don't call for any combat. Maybe there is a local patrol passing by and just want to obtain some information, or a local family may have had a wheel break on a wagon and need help, or even a merchant that is willing to sell some items to the party or maybe purchase some extra stuff that they need to dispose of.

    I guess that I would characterize myself as tayloring them to better fitting my game. I will admit that I do sometimes roll a die or so before giving the party the initial information of an encounter. Keeps them woundering if the outcome would have been different depending on what number came up.
    Last edited by cplmac; 09-09-2008 at 08:28 AM. Reason: spelling error

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    Hate them may be too strong of a phrase for me, but I never use them in my games. Random has always implied "Does not know what is happening around here." to me and I've avoided it.

    I much prefer having a handful of pre-scripted encounters at the ready so I can spice up the game for the day depending on what my friends need. If they are lacking in action, having a few combat encounters available (that are contextually appropriate to the location of the PC's) is great.

    If it has been a "nothing but combat" night, having a pre-scripted roleplay encounter is a great way to let the dice cool down and introduce the party to some local flavor via an interaction with some locals that isn't intended to be a main or recurring plotline. Though you can go back to the NPC's if they end up being memorable.

    Traps too! Having natural hazards or traps and surprises that have nothing to do with the main reason the players are in the area helps keep them on their toes.

    Encounters are the spice in a game, and having some random encounters that are ready to go but don't have to be used to advance the game is a great way to spice up the spices.

    Using a table and saying "A wild boar jumps from the bush!" is not as interesting to me as actively plotting a wild boar and it's reason for attacking. It can be as simple as a female protecting her young; or a boar that is desperate due to the high volume of competitive predators. Tables don't give reasons. I can wild dog with the best of them, but random encounters don't cut it for me.

    They lack a long term point; which kills them in my eyes as a tool. I have never felt bad for skipping on them.
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    I don't really use the tables. If I really need to do something extra, I usually have additional encounters or can write something up quickly. Usually I try to do natural encounters (such as forest fires or avalanches, sometimes a monster/animal encounter in its natural enviroment); If I think the party is going a little faster than I'd like, I'd throw in a really big trap or several smaller traps in a row and an occasional NPC.
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    As a tool for general session-to-session use, I don't prefer random encounter tables simply because they present one major problem: randomness. Used as a standalone, without enough time and collective thought to mold them into the campaign, they can stick out to the players for what they are and it can quickly disrupt the suspension of disbelief.

    That said, the random encounter tables can be very useful and a lot of fun for GMs (and, by extension, players) if used in a premeditated fashion. Rather than used the random tables at the spur of the moment as an "oh crap, what do I do now?" defense mechanism, they can be used to create unique and memorable encounters by using the "randomness" to its best effect.

    Roll a few things up on the random encounter tables as part of your adventure planning time. Note the results and then begin thinking about ways in which it might be introduced during the course of the game. This can give the GM a sort of creative "kick in the pants" by giving him something unexpected (an rare or unusual monster or trap for instance) and then challenge him to think of a way to put it in front of his players and both make it meaningful and fun.

    In that way, I always like to have a handful of these "pre-planned random encounters" ready for a given game so that I can give my players something to do should they get off track, but also make them feel thought-out and cohesive enough that they can end up either spinning off into their own subplots or tying themselves back into the main plot. In this way, "random" encounters feel a lot less "random" and a lot more involving of your players' attention.
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    For my games, I am a firm believer in the idea that no encounter should be truly random. My feeling is that everything that happens in the game should advance the story or promote character development in some way. I abhor having random encounters just for the sake of having something happen. I'd rather plan something interesting and then spring it on the characters. So, if I want there to be one or more encounters/challenges as the party travels the wilderness, I will plan those out myself.

    Now, is this the right way? I'm not saying that at all. It's just the way I like to do things. I'm the pseudo-writer type of GM, so I blame it on my story building predilections. Random things can and still do happen in my games, but they are almost always player driven and their "random" element is more a function of improvisation, not random tables. For my sci-fi type, non-fantasy games, this is even more true.

    If, however, I was going to use random encounters, I would most likely roll them up before the game and have them fully generated and realized before we played. This gives you the chance to carefully consider the build up to the encounter and allows you to be prepared with all of the notes for that scene that you might need. I've run a module or two that called for random encounters, and this is exactly what I did.
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    Arch Lich Thoth-Amon is offline Cursed by the Gods
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    Quote Originally Posted by Farcaster View Post
    The_Richard asks, "Random encounter tables"

    What do you think of random encounter tables? Love them and use them all the time? Hate them and never even look at them? Use them on occasion to add variety? Ever thought of making them yourself to better tailor them to your game?
    I use them on v e r y rare occasions. In a sense, i make them myself in that i already have ideas on which encounters i'm going to insert at differenting locations, etc, in my game. Really though, i dont need random encounter charts. I wouldnt miss them in the least.

    Thoth-Amon

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    I might randomly determine when an encounter happens.

    I prefer not to randomly determine what is encountered, unless they're going hunting or something, then I might pick up a die and think 1-3 rabbit, 4-5 deer, 6 boar.

    I like to have an idea of who's in the area, and what they might do.

    I will use random flavour text tables though, to drop in bits of scenery.

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    Quote Originally Posted by TAROT View Post
    I will use random flavour text tables though, to drop in bits of scenery.
    Would you expand on this ? I have a hard time picturing what it can be like.
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    I do like to use the 'random' encounters, but like farcaster, I generally use them to start a population of a particular area. From there I usually design the rest of my crawls to match the flavor thus started. With of course, the 'quest' spot already set up. Even then, handleing random encounters, I often set it up to include information that may lead to another goal. Point is, even a true random encounter should have a little something in it to keep the party on its toes.

    Just because you run into a wandering hungry troll doesn't mean you ouaght to dig out the oil jars and torch it immediately.
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    Hello, new here.

    I am clearly the odd man out here, in that I plan about 3 encounters per level of gameplay (on average, not a strict rule) and then have huge random encounter tables constantly changing based on locale and difficulty mainly. While this has caused me to do a lot more studying on every way I can use different creatures, it keeps from challenges becoming predictable (to me or the players).
    I have no problem introducing a chromatic dragon at 3rd level or running a mephit in at 15th lvl. I don't think these creatures are hiding behind a mountain somewhere waiting for the PC's to be the right level.
    While I may design an encounter with a high wizard, I don't take the time to determine what he calls up to help him in the moment of need or how it plays into the story until it's that time. If he's benevolent to the PC's and calls up a tanar'ri it's easy to work out a reasoning as to why he called him instead of, say, an archon. It used to be a bit of a hassle but it's now been my method for about 15 years and my players are just as excited to find out where the creeping hands came from as I am to weave it into the story. Needless to say I don't run boxed adventures (I did run a very enjoyable game of The Temple of Elemental Evil until it got released on PC which made me decide not to ruin the story for myself ever again lol).
    So I think that the 'random' encounter tables should definantly not be overlooked as a wonderful source of intrigue. Even if it does require a bit more effort. It has (almost) always payed off for my group.

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    Quote Originally Posted by boulet View Post
    Would you expand on this ? I have a hard time picturing what it can be like.
    Wilderness

    01. Gnats
    02. Tree struck by lightning
    03. Snare (empty)
    04. Berry patch
    05. Poison Ivy
    06. Clearing with purple flowers
    07. . .

    Urban

    01. Poster for high school production of Hamlet
    02. Roadside shrine to traffic victim
    03. Graffiti mural in alley (violet and yellow)
    04. Flyer for Korean restaurant taped to lamppost
    05. Scent of urine
    06. Building under demolition
    07. . .

    So, for a modern game, I might have lists for Business/Downtown, Warehouse/Industrial, Suburb/Low-Density Residential, Apartment Complex, Mall, Park.

    I start with about ten items per list (sights, smells and sounds) and usually try to get up to 30 for the most commonly travelled areas. (Gotta make the d30s earn their keep too.) If the game is spending time in some other area, make a new list. Some items will be crossed off and replaced when used, others might stay on the list. Expand the size of the list if permanent items accumulate.

    Also useful to keep handy. Male and female names (and surnames). Names for pubs and clubs. Dead people to name schools and parks after.

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    i use random encounter (scenary, etc) all the time. mostly i use them for ideas and inspiration. however, i will also use them as is, and springboard off of them to create subplots and interesting side treks. regardless of whether an encounter is preplanned or random, by the time it reaches the player's ears, they can't tell the difference. it makes dm'ing more fun, as it challenges you with surprises to interweave into your storyline. keeps you fresh.

    if no matter what, a result just doesn't fit, then i roll the dice again. besides. multiple rolls make the players nervous, especially if you start grinning... which is the case with me when a new nifty randomly generated storyline clicks into place.

    areas i have not mapped out, i will use random scene tables, and track the rolls for future mapping purposes. i will customize and add to encounter tables to include a variety of encounters, and find interesting solutions to existing ones... i usually try to have multiple solutions on tap for any given encounter, just to give me some basic directions. of course, the players will do something wild and interesting, but hey! inspiration is 90% preparation.

    same goes for treasure tables... i'll spin a thread of why that particular thing got where it is, or how those npc's found it, and where.... again, a rich seed source of side treks, quests, and other fun and fascinating things to catch a player's attention, and lend versimilitude to a setting. that's not just a random piece of jewlery or cache of coins anymore, that's the long lost necklace of mai'pao shoo-an ancient king known for eccentricity, and especially famed for always going barefoot, as he was an elemental earth mage of great renown... and the coins are rare mints of the 7-day country of kalathraohn-which only lasted for seven days before the outraged citizens rose up and overthrew the presumptious heir who tried to take over while his father was at war with the xai'kikra invaders from the sea of everchanging winds.

    see? it took me all of maybe 20-30 seconds to come up with both of those. and it wouldn't take me much longer to start spinning more details. a lot more. ^^ then i draw it into a map... i have this idea for a system using a multilayered image with different layers representing different times or ages. that makes it easy to track how things change over time. i can turn on and off the different layers and change political boundaries, appear and disappear islands, portions of land, cities, ruins, and other landscape features, not to mention the names of everything. great fun, i can't wait till i get my first one finished enough to be up and running.
    Last edited by nijineko; 09-10-2008 at 06:07 PM.
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    I like to use the old Chaosium Thieves World random encounters for an urban setting to add a little variety and atmosphere. Things happen and the PC's can act or ignore the situation, but none of them are life threatening if ignored. As for random monster encounters I rarely use them.
    It's as if there are people who play RPGs that don't have computers or something. Seriously, people need to upgrade to 1994 already. - - -TheRedRobedWizard

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    I love random encounter charts, but I enjoy making my own so that i can add what I want including any of my own monsters or creatures. I even like making tables for random encounters by terrain and climate. Such as, for example, what would you encounter in a tropical savana or sub-artic scrublands?


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