Based on last week’s Tunnel of Thoughts post on issues with random encounters, it is only logical to follow it up with an actual example of unexpected events and get some feedback on it. This post builds on the ideas put forth in that post by having a practical example of how to do it.
This also develops ideas from our previous Smelting the Setting post from May which was about creating random encounter that fit tighter with the themes of your campaign setting. This takes that a step further.
A classic random encounter table that you might find in almost any campaign is the forest table. Most RPGs are set in a richly forested Northern-European-style setting, and even more exotic settings commonly feature the terrain. This example is a D12 table, but this could obviously be built up.
Without further ado, here’s the table. Some notes of how it differs from typical random encounters and how you might use it in your game or create your own come afterwards.
|Unexpected events in a forest|
|D12||Hook||Event||Consequence||Variations & Extras|
|1||An old man in the market rambles about his family name which means ‘underground river’.||Beneath your feet the ground crumbles and a huge hole opens in seconds.
A sound of running water can be heard from underground.
GM Note: Players make two make two reflex saves or equivalent. One easy to avoid falling in, and a more difficult one to avoid dropping something in.
|If a PC falls in, have them show up at a nearby body of water, soggy, but unharmed.
Lost equipment can also potentially be recovered.
|Have the sinkhole appear during an outside combat.
Stage an NPC who is part of an existing storyline falling into the sinkhole and needing to be rescued.
|2||Dark clouds form on the horizon. The farmers in the tavern mutter into their beer about bad omens.||As you walk, the dark clouds gather ever closer and thicker.
Lightning strikes a tree just feet away from you, showering your group with burning branches and embers.
GM: PCs must make a reflex save to avoid being hit by burning pieces of tree.
Around the base of the tree, a number of small stones have been turned to misshaped lumps of heavy black glass.
|Lightning has struck in a nearby town and started a fire.||Have multiple strikes as part of a larger storm.|
|3||You hear an old wives tale about a woman who disappeared into the woods to give birth and was never seen again.||An ancient tree set back from the path screeches and weeps. When approached, you can see blood trickles down the trunk. It hisses at you “punish me for what I have done”. A lump of knots resembles a face.
If attacked, the tree will thank the players, the bleeding will stop and the bunch of knots will disappear.
If left alone, it threatens to steal the lives of children from the town.
|If the players don’t attack the tree, a new-born child will go missing from a nearby village|
|4||The tavern is empty of the usual mercenary types. The barman tells you a war has started in distant lands.||Slumped against a tree trunk, an injured gnome is being tended to by a small group of other gnomes.
They cry out for help and tell you of a war that has recently started in their homeland. They are fleeing and looking for refuge.
GM: If given food, water or healing, the gnomes will show enormous gratitude to the players and promise to repay their debts.
If attacked, the gnomes put up little resistance, seemingly resigned to their fates. Award no XP and trivial loot.
|If the gnomes were helped, they reappear several days or weeks in the future and reward the party with ten times what the party gave them.|
|5||Hunters and woodsmen say the forest is eerily silent.||As you trudge through the woods, a rumble that reverberates in your chest can be felt, although quiet and far away.
Following the sound, you come to a clearing where six huge ancient trees of different types stand clustered together.
As you approach, the tone of the sound changes and a strange feeling comes over you.
GM: If the party are good or lawful, heal them or give them a minor blessing of some sort. If they are evil or chaotic, they are overcome with sickness.
| If the players were good, the meeting continued and the forest springs back to life.
If they players were evil, the forest darkens and becomes defensive against those who intrude, causing people to get lost or fall foul of its denizens.
|Change the alignments to fit your campaign setting or rule system.|
|6||A usually busy market stall selling game is mostly empty and what is on sale looks less than fresh.||A piece of rope is tied around the base of a tree and disappear off up into the canopy.
Stepping closer and looking up, you see an unconscious man hanging from a rope trap. His face is a livid purple and he sways slightly.
GM: If players cut the rope and help the man, he reveals he fell victim to his own trap. He hobbles off back to town clutching his backpack tightly.
If the players search or kill the man, they find a pouch of poisonous mushrooms and a note telling him exactly what to look for.
| If the players help the man, it transpires he was harvesting poison mushrooms and has sold them to someone in town who used them to poison a noble in town.
If the players leave the man a poisoning plot is unmasked in town, and a local noble executes a peasant in the square shortly after their return.
|7||A local hunter has been missing for two days, his wife is at the gate, asking people to help find him.||A fierce growing leads you to a bear shaking a tree. A terrified looking man is up the tree, his bow lies on the floor a few feet from the tree, arrows are scattered on the floor, and a single arrow protrudes from the bears rump.
|If rescued, the man is grateful to the players, and asks if he can keep the bear skin.|
|8||The dwarven mine nearby has been reopened, and the dwarves have been clearing out tunnels and expanding.||GM: Players must pass a difficult perception, survival or a similar skill to perceive the chokers before they are attacked.
GM: A group of chokers slightly larger than the party has ambushed them, desperate for food after being cleared out of the mines nearby.
|The players discover the dwarves are offering a bounty on choker heads as they clear out their mine.|| Choker stat block for Pathfinder
|9||The gate guards tell you thy saw a wolk-pack skirting the town late at night.||You hear fierce growling, snarling and yelping in the distance.
A group of wolves is gathered in a rough clearing, in the middle of the group, an imperfect circle is formed around two huge wolves, battling each other.
If the party just watch, the wolves finish their battle, a huge, black wolf with an intelligent glint in eyes. They slink off into the forest.
If the players intervene, a fight ensues, and the huge black wolf attempts to flee.
| The huge black wolf is an evil druid who is trying to gain control of the wolves.
If he is allowed to gain control, the wolves begin menacing the town and attacking people on the road.
|10||The season brings new life into the world and the forest is full of animals rearing their young.||You see a huge mother owlbear attempting to teach her cubs to climb a tree.
A huge bee’s nest hangs from a branch halfway up the three. The clumsy cubs struggle and flop around despite being almost as tall as a man already.
GM Note: Make a perception check for the mother, or choose an outcome.
Pass: The mother sniffs at the air, her head turns to you and she roars in anger, keen to defend her cubs.
Fail: The mother seems focused on teaching her cubs and hasn’t noticed your group.
|11||An appallingly bad bard reads his poetry in the tavern. He gets doused with beer and gets a good knock on the head from the flagon it was in.||A load scream of joy pierces your ears and a man in torn clothing runs over to you. “Thank the stars, I am lost and starving!”
It is the poet from the tavern. He claims to have been lost for days and be desperately in need of help. He begs the players to lead him back to civilisation.
| If the players lead him back to town, they discover he has been missing less than twelve hours.
If they leave him in the woods, he appears in a future tavern, singing songs about the party and how evil they are.
|12||The market is overflowing with fungi of all kinds. The tavern menu is too. There’s even mushroom beer. The townsfolk seem to love it.||Around the bases of the trees here there are huge clusters of mushroom with huge, white, globe-like caps.
As you step past one it cracks and a misty white cloud of spores.
This seems to trigger other, and in a second, the air is viscous and choking.
GM: PCs must save against sleep to avoid passing out on the forest floor for 12 hours.
| PCs wake up at night, severely dehydrated poisoned. They must rush to get medical help as quickly as possible.
Make this difficult for them to fix themselves, as this is a variety of mushroom known only in these woods.
| PCs can save against poison as an alternative.
Allow a PC with excellent survival skills or nature knowledge to potentially spot the mushrooms.
Given that one of the key issues with random encounters is their lack of connectedness with the world, this is one way of dealing with that. If you roll up or choose your encounters before a session, or even for a location, it should be possible to drop a setup for an encounter into your game before the players encounter it. This isn’t always necessary, and you can even seed one rumour but run a different encounter.
This is the encounter and you can always just roll in this table and run a vanilla random encounter. It’s your game, and you can do whatever you like with it. All of these encounters should yield some amount of XP for the players (if you use it in your game) and this should be level-appropriate and based on how well they roleplay their characters.
Lack of consequence beyond XP grind was another issue with random encounters, and this helps address that by extending some of them beyond the location they take place in. These are totally at GM discretion.
Extras & Notes
These are just some extra ideas or notes for extending or varying the encounters. Particularly if you wish to develop encounters into fuller stories.
If you’ve enjoyed or even hated this, and want to vent your incandescent feelings, please comes join us on Twitter or Facebook. We’d also love to hear about any alternative implementations of random encounters you’ve used.
Special thanks to Dean DM (@deanmsimmons)