Tunnel of Thoughts: Random Encounters vs Unexpected Events

Random encounters are an idea that appear in most RPGs, and they have fallen in and out of favour of time. Different systems have given them different levels of importance and GMs have run them a thousand different ways on top of that.

Recently, there’s been some wide-ranging discussion of them on Twitter that is well worth a read. It’s set us thinking and we decided it was worth sharing as we gear up for releasing our first adventure module.

Typically random encounters are basically large tables with groups of monsters in, and little extra detail. They’re grouped by terrain type, or difficulty, or both. Beyond that, they’re pretty plain. They’re also essentially only combat encounters. There’s nothing built into the table that leads to roleplaying, and nothing that makes the encounter meaningful in your narrative any more than picking a random page in the Book of Beasts, Bogles and Bogeymen your system uses and fighting whatever is on it. There’s nothing that creates any kind of interest beyond simple combat mechanics unless you add it yourself. They’re not even designed to be generative of ideas.

This is a shame, because there is a need for unexpected encounters in RPGs. Note unexpected, not random. As your players traverse the world, they may well bump into things, and there should be a need to always be prepared for what could happen. They may get ambushed by bandits or wander into a band of goblin hunters, or a disgruntled owlbear, and so on. These things are unexpected. In a game that has the luxury of a GM to control and enrich it, using that person to roll on a table and dump 1D6 skeletons onto the table because they rolled a 37 on the dungeon table isn’t making your game live up to its potential, or even close. That’s the problem with random.

The word encounter is also limiting for our game world. The players might also find a wagon that has got stuck in the mud, some farmers arguing over the boundaries of their land, or a hunter’s camp in the woods where an old hunter has died in his sleep. These things don’t really fall into the traditional way encounters are represented, but they’re all unexpected things that players might come across. That’s the problem with encounters.

For a lot of experienced DMs and players, this isn’t a problem. Good GMs are used to adding some flavour to encounters, and good players will often be finding it even when the GM isn’t putting it there. This is a collaborative endeavour after all. Being used to departing from what is in the book, owning a lot more books to take stuff from and being comfortable improvising some or even all elements of your game make a huge difference.

That said, RPGs as a hobby are bigger than ever, and set to grow even more. Hopefully, they’ll continue to grow and develop. A part of that has to be helping new players get into the game and develop the skills more experienced players have, we should be giving them the tools to create more interesting encounters at short notice.

So, rather than random encounters, let’s go with calling them unexpected events. This broadens them in scope and immediately gives them more purpose than simply being random mini combats. What else do they need to do in order to really raise your game whether old hand or first time GM.

Develop your setting
Whether your game is set in a canon world belonging your ruleset, a 3rd party campaign setting, or a eclectic homebrew concoction, developing and deepening the themes of your setting is key. Simply rolling on a forest table doesn’t account for anything about the world you are in. There should be at least one unique thing about your setting, and your unexpected events are a chance to do that. If your world has a long history, your unexpected events should be littered with abandoned buildings, archaeological excavations, arcane mysteries and so on. If your world is rich and full of nature, there need to be seriously menacing, intelligent wolf packs vying for territory, and the players should be truly fearful of that.

Have risk and reward
Most things presented in random encounters are just straight up combat that is unlikely to challenge the players, it’s a minor diversion with a small XP reward that gets in the way of whatever the group actually want to be doing. If the only bearing they have on subsequent events is that the PCs have slightly more XP and slightly less HP, it’s not really building a narrative. Imagine watching the Wizard of Oz, but Dorothy doesn’t pick anyone up along the way, that’s what random encounters can far too easily produce.

Creating some real risk and reward means hooking whatever unexpected events you plan or roll having a consequence for later in the session or adventure. As a reward, this can mean finding a clue or piece of information, an item with a connection to an NPC. Risk can come from being delayed and allowing the plot to advance outside the PC’s control, losing equipment, being chased, or suffering real harm. Even the illusion of risk is enough.

Offer opportunities to roleplay
Being ambushed by a group of bandits presents a classic random encounter. To create an opportunity for roleplay, some moral ambiguity can be introduced. Let’s say the players come across a caravan being ambushed by the bandits instead. Nothing too original or difficult. If the players try and rescue them, a hostage situation occurs where there may be innocent deaths if the players get it wrong. If they’re not murderhobos, this is a more meaningful encounter immediately. Another option can be to give the bandits a back story. Have them appear injured and starving. As soon as the combat turns against them, they stop and plead with the players because they are just humble farmers whose crops have failed.

Remain simple to run and implement
Adding these elements can create more complexity. It can create delays where GM tries to connect something from a random roll table to their broader campaign. It can also bog things down in every single thing needing to be meaningful. Sometimes the players should bump into a pissed-off grizzly bear, or a band of orcs who seem a bit lost.

Going forward, these things will be shaping our games, and shaping how we handle some elements of our upcoming adventure module. Next week, keep an eye out for a more concrete set of ideas, where we’ll be releasing ten unexpected events for traversing forest terrain. If you’ve got more ideas for how you think unexpected events can be used in your game, come join us on Twitter or like our Facebook page.

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