Quality Random Encounters
DM: You guys enter the Big bad guys’ chambers and see…. someone roll me a d8.
DM: you see a vampire! he’s been behind this entire plot to take over the world and destroy the artifact… roll initiative while I look up vampire stats.
Player: I thought this place was warded against undead. How did a vampire do all of this under the temple?
DM: umm, Because you rolled it on the random encounter table. Here, roll again…
DM: you see a dragon!
Randomness seems to be almost an obsession by some DMs as well as in many pre-written modules. Even in the DMG every single thing from stats, to what type of room, to what kind of monsters, to the color of the painting on the wall has a chart for you to roll on. Dice rolls to help you make decisions when building your campaign are a fine idea and sometimes I use them myself when I can’t decide. This obsession with randomness however, causes an issue that I do have a problem with: Random Encounters.
In the example above I jokingly had a DM roll on the spot to determine who the main villain of his campaign was. It was meant to sound ridiculous and I hope no one has ever done that. However in an exciting fight with a final boss, there are many things working toward making this combat exciting. If there is any place we should not use randomness, it is with the fights that struggle to hold our attention and engage our players…. the random encounter.
Random encounters are often the worst encounters in the game. Done incorrectly, they fall flat, add nothing to the game, don’t have any impact on the game, and often don’t even accomplish the main goal of a random encounter.
So to help us figure out what is going on, we need to figure out where the random encounter comes from, why we have it, and what it is.
What is a random encounter? Usually it is when the DM, on the spot, rolls dice and compares the result to a list or table to find out what enemies the party will face. However for this article, I’d like to define a random encounter as an encounter the DM has not prepared for. By this definition an entire session can be a random encounter… and some certainly feel like they are, but the most common type is a combat encounter where the DM rolls on a table to determine the fight.
There are four main reasons DM’s use random encounters:
1) Resource attrition
2) Story arc
3) Obsession with randomness
4) Unexpected player actions
- D&D is a game that is built around resource management and attrition. A party that has just rested is significantly stronger than a party who has just blown two fireballs and several healing spells in an encounter. In general, a single combat is not designed to be difficult in D&D, (though it can be) it is several combats, without the opportunity to recuperate resources, that can make the next combat deadly. This idea of wearing down the parties resources over time (attrition) tests the players resource management and is often used to set up more difficult encounters. Having two encounters before a boss fight will make the boss fight much harder without having to pick a monster that is significantly above the parties level. The most common way to wear the party down and burn their resources is of course random encounters.
- The story arc is an important concept that helps us gauge how we design our sessions. Imagine if you just fought a vampire and were then were immediately tasked with slaying a red dragon followed by a beholder. You can’t just go from one boss fight to the next to the next. The story needs to follow a story arc, there needs to be a moment of downtime after the climax. What’s the easiest way to slow down the game so that we can build the story up again? Random Encounters.
- Some DMs believe that making everything random adds to their game or story in some way. In a way, this is true. The reason we have dice in the first place is to allow the story to be effected by the dice. We get to find out if the sword hits or misses, if the rebels will help storm the castle, or if the guard will break his oath and let us pass for a handful of gold and the promise of more to come. The randomness adds to the story and puts some of the G into RPG. So if a little randomness pushes the story and the game forward, a lot of random must be better… except that it often comes at the cost of being prepared.
- Sometimes the players do crazy things. Okay, often the players do crazy things. It isn’t always possible to figure out what they are going to do before the session. Every so often the players decide to kidnap and ransom the king, interrogate the good guy based on misinformation, or have a long conversation with a random homeless guy on the street. It is hard to prepare for these events and by definition, most of the time these end up being random encounters.
Combat vs. Non-combat encounters
This article is focused on combat random encounters and here is why. We can separate encounters into two types, combat and non-combat. There is really only a slight difference between the two, but it leads to combat focused random encounters being much more common than non combat random encounters.
Imagine building an exciting non-combat encounter. You have to plan out your NPC, think about their goals, background, personality, and how they interact with the party. You have to make sure the story is logically consistent with everything else that has happened in the campaign. You have to think about what the PCs might attempt and what decisions they might make. And you have to adjudicate their actions and create the long and short term consequences of the character’s decisions.
Imagine I asked you to do that on the spot. Only the experienced DM who has mastered these skills and has a lot of background knowledge to work with can create this entire encounter improvisationaly.
Now lets say you had to build a combat encounter on the spot. You have to pick a monster, know its goals and abilities, figure out its stats and the DCs for hitting them. You need to know how hard the fight should be because messing that up can mean death for your characters.
That sounds just as difficult except…. nearly all of that is already done for you. D&D is a combat focused game. Which means the mechanics, stats, and difficulties of combat are already laid out for you. The up side of this is that making combat encounters is easier. The down side of this is that people assume making a good combat encounter is easy. This is why most encounters in D&D push players into combat and why most random encounters involve combat.
Problems with Random Combat Encounters
- The first and main problem I have with these types of encounters is that it means the DM didn’t prepare them. I’m not saying it is impossible to have a decent improvised encounter, but most people can’t pull it off, and because they aren’t prepared the players end up just sitting there waiting while they pull up monster stats or draw a map or just start you in the middle of combat taking away all of the tactics you could have used before the combat starts. Not being prepared is the base problem and causes most of the others.
- The second problem with random encounters is that they are usually easy. D&D is not designed for single combats that are difficult. When you put your party up against one really difficult fight, it has a high chance of either massacring them or doing nothing, completely dependent on the dice. Making an easier battle, like a random encounter, more difficult takes a lot of tactics and planing by the DM. These tactics are usually lacking when you make up a combat on the spot. This means that random combat encounters are usually designed to be easy and played poorly by the DM. These fights are rarely up to the challenge. This isn’t bad by itself but as you read the other problems you will see how this compounds.
- The third problem with random encounters is that they have a mechanical goal that they often don’t achieve when rolled for randomly. One of the main mechanical goals of the random encounter is to cause attrition to the party’s resources. But when you don’t prepare the random encounters ahead of time, they often fail at this. I recently played in two different published adventures. In both, there was a long period of travel which involved rolling for random encounters. In one, we rolled for one random encounter per day. This makes no sense. If we get to long rest in between each random encounter, then it has no affect on our resource attrition. We heal and refresh after each battle. On top of that the battles were easy and boring. In the second game, we were traveling and had to roll once per hour on a five hour trip. We had the possibility of five encounters, but only came across one. And of course it was easy and boring because they had to be built to account for the possibility of coming across five. So once again, we had a 40 minute combat where none of us used any notable resources and we refreshed them immediately after using them. Save the 40 minutes and just tell us that we came across a pack of goblins and slaughtered them on the way here.
- Reading this article may sound like I only enjoy fights that are extremely difficult or a beat down on player resources for mechanical reasons. This is not true. The thing that makes a good combat is consequences. In a difficult combat the consequence can be character death. In a boss fight the consequence can be that the villain who has been harassing the world for years is finally defeated. In some fights the consequence can be that you lose some of your resources that you know you need for the next fight. There are many other consequences, such as losing an item, gaining treasure, gaining an ally, saving an NPC, learning something about the world, and many more. The problem with random encounters is that they rarely have consequences. Story based consequences usually take some planning to come up with, and since random encounters are usually fairly easy, there is no risk of death. Which means that when I fight that pack of orcs, nothing matters. It doesn’t mater what resources I spend, how brutal I am, if they flee or stay… None of it matters. As long as we don’t come close to death there is no consequence that the players care about, making the combat have no point in the game.
- I mentioned earlier that random combat encounters are often used as a story management tool. You have to have some downtime after the boss fight and on the way to the next boss, so what do you do…. add in some random encounters. This thinking is almost backwards. Boss fights, by themselves, are inherently entertaining. They usually have a higher chance of death, have many built in consequences, and the players are excited to kill the thing they have been hunting for a long time. What this means is that even if you put minimal effort into designing the boss fight and the consequences of it, it will probably be an entertaining fight. Random combat encounters, however, have almost nothing going for them. The reason you are using them in the first place is because you basically want something boring and easy to throw at the party before they get to the big bad guy. It is completely backwards. The random encounters are the ones that need all the attention to detail to make them exciting. They require more attention and preparation than the boss fight in order to be an interesting fight that holds your player’s attention.
- Avoid Random
Plan your “random” combat encounters ahead of time. If a book gives you a random encounter chart, use it to create the encounters, and then prepare for them knowing that the party is likely to face these. If you have to make it random, then just roll ahead of time instead of at the table so that you still make it random but have it prepared.
- Prepare Area Encounters
Sometimes you can’t prepare for encounters based on what your players do. This is true and in that case the random encounter is fine (but if your players started it, there is likely already excitement and consequences built in). However you can often prepare for area based random encounters. If you are running a game that takes place in the Underdark, create four encounters that you have ready. Each encounter can be made to be exciting and have its own consequences like an NPC ally or a load of treasure. When your party decides to rest after every two miles of travel and you need to throw a “random” encounter at them to hurry them along, you have four ready to choose from and you already know it will be a good one.
- Prepare Equipment
One of the most annoying things about random encounters is the DM drawing out a terribly un-tactical map to go with his poorly planned encounter. If you plan it ahead of time, make sure you draw the map ahead of time (if you use maps), print or write out loot ahead of time, and you might even roll initiative for your monsters ahead of time. Get some of your work done so that the players don’t have to watch you do it.
- Plan NPC Tactics
Since you know what monsters you will be having and what the terrain looks like, you can plan out some tactics and add bits of flavor to your combat as well. This can take a battle that is pretty easy, and without making it a ton harder, can make it far more interesting. Just as DMs like to watch and reward their players for unique tactics, the players feel emotion when they get outsmarted by kobold tactics and end up having to use a bunch of high level spells to drive them out of their holes. This both makes the combat more exciting, and helps it to do its job of resource attrition.
- Flesh out NPCs
Equally important as monster tactics is monster personality. Adding little touches that give incite into the monster’s life can make a combat more interesting. You can also have the monster talk, if it’s a creature that can. Of my top five best combats I have ever run, four of them did not start with combat. The NPC talked with the party first and it ended up leading to a combat. Even if you don’t do that, having an NPC say something or even telling your players the sounds it’s making can spice up a combat.
- Add Lasting Consequences
The biggest problem with random combat encounters is that they don’t matter. This is why they are often boring unless someone is on the verge of death. This is the easiest consequence to add, just making the combat harder until the players fear for their lives after every noise they hear or ripple in the water they see. But there are many other sort and long term consequences that can be built into a random encounter if it is properly prepared. If there is anything to take away from this article it is this solution. Make sure every encounter has a consequence. If it doesn’t, then there isn’t much reason to spend a full hour of your life playing it out turn by turn. This topic is so important I am writing an entire article on how to add different types of lasting consequences and will link it here when I’m done.
Putting it all together.
To help understand what I mean, I’m going to show you a random encounter I designed using this method.
The party was hired on as body guards for a caravan consisting of 7 wagons. They were working for merchants, who owned 2 of the wagons, while they spied on the other 5 wagons owned by cultists who were transporting massive amounts of gold to the north. The caravan was traveling through the swamps and the adventure called for a couple of random encounters. I looked at the table and decided to roll on it. I rolled an encounter with 5 bullywugs. I could have added several more encounters that each happened on the same day to build up resource attrition but I decided I wanted to try to make this combat interesting.
I realized pretty quickly that five bullywugs vs a party of 5 5th level characters, 2 merchants, and 15 cultists and a couple of spies was not going to be a challenge. So if the bullywugs jump out and fight to the death, we will just have thirty minutes of fighting and then the bullywugs die. What’s the point. I can narrate that and it would be a lot more fun. The fight needed a consequence for failure. Death is the most obvious, but just increasing the number from five to 15 bullywugs didn’t add much excitement and a fireball could still decimate them and end the battle pretty quickly. I decided that the most interesting consequence would be if the bullywugs tried to steal one of the carts.
As the carts drive through the swamp, one of their wheels gets caught in a pit near the water that causes the cart to get stuck and tip. The bullywugs then jump out and try to rock the cart until it tips into the water where they can get the loot to themselves. Thinking about monster tactics, I know I will need a few more than 5 bullywugs to pull this off, so I up the number to 11. Not enough to make the encounter deadly by any means, but enough to give them a chance at pulling off their tactics. I also split them into 3 groups so that they can’t all be taken out with one AOE spell. One group attacks the caravans from the water. Another group attacks from the other side, coming out from behind rocks to surround and distract the PCs. The third group jumps onto the caravan and rocks it till it falls into the water.
Then I made the map to accompany my tactics.
I wanted to give the NPCs a little more personality. So I turned one of them into their leader. He gives the orders and coordinates them. The bullywugs also don’t want to die. So if any one of them is below 1/3 health it will likely leave. The leader bullywug will also give the order to leave if things go badly or if they succeed in pulling a cart into the water. And just in case the players decide to solve this situation without combat, I came up with a short backstory regarding the reasons the bullywugs are raiding this caravan. (They bring loot to the bullywug king who will punish them if they don’t).
Ok, we are all set for battle. So now instead of rolling some dice and having a boring, easy, and pointless fight against five bullywugs, we have a well thought out encounter that turned out to be more exciting than I could have imagined when this happened:
The bullywugs ambushed the party, distracting them with the first two groups. The party fought as normal and was winning pretty easily. Then the barbarian noticed the leader on the rock yelling orders which he could not understand. Looking around he saw the bullywugs pulling the wagon into the water. He left the fight (willingly taking 2 opportunity attacks), ran over to the wagon, and jumped on the other side. A battle of strength occurred as the barbarian by himself held the wagon on land against 4 bullywugs. He began calling for help. As 2 freed up bullywugs and the leader came down and started attacking him. The barbarian made the choice to take the attacks, and instead of defending or attacking back he held the wagon until someone else could help.
The barbarian was actually knocked unconscious, holding the wagon up until the rest of the party and some of the cultists could arrive to grab it. In the end, the bullywugs were driven off and only managed to grab a handful of loot out of the back of the wagon.
This “random” encounter turned out to be very exciting. Even though it was a very easy fight, someone ended up being knocked unconscious because of a choice he made to keep the wagon on the land instead of fighting. And the result of the encounter had several long term consequences. One is that they got to learn what was in the wagons (which they had been wondering about for some time). And they increased their relations with the cultists who were very grateful for them saving their wagon.
This was all from a “random” encounter in the book that said “5 bullywugs” and that was supposed to be made up on the spot. I don’t know about you but I could never have come up with this exciting situation in one minute.