Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thoughts on Random Encounters - How Random is Random?

If an encounter, of any of the possible types, will happen six times in six chances, is it really random? Sure, the event chosen is random, but the chance of there being an event isn't - there WILL be some kind of encounter or event each time.

That's my main issue with Star Temple of Saturgalia.

But lets take it in another direction. What is to prevent a GM from rolling the random encounters ahead of time? Not the chance for an encounter to happen, which should always be it's own roll, but the actual encounters itself.

Say, for example, your encounter / event table is as follows:

Roll 2d4

2 - 2d4 orcs
3 - 3d4 giant rats
4 - 3d6 coins scattered cross floor
5 - random piece of writing on wall
6 - 1d2 ogres
7 - 1d4 giant spiders
8 - 3d4 goblins

Now, you plan on rolling a 1 in 6 chance for an encounter / event every turn (10 minutes) and again when they make significant noise (smashing doors, fighting, etc)

You guess that 6 or so random encounters will happen during the game session and you decide to roll them in order in advance. It's still random, but rolled prior to the session, giving you time as a GM to make them somewhat special. I have 2d4 right now, so lets make this a live experiment.

I roll 2, 4, 3, 8, 6 and 5.

So, the first random encounter will be 2d4 orcs. I roll a 3. 3 orcs wielding spears and shields. They are moving fast, as if they are fleeing from something.

Second encounter / event is 3d6 coins. 11. I figure 4 coppers, 6 silvers and 1 gold along with a coin purse they spilled from.

Third is 3d4 giant rats. We get a 9. They are charging through the corridors in search of food or prey. The party will hear their chittering as they approach.

Fourth is 3d4 goblins. There are 7 of them. They are encountered in a tight formation, nearly a circle. If the party charges them, they will flee in the opposite direction as fast as their feet can take them. If the party holds it's ground, they will throw their spears while being ready to flee if approached. If the party flees, they will chase them, screaming war cries the whole time.

Fifth encounter is 1d2 ogres. We roll a 1. The ogre is surrounded by 3 orc corpses in addition to the one he is currently gnawing on the arm of. Around his waist hang 4 dead giant rats, apparently food for later. The ogre will leave the party alone if they leave him alone. Subtract 5 HP from his HP total for prior wounds.

Number six is writing on the wall. We decide it will make reference to the giant spiders roaming the corridors - "Beware the tangled web."

Now, i am not good enough to come up with these fleshed out encounters on the spot while interacting with my players. Simple truth. So may be able to pull such off, but its not me.

So, do you prepare your random encounters in advance?


  1. I certainly have rolled my random encounters in advance, though usually only those determined by the passing of time. Usually I prepare a timesheet for dungeon exploration with the turns and hours marked in the margin, jotting down party activities each turn to create a log and keep track of time. Rolling up and adding the wandering monsters to this sheet ahead of time saves my (limited) attention span for keeping track of what the players are up to!

  2. Nothing wrong with rolling in advance, not my thing though. I think an encounter table with 8 monsters is too low a variable. I prefer a customized list of 20 or 23 monsters with a few alts. If I roll a high or low number, I'll replace the listing with an extra. If I roll a middle roll (8-13) nothing changes. Thats the thing, sometimes you will run into something a bunch of times. Minor details I make up on the fly and keep track so I try not to repeat so it looks like a pattern or hint.

  3. I thought you didn't want the GM to have to come up with those explanations on the fly... ;-)

    But no. I roll random encounters as they happen. Mostly because I don't know how many, or when, I'll need. Pre-rolling works if that's all there is in the mix, but if I pre-roll 6 random encounters, and they only make sense if the 6th one happens, and the party leaves the dungeon after the 4th, then... oh well.

  4. I always roll at the table so I am surprised as well. I do admit that will reroll to omit repeats on a table, or sometimes just shift one up or down (the latter is common on treasure tables).

    In my view, random tables are there to challenge me as a GM creating the encounters as well as the players dealing with them. I'm pretty good at fleshing out encounters on the spot - a set of wandering orcs turns into a pair of families relocating across the dungeon and not looking for trouble, but posturing strength and aggression to prevent an attack on them. An adventurer becomes a thief who joins the party, fights with them, then takes what he judges to be his fair cut for helping out. But I developed that by learning to adapt on the spot. I shift and reroll on duplicates just to keep the encounters varied, never to make it easy on the players or on myself.

    It's my style, however, and I see nothing wrong with preparing ahead of time if that suits your strengths as a GM.

  5. I'm with Evan, one of the reasons I enjoy D&D so much (and games like it) is that even after all my prep, I honestly have no idea how things will turn out. I play to find out what happens as much as my players do. Will my villains survive? Will the players? I have no idea and that's just how I like it. But I agree with Evan, it's a personal choice and GMs who preroll are all right by me.

  6. I don't prep. I roll encounter dice and read 3s as evidence of activity if someone is tracking, 2s as obvious recent activity or tracks (what have you), and 1s as encounter events.

    Next, I grab my Koplow dice, now dubbed Quisitor dice, comprised of a Greater Than/Less Than die and a Likelihood die, roll them together and determine if something actually happens.

    After I know something happens, I roll two colour dice (red through violet) and use that to stimulate my imagination/understanding of the situation, taking terrain, time of day, season, etc. into account.

    If the Quisitors give me a high likelihood of an event, and the colour dice suggest it is hostile, I then roll critter dice (again, Koplow), to impromptu create a type of thing to be encountered, doing away with the _need_ for monster lists.

    Then to determine strength of encounter, I roll a d20 or something that makes sense for circumstances, then in the ten seconds or so this process took, I ask the players to roll perception or initiative, etc. to then describe the results.

  7. I roll random encounters as they happen -- usually from a table created for the specific dungeon level or area of the wilderness. I roll reaction and take it from there. Part of the fun of GMing for me is being surprised by the results of these rolls and winging it.

  8. I agree with those referees who roll as they go because they like to be surprised during the course of the adventure.

    I also prefer to roll as I go because it gives me a chance to customize the random encounter to fit whatever has been happening during the session.

  9. I tend to create pre-generated encounter results and like Derrick R. I log the party time/progress. I will adjust the order that the encounters happen if a certain creature/event would make more sense to the current location/activity.

  10. Since i game using Roll20, it's easier to have some stuff prepared. For my current module, i've rolled for encouter chance for several days (enc. ever 4 hrs) and see how many would pop. Then , i roll what is encountered. Then i weave those results in the story. Ex. B12 Queen's Harvest has a random encounter table when adventuring in the Black Peak Mountains. I rolled the first 2 days , then weaved the encounter with the Orcs while exploring the region and also foreshadowed the Wolves with cries while they where resting for the night. For now, i have not had the Wolves attack on sight, but track them and wait till they are occupied or separated as they are usually good hunters and don't attack head on.

    I rather like to weave in the random encounter than try to find a plausible explanation at the results while Dm'ing the session. If i've had a few days to mull it over in my head and see how the random encounter and the module specific encounters can mesh or at least have a more solid reason of being there, it's better for me, and i think it's better for the game.

  11. I used this technique when running T1 Hommlet and the Moathouse with the Earthdawn rules. I had 6-10 results pre-rolled and would check them off if that turn's RE roll was positive. It was very very handy to know what was coming up to really sell it. I knew what sort of stuff would happen, and laid down background for the surrounding area based on that. It made exploring the Moathouse very creepy. But where and when that stuff actually happened was up to where the PCs had gotten when the RE check came up positive. I think I'm extending the concept to Initiative and overland travel checks too. Earthdawn re-rolls Initiative each round for important characters, ow I'm going to pre-roll 6-10 rounds most of the time and only worry about modifiers. :)


Tenkar's Tavern is supported by various affiliate programs, including Amazon, RPGNow,
and Humble Bundle as well as Patreon. Your patronage is appreciated and helps keep the
lights on and the taps flowing. Your Humble Bartender, Tenkar

Blogs of Inspiration & Erudition