When did random encounters become unplanned battles?

In Always Tell me the Odds: Redesigning Random Encounters, The Angry GM highlights something which has struck me since returning to the D&D scene after a break of 25 years.

Back when I started, wandering monsters were random encounters which might or might not lead to a fight. The Basic Dungeon Master’s Rulebook contained reaction table for encounters with only a 1 in 36 chance that they would immediately leap into battle, based on a roll of 2d6.

  • 2 Immediate attack
  • 3-5 Possible attack, roll again*
    • 2-8 Attack
    • 9-12 Uncertain, roll again*
      • 2-5 Attack
      • 6-8 Leave
      • 9-12 Friendly
  • 6-8 Uncertain, roll again*
    • 2-5 Attack
    • 6-8 Negotiate, roll again*
      • 2-5 Attack
      • 6-8 Leave
      • 9-12 Friendly
    • 9-12 Friendly
  • 9-11 Possibly friendly, roll again*
    • 2-5 Uncertain, roll again*
      • 2-5 Attack
      • 6-8 Leave
      • 9-12 Friendly
    • 6-12 Friendly
  • 12 – friendly

* Wait 1 or more rounds, and consider character actions, the speaker’s Charisma, and the overall situation before rolling again

This meant that in most cases, how the monsters reacted depended on how the characters interacted with them, and the characters could avoid a potentially costly fight by playing it cool – they might even be able to get information, trade or gain some other benefit.

Fast forward to today, and there seems to be much more of an assumption that monsters attack. There are no longer the reaction rolls to guide how the monsters respond, and characters don’t dare run away for fear of triggering a free opportunity attack against them. This leads to much more trigger-happy play and to fighting to the death.

And random encounters spoil the GM’s carefully balanced encounter budget, and might be too easy or too tough for the characters. So there is a tendency, as The Angry GM says, to just drop the random encounters.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Random encounters can add to the feel and excitement of the adventure.

As a start, if the GM is regularly rolling for random encounters, it ratchets up the tension, and stops the players exhaustively checking for traps and secret doors if it’s clear that the longer they spend in an area the greater the chance of an encounter. I love The Angry GM’s Time Pool idea for making the relationship between the players’ actions and the random encounters visible.

But further than that, random encounters add flavour to the setting and can make for interesting, fun (or at least memorable) interludes. They also make the setting feel alive – the monsters aren’t just waiting in their rooms to be slaughtered and plundered…

In part 2 of his post, The Angry GM suggests random encounters should introduce complications and ramp up the tension in the story. (He also appears to have gone into space, but that’s less relevant to this post.) There are other ways they can also be extremely useful.

What do I mean? Well, let me answer that with an example.

We’re playing through X2 Castle Amber at the moment.

I have to confess I rather under-estimated the module. I noticed the “level 3-6” and missed the “total party level 26-34,” so with half a dozen level 3 characters they’ve been rather outclassed. This means I’ve had rather too much tension just from the planned encounters…

Given that, I’ve needed a contrast and some light relief rather than a way to ratchet up the tension even more.

Rather than just rolling randomly on the 20-entry table of creatures, I’ve been treating the Wandering Monster Encounter Table more as a menu for ideas, and weaving a story around each one I pick. The players don’t know what the options are, or even what’s in the module, so they don’t know whether these are planned or random encounters, and don’t care as long as the adventure has its flow, its peaks and troughs.

So far the party have encountered:

  • Isabelle d’Ambreville, a mad female French wizard who watches them from a distance and cackles with laughter at all their mishaps
  • 2 living statues collecting bedding; they were going to ignore the party, but the party attacked, got pushed into a spider’s nest and came off hurt when the statues defended themselves – completely unnecessary damage (Isabelle loved that!)
  • A centaur who was very useful in pushing the story forwards. The players were feeling lost and didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing, so the centaur was able to give them some hints as to the way forward

The only fight was unnecessary and completely due to the characters’ actions, the cackling adds to the mad house feeling (and they’re now constantly afraid she’s going to pop up again, and they groan when she does), and the centaur encounter was definitely valuable. All three were scripted into the module just as bald random encounters (3, Isabelle Amber, 1, [stat block], [spell list]“, “5: Living Statue – Iron, 1-4, [stat block]“, “2, Centaur, 1-6, [stat block]“), but with the way I used them, all of them became more and added to the adventure.

I introduced Isabelle to play up the background craziness…and she has now become a running gag which the players keep talking about (and worrying where she is going to turn up next).

I picked the living statues as an encounter in which I (as GM) was deliberately not going to trigger anything, and see how the players reacted…badly as it turned out (to their own detriment).

I’ve also needed a way to drop some hints as to where the party are supposed to be going, and haven’t had enough options within the standard encounters of people for them to talk to. So the centaur seemed a great opportunity to introduce someone who the party could interact with and get some pointers from.

In other words, rather than using these as pure random enounters where what happens is solely down to the dice, and where an unlucky roll could leave the party seriously hampered in their quest or possibly even dead (I refer you back to the under-strength party), I’ve been using them as inspiration and variety and a way to paint the scene and drive the story forwards. The beauty of this (as The Angry GM points out) is that you don’t even need very many encounters in your pocket, as long as you have a few interesting ones.

So next time you are thinking of ditching the wandering monsters, try thinking about how to weave and plan them into the story instead. You may not know when you’ll introduce them, but you know random encounters will come and now you know they will add to the story.

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