Random Encounters: An Old Trope That Needed To Be Removed

The random encounter has garnered much discussion over the years. It has been labeled as a trope from the D&D era that many have scoffed at. All of us can remember a time when the GM rolled the dice while the party slept. A few seconds pass and some wolf or goblin wanders into the camp. The party would be forced to dispatch the beastie before going back to sleep. It was a time of tables then and D&D had no shortage of them.

The definition of a random encounter is, an encounter that is not planned during the adventure. The GM rolls the dice and consults a table or just opens a monster book to a level appropriate page. The random encounter was seen as a bump, diversion or action filler for the adventure. Most players that I was acquainted with saw them as filler with no relevance to the story. This was one of the game mechanics that went out the window with encumbrance (another story) in our youth.

The adventure needs story driven NPC’s and monsters. The planned encounter is most certainly the best way to help the story. This is true regardless of the type of adventure being run, whether it is a sandbox, railroad or something in between. As GM I have created encounters before and placed them at appropriate times during the adventure. The appropriate time is when the GM feels that the story dictates their use. I have used them when the players have become complacent or arrogant. These reasons are dictated by the players not the characters. I add the encounter when it suits the story best or maybe to get the players going in a specific direction. With this planned encounter I have more control over the GM side of the story.

With encounters it is best to plan out the NPC. It does not have to be time consuming. The NPC just has to have the minimum stats and background to interact on a basic level. If the GM has this ready to go there is no lapse in game time and the story telling is seamless. This is certainly something that the players should thank you for.

10 thoughts on “Random Encounters: An Old Trope That Needed To Be Removed

    • Should it not be okay to plan out the NPC’s and place them within the adventure? Would NPC’s that fit into a story be advantageous? I have seen where many things can go wrong with planned encounters. After all the players are the ones dictating the story.

  1. While I agree mostly, you shouldn’t forget that D&D is a game, and its main purpose is to generate fun. A little random chaos such as random encounters goes a long way toward that. Its not as if modern RPGers are unfamiliar with the concept, since most of them probably transitioned from computer RPGs, where random encounters rule, to tabletops.

    Some of the funnest times playing the game that I can remember came from random encounters. Wile it is true many of them had little to do with the story, its also true that the PCs also didn’t have to feel restrained by the story in dealing with them. Its all in how you approach them. Real life is full of the unexpected, so why shouldn’t the game reflect that a loittle on both sides of the DM’s screen?

    What a DM should do is compromise between the two options; he should create a random encounters that are geared for the particular setting and story that he’s running. This way, each encounter can have at least something tangential to do with the story, without having “zOMG PLOTPOINT!” written all over it.

    • I agree with you. The table top experience should be about fun and if you are having fun you are doing it right. The GM should compromise between both options. I have over time found it interesting to see what all of us consider to be random. I received some comments that I railroad the players. I have not run that type of adventure in years. There are so many ways to play this game and that is one of its redeeming qualities.

  2. I actually just roll to see if there is an encounter which is heavily modified based on how stealthy the party is being, and I pick what is relevant to the situation rather than the area. You’re not going to run into a manticore wandering about a bandit camp. If you do, well better hide and let it do the work for you.

  3. What you say is spot on for a more story driven GURPS type game. When I do that stuff, I sling encounters and situations at the players, then make up stuff when they try things I didn’t anticipate… then as things develop, I ask myself… how would a movie plot tie these various loose ends together? Then I’ll maybe even fast forward to a scene that moves the story along while building own and developing all the themes that I’d introduced. In that kind of a game, wandering-monsters-as-filler are going to be totally inconsistent with the developing narrative and would necessarily be a distraction from the real point of the session.

    But in an old school D&D game, the players adopt a pattern of raiding dungeon areas and then retreating back to “recharge” spells and recover hit points. The wandering monsters serve two purposes: they waste a parties resources if they slow down to search every single 10’x10′ square for secret doors. Secondly, they are extremely dramatic when they show up when the party is hurt and out of spells and so forth. In order to be fair, I try to have a very consistent method for handling wandering monsters so that when some random creature (with NO treasure on him) kills most of the party while they’re trying to get the Big Treasure back to base, it doesn’t look like I was arbitrarily slapping them with a punitive encounter.

    Old school D&D does not have a story that’s imposed by the GM– the players make their plans and go and do as they please and the story develops as it will from that. It’s honestly a sort of cooperative wargame, really, and not a role playing game in how we tend to think of it nowadays. Having easy wandering monsters and also monsters that are just too dang hard to deal with are also a part of the game– the players need to learn quick when to run and when to fight and not trust that every encounter will be perfectly balanced to them. Perfect balance makes good sense in a board game or miniatures battle, but old school D&D is an entirely different thing in spite of its superficial resemblences to those other types of games.

    • I received a good deal of grief on Reddit for this topic. Most people thought that I was a crap GM who railroaded his players.

      I thought the post was explained well enough to spark a debate but most of the replies were harsh. I would guess that most of the replies by players and GM’s who played D&D or the like. You are spot on with the D&D description and uses of encounters.

  4. I will typically have a handful of encounters ready that I’m thinking about, that would be appropriate for where the characters are or elements I haven’t had a chance to bring in through other means. If things are getting slow, I’ll fit one of these encounters in. It’s a side thing, sure, but it’s also not just a random monster – it’s something happening that doesn’t necessarily relate to what the PCs are doing right now, but part of other things going on “off-screen”. Maybe it’ll be a local element that hasn’t come up, or something that relates to a past adventure or something I’m planning for the future, and can foreshadow with stuff that will make sense later. As long as you have encounter ideas percolating as you plan for a session, you can have a few ideas that can be expanded where necessary.

    • I like the comment about relating to what the PC’s are doing. I can see how it seems random to the players because it does not relate to their current situation. I had never thought that the random encounter in an earlier session can be explained later in a later one. Thank you for that insight. To me that puts a new spin on the “random” encounter.

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