Once upon a time, random encounters were standard fare in roleplaying games. Somewhere along the way, they fell out of fashion. Players, DMs, and game designers decided that random encounters embodied the worst of lazy DMing. They were indiscriminate party killers. Most of all, they were dumped because they were irrelevant to the ongoing story.
From my perspective, random encounters should be kept around because they’re irrelevant to the ongoing story.
Drama builds up from incidents both big and small. If every incident in a story is big, then there are no highs and lows; the dramatic pacing is flat.
Beyond that, limiting events to the ongoing story robs players of the chance to assess the world and decide for themselves what is and isn’t important. The story is spoon-fed to them, and their part is only to chew and swallow. Players pick up on that quickly; they’re not stupid.
Before diving into the wider range of reasons for including random events in a campaign, I want to draw attention to the distinction between random encounters and wandering monsters. Wandering monsters are just that: monsters that wander into the characters’ vicinity or vice versa. Random encounters can be anything. They can be quick and simple or they can be just as detailed and engaging as scripted story encounters. All wandering monsters are random encounters, but random encounters are much more than wandering monsters.
Random encounters provide pickup XP. Sometimes you want characters to be at level X before they move on to the next big adventure, but for one reason or another they’re still at level X–1 at the end of the last outing. You could just drop the missing XP into their laps and move on, but no one likes being a charity case. Instead, let the characters earn that XP by handling a few random encounters before the next stage of the campaign kicks off or while they’re on the road to the next mission.
Random encounters shield the DM against feelings of bias and cruelty. Regardless of whether an encounter comes from a random encounter list or from the DM’s script, it all originates from the DM. But if every monster strikes by DM intent, then players can feel picked on when things go badly. They know that the DM intended to inflict a deadly, scripted encounter on them no matter what. Random encounters slip an element of fate between the characters and the potential badness. This is doubly true when random encounters cover a wide range of danger and reward. The tumbling dice might steer characters toward a few drunken bandits loaded with loot, or put them in the path of a rampaging hill giant driven mad by a permanent haste spell. In either case, it’s the dice at work, not the DM. This gets even better if the DM calls on players to roll the dice for random encounters. Then whatever happens is their fault.
Random encounters discourage loitering. This axiom applies to wandering monsters more specifically than to random encounters overall. Everything takes time: pausing to bind wounds; searching for doors, traps, and treasure; negotiating with enemies or interrogating captives; studying a map. In enemy territory, time is danger. Every minute that passes is another minute when the enemy might find you. In most situations, characters take the fight to the enemy. Players grow accustomed to the idea that if they sit tight and don’t open any more doors, then they’re safe. That should be a dangerous assumption. Monsters move around unpredictably, sometimes for no apparent reason. The best and fairest way to determine whether enemies blunder into the characters is through random chance.
Random encounters burn party resources. Actually, this is something of a canard. Random encounters usually don’t occur often enough to be a significant drain on daily resources. It all depends on how they’re set up. See Wednesday’s Howling Tower blog for more about how to use random encounters in this fashion.
Random encounters keep things interesting for the DM. Sometimes it’s good for the DM to surprise himself or herself. Part of why players enjoy RPGs is because they can never be sure what will happen next. Random encounters spread some of that tasty jam on the DM, too. Sure, the DM created the random encounters list and knows everything on it, but that doesn’t mean he or she can’t be pleasantly surprised by its ability to throw changeups.
Random encounters foster improvisation. Players and DMs oxidize a lot of mental energy thinking about what’s coming next. A random encounter jumps up before the next planned-for thing arrives, forcing everyone to think on their feet while dealing with right here, right now. Surprising situations can spur surprisingly creative solutions.
Random encounters make the world seem real. This brings us full circle, back to the most important reason for random encounters. A story can be spun by leapfrogging from one adrenaline-charged engagement to another, but when it’s done, all you have is a plot with no setting. The world of an RPG campaign should be larger than the story track that the characters are on. If the players never glimpse what’s beyond that story track, then they get no sense of the larger world. It’s like riding the train cross-country with the window shades pulled down. Characters can wind up shaping or even saving a world that they know or care little about and therefore have no particular reason to save beyond “it’s something to do.”
The same benefit applies to DMs. Building random encounter lists makes you think about the inhabitants, creatures, dangers, and rewards of the setting more deeply than planning story events alone. Random encounters show that there’s more to the world than today’s mission, and that makes it a more vibrant place for everyone.
For advice and thoughts on how to get the most from random encounters, see this week’s run at www.howlingtower.com.
About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!