Random encounter tables are a great tool for wilderness play. Out of character, they allow you to procedurally generate content, potentially greatly reducing preparation time or helping you improvise in the midst of a session. In narrative, they can establish atmosphere and reinforce the themes and verisimilitude of your setting.
However, they can also bog down pacing and damage that verisimilitude just as easily. As such, you want to ensure that your random encounters are making your wilderness a more vibrant, interesting place to adventure in. Your random encounters should accomplish some of the following:
- Save you time
- Save you work
- Push characters toward interesting locations and vistas
- Characterize the people and creatures in a location
- Reflect how the location interacts with people
- Provide information in a naturalistic way
With that in mind, lets look at some examples.
If our encounter chart entry simply says “2d4 gnolls,” it tells you that the gnolls are invading the forest but doesn’t give you much on motivations. This appraoch accomplishes items 1, 2, 4, and 6 from above. There’s typically an assumption of violence in such entries since they don’t offer further explanation, such as explicitly noting when creatures are neutral or potentially friendly, but creating more elaborate entries is work and makes each encounter more rigid. You also don’t get much information on how anyone except for the gnolls interacts with the forest.
For a different approach, assume that rather than referencing only statblocks, our next chart has entries with blocks of text describing the creature, encounter, and motivations of everyone involved, accomplishing items 3, 4, 5, and 6. If you have to make the charts yourself, this would be pretty labor intensive. You’re definitely not accomplishing item 2, and you’re probably not accomplishing item 1, which is a problem since those are some of the most important items. If you’re spending comparable time designing your encounter charts as you would creating bespoke encounters, you’re losing a lot of the value in random encounters.
Now, neither of these approaches are incorrect. If you’re aware of their limitations, they’re still powerful tools that can save you a lot of work and spice up your game. But we can improve on them!
Some of this is simply in implementation. With either chart, you’re free to have any of the encounters happen in a way that pushes characters toward a cool part of the forest or that showcases the relationship that elves, unicorns, and invading gnolls have with the forest. There’s nothing stopping you from doing so. It’s just a bit of extra work after you roll:
- Curating Your Entries. Expanding sections in a barebones chart or reducing entries in full-description charts can go a long way toward making them more intuitive to use and more manageable in play.
- Adapting Rules Used Elsewhere. Charts detailing potential motivations for denizens in a dungeon, for instance, can be tailored toward certain creatures or types of creatures and can greatly improve the variety of the random encounters. With some modification, you can make a motivation chart part of your wilderness encounters and massively increase the variety and quality of encounters generated. You could include information on how creatures approach the characters, for instance, instead of what’s motivating them.
So now, let’s use the Red Range from the last article and put together a very basic chart, starting with the encounters.
The Red Range is known for griffons and druids and is on the border between two nations. So we’ll have one druid encounter, one griffon encounter, and one encounter with people moving over the border. We know that the griffons are particularly numerous, so we want more of them and will copy that griffon encounter to increase the chance of griffons trying to eat the players’ horses. We’ll put two location-based encounters in the chart to showcase the environment. We want one to showcase its beauty and another to point players at Griffon Peak. We’ll feature an impossible rock formation in one and Griffon Peak in the other, so the players always see something fantastical in a location-based encounter.
Now we’re onto motivations and approaches. An important thing to remember here is that a motivation needs to work for any creature in the chart unless the encounter says otherwise. They need to be broad enough to work for animals and monsters as well as people and then interpreted for the case in hand. (None needed for the location-based encounters.)
We want the area to be bare and hostile, which means that food is in short supply. As such, we’ll put food on twice, add shelter and seeking help to drive in the relative hostility, and then add some creatures that are moving through the area. One of these encounters will be creatures on their way out, and the other will point back toward our big set piece at Griffon Peak. For approaches, we’ve gone for aggressive, communicative, and wary, emphasizing aggressive and wary. This is broad enough to work for griffons but doesn’t necessarily mean a fight if you don’t want it. An injured, aggressive griffon may need to be calmed down to be helped. A wary, traveling caravan might suspect the characters are bandits.
With that done, we have a chart! It’s basic and barebones but should serve its purpose well if the campaign ever reaches the Red Range.
|1||1 earth elemental, 1d2 druids||Food (hungry)||Aggressive|
|2||1d4+2 griffons||Food (starving)||Aggressive|
|4||Caravan with 2d4 guards, 1 priest, and 1d4−1 veterans guarding 10 commoners||Traveling (leaving area)||Communicative|
|5||An impossible granite spiral reaches skyward, providing an excellent view of the area. If climbed with a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check, it provides advantage on Wisdom (Survival) checks to navigate the mountains for the next day.||Traveling (Griffon Peak)||Wary|
|6||A large cave houses a magical nexus. Anyone who sleeps within has a prophetic dream featuring Griffon Peak.||Needs help (injured)||Wary|