Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Towards More Interesting Random Encounters

Encounter tables are a fantastic way to define an RPG setting; they're experiential instead of narrative, and serve useful campaign defining purposes both in their creation and use.  They're extremely economical in terms of presenting useful setting information in a compact space.  But they're not without problems.  The traditional wandering monster table requires the DM to improvise an entire encounter right on the spot and there's not much with which to work.  As Brendan pointed out in a previous comment, a result of 8 orcs, range 70', reaction roll: 9, is fairly bland as a starting point.

What can we do to make those encounters more interesting?

My first thought was to have a simple "monster motivational chart".  Imagine you're a simple Ogre named Pigswallow, just trying to make your way in the world.  What motivates Pigswallow to abandon the comforts of lair and den, joining the ranks of wandering monsters everywhere in search of better things, and risking a dangerous encounter with adventurers?

Monster Motivations (roll 2d6)
2 Seeking spiritual or intellectual fulfillment
3 Searching for mates
4 On guard patrol
5 Seeking a shelter
6 Looking for water
7 Looking for food
8 Looking for warmth, comfort
9 Looking for treasure
10 Looking for lost companions
11 Out to prove their worth
12 On a quest for knowledge

It's pretty basic, but you can see that rolling a motivation for Pigswallow (and interpreting through monster psychology) could help with the encounter embellishment.  I rolled a friendly reaction (12) and motivation food (7), and suddenly Pigswallow is magnanimous, since clearly the player characters have brought their rations as offerings to avoid his lordly wrath; a similar roll of 9,9 leads to a somewhat friendly Pigswallow, as long as the characters are willing to pay him to go away, and so forth.  I'm not sure what "spiritual fulfillment" looks like for an Ogre, but it would be fun to improvise.  The table is only there to help with intelligent encounters, although maybe something similar could be built for animal behaviors.

The second problem involves what is the party doing.  There's this false assumption that just because the player's announced a marching order, they spend their entire time in the dungeon in perfect formation, with perfect spacing, never deviating from rank and file, ever ready for anything.  No one ever relieves him or herself, there's no breaks for water, no one drops a piece of equipment, and the lights never go out.  You have carte blanche to roll on a table like the one below any time there's an encounter to see what's really going on with the party at the moment the encounter is detected.  (I posted  a larger version of this table, for wilderness encounters, here:  Too Busy Looking at the Map to Notice the Monster).

What is the Party Doing? (roll 2d6)
2 Changing over a light source
3 Drinking water
4 Mapping
5 Listening
6 Scouting ahead
7 Exploring and alert
8 Talking and walking
9 Walking too close together
10 Someone just tripped and made a loud noise
11 Equipment problem
12 Taking a break

Of course, I think the ideal situation to the wandering monsters is to come up with a few pre-planned encounters for each entry, in advance.  For the Black City, where many of the encounters in the early game were competing explorers, I have 10-12 encounters pre-made to cover bandits, veterans, traders, NPC parties, etc.  It was a fair amount of time invested, but really paid off in play.  Another approach for monsters, particularly ones that wouldn't have motivations represented by the monster table above, would be to come up with a few specific dispositions so each encounter is a little different.

For instance, gjengangers (Norse zombies) are pretty common in the Black City; here's a sample table I could see myself using to determine what the gjengangers are doing whenever their number comes up on the wandering monster table:

Gjenganger activity (roll d6)
1  Shambling toward the player characters. Brains!
2  Lying still like dead bodies on the floor
3  Crawlers, pulling themselves forward by their arms
4  Milling around senselessly until aroused
5  Busy messily eating something else
6  Lurking in a niche or around the nearest corner to lunge out

I'm sure someone out there has done a bang-up job of creating ultimate wandering monster encounter tables, but it's so easy to lose track of the tribal knowledge out there in the wilds - between the blogs, message boards, zines, and other publications.  I'd love to hear about some of your favorite expressions of good encounter tables that you've seen in use.  I'll think about it as well and reply in the comments.


  1. I like the idea, but as you point out, you end up needing a chart per monster. I'd rather just ask the question "What are the monsters doing?" and improvise the answer.

    Usually the way I do this is to look at my map. Why are these monsters here? What could they be up to? But this usually only works for intelligent encounters.

    Your zombie example is great. When I ran my zombie game, all the random zombie encounters, were like "you see a group of zombies shambling, running etc."(http://billygoes.blogspot.co.il/search/label/Polish%20Resistance)

    So maybe I'll use this for specific types of monsters(like zombies) where my creativity fails me.

    1. I feel much the same way. To be honest we've got charts coming out of our ears. The map approach does make sense in that many of us have a physical map as standard, and the GM has a more complex multi-dimensional map of the world in his or her mind too.

      One simple approach to improvisation is to make the encounter roll on a sheet of paper and interpret the result. Just the same encounter roll, not an extra one yet.

      If a die lands close to the centre, the encounter is on a home or at least claimed territory. The halo region around the centre suggests a patrol or an invasion, based on the map and who's territory it might actually be. Landing near a long edge suggests a trek, near a short edge a search. A corner indicates isolation. The upper half suggests higher reasons like doing penance or self-discovery, the lower baser reasons like scheming or simply natural functions. Even if you're not rolling more than one die, you can combine them.

      For example, a die falling on a longer edge, but slightly closer to a lower corner could suggest the group encountered is roving far away from home for a new food source. Maybe they're hungry, preoccupied, grumpy, demoralised. If they're wild, they might crave the party, if civilised resort to wiles or beg for help, all of which can help in interpreting the reaction roll. It also sets up a cascade of branching possibilities, maybe right across the region.

      As for what the characters are doing, you can just roll one die for spacing using the pips as a guide and one die for pace on the current section - a low roll means they're halted, resting, listening or cautious, a mid roll a medium pace, general investigation, chatting and a high roll an energetic pace, debate, snapping twigs, kicking rocks etc. Before you roll let the players say what they're doing in general terms then just set a modifier and/or ignore a neutralised factor.

      Still, if there's time, making up a colourful list can't hurt. Just carry a notebook and jot things down in quiet moments during the day.

    2. @Porky - this is way too cool! Combine the halo size with the hd and a die for awareness (something like d20 + hd (modified by group behaviour) over 10/15/20/etc., depending on environment = Monster notices group is around, the higher the result, the better prepared/closer it is) and you have a simple resolution system for encounters! Would be a second roll this way, but anyway, love this approach...

      As for what the group is doing, I just try to not think about it as an immediate encounter. I start by describing the landscape, ask the players what they are doing (ideally giving them something to talk about) and ease them into the Encounter.

    3. Okay, I tried to give Porky's idea some form:


  2. Both table ideas are very cool. The second one is very compatible with my approach to surprise - I really don't like just "rolled a 1, you are surprised" and prefer to figure out surprise situations from what players/creatures are actually doing.

  3. "There's this false assumption that just because the player's announced a marching order, they spend their entire time in the dungeon in perfect formation, with perfect spacing, never deviating from rank and file, ever ready for anything. No one ever relieves him or herself, there's no breaks for water, no one drops a piece of equipment, and the lights never go out."

    You lost me here. To me, the marching order is present as a simple method to avoid disagreements. Who fell into the pit? Who was attacked from behind? Where is the light source?

    So while it sucks for the fighter in front to fall into the bottomless pit, there is no real argument that she was the one who "discovered" it. Thankfully the players can still see, because the torch was held by the guy in middle.

    I agree that the players don't spend every minute in that marching order. Searching a room breaks formation, for example. But, breaks for water, equipment checks, bathroom breaks and so forth can all be constrained to a moment in time.

    In Labyrinth Lord, you have to rest every 5 turns. That's 10 minutes for water, checks and taking a piss.

    I do not believe I have met a player who would argue they were pissing in marching order (Although having written that down, the image is kind of amusing). ;]

    As for lights, they do go out. Again, in Labyrinth Lord a torch lasts 6 turns, a lantern 24 turns and so on. I would think that other systems suited for dungeon crawls would have a similar set of guidelines (I'm not familar with LofFP or ACKs. Maybe these systems don't cover light?).

    In short, the table for "What is the Party Doing?" seems wrong. Thankfully that's one question the DM never has to worry about answering. After all, no matter the system, what DM is not accustomed to asking, "What are you guys doing?"

    Along the lines of Billy Billerson's thoughts, just take that a step further for monsters. Using the information available to you and a bit of improvisation, just ask yourself, "What are the monsters doing?"

    1. I believe this is a much greater issue during wilderness travel.

      As anyone who has traveled miles in the wilderness can tell you, marching order is only maintained in the rarest of circumstances.

    2. That's a good point - my context is the Black City, which involves a sprawling dungeon where there are literally miles of tunnels on the first level, and there are frequently long lapses of time going from place to place (akin to hex crawling). It's a chart to employ during travel and walking.

      When encounters happen during tactical play (like when the party is searching an area, and has provided explicit, detailed descriptions on each character's disposition) this kind of thing becomes unnecessary.

  4. Yeah, for the relative party positions, I'd simply role a d6. On a 1, demand a "drop roll" of one die / party member. Position of dice give relative position of party members (their choice). On a roll of 2 - 6, marching order is used.

    The charts for wandering monsters is a more complex problem. Without providing "motivations" for every class of monster out there, I think that the bear-bones approach with improvisation is the way to go. Heck, if the DM is stumped, then use the improv trick of asking the players for three words, and incorporate those into your encounter (e.g., Mad Lib style).

  5. Good stuff, Beedo. Very useable.

  6. I'm a big fan of not making every random encounter a straight fight. I love your motivation and activity lists here. Even if you don't use it as a table, just a creativity jog by having it handy is good.

    I really like the idea of the "what are the PC's doing when it happens" table. That's something I've never thought of before.

  7. Here's my take on a solution:


    and this was left in a comment:


    I always feel weird posting links to my own stuff in a comment, feels like I'm trying to steal the spotlight or something, but it's true there have been so many blog posts that things get forgotten or missed.