Thursday, February 25, 2010

Well, Would You Look at That! The Fine Art of the Random Encounter.


Okay, looks like this week has turned into advice week here at the Gamewerks. Today, I'm going to discuss yet another tool that every GM should have in their toolbox, the random encounter table. Gamemasters, has this happened to you? Your players have to travel from point A to point B, where A and B could be different sides of town or different continents, and you think to yourself, "You know, something should happen here to spice things up and keep these guys on their toes but I don't have anything prepared!" Don't you fret, 'cause I've got the answer to all your problems...

Either much caressed or much maligned depending on who you talk to, the random encounter table is one of the staples of the gamemaster's tool kit. Typically they consist of a bunch of one or two line story hooks like "City Guard Investigating a Crime" or "Sea Monster" arranged to that a simple roll, usually a 2d10/d100 roll, allows a gamemaster to gin up a quick encounter for his players with a simple roll of the dice and some creative thinking. These encounters could be good or bad for the players, an arduous task or a surprise windfall, something that's over in an instant or even something that could have far reaching consequences for the players and the setting. Random encounter tables can be found for just about every game ever made out there on the internets, whether from official sources like WotC's Dungeons and Dragons portal or from obsessive and hardworking fans like the guys at Dark Reign, if you look hard enough there's a wealth of great tables out there.

Like all good things however, these tables should be used in moderation. Gamemasters should beware of using them too often, or leaning on them as a replacement for plot or story arc. Honestly, how many times can a character get his purse stolen or be mistaken for someone else? Surely not every time they leave the safehouse/inn/pub/etc. Use them sparingly, and make sure that they make sense in relation to your game. A group of knights errant escorting a bunch of priests aren't going to come across a passel of marauding aliens burning down hamlets with their death-rays and stealing their cattle and women. Well, probably not in any case. To give you an example of how a simple random encounter can be used to great effect in a campaign, let me tell you a story about Graenath of Malthane.

In our Harn game, a lethal cross between the Sopranos and HBO's Rome run by ace GM Munin, we essentially play a bunch of made men in an autonomous crew that's part of a bigger crime family. Graenath, a young apprentice thief and hedge mage run by HugeC, regularly has to leave the big city of Coranan where we live and wander into the wilderness to commune with nature or hug trees and eat bark or whatever the hell it is that he gets up to out there. Anyway, off he went one session to get his nature on and Munin made a roll on his fabulous random encounter table from the old Harnview book to see if the young man ran into any excitement out on the road. His result, hilariously enough, was "Slavers traveling on the road".

Munin says to HugeC, "You hear the sound of horses walking down the road behind you. You turn and see two men on horseback riding down the road in the direction you're going." Now, let me put this into perspective for you before we get to the punchline. HugeC had no idea they were anything but a couple of travelers. Even if he'd known they were slavers, that's no big deal because slavery in Harn is much the same as it was in ancient Rome. It's not like these guys can just knock anyone on the head and sell them into slavery, that's illegal. All he needed to do was let them overtake him and pass or step aside, wish them a good day, maybe exchange some pleasantries about the weather and road conditions, and that's it. So what does he do? "I run into the field next to the road and try to hide in a haystack!" Blank looks all around. "Seriously?" asks Munin? "Oh, yeah. I don't know who these guys are!"

So, off he goes into the field like a hare and the slavers immediately think, "Hah! Runaway serf!" and give chase. Of course they catch him, and he's unable to convince him that he's not actually a runaway serf, and so off he's sold into a life of slavery. This encounter, which should have been nothing, turned into a long and ugly and violent string of events which eventually led us, over the course of probably a year and a half of convoluted sessions, to overthrowing our crime boss, taking his job and waging a city-wide gang war with rival criminal factions. It changed our fortunes and changed the face of the game and setting forever. All from one small roll of the dice. That's how you use the random encounter table right there, a simple, spur of the moment choice with an outcome that could mean nothing, or could mean everything in the world.


-Mark said...

I have noticed a sharp decline in the popularity of random encounters. In the case of 3.5 and 4e, I think it stems from the length and complexity of combat... when a random encounter means rolling a few dice and taking 20 minutes to intimidate (or beat down) some thugs, no one minds. When a "brief" fight means an hour and a half of tactical movement and shouting out power names, folks tend to want to avoid them.

Jason Marker said...

That's a failing of the system and/or the game master right there. No fault of the poor random encounter table.

A. Ringia said...

I think its a system fault. I remember gaming turns taking hours in Battletech, and Carwars. White wolf's system wasn't that great either.

I like the idea of having a little canned idea, rather than just a monster (like AD&D of old).

Damn, did the kobolds steal my dinner again...