If you’ve read even a few posts here on the RPGuide, you know that Erica and I are story-first gamers. Regardless of the system, we generally prefer the title Storyteller to Dungeon or Game Master. So it’s probably not a surprise if I say we don’t use the term “random” very much when we’re talking about our games and our style of running.
I never thought I would say this… But I’ve found that there is a time and a place for random encounters!
Time & place
So when is that time and what is the place? For me, the answer to both has generally proved to be travel. If you’re playing an urban fantasy game, then characters are crossing the city on the subway or driving through town, then you probably don’t want a random encounter at a stoplight, and most random encounters on the subway are too scary. But for spaceships crossing galaxies and fantasy fellowships hiking across half of the known world, there’s more time spent traveling and if nothing happens along the way… Role-playing games should avoid long stretches of “nothing happens.”
A random table doesn’t have to mean tropes like being attacked by bandits. (Though Matt Mercer played that one beautifully in Campaign 2 of Critical Roll.) A random event can be a change in weather — which also helps make the world feel real; few things make an RPG feel more like a video game than a sky that’s always sunny.
The event can affect travel, like a storm slowing the party down or even forcing them to take shelter — perhaps calling for a crisis or skill challenge — or make it easier. But a change in weather or environment can also just be narrative.
If a party treks from a forest up into the mountains, give that some narration; it helps the feeling that the characters have actually traveled from one place to another. The same works of a party treks from one star to another — pun intended. Every star system is different, so when the starship arrives, take a minute to describe the sun. What color is it? What about the planets? How many are there and are there any particularly interesting? Is there a glowing nebula out there in the star-studded darkness? And then narrating the landing onto the destination planet itself feels more grounded, more like there’s been a real journey. Even narrating a small change in scenery helps transition players from one location to another.
Random encounters can also be with NPCs. Think about it for a second — how many times has your party traveled from point A to point B and met no one on the road? Is there really not a single other traveler? No one but the PCs have a reason to be somewhere else? There can be merchants bringing their wares from one town to another, local farmers bringing their crops to the city for market, mercenaries marching to a far-away war, a young couple eloping, religious missionaries or pilgrims seeking converts or a remote shrine, and so on.
Want to tell a little story about your world? A random encounter with one of these people can be a wonderful way to not just fill travel time, but to fill in the world. A far off war? Who’s fighting and over what? Are the farmers heading to market grumbling about a bad crop? Is the traveling merchant on the up and up, or will they invite the characters to share their camp and try to swindle them? Are the eloping couple what they seem, or is that just a cover for something more nefarious? Are the pilgrims seeking the shrine to pray for intervention against some terrible danger?
And yes, random encounters can always be an enemy that makes the characters’ day more complicated.
Making random encounters less random
When you’re making or using a random table, why not stack it with encounters that support your story? Instead of just a list of monsters that live in the area, make the events work for you. Let’s say that in the current story arc, two nations have started a war, but there’s something going on behind the scenes. What might that random encounter table look like?
Roll a D10
- The characters come across a group of refugees fleeing from the war. They have all their worldly possessions on their backs, but they can share news of the war and which side is currently winning.
- The characters encounter a group of wounded civilians. They’ve been beaten and robbed by soldiers of one of the armies, or were caught in a battle.
- The characters spot a burning windmill on the hill ahead. No one seems to be in the area to put out the flame.
- The skies open up and begin to rain, slowing the characters’ travel speed.
- The characters come to a river or large stream swollen by rains. The bridge has been destroyed in the fighting.
- The temperature drops and it becomes too cold to sleep outside. The characters can reach an inn at the crossroads before dark. However, it’s packed with soldiers.
- The characters share the road with a column of soldiers heading toward or away from a battle. Victorious soldiers might share news in high spirits, while defeated soldiers may seek a more winnable fight against the small party.
- The characters come upon a battlefield. Thousands of dead litter the valley. There may be things worth scavenging — but if the characters are caught, the penalty for looting is death.
- The characters crest a rise to find a battle raging below!
- The weather is pleasant and the road is smooth.
In just that short list, we have a series of events that build up a feel for war that is affecting the area. Even if the characters aren’t involved in the war themselves, everyone in the land is affected by it. Do the characters give some money to the refugees? Help heal the wounded civilians? Stop to put out the burning mill? Is the mill actually empty, or was it set ablaze as a trap? Is there a farmer trapped in the burning mill? You can spin a whole scene from just a single dice roll.
Some of the random events affect travel, some might mean combat, but all of them — except maybe the weather — helps tell a story about what’s happening. If the PCs aren’t involved in the war, then by the time they reach their destination, they might change their mind about that.
Whatever is going on in your story, you can make a table full of events that support it.
Something to talk about
Random encounters don’t just give Storytellers a chance to build the world and campaign narrative. A random encounter can also give the player characters something to talk about. Even something like a bridge being out requires them to figure out a way across. Can they swim across the river? Can they repair the bridge? Something else clever? That’s good for at least five minutes of problem-solving.
And the other sorts of encounters can provide a lot more fuel for role-playing. What if the characters start talking about the war, but two of the PCs are supportive of different sides of the fighting? What if they’re from the two embattled nations? Will it threaten to tear the party in half, or bring the characters to blows? Even if there’s no intra-party conflict, the PCs might discuss the horrors of war, their own memories of battles past, grapple with a feeling of responsibility, and so on.
Some players, like Erica, are dazzlingly proactive and can generate role-playing scenes at an astonishing rate. But that’s a particular skill and it’s not one that everyone has. So “random” events can give the characters something to talk about and drive wonderful scenes.
Scaling random encounters
One of the problems with random encounters is that while a pack of wolves or a group of bandits might be a fun challenge early in your game, characters grow in power. Common bandits tend not to become world-striding powerhouses. Random encounters often fall off because they begin feeling a little weak.
There’s usually a reason to scale things up, though. In our example of traveling through a land at war, what if a battle roused a slumbering monster? Something bigger than a pack of wolves. Maybe violent spirits are attracted to a battlefield and while the characters are scavenging, these ghost come after warmer prey. How about a full squad of elite warriors who think the party is an enemy unit? A runaway siege-machine might be cool and scary. There’s plenty of ways to haul out something bigger and nastier to run into.
But there are always those other non-combat encounters. Running into a family dropping their possessions so they can carry children who can’t walk anymore? It doesn’t matter how powerful the PCs are. That hits everyone the same, and your players will likely beg to help.
If you want random tables, I’ll give you random tables. Matt Davids has you covered. He’s got tons of material for fantasy games, sci-fi games, and everything in between, around, under and behind. There’s a thousand random encounters to use in your games, or just to get the ideas flowing.