How Not to Make People Hate Random Encounters

I understand why random encounters exist. They do demonstrate that the world is a living, breathing place, that there are Things Out There that aren’t just Whatever Is Determined By the Local Dungeon; they do very much discourage the fifteen-minute adventuring day; a clever GM can use them to drop a new lead to another adventure, assuming there is room for such; and, well, they are at least a decent source of XP. Therefore, eliminating them entirely would be silly, and they’re probably pretty impressive when done well. I get this.

On the other hand, I still need someone to sit down and explain to me slowly what makes them fun, particularly if you’re not exploring for exploration’s own sake. Yes, I’ll admit, some of this disinterest has to do with my infamous combat aversion, particularly if it’s a game in which it’s already been established that a couple bad rolls will easily lose us a teammate. And yes, there’s this whole “Oh, look, a plot, let’s see what it’s going to do!” thing that really doesn’t want to get unavoidably bogged down in whatever six-legged rats or bizarre jellyfish things apparently stalk the local landscape while we walk the three days it takes to get home. And, of course, the fact that a random encounter is rarely something that one can talk one’s way out of, which is particularly insult to injury when one has been playing a character whom one has pointed out several times is social-primary and will talk her way out anything… please… come on, can’t we go up against something talkable once or twice? Please? And didn’t we only get into one fight out of nowhere on the way in, and that one somewhat plotty? And…

Yeah, one bad session can really ruin a game mechanic.

I’ve drawn a few conclusions from this: ways to sell the random encounter mechanic even to a combat-hater like me. So….

I think a random encounter needs to be avoidable (at least, assuming you made your See It Coming roll) or resolvable by something other than a fight. Walk away, stand on each other’s shoulders and throw rocks at it, yell “Don’t we have a treaty?” in whatever language is being shouted from the bushes, leave a bunch of logs with your faces while you sprint off in another direction… something. This goes double if the random encounter is on the way to something important.

Having some relation to something interesting helps. This may just be the storyteller in me, but if a fight is just there because the adventure said roll on Table 4, what’s the point? The longer it takes, and the more of a toll it takes (this goes double with groups that can’t roll high to save their lives; if you get TPK’d on a random encounter because nobody can reliably get higher than a 10 on d20, this says nothing except that your players need new dice), the more obnoxious a fight that is just there To Be a Fight is. (I’m willing to make minor exceptions if the idea is to get them to the next level before the next dungeon, but if that is the idea, please make sure it actually does.) On the other hand, if this is a hint at the kind of monsters that might be coming up, a chance to drop a hint towards things going on somewhere else, or some other way of pushing either the current plot or one of the later ones—go for it.

And please, don’t make them everything. If you’ve got an important plot event coming up that the group is hurrying toward, that makes them avoid everything else including that other plot thing they’ve been trying to find an excuse to follow, and you have an entire session of nothing but random encounters, for reasons other than “this group is slow at combat, we’re lucky if we get through one encounter in a session to begin with”, at that point even the people who like a good fight are going to start getting sick of them.

Random encounters are, I think, a very love it or hate it mechanic—so why not try to minimize the reasons people have to hate them?

8 comments

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    Another way to make random encounters suck less – They shouldn’t fight to the death in most cases. If they are out wandering and decide to fight somebody, then why duke it out to the death. Is it really worth it?

    Of course I figure that most creatures that aren’t completely mindless will eventually try to run away or bargain for their lives unless they have a specific motivation to stand their ground to the bitter end. (and insightful characters who figure out their reason may figure out a way to find some sort of compromise)

    But random encunters bring this tendency to the fore.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Aaaiieeee! Really bad typo. encounters! encounters!

  3. Christopher McDonough says:

    From talking with people familiar with playing D&D in the old days, the original purpose of a random encounter really was to create a puzzle situation. In the old days, you got xp for treasure, not killing monsters, so a random wandering monster attack would be a risky combat situation with possibly no reward even if you succeeded. Therefore the focus on random encounters was supposed to be either getting away or figuring out how to get a reward… tracking the monster back to its lair, for example.

    I guess what I’m saying is that you need to figure out how something like random encounters fit within the overall purpose and goals you want your PCs to push.

  4. Ravyn says:

    Philo: No sweat re typo. Good thing I haven’t got one of those overenthusiastic text-censors, though! (*fond memories of that time on the Giant in the Playground boards when the thing was still editing messages to talk about ****roaches).

    And yeah, good call–though the one thing that doesn’t deal with is those occasional times when you’ve got the power to beat the silly things, except that none of your dice seem to be capable of rolling in the upper half of their limits, so the opposition has no reason to realize that you really should be wiping the floor with them. Couple weeks ago, in the new game, group nearly got TPK’d because we just couldn’t get even the attacks that should have hit to land in the right 50% that would let them hit an ethereal-thing. (The GM sounded almost gleeful about that, which… seemed odd, given I could’ve sworn he’d said something a while back about rarely killing groups for reasons of bad luck as opposed to, say, stupidity…. I’ll have to talk to him about that.)

  5. Black Vulmea says:

    Have you looked at 2e Boot Hill adventures, or the Chaosium Thieves World box set, or Griffin Mountain? All of them are full of random encounters that don’t necessarily involve combat.

    That said, random encounters are fun for gamers not interested in rushing to the next plot. They’re fun for gamers who like that living, breathing world instead of a series of plot points to hit on the way to the fight with the big bad. They’re fun for gamers who like the complexity they bring to planning. They’re fun for gamers who see them as opportunities and resources rather than obstacles to be avoided.

  6. Ravyn says:

    …and for gamers who don’t spend most of the average fight rolling ten or less. Thanks for the recommendations; I think I’ll have to… introduce my current GM to them. (No experience with the things myself; I was a latecomer to D&D, and my main experience is with 3.x.) He hasn’t given us a random encounter yet that didn’t result in at least an hour of failing attack rolls in the general direction of some creature(s). It’s enough to make a player who’s been playing just about everything else for the last four years start making unfortunate generalizations about a system, you know?


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