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?