D7 wrote about the care and feeding of random encounters. Here’s some examples of what I have been doing in my current dungeoncrawly game.
The game practically relies on random encounters. There are few creatures here and there that are not part of encounter tables, but anything that moves around is a wandering monster. I have separate encounter table for different locations and in one case, entries to a particular location.
Of gaming and risk management
The background story is that a bunch of people survived the end of the world, escaping to the expansive network of caves and tunnels wherein the fantastic exists. Right now there are a total of 26 characters the players more-or-less control.
They have some conflicting needs; it is necessary to defend the noncombatants. It is likewise necessary to explore surroundings and try to make sense of the underworld. This means that it is necessary to split the group of 26 people; around five characters at a time have gone exploring or fighting or whatever.
Wandering creatures are the reason for having capable guardians keeping the noncombatants safe. (Alleged invisible flying monster fluttering among the people is another.) From this follow two characteristics of these encounters: Certain creatures should be encountered pretty often; a small chance of really random stuff is also useful.
A lair of wolves implies frequent encounters with wolves (unless they are wiped out or prevented from entering or such). This is just common sense, and also lets players figure out smart ways of dealing with the recurring visitors. The rare encounters (I have one table roughly titled “monsters”, where there are ten or so random pretty dangerous monsters) are there to add danger and uncertainty to the whole affair. Preparing for the unknown, from player point of view.
Of simulation and realistic environment
Second purpose of random encounters is to simulate something like a dynamic dungeon environment. This particularly means that I need to add more herbivores there. The key is making them somewhat interesting as encounters; natural defenses, potential for being tamed, just plain exotic. I still need to do some work on this subject. Since there is a fairly open area nearby, there will be random creatures of all shapes and many sizes occasionally finding any particular location.
Of story elements and improvisation
Encounters that are close to each other, time-wise, may just be random situations. Or not. If, say, wolves are rolled twice a row to enter the same situation, maybe it is the same pack. Are they chasing something or being chased by something? Perhaps they were successful in their hunt are returning to their lair. The possibilities are even more lucrative when there are civilised creatures involved.
This effect should not be emphasised too much; the game is about exploration and survival, not story improvisation (other games are better for that purpose).
The encounter tables are not etched in stone (I much prefer pen and paper). They should be changed as a result of the game. Player characters exterminated a number of centipedes, so I removed them from the encounter table. If there exist a total of 50 kobolds and 30 of them are killed, rolling for 3d10 kobolds is not smart; make it 2d10 or 3d10, drop lowest. Should a few goblins spot people in their areas and live to tell the tale, the number and frequency of goblins appearing will go up.
These are facts about my game that may or may not be related to my approach on encounter tables.
- Simple monster stats. Here’s a centipede: Might 6, magic 2, poison. Here’s a minotaur: Might 15, magic 2, all damage from charge must be taken by single character. I can improvise these stats at will in play and they will roughly make sense. This means that using encounter tables is utterly fast; I don’t need to browse a manual or write stats downs before play, because I can assign them on spot.
- Lack of planned story: Yeah. Random encounters certainly tend to fit poorly in preplanned stories, especially if there is a mood to convey. Furthermore, it is usually not very interesting to fight a yet another random group of grunts on the way to Borgoria.
- Lack of tactical depth: The combats are not very tactical. I don’t need to carefully plan a location or the opposition to make the combat exciting; combats are fairly quick, most of the time, and pretty brutal. More importantly: They are not the point. (Consequently: No battle maps. Sometimes dice and tokens and pencils masquarading as heroes and monsters and cave walls and whatnot.)
- Several characters: Losing any one character is not something that will kill the game. There are others to play. (Thus far, no character has died, but one was very close.) So, arbitrarily dangerous random encounters do not break the game. An additional consequence is that I can include instakills and paralysis and madness and such with impunity, should it feel useful.
- Not rolling dice unless the options are acceptable: I build the encounter tables, I set the probabilities of encountering something, so I also accept any and every result the dice give. In play I am an arbiter, not someone who tries to challenge the players (or build an interesting story).