GM Advice: You Need Random Encounters

Walking back to the inn after a nice day of adventuring can be a daunting process. You're feet ache, you muscles are sore, and though the cleric managed to keep your spine from being fully severed by the hobgoblin with the greatsword, the ordeal was at the very least mentally draining. You're looking forward dull of cold ale, a hot meal, and soft company. That is when the owlbear that has been tracking you for two miles jumps out of the woods at you.

"Well, shit." you think to yourself as it becomes personally acquainted with the flavor of your liver, "That was random."

"I'm an affront to the laws of Gods and man! Gimmie your kidney!"


For decades, random encounters have been a part of Tabletop RPGs. Little tables of chaos that can turn a peaceful walk or a night at camp into a bloodbath in the blink of an eye and the roll of the dice. These little beauties introduced a degree of, well, randomness into the Game Master's campaign world. Somewhere down the line, however, some games started rolling their eyes at the prospect of random encounters. Suddenly they were too cool to be spontaneously molested by a tribe of goblins. They heard the dice and started groaning when giant wasps came to make them the new decorative addition to their hive. And with all this negativity surrounding the whole thing, many GMs just stopped using them.

That is a shame because random encounters are more important than you know.

 "But the table says roll twice..."

What Is A Random Encounter?
A random encounter is a sporadic or random confrontation with an enemy, enemies, or potential allies in a hazardous or hostile environment.  That last part is especially important, " a hazardous or hostile environment."

The world of an adventurer is a dangerous one. Sure, there may be some safe harbors for the players to roam through, but the rest of the world is a scary and brutal place. It is no wonder that a lot of adventurers never make it to retirement. Random encounters are a perfect way to showcase how dangerous the world can be. Only in bards' tales do the heroes fall heroically atop a mound of the bodies of their enemies (except this bard's). More often than not, adventurers are felled randomly and without warning by any number of awful things lurking nearby.

 "Hey bro, you like bling? Come here... don't mind the wet dog smell."

How Do I Use A Random Encounter Table?
The tables that you roll on for random encounters determine what challenges await your players. These should be homemade. The reason being is that your campaign world is a living breathing place with its own flavor, an asset generic tables cannot capture. To get it right, you should tailor each encounter table with three factors in mind;

  • Location: Where is all this randomness happening? Like I said above, these encounters tend to happen in hazardous or hostile environments. Your average village isn't very likely to come with its own random encounter table, but a haunted or abandoned village might. There could be danger there that exists beyond the typically planned encounter.
    Verisimilitude is another good reason to keep your location in mind when you are designing your table. It makes little to no sense having a shark burst out of a hill to attack your player characters, only to die of asphyxiation within a couple rounds as it flops around ineffectively. Let the creatures on your encounter tables make sense for the area they are in. No dire bears in the middle of the ocean, no shambling mounts in the middle of the desert (unless it happens to be in an oasis... hmmm... stealing that one). To add a little spice, throw something that isn't usually found in the area into the mix, like a lion in temperate hills or an angry gorilla in the city sewers. How did these creatures get there? A simple random encounter could open up some new story elements, and the clever GM could connect the threads from that to a larger story.

  • Level Of The Party: If your players comprise a group of 1st level characters, and your random encounter table includes a Great Wyrm Red Dragon and the legendary Tarrasque, you will not be making many friends around the table.
    Creating encounters by level with the number of players in mind is a good  way to challenge the characters and give out some much-needed XP. Breaking these down into challenge ratings should have some range to them.
    Personally, I enjoy throwing in a couple of easy encounters that the party can tear through and feel mighty, a couple medium encounters to keep things level with their capabilities, a hard encounter to challenge them and remind them that they are not the scariest thing running around out there, and one deadly encounter that could easily kill one or more characters that they should most certainly run from if they are not well equipped, well-rested, and at the peak of their abilities. This keeps things interesting, empowering, and humbling. I really enjoy utilizing a d6 for these tables, because you don't want to bog yourself down with what could happen. After all, you have the whole rest of the game to prep. A d6 is quick and easy but offers enough variety to ensure that the encounter isn't the same slog over and over again.
    The best tool I have seen for this exact thing is donjon's random encounter generator for D&D and Pathfinder

  • When To Use It: This has been a point of some debate among gaming scholars (if indeed there is such a thing, and if there is, where the hell do I sign up?). Some feel that a random encounter is best implemented during travel. Others like using it when the party sets camp and rests for the night. Others still believe it should be tapped when the party is still for too long. The fact of the matter is that all of these are right. But it is important to know in what context they are right.
    It all comes back to that concept of a hazardous or hostile environment. If someone is traveling through camping or lingering in a dangerous place, every moment they spend there significantly increases their chance of running afoul of something that would like to peel off their skin and wear it like a pretty hat. The amount of danger in an area should dictate how often you utilize the table while they remain in said area. A relatively hostile area would call for maybe one roll on a table per every day or two that passes in-game. A more dangerous area could require daily rolls, or even a roll every few hours. Keep this in mind when you craft dungeons, as there are fewer more dangerous places in the world. 

It Doesn't Always Need To Be About Combat
It is very easy to fall into the trap of using random encounters as combat encounters. This need not be the case. In a lot of situations, social encounters can be just as challenging, if not more than combat encounters, especially in a populated civilized area where random acts of violence are looked unfavorably upon.

This could be an interesting method of introducing new NPCs, plot hooks, or plot elements into your ongoing story. I find it is good to put the players on the spot for half of these encounters, with encounters that are directed at them, and events that concern others making up the other half, with their intervention leading to either a reward or consequences (or both if you're me).

 "My coin purse! Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal, lovable street urchin!"

Why They Are Important
The world, even (or especially) those of a fantasy setting are rarely an orderly place. Very little ever goes according to plan. The world is a chaotic place. That is the beauty of the random encounter. When your players are licking their wounds after having narrowly escaped from the orc tribe, it would be bad timing for a band of goblins to descend on the players' campsite. Fate is as prone to give vulnerable people a break as it is to kick them while their down. That, in essence, is the random encounter. If you are wondering whether to use one, just roll your percentile dice. If the result is a 1-50, nothing happens. If the result is a 51-100, it's time to roll on the table. Your dice, more so than your players', represents the hands of fate. Work your mojo. They have just as much of a chance to cry, forever cursing your name as they do never knowing they didn't just have to fight a dragon.

Does anyone else use random encounters? Any hilarious tales of encounters gone comically wrong? Let me know in the comments.

Randomness is the spice of life,
+Ed The Bard 

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