On Planned Encounters vs. Random Encounters

So is it better to have planned random encounters, or random random encounters.

I'm running an old school Mega-dungeon for several groups (Numenhalla) and have been wrestling with this question often.

If you look at old school encounter tables in modules, there are many entries that consist of things like "2d4 zombies" and "2d6 Gnolls + 2d4 Hyenadons". Then upon the encounter you roll for the 'reaction' and role-play from there.

But what is the harm in having more interesting encounters preplanned. How many random encounters will the average party really encounter? And don't they basically fall into several categories (Things we fight, things we avoid fighting? Things we talk to?) And if the encounter is a more positive one, isn't it better to have say a name for the leader of the Gnolls, or the Maneaters?

I've done my table in the old school style and during play I've found it to be lacking. I have a general table for each level, with specific blanks for each encounter area. After a week or two of play I created a 'special' encounter list.

Here are the things I've noticed
  • Have the table split makes for a bit of page flipping and no centralized monsters information location.
  • I consistently make too many entries on the charts, meaning everything feels random instead of themed.
  • There just aren't that many random encounters that happen in a single night. I generally roll between 12 and 20 times in a 4 hour session, meaning, on average there are just 3 random encounters.
  • Being that this isn't (strictly) a wilderness, things that made sense in a wilderness sandbox (such as many monster 'animal' encounters) do not make as much sense in a dungeon - they feel less organic.
  • I'm not saying I have a specific plan for each encounter before it happens, but I often think a little more assistance with increasing the relevance of the encounter to the party, and ways for them to hook into that could be helpful. (Each player asks, "Why should I talk to dudemar?" They should have an answer to that question).
As an aside, in a megadungeon, random encounters are less a control for mages and the fifteen minute adventuring day then they are in sandboxes. One way doors, trick stairways, teleporters and things that trap the party seem to take that role. Considering that when they are covering new ground it takes 1 turn to move the slowest movement of the party, every time they move 180' they trigger a check - but when they are moving back over covered ground, they are moving quickly, and not checking for traps and such. Checks being based on time do little to address the fifteen-minute adventuring day that way.

So this bears examining - what is the purpose of the random encounter in a Mega-dungeon?

In spite of this, my party did managed to get trapped between a Dragon and a Group of Anthrophages in a treasure room on level 1. A group of anthrophages led by someone they managed narrowly knock out last week - so by no means has what I've been using so far been a failure.

Let me know your thoughts on the purpose of the encounter in the dungeon/megadungeon - and on what ways you might structure your table uniquely.  I'll talk more on my redesign to make the tables more useful soon.

9 comments:

  1. One thing I've been doing lately, is structuring my random encounter tables with a 3d6, 3 - 18 spread, so as to take advantage of the bell curve. That way, say, some of the many orcs inhabiting the level are more likely to be encountered than Grosh, the ogre-mage who's taken to travelling up from a lower level, via a secret passageway, when he's bored and wants to toy with a few orcs. 10 - 14 are some combo of orcs. 17 is Grosh. A result of 3 or 18 would be something very, very rare and wonderful/horrifying.

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  2. I like the bell curve approach; fits in with the choice to decide who built the dungeon before deciding why they built the dungeon and using that to devise what's in it.

    I'm working on an alternative to conventional random encounter tables, using playing or tarot cards to determine a few things like how powerful the encounter is and how it reacts to the players. It would require having a few things statted up beforehand, but I'm of the opinion that a preplanned selection of encounters that can occur in any order as determined by player action is better than genuine randomness.

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  3. I'm currently toying with the idea of having random encounters that are sequential.

    The possibility of an encounter is determined by a random roll, but once an encounter is indicated, they happen in a pre-determined order.

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  4. I feed a lot of my random encounters from monsters already existing in the dungeon. So that encounter with 2d6 skeletons may have reduced the number in Room 63 by the same amount.

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  5. My random encounter tables often consist of a half dozen fully fleshed encounters rather than randomly generated groups. When that specific group has been encountered and overcome, I bin it from the list andtreat all future rolls for that encounter as no encounter until the end of the session. After that, I add another to the list at the end of the session. This lets me incorporate recent events in the random encounter tables.

    For example, if the players just raided a bandit camp and I have a spare random encounter slot by the end of the session they're very next encounter might very well be with the survivors of the bandit gang (or perhaps a group that were on patrol during the attack) coming after them.

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  6. I write 'planned random' encounters often, things that are not necessarily tied to specific location, but are more involved than 4. 2-5 Orcs. Strange objects and dungeon phenomena (a hole in the wall emitting steam for example). I have not done much fleshing out of random creature encounters (like the name of the gnoll chieftan) but I think that is a good idea.

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  7. I think random encounters are really important for two reasons:

    1) They are the constant tension of the dangerous place. Without the possibility of running into something dangerous parties can dawdle all they want, talk for ever about what to do next, and not do much.

    2) The curve-ball an unexpected result can throw at you makes things unpredictable even to you as DM. I've got nothing against planning encounters, in fact I use the bell curve James mentions to make some specials much less likely, but a list made up entirely ahead of time and in a specific order wouldn't be very exciting for me to DM. I want to have the fun of not knowing what might happen.

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  8. @Dangerous Brian - I like yours too; that's a good one and I may conceivably use it. Maybe have the cards to devise the encounters, and a bell curve table to determine how and when they occur...

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  9. I've been thinking about this idea for a couple of days now, and I think it's great. I wouldn't do this for every result on a random encounter, but for some of them? Absolutely! Great idea!

    Some of the comments had some good follow up, like the bell curve idea.

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