Posted by : David Guyll November 15, 2013

Rather than talk about monsters, this week's Wandering Monsters column talks about the qualities of a good encounter, the purpose of random encounters, and asks howor even ifyou use either in your games.

The article states that a great encounter has history, a clear objective, and a meaningful outcome. I guess I can agree with these standards; I do not think that every great encounter has to have all of them, but it probably does not hurt. I would add that a great encounter should also be interesting and fun, which due to varied gamer tastes are harder standards to quantify but likely benefit from the previous factors.

An interesting encounter, to me, is one that goes above and beyond a handful of orcs in a corridor or a goblin ambush on a road. In a lot of earlier-edition combat encounters you pretty much just stood next to a monster and rolled dice until someone fell over. That is not really interesting, especially if the only "consequences" are you having to take a minute to tell the Dungeon Master that you are going back to town for the night.

4th Edition combat encounters are almost always more dynamic than in previous editions, and while I do not think that the game necessarily needs that level of tactical intricacy for every fightespecially not with "trash fights", which I will get to in a bithaving some way to mix things up would go a long way to making them more engaging. Like, fighting an orc should not be fundamentally the same as an ogre; the ogre should be able to knock the characters around, or even throw them at each other.

Both Dungeon World and Numenera (and other games) solve this pretty easily with moves and complications respectively. In Dungeon World if a character rolls within a certain range the GM can just respond with a narratively appropriate move. No back and forth, no hard mechanics, it just happens. In Numenera the GM can impose a complication in exchange for a few points of XP, or at any time a character rolls a natural 1.

These sorts of complications can also be derived from the environment; a character or enemy could get knocked into a fire pit, trampled by a horse, slip on some rubble, stuck in a bog, entangled in vines, have their axe get stuck in a door, thrown through a window, blasted by steam, and so on. The point is that these elements can really liven up an encounter, and they do not need to be incredibly complicated or require numerous dice rolls.

Another thing that makes for a great encounter is purpose. I cannot think of a book or movie where the characters go into a room, beat up some henchmen, go into another room, beat up some more, then go into yet another room and beat up even more because that sounds incredibly boring. I have played a lot of action games and some of the worse parts are when you just fight waves of faceless, unnamed enemies. Yeah, it can be fun now and then, but eventually it gets to a point where I just want it to end.

In Dungeons & Dragons these are trash fights. They are just there to pad out the adventure or get the characters some more XP, because for some reason Dungeons & Dragons is using a XP system analogous to console games and extra lives. Seriously, 4th Edition became so, so much more fun when I stopped tracking XP and leveled up the characters when I felt it was appropriate. It also made it a lot easier to plan and pace the game when I did not have to worry about cramming 10+ encounters into a single adventure.

I am not saying to ditch XP altogetherthough that is perfectly viable and should at least be a supported optionbut there are plenty of games out there with far, far better systems for tracking character advancement.

Speaking of things that could stand to be ditched, how about random encounters? Some argue that they convey a sense of "realism" or emphasize how the game does not just revolve around the characters and their actions (though it can and often does). I disagree with this because there are other, better ways to demonstrate that an imaginary world featuring dragons, elves, and a nonsensical magic system keeps turning when you are not paying attention:
  • A history, even a brief or implied one.
  • A world map, or even mentioning locations that exist beyond the confines of a local map.
  • NPCs with personalities, motivations, and goals.
  • Actions with far-reaching rewards and/or consequences.
  • Events that occur outside their immediate sphere of influence.
To me any one of these adds more realism to a fantasy world than running into a brown bear in a forest ever could.

A more baffling claim is that without them you might as well just be pushing your players through a script. Like, if you decide ahead of time that your players run into 2d6 + 1 wolves instead of 10d10 bats (or worse, decide the number of wolves and bats ahead of time) instead of deferring to a table that they have no capacity for choice, and that you might as well just back up your books and go write a novel.

By that logic why have a Dungeon Master determine anything? WotC could just make a big book with thousands of tables for you to work through in order to generate a world, history, dominant races, cosmology, gods, etc. You could even take it a step further and just have players roll on tables to determine their race, class, skill selection, and, why not, actions taken during the game.

I think that random encounters are largely a waste of time. In some cases they might be useful, but most of the time like older-edition traps they end up being a cheap way to try and shoehorn tension and urgency into the game. If the characters are trekking through a forest trying to find a ruin, unless I think of something interesting for them to deal with on the way I am probably just going to tell them that they get to their destination after x days.

I might have them make skill checks to reduce the time if I think that supplies are even an issue (which thanks to magic in some editions it is usually not), but I do not see a point in rolling to see if they run into something, especially when there is only about a 15% chance of that happening at all, the encounter is not even relevant, and any hit to resources can just be slept off. I actually did use random encounters for about the first half of my Epiro campaign, but they so rarely came up that I decided to just start pre-planning encounters.

That is actually the closest I get to random encounters; I write encounter "cliff notes" that I keep on tap as a fall back in case the players do something expected, I think of a good spot to add them, or if there is just enough time to include them. My group only gets a handful of hours each week to get together and game, so I try to make sure that they are getting the most bang for their time, and random encounters-as-written just have a horrible return on investment.

In the end I think that great encounters should be entertaining, have a meaningful outcome (by which I mean contribute to more than the XP grind or exist just to pad out an adventure's length), and do not always have to be immediately related to the adventure, though it certainly helps. I get that not every encounter is going to be great, but most should at least be good, and making them random is probably not going to contribute to the fun-factor. I also think that both the older XP and random encounter conventions should be thrown out.

So, what do you think makes a great encounter? Do you think that the game still needs random encounters, or players to track thousands of XP for character advancement?

{ 14 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. The only way I see Random Encounters being fun is if the Players can See the Chart and they Roll the dice. If its behind the scenes and you just say Random Encounter ... then it feels like the DM isn't thinking about the fun. Its all about presentation to keep the player excitement high.

    I use to be in your camp. I thought they were lazy encounters and filler. I use to just remove them. Now, I am starting to understand their importance, and how you as a DM should present them.

    Its a non-scheduled random encounter which can help keep players' attention and its fun. Most encounters feel planned (because they normally are), unless the players do something to make the DM have to be spontaneous. To keep players interests, Gygax understood the behavioral use of non-scheduled random rewards/encounters to keep players engaged. If used properly is a powerful tool for the DM to keep the game interesting.

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  2. maybe they dont need to see the chart ...

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  3. @Anon-The-First: I really do not see how letting the players roll and see the results would make it more fun. Like, knowing that I am about to run into a pack of wolves or an owlbear ahead of time would not make it any more interesting for me.

    The reason I think they are filler is because in most case they are just filler. In my 5E playtest campaign the characters traveled for a week or more at a time, and the only random encounter I recall is when the caravan they were a part of got attacked by a pair of manticores. They defeated one, the other flew away, and then after a good night's sleep everyone was perfectly fine.

    The only thing that it demonstrated was that there were monsters out in the world and you might get attacked, which they knew from previous adventures anyway, but what about it makes it any more "realistic" or interesting than if I decided ahead of time that a pair of manticores would attack them during their trip? Would the players have even known if I had not told them that I did in fact not roll for them?

    In an earlier session while they were camping I had a trio of wights attack the caravan. They tracked the undead back to a cairn, where they discovered the remains of elemental cultists that foreshadowed a later threat. Would you consider this encounter to be more interesting than a pair of manticores? I certainly do.

    I do not think that the purpose of random encounters was to retain the attention of your players, but to force them to weigh risk versus reward: keep exploring and risk running into an encounter (which could be incredibly easy, reasonably difficult, or overwhelmingly deadly), or go back to town, rest up, then come back later.

    It sounds more like gambling.

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  4. If you make your random encounters boring, then yeah. They're probably going to be boring. The encounter with the Manticores could have been as interesting as the pre-planned Wight encounter. Did you put any thought into making the Manticore encounter more interesting? Or, consider utilizing other random tables to flesh out the encounter? Of course, if you don't like random tables or random encounters, don't use them. But, other DM's get quite a lot out of those procedures (for instance, they can add an element of surprise and challenge for the DM.)

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  5. I am not sure it really could have been. This was a playtest campaign and I was going rules-as-written; they were traveling towards another town when I rolled that an encounter would happen, and it ended up being manticores.

    A part of it is that it is incredibly easy to recover from overland random encounters given that they occur very rarely, even in densely populated regions (only 25% of the time). If there was some way to have the results impact the game over a larger timescale--persistent injuries, slower recovery, equipment degradation, etc--then they would be a lot more meaningful.

    As it is you can just sleep it off in a day or two, even in older editions thanks to healing magic and items.

    Now in areas where a full night of rest--or even escape--is not a guarantee, like in larger dungeon complexes, they can not only have a much greater impact, but impart upon players a sense of risk. That is one of the few instances where they can be a lot more fun.

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  6. Random encounters can say something about the world and setting around you, give a glimpse of things going on outside of the adventure directly, if the tables are well wrought.

    Also, they need not all be combat encounters.

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  7. I think the title of your blog is misleading. This isn't mostly for D&D gamers, it's mostly for 4e Gamers. I have played every edition of the game and would never play in the fashion you outline here. Don't drink the WotC Koolaid.

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  8. @Judd: I agree that they do not all need to be combat encounters, but I also think that there are other, better ways to convey stuff about the world. For example Dungeon World encourages the creation of "world moves" to convey the dangers and traits of an area.

    @kiltedyaksman: It used to be mostly about 4th Edition, but lately virtually all of the content pertains to Next, Numenera, or Dungeon World. What exactly about my preferences would you never use?

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  9. I disagree with a lot of this. You talk about pre-planned adventure and how any totally prescripted thing feels like walking them through a novel; but random encounters are bad?
    I feel use of wandering monsters, and random encounters are both things that need balance. Walking for 1 hour out of town and getting into a fight with a roving band of goblins kind of breaks the mood unless people knew there were roving bands of goblins in the area. But skipping merrily towards the objective with nothing but 3 encounters planned is also dull.
    Any encounter is a great role play opportunity, and at early levels random encounters can really give your PC's some attitude, context, and personality.
    I do agree standing in front of monsters to play rockem sockem with them is dull in earlier editions. This is mostly because combat is set up for a role play chance mother than roll play chance. This is the DM's job to describe the battle as it takes place. Try laying out the setting between initiatives before announced actions. Makes combat more fluent, and organized in the minds of the group.

    Any how more than my 2 cents thrown in.

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  10. @Robert: No, I said that they are largely a waste of time when the only meaningful result is that the characters get some XP, and that I prefer canning up encounter cliff notes that I can draw from if or when I think it is appropriate. So, like random encounters, but more than just the monster's name and number appearing, and I do not randomly roll to see which one pops up.

    I basically never throw a "trash fight" encounter while they travel, because it will have no impact in the longer run. The manticores? I rolled that as written, and it was interesting insofar as it was manticores and they had not fought one before. But after that, with the caravan and gnolls? That got their interest, and had more far-reaching consequences and impact. A good comparison are world/dungeon moves from Dungeon World.

    The problem is that a lot of random encounter tables are chock full of animals and monstrous critters. It is kind of hard to make a random encounter in the woods with wolves, an owlbear, or some giant spiders meaningful (though the spiders might at least be interesting). I mean, the party runs into an owlbear. If they fight it, they will probably win, and any grievous wounds can just be slept off anyway.

    In regards to combat, you can lay out the scene and narrate the actions, but by the rules as written damage is damage. In 3rd Edition I would play around with crits (tacking on a lingering injury instead of extra damage), and added some 4th Edition-isms before there was 4th Edition, but I do not see why there cannot be some rules and guidelines in place 'officially".

    Again, Dungeon World, Numenera, and FATE make it very easy and evocative.

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  11. I generally don't use random encounters, but that's mostly due to the time it takes. If combat took less than fifteen minutes per encounter, then I would likely make some room for them. I don't see that happening though, even with Next. And when I do use them, I generally build the tables myself, so it's not a time saver on the DM side either, as it's more a randomly chosen planned encounter.

    As to experience, I've actually done away with the RAW in our 4E game. The stated guideline is that players should have ten encounters per level, so I've just switched to that as the rule. Each encounter rewards one experience, and when a character has ten they level. Some encounters may reward more or less, depending on the difficulty and the character's participation. It works fairly well and is much easier to track.

    Finally, the discussion on on-going effects and injuries has given me an idea. I'm looking to start a game (possibly 4E, possibly FATE/FAE) with a more deadly and dangerous setting, but 4E doesn't have an injury/on-going effect mechanic. Except it does and I had never thought to use it that way. The disease mechanic would work great for lingering injuries, allowing them to fester, cripple, and heal depending on the character's treatment and attention.

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  12. I never thought of reducing XP like that. Have you thought about switching up XP entirely so that they only get a point when they defeat something meaningful? Or even doing an incremenetal advancement like in 13th Age or Numenera?

    I did something like that when I ran A Sundered World, forcing several days and healing checks to fix broken bones and the like. It was pretty easy to manage, and worked out well.

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  13. I've toyed around with doing an incremental advancement, and may in the future, but haven't applied it to our game simply for the sake of consistency (I've also toyed with escalation die with a similar verdict). More or less, the current system only gives points when they defeat something meaningful. I throw a decent number of trash/minion fights at the party when it feels appropriate or they just want to hit something, but they typically only gain experience if there is a chance of failure, significant advancement to the plot occurs, or there's just good roleplay (which I'd consider part of plot advancement). Normally this ends up being 1-2 experience per session (3-4 hours usually), but sometimes more (arc finales typically) and rarely less.

    When did you award injuries like broken bones or laceration? My thought was on bloodied (minor) and dying (major), and possibly on taking a crit.

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  14. It was at some point while they were on Moradin's Forge. Josh's character ended up taking penalties to various things until he absorbed the divine essence of Kord.

    My thoughts would be when you get dropped or taking a crit. I could see bloodied imposing a penalty that goes away when the bloodied condition does. Maybe take a page from FATE and allow characters to take injury penalties instead of damage when they would get dropped or critted.

    In my ideal HP system, you would have a VP/WP split; VP would come back after a fight was over, or be replenished through morale boosters and such, while WP takes time or specialized magic. I would probably do away with healing magic as D&D does it, and instead allow classes to heal faster, or cause allies to heal faster (like life clerics and summer druids).

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