Monday, July 17, 2017

For Tighter Games, Consider Nixing Random Encounters

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post titled Run Smoother, More Enjoyable Games (By Removing XP), and it was extremely well-received. Aside from one or two curmudgeons who felt the need to argue that removing an arbitrary number that determined how experienced a PC was, most readers were in support of the idea. In fact, most people who commented on the post said they'd done away with XP in games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and similar level-based games years ago, and it had made their lives so much easier as DMs.

And that got me thinking about other mechanics that, while perfectly functional, are about as necessary as a spoiler on a station wagon. And my brain immediately went to random encounters. Has there ever been a less-necessary, or more cumbersome, game mechanic?

You come across two males in breeding season vying for dominance. What a quirky random encounter!
Random encounters can only serve two functions for a storyteller. The primary function is to pad players' XP bars to make sure they gain the appropriate number of levels before they kick in the door at the next dungeon. The secondary function is to act as a drain on the party's resources, ensuring that they have to deal with unrelated combat, use of healing items, hostile negotiations, etc. in between wherever they were, and wherever they're going.

Now, the former is sort of useless if you're not bothering with XP. The latter function has potential, but only if used properly. But it's important to consider the drain and drag of combat, and how much time it can suck out of your session.

"Good" Random Encounters, Versus "Bad" Ones

If you want to use the mechanic of an unexpected encounter, then the encounter should be tied to what the party is trying to do in some way, shape, or form. Encounters that have nothing to do with the actual goal your party is trying to achieve just feel frustrating, and they're little more than a drain on your in and out of game resources.

For example, if the party is sneaking into a necromancer's stronghold, and you're rolling for whether or not they encounter a patrol of skeletal champions, that is a great random encounter. That actually shows the players they're entering an organic situation that can sneak up on them at any time, which can enhance danger and unpredictability. The same is true if they keep running across bandits in the forest while trying to track down the leader of the gang, or if they have to fight their way through a cult sworn to a dracolich as they climb his mountain sanctuary. The fights are part of the goal they're trying to achieve, and rather than being "random" they are just something that changes depending on the party's actions.

By contrast, say the party was walking into the burning desert wastes toward the Temple of The Broken Moon, and then they fall afoul of 6 giant scorpions. Not because they're guarding the temple, or because they've been enslaved by the mad druid who haunts the spire, but because they just happen to be there, and now they're your problem. That is a prime example of a random encounter that does nothing but act as a loading screen in your game, and which distracts from the story instead of enhancing it. It happens, the party fights it, and then it will never be spoken of again. Nor will it be meaningful in the overarching plot.

Brace yourselves... I hear percentiles rolling...
These kinds of encounters, under the right circumstances, can make the wilderness feel dangerous and unwelcoming. And if it keeps players on their toes, making Survival and Perception checks to avoid walking into a bear's territory, upsetting a tiger, or getting ambushed by bandits, that's all well and good. And if you need to make the party spend some resources on their journey to make them feel like they "earned" it, then these kinds of encounters are a good way of doing that.

However, they take time. Time that isn't being dedicated to your story.

Even if your group has combat down to a fine art, rolling for initiative, deciding on actions, appropriate description and RP, all take time. Even a small combat is going to last at least 10 to 15 minutes, and a mid-size one could go for half an hour or more. Do you really want to let a random fight on a random chart, which doesn't push your story forward at all, take up that much of your time?

Probably not.

So, while they're a staple of fantasy RPGs going way back, random encounters are often a bigger pain than they're worth. While you should randomize where enemies are in any "dungeon" area to keep players on their toes, don't throw in a rabid wolf pack and an angry crocodile just for funsies. Because they aren't going to help.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. Hopefully it helps you make your games that much better! If you'd like to support Improved Initiative so I can keep sending new content straight to your screen, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! There's a pile of RPG swag just waiting for you as long as you pledge at least $1 a month. Lastly, keep up-to-date on my latest releases by following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.


  1. Another good article, thank you.
    I've used random encounters to make travel, and the world, more dangerous. I've used them to make a place come alive (notably NPCs in town). I've used them when the players were together unexpectedly and wanted to RP but I had nothing prepared. And I've used them as a delaying tactic when I needed to keep one party out of town because the other had already reached town but we hadn't RP'd through what happened. In all cases I end up tying the encounter to the main quest in some way. Just my .02

  2. I'm usually not a huge fan of random encounters, but like you said in the article, they aren't without their place.

    Most random encounters, at least in the traditional sense, are pretty much just time and resource sinks. On the other hand, I can at least think of a couple examples where they might be good:

    A town reports bandit troubles on a major trade road. At this point, random bandit encounters would be an excellent way of "showing, not telling" the players how serious the matter is. For extra oh shit factor, have the bandits attack while the party is asleep. This approach would also work with pirates, orcs, etc.

    Your party is in some harsh, unforgiving terrain and you have limited food. A random encounter might be a great concern for a resource strapped party (who might not have the medicine to heal up if a fight breaks out), or a godsend to a party who is desperate (because the random encounter is probably carrying resources). This one actually happened to me in a GURPS game set in golarian. I was having crappy luck with survival rolls one day (and I was the only one with the skill), so I tied summoning some game animals with magic. What I got was a huge grizzly bear, and it was this really cool grapple fight. I eventually won, but I took a good lick. The group was thankful for the food, though