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!|
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?
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.