GMing Random Encounters

I have largely been playing Paizo’s Pathfinder Adventure Paths (AP) for the past year or so to save me a little bit of time in preparation due to other commitments like University and family.  One of the incorporated ideas in these AP’s is the idea of the random encounter to help the players stay on pace for the levels they are meant to be at in the parts of the story.  Each AP attempts to keep the level rise in check but the random encounter is something they keep just to make sure it is so.  It is something that you need to use with balance though.  The suggestions for random encounters in the second module of the Reign of Winter path would have the GM spending hours designing encounters and the players would emerge from a simple 7 -9 day travel scene as 20th level characters (yes, I am exaggerating).

The encounters I rolled up using the suggested
tables in the Reign of Winter!

Regardless of the purpose of the random encounter in the AP’s that I use, the random encounter has been about for a long, long time.  These encounters were originally used to give the feel that sometimes stuff just happens!  You may be chasing the ancient lich transmuter through the deserts of the Devil Sands but you are just as likely to be eaten by a blue dragon who is hungry and not even a part of the major plot because it is her territory!  I like and loathe the random encounter system for a couple of reasons.


I like the fact that stuff happens.  Stuff happens in my life too.  As I go to work and decide to replace some of my class prep time with some assignment writing and the principal pops up out of nowhere and asks me to talk to some students about their interest in becoming games programmers is proof that stuff just happens.  I get nothing I had planned done and I have to deal with the random encounter.  OK, sorry not very fantasy.  The player intends to go to the Grand Bazaar and purchase a bag of holding because they are sick of lugging around the 4,000 Platinum Pieces 23,567 Gold Pieces and 90,678 Silver Pieces they have (largely because the GM just looked at encumbrance rules).  They get there, negotiate a decent price and then go to pay them from the absolutely bulging money pouch on his belt (the size of fourteen watermelons) only to discover that someone has lifted the pouch without him noticing (apparently a rogue as strong as Vin Diesel) is victim to a random encounter. Stuff happened and now the character has to deal with the repercussions.

This is how real life works.  It can be dramatic and unexpected.  It can be something that you could plan for (silence spell on the coin pouch whilst in the city of thieves) or hit you like a meteor from the sky (literally, you could be hit by a meteor from the sky!).  I absolutely love this serendipitous effect of the random encounter.


Use other tools to help you out with ideas
of what the story behind the encounter
might be!

Random encounters are meant to be little sides to a larger plot.  As a GM I like to take them as a challenge.  Can I weave these instances into the overarching story without the players being aware if they were part of the intended plot or not.  To do this takes planning and time and this is why I have come to loathe a random encounter.  I do pride myself a little when the players in the AP I am running look around for clues for the main thrust of the AP when I run a random encounter.  If they do that it is my measure of success that I have woven it into the adventure so well that the players think it is source material.  This time involved can be very significant when designing these random encounters and hence I hate rolling on the charts because I know I am going to lose a lot of time designing that I could be using in other ways.

But They’re Random!

Some of you by now have picked up on the fact that I mentioned they are random encounters but I plan for them.  Originally random encounters would run where the GM would say “An hour is up, lets see if a random encounter occurs.” Rattle of some type of device. “Indicates it does, lets see what you have here.” Rattles some more dice. “Oooh bad roll.  You take a left in the dungeon and bump into a beholder!”.  Random? Yes.  Engaging? No. Just before you also point out that a beholder is D&D property, I know.  Doesn’t mean I can’t wish I got to use one!

The first secret to make your random encounter engaging is you need to plan for it.  Most random encounter structures offer you a chance of an encounter after a period of time.  That means they happen with regularity that is easily planned for.  When I ran Serpent’s Skull AP I plotted around 40 odd days of random encounters in the second module before I even ran the first encounter (it was an adventure where the players need to travel to an area).  In the third module I would spend the first part of my prep time working on the random encounters so I knew what was coming and weave it into the surrounding environment.

Spend a little bit of time working on how and where things are going to happen.  Don’t let the players in on the fact that it was a random encounter.  To them it is just stuff  that happens or XP to help them along their way.  You can measure how well you are doing this by the players reactions to the random encounter.  Do they start looking for clues of who put the Wendigo in the professor’s basement?  If so they think it was meant to be.  To keep the illusion make sure you jot down a couple of notes as to why it happened.  It allows players with investigative skills to get their CSI on.  They may find that the thief (who is part of the adventure) left the professor’s basement door ope when he left and a passing circus lost a Wendigo around the same time…

It Sounds Like a Lot of Work!

The weapons of the random encounter
Sometimes it can be and that is why I have grown to loathe the random encounter at times.  My first ever AD&D GM had all his random encounters neatly written up on card stock.  How I hated his efficiency and preparedness!  Luckily though there are some products out there that will help you to solve some of the random encounter blues by offering little pre prepared options for your campaigns!

As I was going to be running a winter campaign (i.e. Reign of Winter) I spotted an add for a new Rite Publishing product called 101 Not So Random Encounters: Winter at DriveThruRPG.  It was $5.99 so I said take my money and looked at the book over the next week.  Pure gold!  Sure, some of the encounters are not in a million years but there are a whole heap in their that I am happy with and have slotted in to the campaign already.  They aren’t even all combat which is even better.  Random encounters do not need to mean random violent encounters.  In researching this blog I also found that they have an Urban version of the Most So Random Encounters series too.  The link above should take you to the appropriate search.

Random encounters offer you a way to personalise your games too.  If you are running a pre printed module use the random encounters to put your stamp on the product.  use their selected tables but make the stories of your random encounters your own.  It is a bit of work but it is rewarding when you see the players chase a tangent that you introduced in your random encounter because it is more interesting than the adventure itself!

You may also be worried about putting together a decent random encounter table to use.  I say don’t!  Use the ones included in the books or use the ones in the core books or do a Google search.  Their are prepared random encounter tables everywhere so do not worry about reinventing that wheel.  Have a browse, decide on which you like and use it.  Perhaps change an entry or two but just run with it.  Does it matter if it says burning skeleton when you would prefer a bloody skeleton to fit thematically?  No it does not so just change it when you roll it up.  Perhaps I am stretching the random element when I say that but in reality, if you look at the way I prepare for my random encounters, they are not random, they are planned!

Be prepared to build off your random encounters too.  If the players want to return the poor Wendigo to its circus, wing it.  Add some XP for a story award.  They have given your game a nice subplot that they feel they have driven by their investigative skills and concern for the poor Wendigo.  If they then think the main adventure details are going to be in the circus, use it if you can think on your feet.  In the AP it says they confront the thief who stole the whirlygig of power from the professor at the docks.  Change it so they find out the thief was actually one of the clowns at the circus and have any clues that they found from the thief at the docks be in the big clown shoes of the thief at the circus.  This way you bring the players back on point without railroading them once.  And they get to beat up a clown!  How fun is that!
Keep it all behind the screen and they will never know
that it was your random encounter and not the module!
Use them but don’t abuse them.  Too much random means being disconnected from the main plot for too long.  The comment I made about the Reign of Winter random encounter suggestions was valid.  It suggests a 2 hourly roll at around 33% chance for an encounter over 9 days travel.  By my meagre mathematical reckoning that means on average four random encounters a day or 36 random encounters varying between CR 3ish to CR 8ish.  In other words too many that will take the players away from the main plot!    

The Final Word

Random encounters are a staple of fantasy games since the very first edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  It does not meant that they should only be for fantasy games and you can make them for every style of game (just be careful making one for Cthulhu… sanity people!).  I like them, some people hate them and others could go either way.  As a GM of prepared AP’s I see that they are a required and balanced method to keep players on track.  In my home grown games though I like to use random encounters too because they add an element of surprise and complexity that mirrors reality.  If you want to run an intimate, tight game on theme then having a random encounter table is possibly a bit much. If you want a game that has surprises and twists that players encounter that can give your game a bit more depth and a few more subplots you have to think of the random encounter table.

Hopefully next time you are working on your adventure you will spend a little bit of time giving the old random encounter table a bit of love.  Be prepared and have your rolls done before you even show and attempt to synthesise them into the overarching theme as subplots and portents and you will find your players don’t even realise you are using random encounters until years later one of the players runs the same game for her group and she asks “Where is the stuff on the Wendigo?”!  Until next time, keep rolling!

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