My games have been a lot more enjoyable recently because I am less focused on other issues. I am now pretty much gaming for gaming sake now and I am finding it very enjoyable again. I am particularly pleased with my work in regards to random encounters. Some people hate them, others love them. For me it is a way, again, to learn as I play as a GM. The players may be working toward a goal in the campaign but an unexpected and unconnected random encounter can be a fun way to test them.
The Ancient Past
I used to have a DM (AD&D) in the early 90’s and everyone thought he was the best going around, including me. It has taken me until now to realize that in fact all he had done is what it says to do in the Dungeon Master Guide. He would produce these encounters from a little card filing system and they would be great. I realize now that most of those encounters were in fact just prepared random encounters. He would have an index card for a particular area, roll the encounter. Once it was determined, another index card had the details. It seemed so seamless, and the random encounters were not all monster based.
What this system did for me was make the world feel alive. I thought, because they were themed to the locale, that these were planned events. They of course were not. The plot continued around it but these encounters were one of the highlights for me.
Working on Random Encounters
Having this prepared is not a small task, especially if you want to be detailed. Take for example a city. You could have a random encounter sheet for just wandering the streets. You might then have a sheet of encounters for Inns. But what if you wanted a good Inn, the rough Inn and maybe one in between? Perhaps you need three encounter sheets or one with modifiers? There is work here to be done just setting up the structure. It applies to all areas and can be as simple or complicated as you like.
The encounters can be as simple as a sentence giving the details (Who/What/Where/Why) or a full stat block and more detailed information. The more prepared the random encounter, the more realistic it will feel to the player when they encounter it.
Random Encounters on the Fly
Most of the time in my career my encounters have been on the fly. They may not necessarily have been all combat encounters but a lot have been. So how do you make the combat encounter feel more realistic and exciting? They still need to be tailored to the setting. A bunch of Giant Spiders leaping out at your players in an underwater adventure screams Random Encounter blunder. But a secluded forest and you describe bits of web appearing in the canopy as you spring the encounter is a different thing.
This week I had a player check for loot in these areas. Each of the random encounters they had were creatures with incidental treasure (i.e. the treasure left behind from other victims). I always keep the donjon suite of randomness at hand to quickly generate the treasure. But I did something different than just read out a list of goodies. I turned it into part of the story. I used Giant Spiders this week and when Korvyn the gnomish rogue started poking about for treasure I seized the opportunity. He found a cocooned body of a half orc with a backpack full of loot. Getting him out of the cocoon was disgusting. Describing the slimy bag and its wrapped up treasures made the whole event come alive.
A little bit of work goes a long, long way. If you hate random encounters, don’t use them but if you are going to use them make them worthwhile! Make them work for you enhancing the setting and making the players wonder if you even use random encounters at all! Keep rolling!