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Embracing Chaos: Randomizing the Random Encounter

Introduce a little anarchy.  Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.  I’m an agent of chaos.  Oh, and you know the thing about chaos?  It’s fair!” ~ The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the Game Theories column, which Monte Cook wrote in the recent Kobold Quarterly issue.  It was entitled “Dice vs. Story”, wherein Mr. Cook philosophizes about introducing more “unpredictability” into Role-Playing Games in order to make them not only more challenging, but also to add “freshness” to a campaign.  His concepts were particularly noteworthy with respect to random encounters, which are not all that random anymore in my chart

[Editor’s Note: By the way, if you have not picked up a PDF copy of KQ #14 yet, then you really should consider it!  The “GenCon Special Issue” of Kobold Quarterly was an awesome read, as you may have noticed from my Review on Wednesday - and Monte’s article is definitely worth a read!]

But his article really got me thinking about the way that we, as Dungeon Masters, design our adventures and campaigns, particularly in 4E.  For the most part, D&D 4E encounters – even random ones that occur en route between the “points of light” – are carefully planned out, casting our DM “editorial eye” on the terrain effects, hazards, and composition of monster and their roles.

But doesn’t that also “tip our hands” as Dungeon Masters?  Isn’t it likely that our Players enter into these combats with a smug feeling in the back of their minds, feeling fairly certain that while they might find the encounter challenging, and maybe even dangerous, they are still likely to prevail?

Old School vs. New School

I’m not even sure in what edition of D&D I stopped using random encounters.  Particularly the kind of random encounters involving dice rolls on a chart of monsters as the adventuring party wander around in the wilderness, or search through a dungeon.  I think it was maybe around 2nd edition, but more likely 3rd edition, when the complexity of monsters and the game system itself seemed to be increasing, and turning the process of making a truly random encounter into a boring and tedious ordeal.

To make a truly random encounter, I found that I had to spend valuable game session time riffling through a Monster Manual, or Monstrous Manual depending on the edition, just to be able to drop a pack of critters on my adventurers.  And then there was all this tedious dice rolling for monster hit points to start the encounter, and then after the fight, more rolling on tables to determine if the beasties were carrying any loot, and what kind of loot, and gems, and jewelry, and magic items, ad nauseum.  It felt so very unprepared, and almost a little immature, to be sitting there rolling handfuls of dice before, during, and after the encounter, just to make it random.

So at some point, I started pre-creating my random encounters, particularly wilderness ones.  After all, I knew where the Characters were going, and knew the terrains through which they would be traveling.  I knew the frequency of the random encounters possible, so I would roll up the random encounter ahead of time, complete with monster stat blocks and treasure already written down and ready to use at the gaming table.

So now as the DM, I knew that on the afternoon of third day of the Adventurers’ trek to the Hidden Temple of Badness, when they were marching through the Dark Forest of More Badness, the party would encounter a pack of Nasty Monster Type I, carrying This Loot and That Treasure.

And it worked well, and I was praised by my Players as being a super-prepared DM, and I basked in the glow of their adulation.

But it didn’t stop there.  As time and editions went by, I began to remove more and more of the random elements from the random encounter, such as selecting by choice, rather than rolling, which monsters from the random encounter tables I would use, and tending to dismiss those that were too powerful and too dangerous to throw at the party.  So over time, random encounters became just encounters, feeling good about being a better prepared Dungeon Master and not wasting time during a gaming session.

But on the other hand, I think I was also bleeding some of the fun out of the game by removing that element of chaos, which I was reminded of when I read Mr. Cook’s article.  “Dice vs. Story” pointed out that a truly random encounter, particularly one involving  a monster which is beyond the party’s level, adds a genuine thrill to the gaming session, and it forces not only the Players, but the Dungeon Master as well, to think “outside the box” for ways to avoid a TPK.

Now obviously as a Dungeon Master, we do not want to see our Player-Characters perish because of one bad die roll, with a Total Party Kill potentially ruining weeks of planning for an entire campaign in the process.  So in order to offer the layer-Characters some chance, however small, of making a heroic escape from certain doom, we have to be prepared to become inventive ourselves, and be ready to role-play just as hard as our Players do.

A Lich by any other name…

One of the best examples of this kind of truly over-the-top random encounter was from my early AD&D days.  I was at that time playing a Half-elf Cleric of Corellon in a friend’s game, and when our low level characters were traveling through Greyhawk’s Gnarley Forest, we had some truly bad luck on the random encounter table – and encountered a Lich.
doomed party
Now, by all rights, the Lich should have taken one look at our party, chuckled coldly, and blew us to smithereens with a fireball spell, most likely without ever breaking stride.  But here is where our Dungeon Master really showed some imagination and role-playing skills, and instead of a quick death, our party incapacitated, captured and taken back to the Lich’s creepy keep, called Slaughfort.

Now we had a role-playing challenge on our hands.  Imprisoned and stripped of gear by the Slaughfort Lich, we had to figure out how to escape, with only a few meager tools as we could scrounge from the prison cell.  Of course, while we were working on escape, the Lich was amusing himself immensely by using us in terrible experiments to test out new spells and magic items.  Our dwarven fighter, for instance, was taken away and tied down to a fire ant mound, wearing nothing but a ring of regeneration. The Lich had recently enchanted for one of its minion, an anti-paladin lieutenant, and he wanted to make sure it was working properly, of course.  And our Wizard was separated from his pseudo-dragon, and used to test a mirror of opposition, discovering the familiar’s very nasty new evil personality upon its return to our cell.

But we heroes eventually escaped the cell, located our gear, and managed to flee Slaughfort, counting ourselves lucky for having made it out mostly unscathed.  Of course, we were a bit chagrined to find out that the Slaughfort Lich had replaced several of our magic items with cursed look-a-likes – which we discovered during the next random encounter with a few level-appropriate, measly orcs.

The Slaughfort Lich, which began as a random encounter, was transformed by some solid Dungeon Mastering into a wonderfully memorable recurring villain for our AD&D campaign.  Of course, we hated it when that evil bastard would show up, usually during campaign downtime, to test out a new item or spell on his “favorite” test subjects.  I can recall at least one time that I nearly launched myself over the DM Screen in fury, when the old Slaughfort Lich showed up at the consecration ceremony of my Cleric’s Shrine to Corellon, in order to test out his new sphere of annihiliation – and some theories he had redecorating sacred spaces.  But I can look back now and realize what amazing role-playing opportunities having an over-powered nemesis can bring to a campaign, and the Slaughfort Lich owes its very existence to a bad die roll on a random encounter table.

Embracing the Chaos

I know that in 4E, and in D&D in general, it is considered proper Dungeon Mastering to present balanced and reasonable encounters to the Player-Characters.  We want our Player-Characters to feel like Heroes, that they are important to the story, and that they have a good time at our games.  But what kinds of Heroes only face challenges that they are more likely to win?

For heroic templates from literature, consider these polar extremes.  On one hand, you have Beowulf, who defeated Grendel and his Mother single-handed, through strength of arms and Viking fortitude.  But on the other hand, you have brave Ulysses, who defeated the Cyclops Polyphemus and escaped its cave using his brains rather than his brawn.  Yet both characters are considered Heroes in the finest sense of the word, despite handling their monsters problems in very different ways.

So I have decided to rethink my methods of creating random encounters.  Perhaps Player-Characters should have to deal with encounters of both types – ones they can beat by using powers and others they must decide how to avoid in order to survive.

In fact, for one of my campaigns, I have already created a random list of monster encounters which could occur in a particular region that my party of adventurers will be traveling through during the next game session.  I plan to give my Players fair warning that I have revised our “social contract” regarding the danger level of random encounters, and that it is possible for the heroes to meet monsters which will kill them outright should they attempt a direct assault.  The Characters are free to use their Knowledge Skills in order to try and divine if the encounter represents extreme danger.  And I will also use verbal clues as I describe the encounter set-up, to provide hints to know if a challenge might be one they want to avoid – or at least look keep a fast escape route open.beholder trans

With Adventure Tools, it was remarkably quick and easy to create a set of a dozen random encounters which would be possible in the geographical area where they will be traveling.  And the Encounter Levels range from Party Level -1 to Party Level +10, which means that the upper end of the range is pretty much lethal if the Adventurers dive in and go the roll for initiative route.  The chart is percentage based, with the chance of encountering the top-tier predator at only a few percent, but it is still, nonetheless, a possibility.

And I plan to have my heroes roll the percentile dice themselves when a random encounter occurs, with the fore-knowledge that a high roll on the d100 is VERY BAD.

I find myself actually hoping that the party rolls very high, at least once during their five day trek in the wild lands between the “points of light”.  I’d like to see how my Players handle an encounter which requires that they must use their wits to escape – whether it means running, fast-talking, bribing, or confusing their enemies in order to make a get-away.  I think Heroes should be rewarded for surviving that kind of encounter as well, and should be rewarded a percentage of the encounter’s XP, because making an escape against certain doom is most assuredly an experience.

Do you ever pit your Players-Characters against an impossible foe, or have you had a 4E Dungeon Master threaten your Character with a monster well beyond your combat capabilities and lived to tell the tale?  Tell me about your experiences – as always, your comments are most welcome!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Illustrations courtesy of Wizards of the Coast’s Player Strategy Guide (2010)

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


3 Responses to “Embracing Chaos: Randomizing the Random Encounter”

  1. UHF says:

    I haven’t gone the impossible route yet, but it has a very strong appeal. Much more so, now that you mention it.

    Uh.. yeah. It’s got to the point where my son will launch his Archer into a fight with the same level of glee that only Arnold Schwartzeneager carrying a minigun seems to muster. But really, as a player its about playing the odds. If you play right and roll well then you will reap the rewards. That needs some change.

    It also makes some sense that this stuff should happen ‘out of adventure’. I personally never grasped why a random quantity of monsters would randomly wander around. I like the feel of many adventures these days since they are really stories that seem to propel themselves. But out of adventure needs some tweaking.

  2. @UHF – Yes, so far my experiment is limited to random encounters that will occur as Characters travel to and from an adventure site, or between “points of light”.

    I have considered the idea of putting some encounters into an adventure which are “over the top”, with sufficient warning to the Players that this might occur. Perhaps putting something in a warded area, like a powerful demon, so that should Characters encounter it, they still have the option of running to safety. The old MERP module “Moria” is a good example of that kind of setting – Characters could adventure in the upper reaches of the dungeon for quite a while, but if they went too deep, they risked waking and running into the Balrog. And with no Gandalf there to save their rear-ends, it was likely to be a real TPK unless they ran very, very fast.

  3. UHF says:

    A halfway solution would be that you could use a ‘generic’ stat block for filler troops or random encounters. Essentially just run off the basic stats for monsters appropriate to the level of the characters as per the DMG. (Level 4: Minion, Skirmisher, Soldier, Artillery, Brute, Controller) Flavor up the critters to taste based on what you see in the Monster Manual, but the stats are generic behind the scenes.

    And honestly, the players are paying less attention to what is going on behind the DM’s screen these days. You could really surprise them with a Goblin brute backed by some artillery minions… (Hey! That never happened before…)

    Now you can instantly slap together an exciting occurrence.

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