RPT#193 – 8 Tips For Improving Random Encounters
A Brief Word From Johnn
I picked up a fantasy book last week and now I can’t put it down. It’s called Dawnthief and was written by James Barclay. One of the reviews on the cover put it in the genre of “action fantasy”. I haven’t heard of that genre before. Is it a Y2K version of “sword & sorcery”? Are there other books that have been placed in this genre? Is there a web site out there that lists all the sub-genres of fantasy? That might be a good resource to help classify GMing styles.
On a side note, it’s a UK author and book. To me, that’s a sure sign I’ll like the book. For whatever reason, I am predisposed to enjoying UK fantasy, probably because I enjoyed Moorcock’s books so much when I was young. Now it’s become a book superstition for me that, as far as I can recall, hasn’t failed. Weird.
Have a great week!
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Take a look at our latest adventure, Ruined Keep, an adventure for characters 7th-9th Level. Set in the Kingdom of Paleon, Ruined Keep is the follow-up to our first adventure, Goblin Cave. Check out our website for more information on Ruined Keep and a free web enhancement introducing our philosophy-based campaign world of Terra, as well as information on upcoming releases.
By Johnn Four
I’m biased. No doubt about it. I love random and wandering monster encounters and have been using them since I started GMing in 19<cough>. I run very few sessions without them. Below are a few tips for game masters who want to improve their random encounters.
- Divide Game Content Into Two Layers
I tend to classify my planning, gaming notes, and gaming content into two groups:
- Flesh (In-Character)
- Skeleton (Meta Game)
The Flesh content includes tangible things, such as:
- NPC statistics and personalities
- Location descriptions and rules effects
It’s the stuff the PCs interact with and the things the players can visually imagine. If the content could be perceived in-character by a PC using any of his senses then I’d lump it in the Flesh category.
The Skeleton content is the invisible stuff that forms the structure of a game session or encounter. It’s the glue that puts it all together, the puppet strings, or the trail of bread crumbs, depending on your GMing style. Some examples are:
- Plot lines
- Player typing (deciding what types of players you have and tweaking your games to suit)
- Character typing
- Description techniques
- Techniques for steering, guiding, influencing, or manipulating the PCs
It’s the secret reasons and purposes you have for choosing and involving Flesh content and how that content manifests itself in-game. It’s the stuff you do as a GM either through planning or in-game decision making. The players might be able to perceive this content if they’re experienced or if you have a poor poker face, but the characters can’t until it morphs into some form of Flesh content.
For example, let’s say your plot involves saving the campaign region from a powerful demon who’s been mistakenly released by the PCs. You plan an encounter where the PCs save a visiting gnomish ambassador from an attack in a rough neighbourhood. After the encounter, regardless of whether the ambassador survives, the PCs should find her satchel of notes that focus on demonic information. You want to provide the players with this info to further drive the plot, plant a few clues, and educate the PCs about battling demons.
Here’s how I’d break down the content of above encounter:
- Gnomish ambassador, guards, related NPCs (names, stats, personality, etc.)
- Foes who attack (names, stats, personality, etc.)
- Notes about demons (as read-aloud text, or perhaps as player handouts or props)
- Rough neighbourhood location, encounter location, description, and game effects
- A set-up description, lead-in, or hook
- Why do we want to provide the PCs with notes?
- Why do we have a gnomish ambassador who needs saving? Is there a different NPC who would be a better choice?
- Why have we placed the encounter in a rough neighbourhood? Is there a spot that’s more useful or meaningful?
- When does this encounter take place in terms of plot line? Should the PCs already know they’ve unleashed a demon or should we set things up by giving them this info ahead of time?
- What should we use as a lead-in or hook and why?
The gnomish ambassador is a tangible thing the PCs can interact with and the players can visualize, so it’s Flesh. The reason why we’ve chosen a gnomish ambassador should not be apparent to the players or their characters, so it’s Skeleton.
Thinking of all your game content in this way can take practice but it’s worthwhile. It’s a useful GM technique and the Skeleton stuff should usually be dissected and tweaked first.
For example, if you choose a gnomish ambassador for the encounter, spend an hour on her game stats and bio, and *then* ask yourself why you’ve chosen that NPC and if there’s not a better non-player character for the job, you risk losing valuable planning time and planning momentum.
Also, when you’re in the middle of planning or in mid-game, asking the Skeleton question itself might never occur to you and you lose an opportunity to tweak your encounter for the better. For example, perhaps a minor villain or rival of the PCs ends up being the best choice as that NPC hasn’t made an appearance recently and will hook the PCs in immediately.
- Add Reason To Your Madness — Provide Random Encounters With An Ulterior Motive
The “Divide Game Content Into Two Layers” tip is a set-up for this one. Traditional random encounters involve tables of monsters, NPCs, and foes, and possibly their stats.
What type of game content is this? Flesh.
Because random encounter tables are usually static, there is no Skeleton element. Therefore, the tip is, you can dramatically improve any random encounter by adding a Skeleton layer to it. Add some purpose, context, and campaign value to transform random encounters into useful GM tools.
You can often make the biggest impact on a random encounter by answering the question “why?”
For example, you roll a 19, consult Wilderness Encounters Chart 1C – Temperate, and announce to the group that three wild boars erupt out of the bush. The beasts charge the PCs and an hour long battle (in real time) begins.
Some players will eat this up and cry for more. Many will sigh and pray the combat goes quickly. Some will get frustrated or angry and check their watches because the story has stalled and the encounter seems boring (pun intended). A rare few will stand up on their chairs and loudly declare their discontent for existential reasons.
If you decide to check the Skeleton layer and ask why, a few ideas might pop into your head and player dissatisfaction might dissolve, your campaign integrity will remain intact:), and your story can continue moving forward.
“Hmmmm, why would three boars charge the PCs out of the blue? Why are boars there at that time and place?”
Possible answers that spring to mind:
- It’s a cool trap. The players might see a foe on horse in the shadows who salutes the PCs before riding away.
- It’s an accident. Just before the boars attack, the PCs find empty cages lying beside an overturned wagon. An unconscious NPC is sprawled nearby with a fourth boar standing over him!
- It’s a lead-in to a more interesting event. Just ahead of the boars runs a desperate person screaming for help.
- Because you’re stuck for ideas and stalling for time. So, you say “It’s weird how three boars suddenly appear like this. It’s almost as if they knew you were coming.” Then you sit patiently behind your screen and note any good ideas the players come up with in the ensuing conversation.
Here are some more questions to help add a Skeleton layer quickly while on the fly:
- Why should the characters care about this encounter?
- Why should the players care about this encounter?
- How can you tie this encounter into the plot?
- What kind of twist could you add to make it more interesting?
- How can you use this encounter to affect the mood, atmosphere, or pace of the game session?
- Pause Before You Begin A Random Encounter
Sometimes you get into a fast-paced, multi-tasking GM mental zone during a session and you leap right into a random encounter after rolling one up. However, it’s good to gather yourself by pausing a moment before you begin:
- What is the big picture here? What are you trying to accomplish?
- At this time, do the players, characters, and session need a combat, roleplaying, or puzzle encounter? How can you tweak your random encounter to deliver this?
- Visualize the whole scene.
- What are its constraints?
- Physical boundaries or difficult terrain
- Conditions of victory
- Time limits
- Neighbours or other parties who could be roused and become involved
- What can be sensed and detected ahead of time by the PCs?
- How have the foes prepared themselves for a random encounter?
You can tell when a GM is getting tired because the information he delivers becomes fragmented and his answers to questions become short or vague. This also occurs during random encounters where a GM hasn’t fully visualized the scene and the encounter quality tends to suffer.
Inaccurate or insufficient information has caused more GM- player arguments than any other reason I can think of, aside from rules interpretation perhaps. And it’s the nature of random encounters for GMs to feel pressure to create something interesting from an information fragment (the result of the encounter table roll) on the spot while the players’ beady eyes drill holes into the screen. 🙂
Visualizing the scene will help you provide complete information and answer questions succinctly.
- What are its constraints?
- What would be the best/easiest/coolest way to begin the encounter? The quality of an ending is often determined by the quality of the beginning.
- What would be the best/coolest way to end the encounter? The nature of the ending is often what is most remembered about an encounter, so it’s good to begin with a possible end in mind.
- Do A Visual Inspection To Ensure Everyone Is Going To Be Entertained
A downside to random encounters is that they have not been constructed with the players and characters in mind, so chances are someone’s going to get bored. Next time you serve up your next random challenge, look at each player and ask yourself if that person is going to enjoy the encounter that’s about to begin.
A quick visual inspection is better than a paper checklist of player/character names because you get an opportunity to see and gauge the current mood and attitude of each player and tweak your encounter accordingly at the same time. As an added bonus, seeing the GM eyeing you up tends to get players’ attentions and focus.
- Create Living Random Encounter Charts
This is something I just started doing in my current campaign (that’s on hiatus at the moment). I’ve been building an ongoing list of possible repeat encounters based on what happens in the game and then I use this list as a random encounter chart during sessions.
- If the players tackle a dinosaur during a planned encounter, I add that creature to my living random encounter list.
- If the PCs meet someone travelling in the region, I add their name to my chart for a possible repeat encounter.
- If the PCs hear rumours or legends about something that could be encountered (and I don’t have a planned encounter set-up for it) I’ll add it to the chart.
- If a foe flees or survives an encounter with the group, I’ll add them to the list.
A living random encounter chart can be quite useful:
- A reminder of things that could happen
- Re-use of game elements you have planned, designed, or learned about
- A feeling of realism
- A planning tool for when you’re between sessions
To date, I have not assigned probability/dice roll numbers to my list. I scan it and pick whatever catches my imagination at that time. However, between sessions, it would not be hard to adjust the numbers of the chart to factor in any new encounters that have been added to build a true, living random encounter chart.
- Tweak Each Element Of The Encounter
See http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue11.asp for ideas on how to improve encounters. In essence, try to tweak one or two elements of an encounter so that it’s more interesting and doesn’t have a vacuum “random encounter” feel to it.
- Location (burning bridge, drafty empty building)
- Weather (storm, rain, bright sun)
- Lighting (strobe fungi, orange glow, piercing bright)
- Footing (gravel, spongy, 2 feet of water)
- Reward (place the reward in plain site to motivate)
- Multiple challenges/goals
Try to tweak the encounter before it starts so you can factor the tweaks into descriptions, game rules, and the PCs’ perceptions.
- Provide Meaningful Consequences For Random Encounters
Players get peeved when what their characters do has no purpose, benefits, or consequences. If they experience an encounter and that event makes no impact–not even a slight scratch–on the adventure or campaign, they’ll develop a deep dislike for your random encounters.
Experience points and treasure are motivational and create interest, but they soon take on a cotton candy level of satisfaction to all but the most diehard wargamer.
So, once the encounter is over, do a quick impact assessment and look for ways to inject meaningful consequences into your game.
- PC health and appearance. Imagine a messy encounter just before the PCs were to meet an important NPC?
- Enemies. The group makes a new enemy or rival.
- Tactical. The encounter saps the party’s resources, such as spells and ammunition.
- Framed. PCs never clean up their messes. A rival or villain might be able to use the encounter against the PCs somehow, possibly going to the extent of fabricating evidence, producing false witnesses, etc.
- Secret importance. The foe(s) the PCs just tangled with had a secret importance to the game world, a villain, an ally, or the adventure.
- Relations. The PCs upset a fragile situation between two groups in the region, such as the PCs’ village and the nearby goblin clan.
- Rumours, stories, lies. Someone else arrives at the scene of the conflict after the PCs have left and forms their own opinion of what happened. This opinion or news spreads ahead of the PCs putting them in a bad or amusing light.
- Use Random Encounters Strategically
Sometimes a well-timed random encounter can save your bacon or create a more entertaining experience for the players:
- Encourage party action. Often, random encounters are used to drive the PCs onwards, depriving them of rest and recuperation. This is an effective strategy for building up drama and tension during a game session.
- Use short encounters. Long random encounters will diffuse any drama and tension you’ve managed to create.
- Combat is not necessary. Not all encounters need end in bloodshed if your goal is to keep the PCs moving. Sighting a nearby threat, spotting signs of frequent area use, or a warning encounter are good substitutes.
- End a game session. Random encounters are great fillers. If there’s only a half-hour left in the session and you don’t want the PCs to begin the next Big Challenge yet, throw a random encounter (roleplaying, combat, or puzzle) at them. Feel free to end the session on a cliffhanger, or to resolve the entire encounter before the game ends.
- Beef up rewards. If you feel the players are going to be disappointed with the rewards they’ve earned in the current session, a random encounter is a perfect delivery mechanism to provide more experience or loot.
- Warning. If the PCs are about to enter a dangerous zone and they’re not taking things seriously, a random encounter to warn them might help. Perhaps the PCs stumble upon the remains of another adventuring party who didn’t take proper precautions before entering the Crypts of Narryth. Or maybe the party is assaulted by an insane old monster who mumbles dire threats and warnings.
- Change-up. If the PCs have just run through a series of similar encounters and it looks like more of the same are queued up based on their decisions, then it’s time to change things up with a random encounter of a different nature.
- Absentee. If a player is late for a session, or someone has excused themselves from the table temporarily, a random encounter is a great way to stall until the players are all together again.
- Encourage party action. Often, random encounters are used to drive the PCs onwards, depriving them of rest and recuperation. This is an effective strategy for building up drama and tension during a game session.
If you use them, random encounters can be great GM tools. The key is to keep them short and punchy (pun not intended) and relevant. Relevance can be determined before the encounter starts by doing some quick thinking or after the encounter is done by doing some thoughtful calculation. Use them strategically, tweak them for better entertainment value, and keep the two types of game content layers in mind while running them. This will help you produce the best possible wandering monster and randomly generated encounters possible.
- 10′ Pole Tips
From: Palmer Of The Turks
I just want to put my 2 cents in on the latest issue (Managing Equipment). Namely, about the much maligned 10′ pole!
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the average pole is pretty worthless…it’s long, it’s clumsy and it’s rarely, if ever used. But that’s the basic, boring model.
Most of my characters have had a pole or rod of some sort among their possessions, but they’ve never been “just a 10′ pole”. Surviving dungeoneers are creative dungeoneers, and a 10′ pole is sorely in need of creativity.
First thing you need to do to it is get the bulk under control. And the simplest way to do this is to break it into pieces. If you can get it, have the parts (2 is the bare minimum, 3 is good, 4 is best) fitted with metal screws and sockets, not unlike a pool cue, so that you can fit the pieces together firmly. Alternately, have ALL the pieces identical, socketed on one end and screw on the other, and a fixed length (2-3 ft). Then there is no worrying about which piece is the top, and which is the bottom. As well, you have no set size limit to your pole if you connect enough pieces together. This option has the advantage that the pieces can be spread amongst multiple people, and that the pole can be made as long or as short as needed. As well, if you need to sacrifice one segment of the pole for some reason, you don’t lose the whole thing.
Another option includes having cord or fine chain running through the hollow pole, anchored firmly at both ends. The segments nest firmly into each other (one end of each section is narrower than the other) to make a full sized pole, but the cord keeps the pole together when it’s apart (it “folds” at the joints). This design is much like that used with most tent poles these days, for those who recognize them. The advantages to this are that certain joints can be left unlocked, which makes the pole bend at that point and dangle, which can be useful for a number of things. It also is always “in the right order” and can be assembled quickly and easily.
In an alternate of the above, the joints can be left unsocketed and connected by chain, much like nunchucks or a 3-section staff. To go with this, you get short lengths of what is essentially steel pipe wide enough to fit over the pole. When you need the pole to be rigid, you slide the pipe down the shaft of the pole until it covers one of the joints, thus holding it straight. You may want to have small pegs that stick out of the center section near the joints that prevent the pipe from slipping further, pegs that go through a hole in the pipe and into a matching hole in the pole to lock them into position, or perhaps you just use some twine to tie it into place. Mechanically, this version is easier to produce and may be suggested if your GM claims that the pool cue screws or hollow corded versions can’t be made.
All of these options get the pole down to a manageable length and only sacrifice assembly time while retaining practically full utility. The only other drawback is that these versions are somewhat structurally weaker.
Another option for poles is to enhance their basic function. In general, the classic pole only had a few uses. It was used to prod the floor ahead checking for (lightly triggered) pressure plates, hidden pits, or tripwires. Sometimes it was used to poke or prod a pile of something dangerous looking but unknown. Rarely it could be used to poke something at a distance, like a trap release button on the other side of a pit. Sometimes it was used to try to pull an unfortunate friend out of a pit or quicksand. Most often, in the games I played, it ended up being firewood. Once, though, it was used as a balance bar for tightrope walking. And a few times I ended up poling a makeshift barge. These are great uses…but they’re rare, comparatively minor, and often you can improvise with other stuff you have on hand or that’s in the area.
But when you start adding enhancements, then a pole can become more usable. The simplest option is to turn the pole into a portable ladder. This can be done by adding pegs that stick out, or cutting notches in alternate sides to act as footholds. Simply lay the pole against a wall, make sure it’s braced, and up you go. This is great if the wall is normally unclimbable (slick, covered in glass shards, topped with barbed wire, etc), or to help the less adept party members scale an obstacle. For the modified poles described above, you can add one set of pegs or notches to each section. In the case of the steel pipe version, you could put the footholds on the pipes themselves.
Other options include adding a small but sharp blade, or small hook to one end of the pole. A blade on a pole is pretty well no use as a weapon, being too clumsy and flimsy, but can be a great tool. Cutting trip wires from a safe distance and cutting ropes that suspend things overhead out of reach are some of the applications of this.
Hooks can be even more versatile, allowing you to hook and pull anything you can reach with the pole, like tripwires (again), the keys off a prison peg, the bar on a door, the door itself, or an unsuspecting victim’s feet out from under him. Depending on the pole and hook, large objects can be “fished” from a distance.
Mirrors placed on the end of a pole (or better yet, both ends of a pole) can allow one to peek around corners without literally sticking your neck out. If done well, you can remain unnoticed doing this.
Rope loops can have uses as well, often along the lines of hooks, but there are other possibilities. The most obvious is to use it like wild animal handlers do, passing the loop over the neck and then controlling the animal with it. They can also be used on other people, if needed.
The utmost in versatility is if you combined the pool cue style segments with the optional attachments. Have a couple of segments that have attachments on them, and it’s as good as having multiple poles.
Truly, one should not underestimate the usefulness and versatility of the classic 10′ pole… in the right form and right hands, of course.
- Avoid The High Cost Of Miniatures And The Unoriginality Of Counters!
My group and I have found it very useful to play out combat, not with miniatures or counters, but with toys. Specifically, we use the Micro-Machines Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and similar sets. Each player has their own figure, and I (as a GM) pick the monsters. This has the benefit of being small– we use graph paper, not a battle mat. A few pencil marks can fill out walls and then the battle can start. Questions about line-of-sight and other tricky rules can be easily answered by looking at the figures rather than consulting rule books. We really enjoy this method as it speeds up play and is cheaper than other alternatives.
- Chinese Names Resource
From: Chad Coulter
I’ve recently started a new campaign based in Three Kingdoms China and was looking for names. Here are a couple of sites that I found with Chinese names.
Lists the name and meaning of the name (also great for other cultures):http://www.20000-names.com/male_chinese_names.htm
Long list of Chinese names, for both male and female:http://www.kabalarians.com/male/ch_m1.htm
Hope these help someone out.
- Roleplay Shopping Trips
From: Andrew Santosusso
First off, I love the column and I’m always eagerly anticipating its arrival in my email box.
As to the mundane items piece, I just want to point out how much fun it can be for the players to roleplaying their shopping trips. I’ve been running a game for over a year now, one that has seen my players continually on the run, staying one step ahead of the all-powerful evil attempting to conquer the land. Basic epic adventure type of stuff. Anyway, they finally get to a friendly elven war-village where they presume they will be able to spend some downtime learning spells, making potions, scrolls, magic items, etc… and generally taking a break from the rigors of doing battle with the never ending swarm of mayhem.
On Day 1, they decide to do a bit of shopping. Being the sadistic, malicious DM that I am, I prepare random encounters for every possible location in my world. While generally safer locations (e.g., this particular elven village) have a much lower percentage chance of random encounters, the encounters themselves tend to be particularly nasty.
The first stop, the magic weapon/armor store. DM rolls — huzzah! a random encounter. The poor shopkeeper has been cursed and the weapons/armor come to life just as the unwary PCs are browsing his wares. Mayhem ensues and the PCs emerge bruised, battered, and a bit more wary of their surroundings.
The next stop, the exotic wares shop, which specializes in items of a more wonderful nature. Cloaks, rings, amulets, etc. The DM rolls again — darn the luck, another random encounter. A large air elemental has made its home amongst the wafting smoke from incense lingering amidst the rafters and has taken particular offense to the PCs’ intrusion. Mayhem ensues and the PCs emerge bruised, battered, and chomping at the bit to flee this cursed town that they now suspect to be in league with the ultimate evil.
Anyway, the point of this long story is that roleplaying shopping trips can be a hoot given the right preparation. Besides, if you have a thief in the party, it’s one of the few times they’ll have the chance to flex their pick pocketing muscles.
- Scenario Writing Tips For Newbies
From: Neil Faulkner
Don’t try to run before you know you can walk. Make sure your first scenarios are manageable:
- Avoid making the background too convoluted.
- Avoid making the PCs’ mission too complicated.
- Don’t overburden yourself with large numbers of NPCs.
- Have any necessary maps and floor plans ready.
- Make sure the NPCs are distinct characters in their own right, and that their names are not too similar (otherwise you’ll get them mixed up).
- Don’t be afraid to model NPCs on characters from film or television if this makes it easier for you to fall into role.
If anything, make things almost too simple and straightforward. If you’ve never GMed before, the basic process of handling many players all screaming at you at once will be more than enough to learn to cope with.
The big no-nos:
- Do not anticipate the players’ actions or decisions whilst planning, or steer them down a particular road in the course of play.
- Do not think in terms of what *will* happen when you run the game, because chances are it won’t.
- Do not become emotionally attached to your scenario or NPCs because they will only end up jilting you.
- Do not think in terms of how you are going to wow your players with your ingenuity, creative genius, superlative wit, etc. That is not in your remit. If players are diners at the gaming table of life, then the GM is the waiter, not the star cabaret act.
Tried and trusted scenario ideas:
- Rescue someone.
- Steal something.
- Deliver something from A to B.
- Find a missing person.
- Spy on someone.
- Guard something/someone.
- Explore somewhere.
- Kidnap/assassinate someone.
All of these can be used in almost any genre and in almost any setting. If the PCs can’t come up with their own goals, then you will need a patron who is basically anyone who hires the PCs to do a job on his/er behalf. If the patron has never worked with the PCs before, then s/he has the perfect excuse to give them a simple, straightforward first mission just to find out how (in)competent they are.
- Let Players Manage Equipment
From: Mike Boozer
I just let the player?s manage their own equipment. They buy what they want without me knowing, deduct the coins, and when in the game it comes up I trust what they say. Now, I guess this is still requiring them to be honest with themselves and manage the items down to the copper. However, I don’t regulate it AT ALL. Good answer for me, as I too find no one truly cares. Now, when it comes to weapons, magic items, and the like? Hehe, I take note of that stuff like a greedy GM. If I don’t the game isn’t helped when PCs constantly forget to deduct potions, charges and whether they sold that Longsword +2.
- Player Equipment Management
From: Andrew McFarlane
I too have become tired of the mundane exercise of counting beans (and 10′ poles). One strategy I have used is to have players write down whatever items they feel necessary and then to roll against a character’s professional or other related skill when they need an item (with a +/- modifier for how much encumbrance they have).
Oh yeah, and all my traps have a 12′ range… 🙂