Recently I came across some discussions about the value, or lack thereof, to random encounters. The discussions were related to if there is any reason to keep them in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and the opinion was decidedly negative. The perspective was largely from a later edition viewpoint, where story and balance are the key words to adventure design and the concept of wandering monsters seems superfluous, even counter-productive to the game. Random encounters represent grinding for experience and slowing down the game without contributing to the goal of advancing the story.
This got me thinking about how I view random encounters, how they are an integral part of the game, why I feel their value is not limited to “old school” play, and why I think a lot misconceptions about their use exist.
Murder Hobos and Grind
Some of the most common misconceptions about random encounters, especially of the wandering monster variety, are regarding their frequency and nature. The example I’ve seen portrays adventures as, “kick in the door, fight 2d6 orcs, loot the bodies. Kick in the next door, fight 2d6 goblins, loot the bodies.” This leads to the image of old school adventurers as “murder hobos” wandering through an endless grind of monsters with neither rhyme nor reason.
However the frequency of random encounters doesn’t bear this out, neither within the dungeon nor in the wilderness. While specific numbers vary from adventure to adventure, there is always a limited chance to have an encounter within a given span of time. Even combined with set encounters it is a rare thing to go through room after room of populated chambers. A look through the classic modules will demonstrate that even in the largest dungeons this kind of frequency isn’t the norm.
Instead, this style of adventure design is characteristic of early computer role playing games that tried to emulate D&D. Games like Moria, NetHack, and Telenguard were limited in the experience they could provide, cutting the D&D experience down to exactly the kind of grinding play that many now associate with old school gaming. This is a trope that computer games still haven’t overcome, as games like Diablo and World of Warcraft will demonstrate, but the pen-and-paper games that inspired them don’t face such limitations.
Not Every Monster Wants to Fight
The second part of these misconceptions is the idea that random encounters, even wandering monsters, are nothing but endless battles. All wandering monsters are not out to eat the adventurers, otherwise there would be no need for the rules on reaction rolls. Sometimes the hobgoblins will be interested in trading information. Sometimes the ogre can be bought off with food. Sometimes the owlbear just wants to be left alone. Wandering monsters are often as much a challenge to the adventurers’ diplomacy as their skill at arms, and while wandering monsters rarely yield great monetary rewards a good reaction roll coupled with savvy negotiations can provide invaluable intelligence and even new allies.
“Most DMs love communication and negotiations, for this allows them to assume an active role in actual play. Your referee will assume the persona proper to the creature your party is dealing with – be it shy and hostile, stupid, greedy, helpful, misinformed, or whatever. Intelligent monsters will always balance the offer versus the expectations.” AD&D Players Handbook, pg. 104
Who Are the Monsters in your Neighborhood
Adventurers tread through wild lands and dark depths. Danger may lurk in any corridor or behind any copse of trees. Characters are explorers and gamblers, which is why they’re called adventurers. If there was no risk involved in going from the city to the lost temple it wouldn’t stay lost for long.
Random encounters keep the players on edge. It makes them consider carefully what equipment they will bring, what supplies they have left, what spells remain, and how much farther they can go in their current condition. It forces them to decide how much they will push their luck and question if they’ll have enough strength to overcome what might yet lay between them and their goal. I’ve seen anxiety on the faces of an entire party as they rolled to see if an encounter lay ahead and felt true suspense as they sought to avoid discovery.
But this aspect of monsters isn’t just about wearing the party down, it’s also about rewarding smart tactics. The party who keeps the halfling trailing behind may be warned before the dire wolves catch them. The party whose ranger scouts ahead may allow them to ambush or avoid a wandering group of trolls. In the same way cautious delvers avoid traps and pitfalls, the skilled party will often be rewarded when faced with a random encounter.
Random encounters are also ways to give the players information about the world around them. If the players are warned that the woods are filled with goblins, then goblin encounters drive home the atmosphere of danger. A group of drow in the crypts of a necromancer may give warning that a dark alliance is in place. If the magistrate insists that the lands around the town are peaceful but the players keep running into orcs, then the party should begin to suspect a raiding party, or that the orcs have taken up residence in the nearby caves. Or perhaps the magistrate has been lying. Encounters add weight to the world and give glimpses to what is happening outside of the characters’ gaze.
Not Every Monster is Meant to be Fought
I touched on the idea that not every monster will automatically want to eat the party, but another aspect of wandering monsters are those who are not meant to be fought. These may be potential allies, sources of information, or beings whose disposition will depend entirely on the actions of the players.
“A ‘monster’ can be a kindly wizard or a crazed dwarf, a friendly brass dragon or a malicious manticore. Such are the possibilites of encounters in dungeon, wilderness, or town.” AD&D Players Handbook, pg. 103
This aspect is particularly useful for a sandbox setting, where encounters can provide new adventure hooks to the players, or simple clues that may come in helpful later. A chance encounter might lead to the players completely changing course to explore other areas of the region, and this kind of freedom is what sandbox play is all about.
When you remember that every wandering monster isn’t automatically an adversary, it also frees the DM to introduce beings far more powerful than the party. For example, in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game the party has encountered a wraith lord, who rode into their camp one night. The party, knowing they were outclassed, took no hostile action. The wraith lord, not sensing his goal and not threatened by the party, rode off without harming them. The effect gave a sense of dread in the land and provided the players with questions to investigate later, with the potential of becoming the focus of their adventures.
In a sandbox there are other forces at work who act independently of the players. Random encounters help make this clear to the players and give them insight on what else is happening in the world.
Not Every Encounter is a Monster
All wandering monsters are random encounters but not all random encounters are wandering monsters. Random encounters can be other things such as strange happenings, enchanted pools, traps, or weather conditions. For wilderness encounters I enjoy adding entries such as, “Dense fog, persists for 1d6 hours.” Aside from the chance of the party losing its way, it adds a complication to further wandering monster encounters.
Set pieces can also be used for random encounters, such as an abandoned farm house or statue to a forgotten god. I like to make use of a second table for special encounters, where a roll on the regular encounter table will direct you to the special table. That’s where I place set pieces, powerful beings, and other events that stand out beyond the norm. The aforementioned encounter with the wraith lord came from a roll on the special event table.
Fun for the DM!
Most discussions about why we use random encounters forget the element of fun, particularly for the DM. Old school game play is an exercise in collaborative discovery writing, where the story unfolds through playing the game and not from following an outline. Part of the fun for an old school DM is having to think on his or her feet and reacting to the choices the players make. Random encounters create plot twists in the adventure and can send the players off in unexpected directions, making the DM stretch his or her imagination to keep up. This gives the DM the same thrill of discovery as the players.
The fun isn’t limited to sandbox games either. If you love story based gaming, then random encounters can deepen the plot. They can be used to augment planned encounters, raising the tension level and adding unexpected drama without derailing the central thread.
No matter if you prefer wide open sandbox games or linear story based adventures, random encounters are a valuable tool in the DM’s arsenal. They enrich world building and atmosphere as well as rewarding good tactics, and provide an element of the unexpected for both players and dungeon masters alike.