Running Meaningful Random Encounters

by Mike Shea on 19 November 2018

In a previous article on Sly Flourish we talked about the value of randomness and creativity in D&D and breaking conventional thought with random tables. Randomness is obviously a big part of the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons. We're rolling dice all the time while the story unfolds during the game. We might even think of the die, and randomness in general, as an additional player in the game, one who steers the direction of the game in ways we could not have expected.

So we all take it for granted that randomness is a core component of the game (ability checks, attack rolls, and the like), but we might not consider how randomness can affect larger parts of the story as well, like the potential scenes that take place.

Random encounters go back to the beginning of D&D. Against the Giants and Descent into the Depths both published in 1978 included wandering monster tables that made these adventures feel alive and unpredictable. Even the DM didn't know where things were necessarily going to go.

Nearly all of the fifth edition D&D hardback adventures include robust random encounter tables with encounters for many environments and detailed descriptions of what the characters might find in the encounter. Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a bunch of random encounter tables based on environments that we can use for our own adventures. I've also included a set of random dungeon encounters in the Lazy DM's Workbook.

Criticism of Random Encounters

While many DMs are fine with random encounters, some DMs don't like them at all. Criticisms against random encounters include, generally, two main themes: they take away from the main story of an adventure and they take up valuable game time. These criticisms aren't necessarily wrong but there are ways we can incorporate random encounters that make them an interesting and exciting part of the story instead of a distraction. We can steer how we use random encounters to stay true to the story, expand the world, and liven up the game for both our players and ourselves by introducing the unexpected. Today we'll look at some of the ways to get the most out of random encounters in our D&D games.

Cooking At The Table

Why would we want to use random encounters at all? Why not plan out all the encounters that the characters will face so we can tune them very carefully around the story? As we talked about in the article Randomness and Creativity we recognize that sometimes random elements can make us more creative. We'll avoid stereotypes. We'll push our minds towards new ideas we might not have seen otherwise. Just as the dice we roll for a character affects the outcome of a story, so can the dice help us see what scenes might take place.

Rolling for random encounters is a bit like cooking at the table instead of in the kitchen. We have the ingredients all set up for us but a couple of die rolls might change things up in ways we didn't expect.

For some DMs, this is scary. We like to have control over the game and might even feel like that control is critical to ensure the game will be fun. Sometimes, though, we have to just let go. For others, though, it can be a great way to sharpen our ability to improvise right at the table. We don't roll random encounters to divert the story of the game. We roll random encounters to find new and interesting ways to expand that story.

Use Theater of the Mind

The fact that random encounters add time to our games is hard to get past. If our games are already constrained, random encounters are likely the first thing to go. One way we can manage the time is to skip the battle map and handle the scene all in our conversations. First off, the random encounter might not end in combat anyway. Characters might sneak by, negotiate their way past, or find some other way to get out of the situation without drawing a sword. If we pull out a mat, we're telegraphing to our players that combat is the likely way out. If we keep it aside, the players might try other ways to navigate the scene.

If it does come to combat, we can stay with our narrative approach by running combat in the theater of the mind. This keeps things moving fast and keeps the players in the story instead of worrying about tactical positioning. Even if you use the grid for big battles, running smaller battles in the theater of the mind is a great approach to keep on hand, particularly for random encounters.

Situations and Undefined Scenes

When we introduce a random encounter, it works well when we think of it as a situation the characters are going to get involved in. We don't have to consider what type of scene it is: exploration, roleplaying, or combat. Instead, we can focus on the fiction. Even if it's a horrible monster, the characters might find another way out of the situation than sword and spell. The less we define an encounter, the more freedom the players have to navigate it. This works well for the whole game, really, but it works particularly well for random encounters.

Tying Secrets and Clues to Random Encounters

I'm a huge fan of secrets and clues as an improvisational aid and preparation technique. It's the cornerstone of the checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The keys to a great secret and clue is that it's relatively short, it matters to the characters, and we don't know how it will come up during the game.

Random encounters are a great way to use those secrets and clues we prepared. Often we can reveal a valuable clue through a random encounter. When this works well it feels like magic. Suddenly something we couldn't anticipate came true at the table and tied directly into the story. We had a secret but didn't know where it would come up. We have an encounter we didn't expect but rolled the dice and there it is. Put the two together and we have the very example of how the story unfolds at the table.

Don't be a Slave to the Dice

Sometimes you roll the dice for a random encounter and it just doesn't work out. You either roll an encounter that already happened or that just doesn't make sense for the situation. We need not accept such weird answers. It helps to take a moment and really think about how it might make sense. The dice, after all, are helping us break out of our current creative shell and think differently. If it really doesn't work out, roll again or let your eyes wander up and down the list of random encounters and pick one that makes sense.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

There are circumstances when random encounters really don't fit well at all. If you're running a single-session time-focused game, like a convention Adventurer's League game, you probably don't want to throw in a random encounter. I don't think many Adventurer's League adventures include random encounters for this very reason.

If you're running a homebrew single-session adventure, however, you can account for the extra time within the structure of the adventure. If the characters are navigating an old crypt to find the remains of the Blood Prince, you might account for a random encounter within the tomb as they seek the villain.

Avoid Building Your Own Random Encounter Lists

Here's a bit of a controversial statement. As DMs, I don't think its a valuable use of our time to come up with our own random encounter lists. Instead, we can just come up with encounters. Leave the random encounter lists to publishers and random encounter generators. Game designers get paid to make large lists of random encounters, knowing that many of them will not get used by any single player but that, overall, they will have a high impact on the games played among many groups.

When we DMs write out random encounter lists, we're not likely to use it very often and thus a lot of our effort is wasted. Our time is better spent designing actual situations we know the characters will face and using random encounter lists to help us think outside of our own mind a little bit. Others may likely argue against this, and that's fine, but consider how much impact the whole random encounter list you write affects your actual game and decide if it's worth the time or if that time is better spent elsewhere. That is, after all, the number one lesson of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Prepare what matters.

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