by Mike Shea on 10 April 2017
In 1974 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt built a set of cards designed to help people break out of conventional thought called Oblique Strategies. This deck of cards each contained an odd phrase such as "look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them" and "use filters". These phrases were designed to help spark one's mind, break out of a rut, and fire up some new creative ideas.
It's a bit new-age, but we can do the same thing with our collections of random tables, charts, and tools for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Random tables, like those found in the Dungeon Master's Guide, our own Ancient Monuments, and the excellent donjon random encounter generator can break us out of our own conventional thought and steer us into new creative directions. Even a decent random name generator can help us break past finding a good name for an NPC, a bar, or a band of mercenary hobgoblins.
We might be tempted to use random tables during gameplay but even better is using them during game preparation. We can spend more time with these random tables and their results ot help us break away from conventional thought while preparing our game ahead of time. Rolling on random tables during game preparation gives us a good chance to throw out bad ideas and refine the good ones into something wonderful.
Any particular encounter we run is likely built on layers such as a general environment, a fantastic feature, and some monsters. This might look like it's only for combat encounters but it can work for scenes of exploration and roleplaying as well. Many times our combat encounters end up as exploration and roleplaying encounters anyway if our players get creative about how they approach it.
Typically we know what environment our scene is going to take place. Maybe its a city, maybe its a frozen tundra, or maybe its a swamp. We often don't need any sort of random table to figure this out. Unless the characters are about to step through a misty portal to an unknown world, we know roughly what the environment will be like.
With the general environment in mind we can try to think up a fantastic feature for the location. What makes this place unique and memorable? We can use a random ancient monument to fire up some ideas. Not all of these randomly generated monuments are going to make sense but we might see something that sparks our imaginations.
We probably want to add some monsters to our encounter, even if it's not always going to end up in combat. Donjon's random encounter generator is a great way to choose some random monsters at a particular level and based in a particular environment. If you don't like what comes up, run the generator again. Lower or raise the level if you want to try out a different environment.
If online tools aren't your bag, the Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with great random charts to fire off your imagination. Chapters 3, 5, and Appendix A contain excellent random tables to give you ideas during your game preparation. Spending time with the DMG rolling on these tables and putting together some ideas is a great way to play some D&D by yourself. Give them a roll and see what fires your imagination.
Random tables help us break our thoughts away from the stereotypes we might fall back on when we're pressed to come up with an interesting location or encounter in our D&D game. Under the stress of running the game, our minds return to the familiar. When we roll on random tables as part of our preparation activity, it helps push our minds into new and uncharted waters. Roll some dice and let chaos guide our ideas.