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Run Meaningful Random Encounters

by Mike on 28 June 2021

In previous articles on Sly Flourish we've discussed 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 at the table. We can even think of the die, and randomness in general, as an additional player at the table, one who steers the direction of the game in ways we could not have expected.

We take it for granted that randomness is a core component of the game with ability checks, attack rolls, and the like, but don't always consider how randomness can affect larger parts of the story as well, like the scenes that take place.

Nearly all 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 random encounter tables broken down by environment. The Lazy DM's Workbook includes a random monster table by dungeon level based on the tables from the original Dungeon Master's Guide.

For more on the idea of building entire adventures randomly, even at the table, see this article on the Casual and Improvisatory Nature of Early Traveller Play.

Criticism of Random Encounters

While many DMs enjoy random encounters, some DMs don't like them at all. Criticisms include random encounters taking away from the main story of an adventure and taking up valuable game time. These criticisms aren't wrong but there are ways we can incorporate random encounters that become part of the story rather than 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.

Cook At The Table

Why use random encounters? Why not plan out every encounter the characters face so we can carefully tune them around the story? As we talked about in the article Randomness and Creativity, sometimes random elements make us more creative. We avoid stereotypes. We break out of our creative ruts. We push our minds towards new ideas we might not have seen otherwise. Just as attack rolls and saving throws change the outcome of a story, so can the dice help us generate entire scenes.

Rolling for random encounters is like cooking at the table instead of in the kitchen. We have the ingredients set up for us but a couple of die rolls 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.

Add a Backdrop

When rolling for a random encounter, add an interesting backdrop to the encounter. Add a monument fitting the theme of your adventure. Come up with your own or roll randomly from a table of your own creation or the monuments tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook. Think of this like the background set of a play. What makes the location cool?

Use Theater of the Mind

Random combat encounters take time but they need not take a lot of time. When running a random combat encounter, skip the battle map and use theater of the mind or use a fast and loose abstract map with some generic monster tokens. Random encounters might not lead to combat anyway. The characters might sneak past, bluff past, or threaten their way through without drawing blood. If the swords do get drawn, stay in the narrative and keep it quick.

What's Coming or What Came Before

Instead of assuming the random encounter occurs right now, the roll might have revealed what was here before or what's coming afterwards. The characters might arrive at a location after a big creature or group of villains crossed the path. The characters can decide to follow them or leave them be and stay on their journey. Likewise, the characters might realize that something is stalking them and need to either set up an ambush of their own or shake the tail they've acquired.

Drop in Secrets and Clues

Random encounters are a great vehicle for secrets and clues. These discoveries tie the random encounter to the story of the game rather than making it a distraction. 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.

Don't be a Slave to the Dice

Sometimes when you roll for a random encounter, the encounter that comes up doesn't make sense at all. Think about it for a moment but if you're stuck, roll again. Randomness and your creative brain work together, not separately. The dice help us break out of our current groove 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.

Play to See What Happens

Running random encounters gives us a fun way to watch the game go in directions we never anticipated. By tying them to secrets and clues, running them as situations instead of forcing combat, and adding interesting backdrops; we create scenes never having been done before and all see where they go together. Add random encounters to your toolbox and play to see what happens.

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