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by Mike on 6 December 2021
Justin Alexander at the Alexandrian had an awesome article on Non-Focal Random Encounters. Justin defines these as random encounters that don't necessarily happen to the characters but to things the characters care about. Justin uses the jawa attack on Mando's ship in the Mandolorian as an example of a non-focal encounter.
Justin recommends building a list of the people or places the characters care about and rolling on that list to see if something happens there while the characters are elsewhere. It's another great way to make the world feel like a living breathing place.
There are lots of ways to use random encounters in different ways to make the world feel real. Here are some others I've enjoyed.
Instead of rolling random encounters for what happens to the characters right now, we can roll to see what sort of encounter previously happened along the path the characters travel. As the characters travel along a wild game trail, they might come to signs that a huge reptile crashed through the underbrush, smashing trees two-feet thick.
We can also indicate encounters that may happen in the future. The characters may hear the guttural calls of giants in the distance getting closer.
Using random encounters to show what has already happened and what may happen in the future gives the characters choices they don't otherwise typically get. Do they follow the huge lizard or leave it be? Do they set up an ambush for the coming giants or do they move along out of their path?
Instead of running into a single encounter, we can roll twice and have the characters arrive to witness two encounters already engaged with one another. A pack of ravenous ghouls may be swarming over a pair of cyclopses. A bunch of goblins may be on the losing side of a skirmish with some giant spiders currently cocooning them up high in the trees. Encounters like this give the characters an interesting situation and interesting choices. Do they save the goblins? Do they circle around the ghoul and giant frenzy?
Other times we may have an encounter we know is going to happen. The characters meet up with a vital NPC out near the elven ruins. When they arrive, however, perhaps that NPC's already awoke a tomb full of specters. Adding a random encounter to a fixed encounter changes the variables in ways even we didn't expect.
Random encounter tables have been part of D&D for half a century. Justin's idea of non-focal random encounters and the concepts of past, future, or combined random encounters give us tons of new ways to use these simple tables to make the world come alive for us and our players. We're squeezing ever more value out of the tables we've had in our hands for years. Give it a try.
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