The Necessity of Random Encounters in D&D

The author goes on to list what he sees as the advantages and disadvantages of random encounters, but quite remarkably to my mind never actually mentions the real purposes of random encounters in terms of setting and game design.  So he lists Pros as being things like killing off annoying characters or filling time, and the Cons as serving no story purpose or throwing the wealth per level guidelines out of whack (and I need to rant about that some day).   No mention at all is made of anything relating to the setting, or verisimilitude, or even resource management.

The post seems to ignore the two most important features of random encounters: naturalism, and husbanding resources.  They’re the GM’s chief tool in presenting the setting as a world that actually contains stuff that isn’t there for the sole purpose of being part of the PCs story, and they are the game system’s primary reason the players can’t completely optimize their resources (particularly daily powers in D&D)–the chance of such an encounter is why players have to keep something in reserve.

(I’d like to get a bit of definition out of the way: by random encounters I mean any encounter that isn’t determined by story needs or the PCs’ direct actions.  It doesn’t necessarily literally have to have come about by rolling dice on a table, though that’s certainly an option, but it’s something that isn’t required as a plot-point of the story or because the PCs have decided to seek out, say, the chief of the palace guard and have an encounter with him.)

Naturalism is important, in my opinion, even if you’re running a story-oriented sort of game.  If the setting contains no features at all that aren’t independent of the needs of the story, then the world will lack all verisimilitude and feel flat and lifeless…if it doesn’t degenerate into parody.  The central joke of Knights of the Dinner Table, after all, is that the GM is stuck with three players out of four who refuse to see the world as containing any features that aren’t clues, prizes, antagonists or (rarely) allies.  If there’s a cow, it must be a magic cow and they capture it and drag it along; if there’s a gazebo it’s a hostile encounter.  But if you don’t have random encounters, then the players will be absolutely right in assuming that if the GM bothers to mention it, it must be significant.  The world will lack any depth.  This, btw, is the curse of many of the graphically intensive computer RPGs…players correctly assume that if something can be interacted with on-screen it must be significant, because the programming and art resources won’t be wasted on mere flavor.  But if the setting contains random encounters, and the players are aware of it, they are thrust in the much more realistic position of no longer knowing whether something they run into is there by chance or design.  They have to reason about the logic within the gameworld instead of logic about the story, which I think is not only much more satisfying, but makes for better stories.  If the players can correctly reason that the vizier is secretly the bad-guy, because viziers are always the bad-guys and besides, he has a goatee, the resulting story only works as a comedy.

While naturalism is valuable for pretty much any kind of system, resource management is peculiar to certain kinds of systems and settings…but is a particularly important part of D&D and its progeny.  If you have a system where resources are defined in terms of their availability per day, per encounter, etc, and are replenished by rest (rather than, say, going back to the store and buying more ammo) then it’s an essential part of the design that the players have to consider whether they’re likely to have to call on those resources at times not of their own choosing.  The random encounter is what balances the X times a day abilities against those that can be used continuously (such as swinging a sword).  If you take it away, either you have to add time pressure to every scenario (which can be quite a strain on verisimilitude) or you have to ramp everything up (or scale the resources back) to match the assumption that the party will always have its full resources and be willing to expend them all.

You could think that it needn’t truly be random, and that as GM you can just devise the encounters just so to make the party expend resources at precisely the right pace, but IMO you’d be wrong.  You’d be wrong because the players aren’t stupid, and they know the game, and they know that as GM you have infinite resources to throw against them, so they will reason that if you hit them with something when they’re particularly low on resources it’s because you’ve chosen to be unfair.  Which is true.  Without randomness whatever you do to them you’ve explicitly chosen to do.  But that means unless you’re willing to be a jerk and kill them just because you can (and good luck getting people to play with you once you’ve established that reputation), you had better not hit them with anything challenging when they’re low on resources–unless you’re also willing to cheat like mad so they come out on top despite it.  But if they know you won’t do that then they’ll be all the more likely to spend all the resources they’ve got and then turtle.

Openly and publicly using random encounters is the solution to that whole set of problems.  If they know that there’s a certain chance of random encounters per period depending on the environs, and some of them might be hostile, then it’s up to them to decide whether to hold something in reserve or chance it–and whether hunkering down in place to recover resources is worth the risk or even possible.  The GM doesn’t have to decide to punish or not punish them for recklessness or over-caution…the setting has certain known features and the players can roleplay whether and how much risk they want to take given the stakes and circumstances.

If you’re really considering whether you will eliminate random encounters in your game, what you really need to think about is how you intend to convey the texture of the setting and not give sense that the PCs are locked in The Matrix where everything is just an illusion for their benefit, and in a D&D-like game how you’re going to deal with the players wanting to blow all their resources in each encounter and then to sit around and recover them for the next encounter.  Random Encounters aren’t the only way to deal with either, but I think they’re one of the simplest and best approaches I’ve seen.

6 thoughts on “The Necessity of Random Encounters in D&D

  1. PatrickWR says:

    QFT. I had the same reaction when I read this fellow’s post earlier today. He seemed to interpret random encounters as either 1) no fun or 2) a GM sledgehammer. I’m in agreement with everything you’ve written here. Keep stuff random!

  2. Tommi says:

    Excellent post.

    I’d also add, at least for me, it is much more interesting to run a game when I don’t know what will happen. Random encounters are a fine way of achieving this.

  3. Jack Colby says:

    I love how his site’s title proclaims it as the best source for D&D information on the net. Sad to see such ignorance of the hobby given the many actually informative resources out there today.

  4. Joshua says:

    @Jack – I haven’t read enough of the site to tell if it’s an amusing bit of mock-braggadocio or he means it, but if he wants to toot his own horn I don’t see the harm. Maybe it will spur him to greater heights.

  5. Nelson Voirol says:

    Random encounters can also serve the purpose of steering a campaign after the short-term campaing objectives are over. Why did the party keep running into small bands of orcs when they left the dungeon to go back to town and recuperate? These were random encounters (properly rolled on the random chart), but this led to the next stage of the adventure that involved an orc army moving into the area and trying to take over the dungeon that the party had just conquered. These kind of serindipidous results can give a DM the next plot hook or even the next leg of the adventure. Some-times dice-rolls on the random charts can intervene as fate, as surely as the plot-lines of the organized DM.

  6. Craig says:

    Been playing Oblivion on the xbox 360 lately and have realized that pretty much all encounters scale to your character’s level. While this facilitates smooth game play, it also facilitates an awareness of wandering in a low-threat game world. If I see a cave, just jump right in, cuz whatever is in there will almost certainly *not* be especially threatening. Some of my playing group’s best encounters that, for both players and DMs, have been random. Some of them have been very out of balance and required a lot of clever playing to negotiate (and recover from), but they made us all much better players.

    Look folks, the argument between whether random encounters are good or not is like arguing whether acoustic or electric guitars are better. It’s a pointless argument – they’re different. Some people play with tons of randomness and enjoy it. Some people play without character sheets or dice in a completely story-based ‘game system’, and they also enjoy it. If you don’t like random tables, don’t use them – but I wish they were there for those of us that do. To leave them out entirely, dismissed as counter-productive and useless, is like leaving out electric or acoustic guitars from a band with the argument that they’re not useful in modern music. It’s art, not science – it’s just an opinion… and some folks won’t like the music.

    Personally, I like them, and am just thunderstruck at how 4e not only doesn’t give me any random encounter tables that I may *choose* to use, but many of the monsters don’t even get *any* description whatsoever of their habitats so I can build my own, or even intelligently incorporate the creatures into a predefined storyline. It’s one of the only two huge gripes I have with an otherwise excellent upgrade to the old standard. It’s a real shame.

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