Flexible Encounters Part 1: The Pros & Cons of Random Encounters

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This is the first part of a multi-part series of articles on my flexible encounters system. I use this system in D&D, but it can be used in pretty much any RPG that uses random encounters.

Most game masters I’ve talked to have an opinion—often a strong opinion—when it comes to using random encounters in their games. Some love them, some hate them. Hopefully we can all agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to using random encounters.

Some advantages of random encounters are that they don’t involve any preparation time outside of the game, they can bring some variety into a session and they can bring some unpredictability to the game. If you’re running a dungeon crawl, or something similar, they can also be a tool to discourage PCs from resting too often, which would make the dungeon or adventure too easy.

One of the main disadvantages of random encounters is that they’re, well, random. This can lead to encounters that are far too hard or far too easy for the PCs. It can lead to encounters that don’t seem to fit the adventure or environment. It can lead to encounters that just don’t make sense. This is especially vexing because one of the purposes many of us using random encounters is to add some realism to the game—not everything you encounter has to do with the quest you’re pursuing. However, if the encounter doesn’t make sense for some reason, that defeats the purpose of adding realism. Another disadvantage of random encounters is that because we tend to run them on-the-fly, they lack can the depth that an encounter we’ve prepared ahead of time has.

For many of us, whether or not we like random encounters boils down to two things—how much importance we place on the various advantages and disadvantages of random encounters, and our strategies to maximize the advantages we value while minimizing the disadvantages we want to avoid.

As for me, I don’t often use random encounters. Instead I use what I call flexible encounters, which serve the same purpose and have the same benefits as random encounters in the game, while avoiding their disadvantages.

To make sure we’re all on the same page here, let me define what I mean by a random encounter.

A random encounter is an encounter that I generate randomly during play, often by rolling on an encounter table. I may have certain points in the session where I know I’ll use a random encounter—like when the PCs camp for the night—or I may determine if and when random encounters happen randomly. This is usually done by determining the chance of an encounter happening and then rolling dice to see if one occurs.

So really, there are two aspects of randomness in a random encounter—whether an encounter happens, and if an encounter does happen, the nature of that encounter. Now, whether I decide a random encounter happens, or I roll to see if one happens, I consider the encounter a random encounter if I determine the nature of the encounter randomly.

The nature of the encounter is simply what monsters or NPCs are the adversaries in the encounter and how many of them there are. Usually the nature of an encounter is determined by rolling on a random encounter table. A random encounter table will usually have a variety of monsters and NPCs that could be encountered in the area, with varying levels of probability. You roll on the table to see which group of monsters or NPCs is encountered. The table may tell you how many of each type of monster/NPC there is, or it may have you determine that randomly with dice as well. (For the sake of brevity, from here on I will refer to monsters in encounters, but please remember that an encounter can consist of monsters and/or NPCs in any combination.)

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So, the definitive aspect of a random encounter, in my mind, is that I don’t know the nature of the encounter beforehand. Which is to say, I don’t know what kind of monsters will be involved. And herein lies the root of the disadvantages of random encounters—the GM doesn’t know the nature of the encounter ahead of time.

It is this lack of knowledge and preparation that can lead to breaks of verisimilitude at the table. Let’s look at some of the possible disadvantages of not knowing the nature of an encounter before you roll it in play.

First, I don’t have any time to think about the tactics and strategies of the monsters. I have to do it all on-the-fly during play at the table. Will the monsters fight to the death, or will they surrender? If they will surrender, at what point will they surrender? What has to happen for them to consider surrendering? Does one have to be killed? Do half or more of them have to be killed? Do half or more of them have to be reduced to half hit points? Am I going to use Wisdom saves for morale checks? What kind of tactics will they use? Will they all “focus fire” on a single PC (and if so, which one?), or will they spread the damage around? Which attacks, special abilities and spells will they use? Which spells do they have prepared (assuming you won’t just use the example in the Monster Manual)? Will they try to parlay, or respond to attempts at parlay by the PCs, or will they fight regardless? If they do parlay, will they be truthful? What do they want? What is their motivation for attacking the PCs? What is the “win condition” for them? If they’re captured, will they give up any information, and if so, what information do they have? What kind of magic items and treasure do they have?

As you can see, that’s a lot for the GM to consider in a few moments at the table, and that’s just an example of such considerations. It’s not an exhaustive list.

Second, if there is to be any parlay and roleplaying, I have to come up with personalities (and probably names) for all the monsters on the fly. If the PCs encounter a group of goblins, maybe I can come up with a generic goblin personality on the fly, but can I come up with a few personalities that are all “goblin” and yet distinct and different from one another? Can I come up with gobliny names that don’t just turn the game into a farce (unless that’s what I’m going for, of course)?

As I hope you can see, this is a lot to think about. I’m not saying it can’t be done—it can, but it’s not easy. Also keep in mind there are a lot of other things the GM needs to think about as well—running the combat, reacting to what the players do, including vivid descriptions, tying in the environment and terrain, adjudicating rules, etc. One of the main purposes of good game preparation is to reduce this workload at the table as much as possible, so the GM has more headspace to devote to roleplaying monsters, considering tactics and consequences, reacting to the PCs’ actions and also just having a good time.

Another problem can come about when it comes to encounter treasure. Oftentimes when we roll and run a random encounter during play, we’ll wait to roll treasure until after the encounter is over. After all, the PCs might not win, or the NPCs might flee, so why waste time coming up with treasure the PCs might not get? Also, rolling treasure takes time, and we probably already burned some time rolling the encounter. We might also have burned some time determining initiative (for a solution to that, see my previous blog post on initiative). We don’t want too much downtime at the table because it can kill the momentum and drain the drama from a scene.

The problem with waiting to roll treasure until after the encounter is that we may roll items that would’ve been used in the encounter. If the goblins have a magic short sword and some healing potions, then they would use those in the fight against the PCs. If the PCs find these items in the goblins’ possession later, and the goblins didn’t use them in the fight, it breaks verisimilitude.

Another disadvantage of a random encounter is that it may not make sense. Even if you’re rolling on a table designed for the region the PCs are in, you may get a result that for some reason doesn’t make sense. So you either have to figure out a way to make it make sense, or you have to come up with a different encounter. Both of these solutions take time, and downtime at the table is something we want to minimize as much as possible. Even if you don’t arrive at an encounter that doesn’t make sense with the location or what’s going on, the encounter may still feel totally unconnected to the rest of the adventure.

Yet another disadvantage of random encounters is that GMs can make mistakes with random encounters that they wouldn't make (or wouldn't make as often) with encounters they've prepared ahead of time. Fifth edition D&D has been simplified a lot compared to earlier editions, but there are still some complex opponents that can be very difficult to run on-the-fly, "get right" and do justice to if you've never used that monster before.

The GM might make a mistake like forgetting about a monster’s special abilities. This often happens with more complex monsters, who have an array of abilities and spells at their disposal. These can be tough to run on-the-fly in a random encounter, unless the GM is going to take a 5 minute break to study the monsters first. This is even more exacerbated in encounters with multiple types of complex monsters. The GM could also miss or forget other aspects of an adversary like resistances, immunities, special forms of movement, etc.

In addition to actual "mistakes" a GM might make, a GM will sometimes just be unhappy with how she ran a random encounter for various reasons. Maybe she didn’t have good names for the monsters ready to go and had to come up with something she’s not satisfied with. Maybe the tactics she came up with on-the-fly don’t make sense or hold up to scrutiny by the players when they start asking questions, making the monsters seem less intelligent than they are.

The GM might not have been able to use any kind of foreshadowing of the encounter beforehand because she didn't know it was happening before she rolled it. Coming across giants is one thing, but coming across giants after you saw their tracks the day before is much more engaging. This can be mitigated in a random encounter by setting up the encounter first. So you roll the encounter, and then foreshadow it before you actually run the encounter. But this defeats the immediacy of a random encounter, and at that point, why not just use a flexible encounter instead?

My system of flexible encounters addresses all these disadvantages. Just as importantly, though, it preserves the advantages of using random encounters. If we consider random encounters versus prepared encounters, flexible encounters offer us the best of both worlds.

Next week I’ll tell you all about how flexible encounters work and how I use them in my games.

Flexible Encounters Part 2

Flexible Encounters Part 3

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