Random(ish) Encounters that Make Sense for 4E

The concept of Random Encounters is something of a controversial topic  in the 4th Edition blogosphere, and that has always been interesting to me. It appears to polarize the much-vaunted “Railroad vs. Sandbox” debate that I have already talked about elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash that now because I really don’t have anything else to say about it. What I DO have new stuff to talk about is something of a hybrid between the two.

The “traditional” random encounter, I believe, really has no place in the 4th Edition design philosophy. The XP budget and encounter/adventure design flow described in the DMG and DM Kit really don’t deviate a whole lot from the “10 encounters to a level” format. So instead of seeing that as a straightjacket, let’s look at it as an opportunity.

Let’s say that you’re a GM(because if you’re reading this, you most likely are), and you’re planning your campaign out and you know that you’ve got 3 adventures of play ahead of you. You’re not going to force the players down one particular path, but you know who the badguys in their region are and what their plans are, so you’ve got a pretty decent idea of how things could go.

So you’ve got somewhere in the ballpark of 30 encounters to plan. That looks like a massive load of work, so what if we can break it down a little? You know the PCs will be in a general geographic region for a while, so you can generalize and build yourself a small (or not so small, if you like building encounters) Random Encounter Chart (REC from here on) . I think it’s vitally important that this Chart NOT be filled with nothing but combat. In my opinion, the best old-school RECs were the ones that included things like “1d4+1 farmers” or “1d3 knights on horseback” or especially stuff like “1d10 refugees with wagon” or “1 merchant with bodyguard”. I’d say that your REC should have at least 25% of these kinds of encounters, but I’ll probably build mine with up to 50% of encounters that aren’t designed to be combat, but depending on the circumstances might devolve into a fight.

So we’ve got an encounter chart. The first draft of this I’m going to do on paper by hand because things stick better in my brain if I do it that way. I’m going to rough it out with, say, 20 entries. The Encounter Level of each piece of the REC will be ascending from lowest to highest. Note that the non-combat encounters are also going to have levels, because when we stat them all up they will likely have Skill Difficulties to overcome or the like. When I’m done, it looks like this:

Yes, my handwriting is that bad.

There’s the first draft, so you can see what I did. On the far left is the die roll that the encounter will occur on (20 should actually be 20+, I suppose, considering what I’ll be saying later). Next is the level of the encounter relative to the PCs, assuming I’m making this chart for 3rd level PCs. Now, keep in mind that you could make a chart like this when the PCs are 1st level, even with the values given above– the PCs will just do a lot more negotiating and running away at first level. In fact, you could use this same REC from 1st to 5th level, really. The PCs are never going to know what level the encounter is designed for anyway, and it never hurts to give the PCs a good romp with an easier opponent to let the players really open up a can of whupass on somebody.

After the Relative Level/Encounter Level column is the “working name” for the encounter. Right now, that’s something as simple as “Goblin Bandit” or “Traveling Knights” but as we progress, each encounter is going to be fleshed out and detailed.

I know some of you are cringing right now at the thought of “so much work”, and I can totally see how it can seem that way. However, keep this in mind: as a GM you can use every single encounter in this chart if you choose to do so. Let’s say over the course of levels 1-5 the PCs run into 5 of the encounters listed, leaving the GM with 15 left. When they outgrow this chart, we’re going to make a new one for the next 5 levels, right? Right. The trick is that the chart stays EXACTLY THE SAME but the mechanics and story alter only slightly to fit the new level band. Let’s take this chart and look at it through a Paragon lens, shall we? Elf Raiders become Drow raiders, easy-peasy. The Red dragon can either simply get older or change colors, but stays a dragon. Exile Knight becomes an Exiled Eladrin Prince. Wounded Owlbear ceases being wounded and gets a level bump. River Hag turns into one of her nastier siblings, or maybe she’s a genie of some kind. You don’t really have to come up with anything new except the encounters that got used off the previous incarnation of the chart!

So the last Column on my Draft Random Encounter Chart is the “TYPE” Column. I think it’s pretty obvious that “C” is for Combat and “RP” is for an encounter designed to be RP. However, you’ll notice that there are many of the encounters–even the dragon!– that are listed as RP/C. First off, I think it’s important to note which of those is listed FIRST in the abbreviation– roleplaying. It’s imperative in my opinion to not think of your REC as a deterrent to roleplaying, but rather as one of the best ways you as a GM can help fill in the feel and details of your world with your players.

Each and every encounter on your REC should have enough notes and detail that you as a GM can root it firmly in the world in which you’re playing. If I was making a Dark Sun REC I’d make sure I knew which city-state every humanoid I stat up is allied with or whether they’re allied with none at all and what that particular group’s feelings about arcane magic is. If I’m making an Eberron REC I want to know who each humanoid fought with or was a citizen of in the Last War. That kind of thing. That way when the encounter begins, I know how the NPCs are going to react and how they fit in to the story I’m telling, regardless of whether the PCs are about to roll initiative or not.

For example, let’s take the most iconic and cliched 1st-level encounter on the chart: Goblin Bandits. I can whip up a first level encounter worth of goblins in about 2 minutes using the Monster Builder. That’s not the important part. The important part for me is WHY they are encountering the PCs. Let’s say this particular group is a hunting party, looking for meat to bring back to the little goblins back home. It’s designed as a Combat Encounter, so obviously these goblins are of the violent variety. Lets say they take after their more brutal cousins and capture humanoids as meat, preying on travelers and the like (Points of Light setting, oh how I love you). Goblins are small– they’re also cunning and devious. I think these goblins know exactly how small they are compared to humans and have laid traps for their prey.  Suddenly, a Goblin Ambush gets a lot more interesting when you lay caltrops on the ground in front of the PCs horses and catching them in crossfire!

Now let’s look at an encounter designated as Roleplaying/Combat. This designation, to me, means that the encounter can go either way depending on the PCs reactions. Look at Human Infiltrators, for example. The world I’m writing this chart for has three primary politicla entities, all of which stand in a very uneasy state of peace. One of the three is actively plotting against the other two in an attempt to destabilize and leave them open for invasion. Let’s say these infiltrators come from that land, but they’re disguised as something else– to avoid the usual “badguys disguised as pilgrims” cliche let’s say they’re playing the part of merchants and their bodyguards. The encounter could begin with a Skill Challenge (that I would keep the players unaware of) and through the course of their roleplaying with the merchants– who are stuck with a broken down wagon that has thrown a wheel, let’s say– the PCs have a chance to discover the true nature of the infiltrators. But even then the encounter doesn’t have to proceed to combat. These guys are talkers, not fighters, and I’ll make sure to build some kind of way out of the combat that the players can exploit so that initiative is not a foregone conclusion.

The trick is to think of the REC as a way of revealing little pieces of your world to your players as opposed to a barrier to good gaming and roleplaying. If you choose to look at RECs through a different lens, you can start to see the possibilities they have for 4th Edition GMs.

That’s it for now, but next time I’m going to talk about the mechanics of the 4th Edition Random Encounter Chart, how it integrates into your game and the XP your PCs earn, and how to make the Treasure Chart work for you when using Random Encounters, so until then–Good Gaming.

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4 Responses to Random(ish) Encounters that Make Sense for 4E

  1. Shinobicow says:

    Great little chart. I like the mix of combat encounters, roleplay opportunities and roleplay opportunities which could lead to combat encounters. I think the only thing is that a Lvl +5 encounter seems like it would be more like a boss fight than a RE; you might want to tone down the max level on the REC. From my experience, players tend not to run when they encounter something that is far above their level in 4e. That might be an issue.

    • As part of my campaign briefing, my players know that they have the possibility of running into encounters far above their level. I make it very clear to them that not everything they run up against will be killable. This keeps the tension VERY high for them, because they don’t know if there are three move waves of goblins hiding n the brush, or if the monster that looks like it’s not a challenge happens to be way higher level then they think. If you’re upfront with the players and stick to it, they’ll believe it. It usually takes putting a PC or two in a shallow grave, though– that I admit.

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  3. Paul says:

    I like it. One thing you might try, which I believe comes directly from 2nd edition, is that the random roll wasn’t a d20 roll, but something like d12+d8 – this provides an elongated bell curve, in which the central numbers have the same probability of being rolled. This allows you to randomly generate encounters that are roughly the same level as the party, while keeping higher and lower level encounters more rare.

    FYI – if you’re interested in checking out some other rules for “old-schooling” your 4e game, have a look at legendsandlabyrinths.com

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