Random Encounter Tables

Use of random encounter tables came up in another thread discussing Adam's recent D&D AP. I've had some half-formed thoughts on making good tables, so I thought I'd share 'em here and maybe the conversation here will gestate into a blog post.

I've got 2 random table uses that I've been enjoying lately - prep and encounter. Both inspire stuff, I think.

Prep

Prep is there to help me come up with ideas quickly, definitely inspired by planarch codex. I used this in our Marsui game to come up with delving jobs. It led to cool stuff. I found that these are better the stranger and more weird fantasy I make the categories but not too-too weird because blending the categories together will often make them weird enough.

I got a dinosaur goddess and her well-to-do cult and a crimelord with a magical unicorn horn, so I think it worked out alright.

I liked using these to roll up a bunch of jobs and then finding maps online to go with the ideas.

Encounter

I used this for our short-lived D&D game but also used it a bit for our lotfp game to see if they ran into any trouble on their way back from delves. As time went on and delving became more lucrative, the chances of running into rip-and-run crews who make their living stealing from adventurers when they are beat up and rich becomes more and more likely.

I made up a table for Big Shire but I'm looking at the odds on a 2d6 and making up encounter tables for our Stars Without Number game and thinking that over.

I like the idea of the encounters on a table changing as the places change - be it crossing the dragon off a table or adding more and more soldiers as an invading army begins to patrol the area more and more.

So, I've got a dangerous valley outside of town with some kind of presence that is causing wood-cutters to go missing.

Forest in Trouble Random Encounter Table
2 - Wraith
3 - Gnolls (3d4)
4 - Fungal Beast
5 - Bandits (5d6)
6 - Wood-cutters (3d4)
7 - Wood-cutters (3d4)
8 - Merchant Caravan (3d6 guards)
9 - Satyr pack (2d4)
10 - Fungal Infected Fauna*
11- Young Green Dragon
12 - Strange Incursion*

Forest Fauna Table
1 - Wolves
2 - Deer
3 - Hawk
4 - Raven
5 - Boar
6 - Elf

Strange Incursion Table
1 - Githyanki
2 - Slaad
3 - Ethereal Strangler
4 - Elemental
5 - Githzarai
6 - Devil

Maybe if you roll doubles, you roll again and those two encounters are already embroiled in some kind of conflict.

I might make a table to see what the merchants are peddling or to see how many caravan guards they have.

The fungal infection might get worse, the bandit leader might declare themselves a legit lord, the wraith might fall under sway of a necromancer or a strange incursion might take solid root. If so, the table would change to reflect it.

My worry is that I weighed the table too hard on boring wood-cutter encounters but it becomes more interesting when as Adam does in Keep on the Borderlands, we roll every hour of in-game time to see if an encounter comes about, rather than every day or so.

I'm just thinking about making random encounter tables, think about how to use them, reflect on how you've used them in the past and when they worked and when they didn't work so well.

Thanks.

Comments

  • One thing I do in City of Brass is, when I roll an encounter that has come up before, it returns in a more serious way. It's a sort of escalation mechanism.
  • One thing I do in City of Brass is, when I roll an encounter that has come up before, it returns in a more serious way. It's a sort of escalation mechanism.
    I really like that.
  • Great stuff. I like random tables, too!

    Judd, did you see our earlier discussion of random encounters? It was pretty in-depth... maybe about two years ago. If you didn't, you should read it! I might be able to dig it up.

    I really like your approach to tables changing over time. (Although, yeah, ~30% of woodcutters sounds pretty heavy to me!)
  • Concerning random encounter tables, I'd like to mention also the Mythic GM Emulator, also the Location Crafter by the same author.
    They have been useful to me in various RPG settings.
  • Paul, do you have a link to that previous discussion?

    Thanks B.P.G., I'll check those out.
  • edited October 2016
    Paul, do you have a link to that previous discussion?
    Is this the discussion: Random "Tables" vs Conflict Resolution?

    I think I must be an outlier here, but I don't use random encounter tables while playing. I did for a while but as I started spending more time crafting my settings, general random tables stopped making sense.

    For a while I built custom tables, but that was a lot of work (I was making a ton of them for each area, so maybe I went overboard). Now I just have a sheet with a bunch of rough descriptions of different encounters and when I need one, I just grab one and scratch it off. I fill in the specifics as I go and are scaled to what I need at that particular moment. They are specific to the setting the players are currently in and fit in properly.

    Before the next session, I refill the list. (This is actually simplified a bit, there are several lists of differing complexity, but you get the idea).

    I will read random tables as research and inspiration, but I never use them in play.
  • The DayTrippers GameMasters Guide is chock-full of random tables; not only random encounters but everything from planet and lifeform generation to NPC traits, plot twists and mission objectives. And the modules I write for the system likewise (usually) possess random encounter tables. But I always say "Choose or roll" in the instructions for every table. I figure the GM is a grown-up, and knows what best suits their preferred style of creation and play.

  • For me, random tables are a kind of prep that substitutes for the "completely describe everything" mode I used to try to play in, usually with laughable results.

    I find that I need paint roller rather than a tiny miniatures brush for prep, so that I can get a good base coat down. When the players go into a room, I use the big brush to get a feel for the Color I need to present, then fill in the details on the spot.

    That's what works best for me, but YMMV.
  • edited October 2016
    I see the decision to use random tables primarily as an aesthetic choice, in the way it affects your prep and the way it brings, with it, a different way of interacting with the unknown in the game.

    For a counter-example, look at something like Apocalypse World, which includes many, many "random lists", but doesn't use a randomizer - instead, various players are instructed to choose from those lists. The effect is similar in some ways, and very different in other ways.

    For another example, consider the Setup phase in Fiasco, which draws on some of the goodness of random tables, but, again, in a very different way.

    I don't think "most" people here use them - certainly relatively few recently published game designs use them as a regular part of play - but they are very popular in "OSR-style" play, for both practical reasons and aesthetic or nostalgic reasons: they are a feature people associate with that type of gaming (and they also support the creative agenda of that kind of gaming activity very well, which is another reason they are still used there).
    Paul, do you have a link to that previous discussion?
    Is this the discussion: Random "Tables" vs Conflict Resolution?
    That's not the one! Although I'll go check it out right now.

    This is the discussion I was thinking of - there's some good stuff in there!

    story-games.com/forums/discussion/19252/osr-hexcrawl-sandbox-procedures
  • That's not the one! Although I'll go check it out right now.

    This is the discussion I was thinking of - there's some good stuff in there!

    story-games.com/forums/discussion/19252/osr-hexcrawl-sandbox-procedures
    Funny. I found that one in my search and marked it to read, but didn't match it as the title seemed kind of far off. Not to sidetrack, but I really have a love/hate relationship with the search feature on this forum. I can almost never find what I'm looking for unless I have a really unique search term, but I invariably find ten discussions that I want to read when looking for something else.
  • (I always search for things on this forum via Google - which works pretty well to find threads - I almost always get what I'm looking for. The Story Games search engine is... very odd.)
  • I see the decision to use random tables primarily as an aesthetic choice, in the way it affects your prep and the way it brings, with it, a different way of interacting with the unknown in the game.
    Aesthetic compared to what other kind of choice? It's a deep system choice to me!

    The questions that random tables attempt to answer are:

    * How do I create interesting play content?
    * How do I create play content that surprises the players, and even myself?
    * How do I create play content quickly?
    * How do I create play content consistently, even from GM to GM?
    * How do I create play content fairly?

    Please note that I am not saying that only random charts solve these problems, and I am not saying that other techniques are unfair. However, different people will have different feelings about how interesting, surprising, quick, consistent, or fair any given technique is.

    Personally, I think the random tables in Fiasco are used in a very similar way to how I use them in Basic D&D. They are generating Situation. However, Fiasco does it once at the start of play; D&D does it many times, throughout play. The former is designed as a one-shot game played in a couple hours. The latter is designed as an episodic game played for many hours, many times over and over, in long campaigns.
  • I agree, Adam.

    (I should clarify that I'm using "aesthetic" in a very intentional way, not as a dismissal. Aesthetics are absolutely fundamental to this activity we're engaged in. Much like Colour (in the Big Model sense) sounds like something which is tangential at best, but, in fact, is absolutely vital to your game, whether you like it or not, and how you might connect - or fail to connect - with it. The 'aesthetic' aspect of random tables has to do primarily with their presentation, not their function in serving those notes you've just listed.)
  • edited October 2016

    The questions that random tables attempt to answer are:
    * How do I create interesting play content?
    * How do I create play content that surprises the players, and even myself?
    * How do I create play content quickly?
    * How do I create play content consistently, even from GM to GM?
    * How do I create play content fairly?
    These are good points, Adam. I find consistent and fair important in the creation process, such as character creation or city creation etc.
    Surprising and quickly is important to me during game play, especially with collaborative story games that otherwise end up with a predictable development.
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