Developing a functional random encounter checks mechanic for OSR-ish 5E Dungeon-Delving

I ran the first session of my White Plume Mountain (followed by Against the Giants if the players are up for it) campaign for 5E tonight. I decided I wanted to run a higher-level game of 5E, having gotten my fill of the satisfying aspects of low-level play; WPM starts at 8th level.

Anyhow, one of the things that struck me as a little bit problematic when I read the module was that you're supposed to check for random encounters, 1/12 chance, "every 10 minutes." And I was kind of like... huh. There's no way I'm doing that, for the simple reason that there's no great way to judge when exactly 10 minutes of in-game time have passed.

Here's what I told my players: I'm going to use "random encounter" as my default failure consequence for skill rolls that have no other obvious natural consequence. Not checking for one just imposing one flat-out. But I will also check for the 1-in-12 chance whenever you all do something that takes some time, but isn't inherently risky.

As the session went on, I found I was developing a reasonably consistent heuristic about what sorts of things "deserved" a random encounter check: going from one already-explored area of the dungeon to another was the main one. The other, which I feel a little guilty about, was dithering. :-) They got the message though, and kept it in-character: "Let's make a decision before something else nasty comes and hurts us!" Or something like that. So I feel confident I'll be able to know when to have a random encounter check in future sessions.

One thing that helped is that they failed the very first skill roll they made, triggering a random encounter before they were even past the entrance cave! Which they took quite a bit of damage from. So that set the tone very nicely. Quite a few other failed rolls and their consequences have really emphasized just how challenging a dungeon this is! My players are really trying to play smart and preserve spells, too; it's nice to see from a group that does have a whole lot of power available, but knows they're not invincible by any means.

The dungeon is pretty harsh, and there's really nowhere the PCs can "long rest," so they're going to need to retreat at some point. So, I'm also thinking of telling them that, every time they retreat and come back, the random encounter probability will increase: to 1/10, 1/8, etc.

I'm curious how other folks have handled the "check for random encounter every X in-game minutes" direction in games without strict time-keeping rules.

Comments

  • How do you handle light sources in this game?
  • I'm curious how other folks have handled the "check for random encounter every X in-game minutes" direction in games without strict time-keeping rules.
    This could be a "strict time-keeping rule" for all I know, but when I'm not tracking time, I just guesstimate it: whenever we're done with what we're currently doing, I estimate how much time has passed since my last encounter check, and then check for an encounter if necessary. Depending on the dungeon there could be extra checks for causing noise, smells, etc., too.

    Alternatively, if the dungeon really has a check every 10 minutes, I would just "check after every exploration action". Every exploration action takes 10 minutes in the classical D&D dungeon exploration scheme, whether examining a new room or taking a short rest or looking for secret doors or having a fight - they are all tracked in exploration turns, which are each 10 minutes long. Makes tracking time entirely trivial, really, but if you don't want to do that, you can just go "I'll have to remember to check for random encounters after every action we resolve".
  • How do you handle light sources in this game?
    I pretty much handwaved it. 3/5 of the party has Darkvision, and there's both a lantern and a Light cantrip for the two "normal Humans."
  • Alternatively, if the dungeon really has a check every 10 minutes, I would just "check after every exploration action". Every exploration action takes 10 minutes in the classical D&D dungeon exploration scheme, whether examining a new room or taking a short rest or looking for secret doors or having a fight - they are all tracked in exploration turns, which are each 10 minutes long.
    That makes me a feel a *lot* better. And I think significant dithering counts as an "exploration action," right?
  • I use Faster Monkey Games' Turntracker to make things a wee bit easier:



    Just about any discreet endeavour (talking to the captive, smashing all urns in the room etc.) takes at least one turn. In most circumstances, it's no big deal if you forget a turn or counted one twice.

    I haven't had a situation where it suddenly became necessary to track things very closely, but it should be no problem to do so as the need arises (e.g. when just those henchmen with light sources get disintegrated and a single paltry torch remains).

    In any case, it sounds like you're doing fine: That costly extra encounter at the beginning seems to have been really educational and fun!
  • That makes me a feel a *lot* better. And I think significant dithering counts as an "exploration action," right?
    Sure it does. You didn't think that we track time in minute-sized chunks?

    You might find the original '74 D&D booklets an interesting read in this context. Those were the first version of the dungeoneering rules written down, and the part that strikes me most as a practical, fun gaming device is precisely in the time-keeping and exploration rules. The concept of the "turn" makes all the vague time-wasting a more manageable boardgamey thing: the party leader just tells the GM that "we're rearranging our package this turn" or "we're moving to the next room" or "we're taking a short rest" or whatever, the GM processes, makes a tick-mark on their time-keeping sheet, and announces any time-based new factors.

    An interesting example of the sorts of little gems you find in there: combat always takes a "turn" (you don't track the number of combat rounds or anything like that, it's assumed that the rest of the time is wasted on catching your breath and binding wounds).

    Another one: one short rest per hour of exploration is mandatory, to avoid exhaustion - dungeoneering is assumed to be hard mentally and physically, even if all you're doing is creeping about.

    Yet another one: movement speeds per exploration turn are rather slow, as you're assumed to be mapping and checking for traps as you go. The players have their choice of movement speeds, though, if they're moving through already known areas or don't mind walking right into a trap, no save.

    All this is the context in which you track the expenditure of torches, lantern-oil, drinking water and such, in addition to the random encounters.

    D&D has all sorts of dungeoneering procedure rules that one should know - to discard them at least, if nothing else.
  • Yeah, the old AD&D Random Encounters were pretty... random. Also rather strange and pointless in many cases, but that was the Gygaxian universe for you. If you are deliberately keeping things Gygax then random encounters and fiendish traps are definitely de rigeur.

    Nowadays I would hesitate to use a random encounter table unless the players were deliberately looking for interesting people or wildlife to interact with/murder and rob. Otherwise I'd go with a more storytelling approach where denizens react to what they can reasonable detect - a real issue if you've just chopped down the side door to a gnoll warren.

    My new approach to dungeoneering is that the adventurers are burglars, or possibly a special forces infiltration team. All is well while they are quiet and stealthy, but the excreta hits the fan if they go in all... axes... blazing.
  • That turn tracker is sure nifty! I don't see myself using exactly that, as light sources are just irrelevant in 5E. But I do think many things are really 5 minutes, and I want to check for monsters every 10 minutes. So I might just make a simplified version with the alternating die / no die. Because I do think there's a risk I might hurry them along a little too much at times. I like the idea that I can show the clock ticking in some intermediate way besides just rolling the wandering monster check. Though table space is at an extreme premium so I'll probably just take to saying, "Tick tock," and then every other time I say it, rolling the check.

    And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I really like the idea of stepping down the die size every time they retreat and come back.
  • The Black Hack has you roll for random encounters every 15 minutes of REAL time. 50-50 chance!
  • I ran an OSRish 5e game for about a year, mostly focused on dungeon delving, and we stuck to the 1-in-12-chance per ten minutes rules religiously. We handled it by building up a lot of structure around what takes ten minutes. Here's a copy-paste from the campaign's rules doc:
    When exploring dungeon environments, time is counted in turns. Each turn represents about 5-15 minutes of game time.

    During each turn, a party may carefully and thoroughly explore a single room or corridor. Each character may attempt one of the following:

    Move stealthily through an area, alert for concealed treasure, threats, and secret passages
    Alertly watch a door, staircase, or corner for approaching enemies
    Search the area (or a section of a large area) for traps, clues, and secret passages
    Lay traps, scatter caltrops, apply poison to weapons, spike doors
    Pick locks or attempt to disable a trap mechanism
    Salvage usable parts from an old machine, pry jewels from the eyes of a statue, etc.
    Break down a stuck door or smash open a locked chest
    Draw a map of the area
    Assist another character
    Inventory and load up treasure
    Translate runes, puzzle over riddles, look up symbols, and recall lore
    Cast a thaumaturgic spell (can cast two at 5th level, three at 10th level)
    Use a psychic talent that requires a few minutes of meditation or interaction
    Use any other ability that takes several minutes
    Traverse an obstacle like a narrow ledge, chimney, or stream
    Donn and doff armor, change clothes, or prepare a disguise
    Haul around a heavy load
    Start or finish a short rest (must be consecutive)

    If players fail an important test during this phase—for instance, failing to pick a lock, or not finding any traps when they suspect one is present—another turn may be spent to retroactively gain advantage on the roll. Throw another die and take the better result.

    Each PC may generally be involved in just one activity per turn. Characters also have a “turn bonus action,” in which they can do tasks associated with their standard combat bonus actions. For instance, a Rogues may Hide as a bonus action, so can both move stealthily through an area and search for traps at the same time. Thieves have even more options, since they may disarm traps, open locks, and use an object as a bonus action.

    A combat encounter takes one exploration turn, regardless of the number of combat rounds.
  • Turn tracking isn't so hard if you do it with actual turns in the old D&D sense.

    Figure out how long you want a turn to be. Set it based on things you care about tracking, whether that's torches or random encounters or food or whatever. If you only care about random encounters and you're gonna check once every 30 minutes of in-game time, then have 30-minute turns.

    Then determine how far a party can move in that time. You don't have to be right. You just have to be consistent. Say it's 1/10 their normal movement. Normally, they move like 30ft in a round, which is 6 seconds, so 300 ft per minute, or 9,000 ft in 30 minutes. So while exploring, they move 900 feet in a "turn."

    Check for random encounters every 900 feet of progress.
Sign In or Register to comment.