DMing 101 – Random Encounter Tables
It’s been a long time…
There’s no point in orchestrating every little event in the world, it’s a lot of work for next to no reward, but if every little event is pure storyline then your world becomes bland and featureless. You can fill the quiet moments with quick little scenes and randomly determined vignettes, it’s a classic method of space-filling and a great opportunity to breathe life into your campaign.
Downtime is a blank slate for you to fill with the little ideas you have no other place for, not just a boring gap to fill with something interesting. How does a random encounter contribute to your campaign without becoming a crucial moment, or revealing a pivotal detail the players cannot continue without.
World – What does the event reveal about your world, its history, its politics, or people? Perhaps a religious ceremony occupies a main street, or a farmer herds some unusual animal across the player’s path. Does an argument on a ship tell the players about warring factions or races, or simply give an insight into the NPCs aboard?
Story – Your players are forced to choose sides in the middle of a revolt. How has civic unrest changed the city? Do law enforcement give the players a hard time, or break up clandestine conversations in a bar? Perhaps there is an alien invasion in progress, and the group must evade military convoys, or treat every wandering traveller with extreme suspicion.
Characters – Two members of the party conflict over what should be done with their stash of money. Bring the conflict to the fore when they stumble across a beggar harassing a merchant, or the other way around depending on the perspective. Or perhaps your group are divided over a crucial vote, how do they react when they stumble upon a promotional rally for one of the candidates?
Where and When?
Not everywhere is a hubbub of activity and excitement, and not every night is full of terrors. In quiet villages you’re not likely to be beset daily by criminals, but the roads in between them are more likely to be besieged by bandits. Travelling from planet to planet is a pretty quiet ride if you’re only a small transport or disciplined military cruiser with dedicated crew members working to keep everything together, but civilian cruisers could be chaotic, and certain parts of space might be filled with life.
It can be difficult thing to find a balance of when and how often to roll on your table, and it’s something you can weight against how much downtime there is in your game. If your story flows naturally from event to event then you may only need to fill in travel time with the occasional detail, but longer games filled with intrigue, politics, or just a lot of time to fill in between major events might thrive on a well stocked random encounter table with events every day. If your party regularly separate and pursue their own agendas they might benefit from a roll each.
The where and when to roll on your table is the hardest part to determine, and it’s something to find through practice and what your players find enjoyable.
Computer games have rather enforced the notion that random encounter = combat. This is tabletop people, c’mon!
We can throw a few fights into the mix, but unlike in a computer game a fight can slow the pace of your game (depending on the system of course) as combat in tabletop games can take a long time to resolve. What few combat encounters you include should be kept easy and quick to resolve, leaving the pivotal fights for the main story, but more importantly they should also play on the themes listed above – world, story and character.
Perhaps combat can be avoided, a wandering bear might have no interest in the party, thieves might be easily threatened into backing off in the face of superior force. Or you may have your group encounter a rival adventuring party, do they fight over treasure or exchange information?
The best encounters may very well be the ones that involve no combat at all. Weather, wildlife, and people can all make the day more interesting without starting a fight. Or just maybe the group stumble upon something interesting like a cache of treasure, a hidden ruin or wreck, or some major point they can add to the map to revisit at a later date.
With all of these points in mind, here’s a sample table for a party in neo-noir setting, travelling through an abandoned suburb. The DM rolls a d% twice a day, morning and evening, if the group separate each part of the group has their own roll:
1-39 No encounter.
40-49 An abandoned car is burning in the road, it can’t have been their long.
50-59 Players pass through a few buildings that look to have been occupied until recently.
60-62 Drones pass overhead, observant players spot the Regency logo.
63-65 A corporate van is being looted by a pair of raiders, while two others fight the guards.
66-68 A dust storm picks up, making navigation difficult.
69-70 Raiders have fortified a shop and watch the group vigilantly.
71-74 Overgrown alleys play host to a swarm of rats, made harder to spot by the dense weeds.
75-78 Children play with a crumpled can in the street, and draw razor-edged clubs when players draw close.
79-81 An overturned truck still has supplies.
82 Players get caught in an abandoned trap.
83-85 Rain forces players to take shelter.
86-88 Players find a school, it might have kit the players need.
89 There’s a brief window of wireless internet, any player with a computer of any kind can access the internet.
90 Dead raiders and corporate guards are piled in the street, there are usable guns and ammo for those willing to loot.
91-92 Corporate guards level guns at the group accusing them of being raiders.
93-95 A public park is dangerous to cross but might have food and fresh water.
96-100 An advertising drone pinpoints the group.