Random Encounters: Into the Wilderness

Anyone who has played prior editions of Dungeons & Dragons has likely experienced the pleasure and pain of random encounter tables. The idea of the wandering monster is a staple of D&D, harkening back to the earliest days of the game.

My experience with random encounters began in third edition, when my Dungeon Master would make us measure every agonizing mile of travel, rolling on the appropriate terrain table to determine what we would encounter. As a result, the group ended up spending more time dealing with inane wilderness encounters than participating in the larger story.

The random encounters I remember from that time are those that had a nugget of plot—some element that hinted at the larger story or provided a glimpse into the intricacies of the world. For example, at one point during our group’s travels, we encountered a rogue eidolon, which had been created by an ancient sect of corrupt druids. The eidolon was mad and kept carving the same phrase into the wall, “Tyrael Cast Down.” We had no idea what it meant, and only months later did the phrase make sense.

Random encounters can provide a Dungeon Master a useful “breather” between adventures. He or she can set up a table of random encounters and rely on it to keep the players busy for a few sessions while laying the groundwork for the next city or dungeon. On the other hand, too many random encounters—or those that are an obvious attempt to stall the game—can provide an unsatisfying experience for the players.

I recently made my first 4th edition foray into random encounters and wilderness travel in my Dark Sun game. I normally forgo random encounters, glossing over the days and weeks spent traveling between locations, but I felt the Dark Sun setting mandated different treatment. To that effect, superimposed a hex grid over a map of the wilderness region outside the city of Tyr. Each vertical column of hexes had a corresponding die (d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20), which I rolled once per four hours of character travel to determine what the party encountered. On my encounter table, the higher numbers represented the harder encounters, so as the characters delved farther into the wilderness, their chance of getting challenging encounters rose.

I also had the characters make regular Perception and Nature checks to ensure they stayed on the path. Whenever the party fails, it veers either north or south. The more failed checks, the more off the path they get—potentially leading them to travel in circles or get lost in the wilderness. Although this little bit of verisimilitude might seem harsh, I think it provides a sense of peril that is paramount in a Dark Sun campaign travel and exploration.

In the world of Athas, where the vast majority of the landscape is hostile wilderness, a table of random encounters just makes sense. It lets the players get a sense of the threats outside of the city-states. The travels also give the members of the party valuable downtime, in which they can bond, discuss their plans or back-stories, or engage in tasks like crafting. It also gives them exposure to many of the monsters of the world, helping to build a lexicon that makes their social encounters in the city more comprehensible.

I was not content to simply rely on a table of random creatures, though. A few of the encounters were strictly combat encounters unrelated to the larger plot, but some were also social encounters or encounters that related to the characters’ quests. I used a table of random wilderness encounters I found on a Wizards Community board combined with the fantastic terrain from the Dark Sun Creature Catalog to create the table. I added short descriptions to provide reminders of what made the encounter interesting. During the session, I improvised the details, fleshing out the encounter on the fly.

Dark Sun Random Encounter Table

After the first game session of travel, I asked my players how they liked the wilderness travel, and whether they wanted to continue to have sessions that were exclusively travel and random encounters. They agreed that as long as the sessions continued to have some exploration, roleplaying opportunities, and threads connected to the plot, they were happy to continue.

We’ll just see how they feel when their survival days run out…


6 thoughts on “Random Encounters: Into the Wilderness

  1. Awesome post, and very useful as I just restarted one of my campaigns in Dark Sun! I had a similar thought about random encounters a few month’s ago, and added them to my FR campaign – and even made the players roll the dice to determine the nature of the encounter. based it on a d100 and the higher the roll, the more threatening the encounter. My players also enjoyed random encounters, thinking it added a bit of “spice” to the humdrum of traveling overland – even when they had to hide in a cave to avoid having a dragon eat them!

    1. Thanks! I prefer to keep the tables a little smaller so I can develop them a little more thoroughly. Although I’d like to eventually have a d100 table, I doubt it’ll happen.

  2. Nice! The Excel file you posted is really key to me, because that is where you list the cool aspects of each encounter. Very cool and now living on my hard drive. Thanks!

    I am curious as to how you feel about the random nature vs. planned randomness. What I mean is, is it better to have these various options or to instead plan on just a few options and maybe vary when they show up based on what the PCs do? To what extent does “true random” actually add something?

    In my Dark Sun home campaign I tried something based on the Hexploration ideas that SRM put together. You can find my account here. At the high level, I also used a hex map (you can see it on the link above or here) but I used a very narrow table of options based on the terrain. If they were in rocky badlands then a player rolled and I looked up the result. As you did, I had sketched some encounters. The vast majority were short skill-based sessions or exploration pieces rather than combats.

    I liked it. But, as time went on I had to compare it to what it would have been like if I had just set up the encounters without the rolling. Would it have really gained anything? Is the fun of a random encounter the situation/setting/story or is it rolling on the table?

    A few gaming sessions later they were going back through this map. I brought out the map but they didn’t roll. Instead, I had again a few possible encounters and there were various paths they could take. Based on their choices I just dropped in something that made sense.

    In comparison, the later seemed better. None of the players brought up rolling. I don’t think they missed the “table” aspect at all. I will say I’m still scratching my head on this. I’m not sure what to make of it, because I do fondly recall random encounters. Hmm. Sorry for the rambling!

    1. Thanks, Teos. Next week, I’m going to post my equipment cost chart, which has prices based on supply and demand.

      I do prefer planned randomness over true randomness, unless the “true randomness” is something relatively insignificant, like what damage type a monster deals, or what effect a magic circle has. I figure if you’re going to invest a lot of time into an encounter, it should usually have a little meaning—even if that meaning is to get a sense of the severity of Athas or to find a cool piece of treasure.

      I considered just having every encounter correspond to a single hex, but I felt that I was more likely to have unused material that way. This way, anything I don’t use is easier to recycle.

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