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.
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…