I love roleplaying games, but one of my longstanding pet peeves has been the randomness inherent in the game. Whether I’m running the game, or playing in it, it drives me nuts to have my plans changed on the roll of a die. I understand how the uncertainty adds tension to a game, but when a character is randomly killed by a runaway pig, or mildly challenging tasks are randomly failed, it becomes maddening.
Of all the random things across all roleplaying games, however, what bothers me most is the traditional Random Encounter of Dungeons & Dragons.
It always seemed to hold no purpose to me — it would take a fun game, and transform it into a string of unrelated combats with no narrative. It’s confusing how it ever became part of the game. And yet, just a week ago, I ran a game completely dependent on it … and it was wonderful.
Embracing the random
So how does it come to this? How does a Dungeon Master with a dislike of random encounters find himself constantly rolling dice and looking at tables?
A sandbox, that’s how.
I had left my players in a situation where I simply had no idea which way they would go. As always, everything is on the table as a possibility. But that’s usually a lie — they have goals and obstacles, and as the DM I almost always know the general direction of things.
But not this time.
With every option a real possibility, light plans were needed in every direction. To the north – an unlikely direction – is a forest. I jot a few quick notes about the forest: It contains the Temple of the Snake. The two high priestesses of the Snake God (note to self, the Snake God now needs a name), are known as The Guardian and The Spirit, and are set to battle over control of the temple and are mustering their troops.
And that’s it. I have a whole wilderness, which contains:
a) A temple.
b) Two high priestesses.
And, apparently, ‘troops’ that are mustering. I don’t really know what those are.
What do the players do? They head north.
Goodbye plans, hello dice. Let’s find out what’s really in these woods.
Things come together
The stage for a randomly generated adventure actually began prior to the decision to head north. Before they put themselves between a rock and a hard place and fled into the forest, one of the players failed a check.
They failed a check to do with magic, to be more specific.
They critically failed a check to do with magic, to be completely accurate.
And I believe that critical failures should be interesting.
To that end, I have created a random table based upon this one here, although without some of the most horrific entries. Rolled on my table was this:
Nearest companion stabs PC with whatever is handy. Turns into serpent that fills PC with arcane knowledge.
Which is, well, awesome.
To recap: Before running off in an unexpected direction to a wilderness whose only characteristic is “Temple of the Snake”, one of the PCs had a sequence of random dice rolls on pre-determined tables which resulted in a serpent of arcane knowledge growing out of his back.
Apparently, the dice sometimes plan better than I do.
Incorporating the random
The key to all these random encounters working so well, however, was the lack of randomness. Sure, the encounters were all driven from the tables at the back of the Fiend Folio – a book which was not designed around this particular adventure in the forest – but every encounter with anything of greater than animal intelligence is shaped by the situation at hand.
Is the thing being encountered allied with the Guardian, the Spirit, or attempting to remain neutral? And where do they think the PC’s allegiance lies?
And luckily I lied earlier. I did know something about the mustered troops. I knew which kind of creatures allied themselves with the Guardian and which with the Spirit. And these creatures know those lines, and know on which side the PCs lie.
So when they were ambushed by bugbears, the bugbears thought the PCs were on their side. (Until they lied badly.) And everything was a bit topsy turvy while running through the woods and trying to give the randomly rolled basilisk a wide berth.
Next time, everybody starts as prisoners to elves who aren’t sure if the PCs are what they claim to be, or actually the type of people who would be allied with bugbears (which is what they seem to be, to forest dwellers). And I might have come around a bit on the principle of controlled randomness.
Image is Bone Die by Kolby