My love-hate relationship with random encounter tables

Of all the skeletons in my GMing closet, perhaps the darkest is this: I almost never use random encounter tables, even when running games with a deliberately “old-school” vibe.

Why do I ignore this staple of roleplaying? Well, my experience with using random encounters can be summed up in these two memories, both of them from my early days of GMing.

Random encounter #1: the best thing ever. When I first started GMing (with Middle-Earth Role Playing, which was a trimmed-down version of Rolemaster), I followed to the letter all of those rules that, in later years, I learned to sometimes skim over: encumbrance, travel times, and—yes—random wilderness encounters. For one of our first-ever games, I ran the “Ar-Gular’s keep” adventure included with the MERP rulebook. Faithfully following the rules for wilderness travel, I rolled on the random encounter chart to see what, if anything, would happen while the party of 1st-level adventurers set up camp.

I rolled, did a double-take at the result, but never even considered “cheating” by ignoring what was almost certainly going to be a total-party kill: a troll.

In Middle-Earth, trolls are nasty. The party, caught unawares while they camped, was almost certainly going to die. But the encounter chart said TROLL, so a troll it was. (This was the Trollshaws, after all.)

A frantic, panicky combat ensued. Things were not looking good for our heroes. And then, in a stroke of awe-inspiring luck only possible when you’re using Rolemaster’s glorious critical hit charts, one of the characters did the impossible: with one frenzied jab of his sword, he killed the troll.

It was, as they say, a one-in-a-million roll, one that turned a nearly-certain party massacre into the most memorable possible introduction to roleplaying. And it would never have happened if I had massaged the random-encounter results or picked out a “balanced” encounter.

This was followed by another random encounter.

Random encounter #2: the worst thing ever. A few months later, the characters had been through many adventures in Middle-Earth and were coming into their own as true adventurers. One character, an elf ranger, had after much heroic toil reached 3rd level (dizzying heights of glory, from our perspective). I was growing more confident in my GMing abilities, and so when the player asked to head off on his own on a personal quest, I heartily agreed.

I spent time designing an adventure around his character’s backstory and goals. Accompanied by a few NPC henchmen, he set off on his quest, which took him through a vast swampland.

I faithfully rolled for random encounters as he journeyed through the swamp, and sure enough—he ran into an obstacle: an alligator. A regular alligator, not a Dire Alligator or a Sauronic Minion Alligator. Figuring that a quick battle against the reptile would get the action going (what is an alligator going to do to a noble elf warrior?), I set the beast loose against the player.

You can guess what happened. A few unbelievable dice rolls and several profanity-filled combat rounds later, the party was dead and the noble elf, hero of Middle-Earth, was bleeding out from a severed leg. With no help anywhere in range, this mighty Noldor, distant heir of Feanor, creator of the Silmarils in an Age long past, bled to death in an alligator attack straight out of late-night TV.

Remember that epic scene from Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship is mauled by a random alligator? Yeah, neither do I. Because that would be stupid.

It seems silly in retrospect, but at the time it was a severely frustrating experience. The player had spent months building up his character and it had all been thrown away not with an epic fight against the Dark Lord’s minions, but with a random and meaningless alligator attack. And the time I had put into adventure prep designing a quest tailored for his character were rendered rather pointless.

I realize now that there were plenty of things that both I and the player could have done differently to avoid stupid, non-heroic reptilian death. But the lesson I learned was that random encounters, while they had the potential to be memorable and entertaining, also had the potential to spoil a game session. Having seen random encounters used to good effect in games like Rogue Trader, I’m starting to accept that they do add something challenging and exciting to a game. These days I make use of what you might call semi-random encounters: encounters rolled randomly but then adjusted a bit for balance or storyline coherence.

But while the memory of that epic troll kill still warms my heart, it will be a while before I put my complete trust in the random encounter table again.

What about you? Do you adhere to random encounter results… and have you ever lived to regret it?

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3 Comments

  1. Wow – I was in a Rolemaster party that took on a troll also, and we won through magic of the critical table. But after that we were much more weary of battles as we saw how easy random rolls could change everything. Our adventure mainly focused on avoiding combat, which is quite funny compared to all the cRPG played since, which is almost only about the combat (and loot).

  2. Andy says:

    Hey, awesome! Yes, Rolemaster combats certainly created some fun memories, usually when you managed to take down something way more powerful than you through luck and good die rolls.

    I agree with you regarding the unpredictable nature of combats. On the one hand, the random deadliness of combat meant that every now and then, you had a real shot at surviving a fight with something more powerful than you, in a way that usually wasn’t possible in D&D or similar games. But it also meant that it was tricky to know when to keep fighting and when to cut and run, because you could be at full health and still get your head lopped off by a lucky enemy attack; or you could be woefully outmatched and manage to survive. It’s fun, but also tricky for players to manage combats, and also tricky for GMs trying to create balanced combat encounters.

  3. jeffro says:

    I just played “The Gauntlet” from Autoduel Quarterly 3/2.

    It is played on the four Midville mapsheets. As you come to each intersection, you randomly determine how much debris are on each new section of street from (1) clear to (6) completely blocked. This made the player snake through the intersections in a pretty fun way.

    Each block has a 50/50 chance of having gang members. (Roll as the player comes to them.) Their equipment is randomly generated and can be anything from a couple of grenades to an armed cycle.

    Because the system is based on a *lot* of die rolls that generate the scenario as you go, you can pretty much expect an interesting encounter to develop *somewhere* during the trek across town. (The gang is really dangerous only if they go for tires only, though. The grenade pedestrians are surprisingly effective.)

    The only downside of the system is that you can’t count on it to make a dramatic final scene. My preference would be a large group of cycles that just-so-happen to be stoppable if you can cover your escape with dropped weapons…. But yeah… this is where the referee needs to be able to improvise something relevant to the players’ history and the scenario. The other thing I did going into this was… that if the player happened to do miserably, then I would give friends of the character an opportunity to come rescue him from the gang.

    So… when using randomly generated scenario elements… you generally have to take liberties for the sake of the narrative… and always have a back up plan in case things go awry. In the case of the alligator, you player clearly came across the monstrous work of the Necromancer. It was a Black Alligator, the twisted spawn of his influence in the forest! A good samaritan character appears to defeat the alligator after the pc goes down… then heals the pc with an elvish macguffin of anti-alligator death. The pc will now agree to help the samaritan overturn one of the Necromancer’s plots in return!

    PC “death” is the time to introduce new ongoing npc’s and/or a nemesis. That is the kind of tension that produced Gildor, Glorfindle, Faramir, Gollum, Gandalf 2.0, Aragorn 2.0, Treebeard, etc. Literally… rpg wise, the hobbits were fairly well at a dead-end up until the new characters stumbled into the plot!

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