As I am sure you are aware, I am mostly a Top Down style ref, playing Epic story lines. This usually results in very big story lines that intersect with many other big story lines…often leaving players a little stymied as to which way to go. On the other hand, bottom up story lines tend to lead to railroading of players… However, both of these can be avoided with just a bit of planning. And, you can add life to your adventures when you have encounters that are just everyday life running into the players while they pursue their goals. And here is where we come upon a classic argument often between the top downers and the bottom uppers: Random Encounters!
Because I run epic games, I trust in random encounters to keep the world vibrant. Make the players realize that it is not there just for them to complete the hunt, fulfill the prophecy, or capture the MacGuffin. And for this, I used random encounter tables. Depending on the set up, sometimes I have random tables set up for specific locations…in one instance I had created 5 different random encounter tables for one city…and each of those had a daytime and a nighttime version. A lot of work, but it definitely gives specific flavors to each quarter of the city. On the other hand, when I run episodic games, I usually plan encounters that may seem random, but that are the next step in the story and will probably have something important that becomes obvious later in the game. Lets look at each one, to see if one is better than the other. And of course, then I will present another way to do it, that I really like to use!
Random Encounters (Cue Trumpet fanfare)
Random encounters can be as simple as setting an encounter period, and rolling on a prepared table. In the early days of gaming, back when dungeon crawls were THE THING, you would roll a D6 every hour or so (Game time, not real-time) and depending on the dungeon and noise the adventurers made, a certain result would trigger a random encounter. Then, depending on the dungeon level, you would roll the encounter, and a given set of monsters (or maybe the odd evil adventuring party) would spawn around the next corner. Viola! Real life happening, eh?!
With this process, you could try to convince the players that this group of monsters was just patrolling, or going to get something to eat, or going on a hunt…But, usually, this random encounter just turns into another reason to fight something and take their treasure. Eventually, random encounters became almost a whole game in themselves…roll the encounter check, roll the encounter, create the composition, determine their motivation, which could then make the encounter something other than a fight, such as a merchant train…are they looking for new guards, someone to hunt down the bandits that just attacked them, trade with folks on the road, or is it the cover for a bandit group, or a secret way to move the baron’s daughter from one place to another? Depending on the work put into encounter tables, you could work up very detailed encounters…of course, it took several minutes of dice rolling that made it fairly obvious that it was a random encounter. Players could engage or ignore as they wished,because it didn’t matter to the storyline they were following. In my experience, I have come up with entire new storylines from a simple encounter…of course, if the players started following it, they lost the main path and are now on a side quest…or it was a storyline that I spent time on that was never seen, or became the subject of another adventuring group. In epic games, random encounters are just about required to make certain that the world lives and exists beyond the main story line. In episodic games, inserting random encounters like this becomes just something to take time, never really furthering the story.
Random encounters could be very interesting, depending on how quickly the ref can create the details to support this just created band of orcs, commanded by 2 Hobgoblins…They could just be meat for the grinder. They could be a guerrilla group set to collecting slaves or stealing food (which may be the same things). Or perhaps they are a group of emissaries from the nearby tribes, traveling with a writ of free passage from the local land holder! Depending on the ref, and the game group, it could end up being nothing more than a fight, or maybe a chase as they try to hide from the better equipped and more ferocious hunters. Great addition to a game, eh?! Yeah, but a lot of hit and miss, and thinking on your feet. As well as the obviousness of the encounter.
Story Encounters ( bom, bom, baaahm)
In episodic games, the encounters are generally part of the story. The encounter happens, not because you rolled 2 on the D6 on the hour, but because the players needed to encounter this particular group of bad guys at this particular time either to provide vital clues or to move the story along some other way. This encounter is preordained, even if it seems outside of the main storyline. It has to be planned so that whatever the outcome, the players get what they need from it. If they bribe the thrill gang to leave them be, instead of finding a message from CorpX on the bosses phone, one of his lieutenants must let slip that Mr J from Corp X is not going to be happy with the decision. If they manage to sneak by the gang all together, a decision has to be made as to whether they can get through the story without the info about CorpX, or if one of their contacts needs to call them about word on the street about a meet between Billy Longknife, the gang leader, and a suit known to work for CorpX. If you let it slide, does the story end the same, or do they out Mr. J’s patsy, so he gets away, literally with multiple murders? This can make for interesting game hooks in the future, but takes a fair amount to set up. Whatever the outcome, the players likely believe it is part of the story line, even if it comes out of left field. Overall, this is obviously the better system, right? Well…not if you want it to be JUST a random encounter. A bit of a red herring to maybe throw them off the trail a bit…make them follow something a bit that has no impact on your story. So, lets look at a system I like to use when I have the time. It uses the best of both worlds!
This system works really well with my current Epic-sodic style. And, it works for both other styles as well. At its heart, it is similar to the Story Encounter system. You make your “Random” encounters up before hand. If they are story encounters, work out the details like you would with any other encounter. If they are truly random encounters, have them all made up before hand. Throw them in when needed. Make these encounters full encounters, or at least pre-planned. And then put them in whatever order you need. When you have the need for a story encounter, move the scene to it just as you normally would, either with a chance meeting in Epic, or opening a scene in episodic. Run the encounter, and make sure the players get what they need from it. If it is random time, pick the next encounter on your list and run the encounter just as you would any other encounter or scene. This way, your players never see you take the time to create the encounter so assume it is part of the story, or, if all of your encounters start with you rolling a couple of dice and consulting your papers, then they will never know Random encounters from Story encounters. Of course, it is more set up for you, but as I have stated before, in most cases, the amount of prep work is proportional to the enjoyment of the sessions. You can use these Random Like encounters in any play style, and your players wont have to worry about suspending player knowledge, and their characters can encounter it just as they should…with no forewarning as to how to handle this particular encounter!
(Does this need an example, or is it clear enough?)
That’s my story…Take it or leave it…My trucker buddies, they believe it!