Random or Random-like

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 storyTake it or leave itMy trucker buddies, they believe it!

Lets make a Stalk setting

This episode of RefMentor is brought to you by the garden of imaginary things…where game settings come from!

The Ecology of the Setting

Recently I was asked by a young GM about his setting.  He had a map and had started a timeline.  Great beginning, but he was trying an unorganized top down design.  And, if you have ever tried that…you know it can get out of hand very quickly!  So, here is a method that I recommended to him.  The analogy is not great, but it does work.  It is really a middle out built, disguised as top down.  Let me try to set up the idea:

When you are creating a setting, you have lots of ideas that you want in it.  so, you throw out a bunch of seeds and let them grow.  Hopefully you can tell the difference from the weeds and the planted seeds…and what if the seeds don’t work well together…so I recommend that you plant a central stalk of your setting, and then associated pieces can bud and branch off that central stalk!  OK.  That is the very general  description that might not make any sense, so now I will, as I often do, go into more detail, then try to give an example.  Granted, the topic of a setting in the length of the se posts is daunting, but if you want more, let me know…I’ll work on detailing it more!

When you are building  a setting…and for this purpose, I am not going to touch on game system, as that is a later decision that should have minimal influence on this step of your setting, you have ideas for what you want to play.  Sometimes it is a couple of things you want to see, and other times it is lots of ideas that you want to be present.  The first step is make a decision about what is the most important aspect of your story.  Map? A Culture? A business? Magic? Technology?  A language?  Whatever it is, that will be your stalk…the central trunk of your setting design.  Once you have your stalk, then you are going to build it, let it grow beyond what you think you might need.  As you build the central core idea, you will have things, little branches that will act as hooks for all of your other ideas.  Try not to worry about making them, and when you see them, make a not of them rather than try to make them complete branches.  Once, you get this stalk built, when you are satisfied that nothing else would add to what you have, then…Take a break!  Seriously…Take a break away from this…get a drink…find a distraction…play a game or ref another game.  This is important because when you come back to it your fresh.  Re-examine what you have.  Decide if it still is what you want to use.  If it is, decide if there is something you want to add to it.  Do it as needed.  THEN…find the natural breaks. A map has natural boundaries…large mountain ranges, oceans, big rivers.  A culture has breaks, when governments change, or borders expand.  Each of these natural breaks should be considered as a place to splice in the next piece of your setting.  Now…look at what you had identified as hooks/tags/branches before and add these new breaks to it.  If you have other ideas that you want to see, look and see if they will hang off of one of these natural places.  If not, do you have a place that you want it to be?  Then force a break in the stalk and put it in!  That shouldn’t change the main part of your stalk, but you may find, if you review everything, that maybe the stalk has a few things that make more sense to be changed with this new influence.  I would suggest that you work more on tying those ideas to the natural places, but if just won’t work then shove it in there!

This is where you develop those ideas that you wanted in there…remember that an idea may branch completely off from the main stalk and never touch it again, or it may wrap around the stalk and twine in and out of it.  This method allows you to keep a focus on what is important. Don’t be afraid of free association…maybe, in building this, you may find a branch actually becomes a new stalk!  Ideas can build on each and every branch and always reach back to another one…the natural world has all of these weird interconnections, why can’t your imagination place?!  The biggest concern when using this is to get carried away!  Not that is a bad thing, but if you get to far from the central stalk, the more work you are doing.  In some cases, you may be developing a setting for years or even the rest of your life.  Other times, you are creating a setting, to tell one story (which of course should be your stalk) so you don’t need to go far from it.  Put as much work into it as you want, but this technique will allow you to be certain you have what you want, and may reveal interesting new options that never occurred to you before!

Now…an example…Obviously just a stalk itself could take pages, but I hope this will illustrate the point.  I’ve mentioned a setting that is roman empire in space.  Well…that statement right there gives me the important stalk.  Obviously I want an interstellar civilization that is based upon early roman democracy.  So, I start with the stalk and it will go something like this: The Empire never fell.  The madness of the Ceaser’s was cured by divine magic and they ruled for a millennia.  Because Rome remained in power, and because of divine cures, the polytheistic belief system kept Christianity and other monotheistic beliefs on the sidelines, but they have always had active followers.  Because of this, the dark ages didn’t happen, so technology has advanced more rapidly, putting the tech tree about 200 years ahead…computers in the mid 17th century…The empire eventually dominates the world, opposed by a small but significant guerrilla movement in the far east, and a resolute native American (Indian, Mexican) forces. resistance.  Like the original Romans, they would have citizenship rules, castes and slaves…And on and on…it would obviously need to have a general timeline, the discovery of FTL drive, the Planet of New Rome, current home of the Senate, and so on…

Now we look at the timeline.  We see a guerrilla movement in Asia…so, let’s have a rogue theft of an early FTL by a Chinese agent…and they have formed a small, but resolute alliance of worlds.  So the guerrilla have become a full force, and the American resistance has overthrown a few planets, but these are backwater, frontier types that the Roman  Stellar forces and the Asian Universal Alliance cannot afford forces to take back over, but they both impose trade sanctions…and these rebel ships are considered pirates and smugglers in any non-rebel systems.  So, now we have the Cowboy/lawless feel of the rebellion, but they specialize in stealth tech and maneuverable ships.  But they make few breakthroughs because whenever they get big enough to do the required research, the site becomes a target…

There we have it…just a few minutes of thought, and much less than the minimum of work on the stalk, and we have a divinely guided Roman stellar empire, opposed by a resolute force of Asians…that still need a lot of fleshing out.  As well as rebel cowboy spies…with fashion and culture defined primarily by the Roman empire…and, as I set here writing , I see so many possibilities…A Star Wars variant…a Firefly variant…A Space Spies game…Roman Star explorers…

And with that little bit done, I could start a bottom up detail level and write specific adventures with a well established setting to reach back to for support.  Still a lot of work, but it can spark ideas, and maybe a new hobby of world/universe building! (Something that will always help an aspiring Ref!)


As Always:

That’s my Story…Take it or Leave it…My Trucker buddies, they believe it!

View From Above

Where I delve into Top Down adventure construction

I touched on Top Down design in the Common Ground post.  This is designing your adventure or setting by looking at the “Big Picture” first and then designing each of the lower layers until you get to the fine details like family names, the Skorpion class cruisers that patrol the star lanes, and the Rusty Dragon Tavern.  I’ll hopefully illustrate this better with a hypothetical, and probably over the top example.  For this example, assume you have a game system that will fit perfectly for your idea:

The Triumph of New Rome: In our alternate history, Rome almost fell, but was saved through the brilliant, but savage, machinations of 1st emperor Narsis.  Now, the Roman Empire has advanced into a star faring culture.  How do we design this setting?

First, we need to figure out the extent of the Empire…how many planets does it control?  So, for each planet, we need to create some things…What is the planet like>? Desert and dual sun, or water with scattered islands….what about toxic atmosphere but very rich in resources?  So we design all of these worlds and give them names, and decide why the empire inhabited them.  What has happened to the natives, and how did they take to being subjugated by the Romans?  Well, we need to define that.  Oh, every planet has a population of citizens, slaves and subjugated natives.  So, we need to work out these natives, the populations and how many population centers there are.  Of course these places need names…

OK, now we have the empire, we of course need to decide why they haven’t expanded further?  Range?  Or bogged down on given planets?  Well, we need to define that.  But, if it is range, or simply resources, we need to figure out how travel works, and how big the starships are and their cargo…probably ought to work out what the standard method for pacifying worlds is, and is it more important to keep the slaves alive, or are the resources what drives them.

Well, we have the empire and the barest info on the starships.  Now we need to decide which of the planets are going to be important to the setting.  Well, All of them of course!  So for every planet, we need to work out the members of the senate there, what the lifestyle on that planet is, how many and how big the population centers are.

As you can see, top down can get VERY complex, as we haven’t even got a place for the characters to call home yet…assuming its Earth, a lot of information is already available, but we need to work out how it has changed with the New Roman Empire controlling it.  We need to work out the important people and buildings for the setting…what about any important members of the Senate, or the exiled General of the Praetorian who has recently acquired a Septus Class destroyer? Which of course we will need to name and map and work out crew and compliment… We haven’t  even worked out the significant dates in history that brought about this new Empire, yet!

The idea for Top Down is that whatever happens or whatever the players decide to do, you have already worked out what it could affect!  It is VERY labor intensive.   I usually work on a top down idea, but usually only about kingdom level down with a sketch of the world and a few notes about what is beyond.  The biggest benefit of this is it creates a very detail and believable setting that will always remain consistent.  As I have posted in my info, I tend to use this method, or this method with a shortcut. This is a great method to use when you are gaming in an Epic style, or if you are writing stories rather than adventures.  But when it comes to adventures, using this method, you can literally have ages worth of background and settings forever!

What are the downsides?  Well…LOTS of preparation.  Also, Lots of maintenance.  If you have a whole world going on outside of game, then you need to keep at least simple notes on its continued existence or it becomes stagnant.  When you tell a player that a queen from two kingdoms over just got assassinated, because that is the news of the day, and has nothing to do with your current game, next year, the queen cannot still be “Just assassinated!,” It could still be an undecided outcome, but SOMEBODY, and likely many somebodies, if you have built your Top Down correctly, has claimed the king’s hand!

Like everything else in reffing, this is a personal choice.  For the sake of completeness, the next post will be Bottom up, and then I will do a simple compare contrast.  Anybody have preferences of what to see after this short string?  Don’t worry..even without input, I have LOTS of post scheduled…just not certain what order to post them!

Thats my story…take it or leave it…My trucker budies…they believe it!