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The Pros and Cons of Random Encounters

"I'm going to write this week's column on random encounters," I said to my husband as he returned from his hunter-gatherer trek to our corner 7-11.
"That's a great topic," he replied enthusiastically, handing over the results of his foraging.
"Well ... I'm going to be against them," I said, unwrapping my Hershey Dark Chocolate bar.
He eyed me suspiciously as he chewed on his Hostess CupCake, and I knew we were about to have another of our classic DM-to-DM debates. We squared off our chairs and I pulled out my note pad.

According to Chapter 11 of the Dungeon Master's Guide (2nd Ed.), there are three types of random encounters—dungeon, wilderness, and special (e.g., city encounters, astral encounters). Checks for an encounter are made according to locale and time of day (see Table 56 on p. 101 for wilderness encounters; dungeon encounters are checked for every hour with a 1 on 1d10 indicating an encounter). In addition, the DM can arbitrarily decide to stage an encounter—but that is closer to a planned encounter. Planned encounters are not the same thing—they are discussed on pp. 95-96 of the DMG.
A DM may choose to use a random encounter table provided in the Monstrous Compendium (or any other monster collection), a module, or one that s/he has created especially for the adventure. The first option gives the DM the least control over what is encountered. The second option tends to be a little better, because the module's writer has at least tailored the encounter chart to the internal logic of the module. The third option is the best, because the DM can tailor the encounter chart to the specific locale and to his or her world in general.
Nevertheless, I usually avoid rolling for random encounters when I run a game. Maybe it's the lawful side of my alignment....
I'm a plot-oriented DM; my husband is a combat-oriented DM—which isn't to say that my adventures don't have combat or that his don't have plot! But in general, my campaigns lean toward puzzles and politics and his toward battlefields and bravery. I'm somewhat gentle, he's somewhat ruthless. Thus, we weigh the pros and cons of random encounters rather differently. This week I'll present our list of pros and cons so that you can make up your own mind about whether to use them.


1. They Carry on the Tradition. Random encounters are a staple of the game. Ask any old-timer and s/he'll reminisce fondly about the old dungeon-delving days when a monster's sole purpose in life was to guard chests of treasure or patrol the dungeon halls for intruders. Why did the monsters live in a dungeon, whom did they serve, and what did they eat? Who cares? They were there to kill or be killed. Classic Dungeons and Dragons at its finest.

2. They Keep Characters on Their Toes. Characters who expect their travels to be problem-free and who know the monsters will be tucked conveniently into their rooms and lairs can get annoyingly cocky. Random encounters remind such characters that the AD&D world is a dangerous place—all of the time.

3. They Emphasize the Wide, Wide World. All too often characters are egocentric, believing the world revolves around them (well, it does, since they're the focus of the campaign, but the characters shouldn't realize that). Random encounters remind the characters that there are people and monsters out there who have nothing to do with them or their adventures.

4. They Promote Party Cohesion. The fear of random encounters gives an adventuring party a reason to organize marching orders, watch orders, and "buddy system" combat strategies. These pairings-off and strategies build character and party solidarity, eventually turning the group into a well-oiled fighting machine.

5. They Make Characters Vulnerable. There's nothing more vulnerable than a fighter in his pajamas or a mage using the chamberpot. Random encounters—especially at night—are a good way to catch the characters off-guard.

6. They Provide Roleplaying Opportunities. Not all random encounters need to end in combat—sometimes a random encounter can be quite pleasant. Random encounters give the players more chances to roleplay and give the DM a chance to stretch his or her talents with unusual or silly characterizations s/he might not normally attempt.

7. They Provide XP. At low levels, random encounters are experience points on the hoof for characters, although at higher levels the payoff tends to be diminished.

8. They Control Potential Power Abuse. Okay, I do use random encounters for this one reason—to keep psionic characters in line. Knowing that I'll roll for random psionic encounters makes the psionicists a little less likely to use their powers all of the time.


1. They Bog Down the Adventure. This is the Big One, as even my husband acknowledges. Random encounters can make an adventure drag, breaking the pace and mood of the session.

2. They Fail to Make Sense at High Levels. Ever notice that those encounter charts get tougher as the characters get higher-level? "I remember the good ol' days when we were all 1st level and all we worried about were wolves. Now that we're 13th level we're being attacked by dragons and mindflayers! Whatever happened to those wolves, anyway?"

3. They Increase the Chance of Loss. Every random encounter increases the chance that an important item—maybe the map to the dungeon or the sacred relic that's the key to the plot—is lost or destroyed by a miscast spell or accident of fate. Random encounters also increase the chance that a party member might die, in which case the entire adventure is derailed as the party turns back to town to get their friend brought back to life. This is particularly serious if the adventure has a time limit (e.g., "You have two weeks to rescue my daughter or the goblins say they'll kill her!")—in that case, the adventure is almost always a bust.

4. They Distract Attention from the Adventure. Adventurers are a superstitious lot, likely to assume that every random encounter is linked to their archenemy or their current adventure. All too often the characters forget about the main plot and go haring off in the wrong direction to investigate the random encounter. Alternatively, after fighting off a band of kobolds, the group's good cleric or paladin might decide that s/he has a moral obligation to abandon the adventure and stay in the village to protect the farm folk from further attacks! Because random encounters do remind the adventurers that there's a wider world out there, they can easily ruin a carefully laid plot.

Eight to four in favor of Pro, but even though I acknowledge that there are good things about random encounters, I think that the one bad thing—the fact that random encounters can bog down an adventure—outweighs all the arguments on the Pro side.
My suggestion? Instead of random encounters, I suggest that DMs write up a list of potential encounters that have some sort of relevance for their campaign. They don't have to tie in to the current adventure, but they might lay seeds for future adventures or introduce NPCs who may become important later. They could even be interesting monsters that the DM simply wants to throw at the players—but they've been planned with an eye toward the party's power level. These are not "random" encounters—the DM does not randomly roll or choose them. But in many ways they can provide the benefits of the Pro side while avoiding the drawbacks of the Con side.
My husband, however, remains unconvinced.

originally written September6, 1998


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