One of the game mechanics that I often see creating confusion is random encounters. For the most part, people see random encounters as an opportunity for combat. Of course, they can be, and depending on your group, they may often be, but to treat them as guaranteed combat is IMHO a mistake.
Random encounters are an opportunity for you to reveal some of the threads of your game world without having to plan for it. It is tempting when running D&D games to either lore dump or just not bother. Random encounters offer you the chance to improvise some aspects of the game world without extensive planning. A good example of this happened in my Friday after school session.
The after school group were approached by a warlock, Gorgal the Green, who was gathering sap from a King Bloom, a magical plant whose nectar can be used to create potions of sweet water. The warlock had been sending apprentices to the bloom to collect the nectar for several years now. Sentient plants IMC never sleep or dream, but warlocks can cast sleep spells on them so they can. In exchange for the opportunity to dream, the plant allows them to collect the nectar needed for potion making. The last two apprentices Gorgal sent to the plant did not return, so the warlock has hired the party to investigate.
The party headed out in the morning into the marshes for a two day journey. They passed by the shantytowns and the fishermen, and followed the river into the marshes. The first day and night produced no encounters.
I roll in the open for random encounters, so it creates some buzz at the table. They know that the encounters can be a boon or a bane, and they tend to get quite excited when I roll.
On the morning of day two of travel I rolled an encounter. I went to my random encounter tables and rolled a group of 20 bullywugs and 10 giant lizards. Bullywugs in my campaign are not evil, I have no evil humanoid races in my game.
Now, as a side point, I don’t write much in my random encounter tables as I like to improvise. So all I have is the stats for the bullywugs and the giant lizards. I have no other information.
I decide on the spot that the group is a caravan heading to the city to sell their wares, gahal fruit, reed wine, marsh salt, dried fish and bone knives (balanced perfectly for throwing).
I rolled for surprise and none was indicated on either side, so the party saw the caravan in the distance as they travelled down the road that paralleled the river. The road was a common route for those moving back and forth through the marshes, as they are impenetrable in places, and it made sense that they would meet a caravan on the road.
When they saw the group in the distance the party ranger and thief immediately took off to the side and climbed a tree to get a better view. The party fighter, who has a chameleon necklace, blended in and moved forward until he flanked the caravan, waiting in the reeds
The party priest approached the caravan, and opened parley with them. As opposed to my Thursday group that went looking for a fight, my Friday group were more circumspect. They weren’t naive, they took precautions, but they didn’t just attack either.
Another one of the things I do with NPCs/Monsters in my game is to have them behave… differently. Vance inspired me to this to be honest, one of the most amazing things about Jack Vance’s stories is that the people in his books are genuinely strange, they don’t behave like people today behave, or even like people in the past, his Dying Earth stories are set in the very far future, and the social conventions and behavior of people is very different.
So bullywugs, for example, are not just humans with frog bodies. I run them as very languid and laid back. They don’t care about many things, they are not easily angered or offended, and they basically just want to do the things necessary to live a good life, eat, drink, and create. So rather than have them immediately arm up and get ready to fight, when they saw the party they neither sped up or slowed down, they just kept moving on the road, no big deal. When the party priest approached them the bullywug in the lead had the caravan stop, and he moved forward to about 20 feet away and held up his hands in the traditional greeting in my setting.
The priest returned the greeting and asked who they were and where they were going. He responded by saying that they were walking along the river enjoying the sun, and that they were hoping to stop for lunch soon.
That kind of threw the player off. The players started talking to each other OOC:
“Are they messing with us?”
“Was that an insult”
“Maybe he’s keeping us busy to distract us so one of them can attack”
That continued for a few minutes, until they decided to continue the conversation.
“But what is your destination?”
bullywug responded, “Death”
They didn’t know what to make of that.
“You want to die?”
The bullywug croaked several times in succession something the party rightly thought was laughter, “It’s not something you want or don’t want, it just is. But it’s the final destination, yes?”
I could see that a few of the players were glomming on to the fact that these bullywugs were a bit elliptical or even philosophical. Then the priest got clever.
“Where are you headed today… after lunch?”
“We are headed to the city”, he swept his hand back towards the giant lizards, laden with many bags, “gahal fruit, reed wine, marsh salt and bone knives, do you want a bone knife, they throw like the maaka bird files”
Now the priest was getting into it.
“No, we don’t need knives, but thanks”
At this point I had to decide what the bullywugs would do. They could continue to talk, they could pass the party, I wasn’t entirely sure where to go with this. I rolled quickly to see if they noticed when the two party members climbed up a tree, and they did, so they might be suspicious of an ambush. So I rolled again to see how they would react to the conversation, using an encounter reaction roll with a small positive modifier as they were disposed to being laid back and easygoing.
It came up strong positive.
So I ran with it.
“Join us for lunch, maybe I can interest you in some bone knives.”
The party talked about this and decided to take them up on it.
Moments like this, when there is nothing immediate to gain from an encounter, when there is no promise of a fight or of loot, where the players just engage because they are having fun interacting with a part of the game world, are a marker of immersion and (IMO) a successful game. For the party at this moment there was nothing obvious to gain from sitting down for lunch with a caravan of frog men. Indeed, if they were indeed nefarious then it could lead to a bad end. But they were interested enough to join them.
So I described the bullywugs taking out dried fish and reed wine, building a fire and cooking the fish, that sort of thing. Then I had some fun.
There is a paladin in the party who has a war horse. Horses are extremely rare in my setting as it is in a swamp, where horses are limited in where they can go, so the far more common mounts are domesticated giant spiders, giant lizards and anhkhegs. So the bullywugs would likely be unfamiliar with horses. So several of them surrounded the paladin on his horse, pointing to it.
The PC responded, “what’s what”?
“That thing you sit on”
“It’s a horse”
“It’s covered with hair, and it's dry!”
“May we touch it”?
The player running the paladin wasn’t sure about that, but his fellow players convinced him to say yes, which he did.
The bullywugs touched the horse, and croaked loudly a few times.
“It’s so soft”
“It’s so warm”
“What’s that for”, pointing to the horse’s tail.
“That’s the tail”, the paladin responded.
One of the bullywugs slapped his companion, “It’s to keep the flies away”!
Everyone laughed at that.
The fish were fried up and passed around amongst the PCs and the other bullywugs, along with the reed wine and the gahal fruit.
The bullywug caravan leader had a conversation with the party fighter.
“Your sword, that’s pretty big eh?”
I then made the sound of a tongue flying out and grabbing a fly, drawing it back into the bullywug’s mouth. I did this off and on throughout the conversation, it was a little detail that the players found hilarious.
“Yeah, it’s big, but it works pretty well”
The bullywug pointed to the spear on his back, “Mine’s bigger”
The party thief jumped in, “Do you trade or sell your stuff”
I had all the frogs croak/laugh loudly at the question. I didn’t explain why, but I don’t have to, the point is to make the bullywugs alien enough in their reactions and statements that they seem different, I don’t have to explain it all.
The party priest, who is the newest player in our game, asked who their god was. It was the kind of question that could be insulting or endearing. I decided that they were indifferent to it.
“The swamp, the reeds, the water, the fish”, the bullywug replied, then he snapped another fly from the air, “we eat our gods, do you eat yours?”
That made everyone laugh. I wasn’t sure if the player of the priest was going to role play offense at the comment. But he decided he found the response funny too, so he just laughed along.
The conversation lasted for a while, the party asked about the swamp, whether or not they saw hunters from the city often, whether or not caravans passed this way often, that sort of thing.
The bullywugs asked where the party was going. They had a conversation amongst themselves OOC about whether or not to be honest and say what they were doing. For all they knew the bullywugs might have been the reason the apprentices hadn’t made it back the last time. They ultimately decided that they should be honest, and be wary if the response was off.
So they explained what they were doing.
The bullywug caravan leader responded.
“The King-bloom is good to us, but it’s not fond of strangers, sing to it and it should be calm”
The players already knew this (the warlock who sent them had told them), but it reinforced in their minds that they were basically harmless, as they confirmed something the party already knew.
When lunch was over and the bullywugs were getting packed up to go again, I rolled an encounter reaction roll to see how they were going to react to the whole encounter. I gave a positive modifier due to the laid-back nature of the bullywugs and the fact that they had engaged in friendly conversation for a while.
It came up as enthusiastically positive.
So when they were preparing to leave, the caravan-leader waved up a bullywug from the back of the group. The bullywug had tattooed symbols on his chest and carried no weapons. The two of them spoke in bullywug for a moment, and the tattooed bullywug sat on the ground, took out a handful of bones with strange symbols etched on them, and spoke in a low, guttural growl for two minutes, then cast the bones on the ground.
The bullywug spent a few minutes reading the bones, then he turned to the group and spoke in common.
“When you get to the bend in the river where the King-bloom is found, beware the river, there is danger there.”
The bullywug had cast an augury spell, and asked if crossing the river to get to the King bloom would bring “weal or woe”, it came up “woe”. So I decided on the spot that there was a giant snake in the river that would attack them if they swam across to get to the bloom.
The players then had a conversation, they wanted to do something for the bullywugs, as they had fed the party and given them some helpful advice. The party priest, who was new to the game and currently riding on the back of another PCs giant lizard, spoke up.
“I need a lizard to ride, can I buy, no, trade you for one of yours”?
The bullywugs croaked in laughter.
“We need these, lots of things to carry, but past the bend in the river where the king bloom lies the river branches south, take that branch for a walking day and you will come to our home, we have lizards there, we can trade then.”
And that was that.
The party continued on their way, and the caravan headed to the city.
The party gained no loot, slayed no monsters. They gained a bit of information about the river, but they were already aware that the swamp was filled with dangerous monsters. Mostly they had fun, got to interact with the game world a bit, learned a few things about inhabitants of the game world, and made a potential alliance for later.
If they had gone in swords flashing to get some “easy XP and potential loot” none of that would have happened. If I had played the bullywugs as inherently mistrusting and had them attack at any provocation it wouldn’t have happened either. But random encounters don’t have to be like that.
I should also point out that I improvised everything about this encounter other than the fact it had 20 bullywugs with 10 giant lizards, from the fact they were a trade caravan, to their general disposition, to the conversation, to the decision to have lunch, to the casting of augury. None of this was planned, or part of maintaining “story beats”, or letting the players “shine”. I didn’t pick the paladin and his warhorse for attention as the paladin’s player hadn’t done much lately and needed attention. I didn’t pick the goods the bullywugs were trading as the party needed one of the items for something. It was all 100% off the cuff to create game flava. To give the game world some depth, but not “purposeful” depth, just depth to create immersion.
I find that periodic encounters like this, that don’t have a larger purpose, or “serve the narrative” in any particular way, are a big contributor to player buy-in to the game world. They are also a lot of fun for me.
And as you might have guessed, the players were making bullywug tongue grabbing fly noises for the rest of the session after they left the caravan.