Uncertainty, Improvisation and Inspiration - Random Encounters in D&D
There are a ton of things about early edition D&D that provoke strong takes, but random encounters are on the top end of that list. Not a week goes by on Twitter that I don’t see someone mentioning how terrible they are, how they serve no purpose, and how they are, wait for it… bad game design.
If I were the kind of person to suggest banning a term or concept from the TTRPG design discourse, it would be “bad game design”. Not because we don’t need the term, or because it doesn’t have value, but because people use it as a stand in for “design I don’t like”. Random encounters aren’t “bad game design”, they serve a purpose (several actually) and work well. They are just a bad fit for certain play styles and games. When you label something like this "bad game design" you are really saying more about the games YOU play and how YOU play them than the design itself.
So let’s take a look at the value of random encounters.
1. Random encounters create a cost for “standing around”. Although it can be fun to role-play doing nothing, eventually that gets old. Having random encounters in the game is a mechanism that keeps PCs from dwelling in indecision for too long. Analysis paralysis is a real thing, and rather than “giving the players clues” and making it about you rather than them, random encounters put pressure on the party to act.
2. Random encounters make the game world dangerous. Games model things, they can’t give you the experience, so they give you something that models the experience. Random encounters mean the game world is filled with challenge, as if you travel anywhere in the game world you are at risk of encountering deadly things. This creates a mood, a vibe, an experience that adds to immersion and keeps the players on their toes.
3. Random encounters drain resources. I have heard MANY people complain that adventures are “too easy”, but that’s often as the party faces the adventures with full resources. Throw a few random encounters in there and suddenly the party isn’t in top fighting form when they arrive at the dungeon.
4. Speaking of dungeons, when you are in a closed environment, random encounters create pure terror in the players. When they hunker down to rest, regain spells, heal, etc., nothing makes them quake in their boots more than realizing that the ref will be making a number of wandering monster rolls. Most dungeons call for 1 per TURN. That’s 6 per hour, so for the minimum 4 hours of sleep necessary to reset even first level spells in AD&D, that’s 24 checks at anywhere from 1 in 8 to 1 in 20 odds (module odds for dungeon wandering monster checks vary widely). That virtually necessitates an encounter, making those “lay low and heal in a dangerous place” plans problematic.
5. Random encounters surprise the ref. Yes, your ref has spent a lot of time preparing the adventure, planning out how to handle your zany antics, but the random encounter, which pops up at unpredictable times, keeps things fresh and fun for the ref too.
6. People often complain that dungeons “make no sense” and are just “monster zoos”. One of the reasons for that is you have disconnected rooms that often don’t interact in any way. That makes them seem procedural and “unreal”, that they “make no sense”. Wandering monsters add texture and some reality to the dungeon. Suddenly there is traffic between areas, an ecosystem, and the dungeon becomes more than just a series of rooms, it becomes a living thing.
7. Here is a big one, random encounters are not always about fighting. This is for a few reasons. One, encounter reaction and morale rolls can keep them from being too deadly, but also, wandering monster tables are often populated with non-aggressive monsters and NPCs. If you look, for example, at the city encounter tables in the AD&D DMG they have a mix of monsters and potentially helpful NPCs.
8. Random encounters can give you an opportunity to drop some lore about your game world, perhaps drop some clues about future encounters, give some context about events, that sort of thing. Intelligent monsters and NPCs have information that the party can use, and rather than just dong the “your PC would know this” bit, maybe the NPC you just met tells you that piece of information instead. BONUS: players start looking at NPCS and intelligent monsters as sources of useful information, and stop trying to kill everything on sight!
9. Random encounters are a safety valve for the harried sandbox referee. “We decided we don’t want to go to the hidden temple right now [you spent weeks detailing and creating the hidden temple], we want to go to the nearest town and get some henchmen instead.” So now you have to detail a town, or… they hit a random encounter on the way and that keeps them busy until the end of the session.
10. And one of my favorites, inspiration, random encounters are story prompts, and even better, they are story prompts that force you to do some work as there is often no immediate reason for the result to occur. Say you are travelling from town to town and you roll an encounter with a passing group of pilgrims. Why are they there? Where are they going? Who do they worship? Are they hostile to non-believers? I have spun entire multi-session adventures out of a single random encounter that inspired me to something fun.
To my mind one of the best aspects of random encounters is that they are random, not just in what they produce, but when they produce it. Sometimes you roll multiple misses and the travel is uneventful and easy. Sometimes you roll multiple random encounters in a row and suddenly that “easy” portion of the adventure is much harder.
As a ref, it is important to put your trust in randomness, which means accepting the runs, good or bad, rather than giving in to the desire to ‘tinker’ with everything. It seems benign at the time, but it just reinforces patterns, and that makes the game stale. And it robs randomization of its may power: making results random, rather than patterened by the ref or group.
There is no question that you can run random encounters badly, not putting time and care into the tables, stripping the monsters/NPCs of any context or nuance so its just like a monster zoo between locations, failing to try and integrate the result into the lore or the adventure itself, etc. Like any game mechanic, they can cause problems.
But the goods outweigh the bads by a country mile IMO, and random encounters have added immensely to my game.
I am not surprised, however, that many players of more modern games or modern iterations of D&D aren’t fans of random encounters. Random encounters, though not completely unstructured, bring uncertainty and unpredictability to the game, and this will wreak havoc with any attempt at “balance” or “challenge rating” for adventures. AD&D is inherently unbalanced, and thus this isn’t a problem.
But if you like having a “story”, you like ensuring that your games hit certain “beats”, you want the PCs have some sort of loose guarantee of long term success, you want “all players to have a chance to shine”, or you want to ensure that you can predict where the game is going, random encounters are not for you. It would be much easier, and much less inflammatory, if people just said they didn’t like them as they don’t fit well with more story focused games, rather than calling them “bad game design”.