Random Encounters: A love note

I DM a lot. I’m no longer the sole DM — our gaming group switches biweekly + time off for good behavior — but I think about things from the DM’s side of the screen.

We’re playtesting D&D 5e.

I have a lot of positive feelings coming from 4e to 5e — it’s my viking hat peeking through — but one thing that I especially like is the move from focus on the encounter to focus on the adventure. The rules that 5e provides for tuning those adventures are underdone, but I appreciate the recognition that a trap can just do some damage, or a random encounter can just be a cakewalk, or that there can be random encounters in the first place.

What is a random encounter? It’s an encounter which has some probability of occurring, because plotting the position of each kobold in the den, in real time, as the explorers break in… it’s just hard, especially to keep that information hidden from the players.

It’s an encounter whose purpose is to encourage the players to pull out of the dungeon with coffers half-empty because they know that the way back will be as tricky as the way in with some probability, even in the halls they’ve cleared.

It’s an encounter whose purpose is to encourage blowing the big guns early before the alarm can be raised (or before that Shrieker Shrieks) — to put some teeth into the alarm spell.

It’s an encounter that raises the threat level of every fight the players get into, because you never know when you’ve made enough noise to attract attention or lose surprise.

It’s an encounter that lets you inject color into an area without keying specific events for it: this area is populated by kobolds, but they’re all cowards and run away! It’s populated by feral dogs, who growl but love rations. It’s populated by one wandering treant — what’s he looking for?

Random anything as a DM is wonderful, because it gives you a springboard for telling a story. It forces unusual juxtaposition, which piques interest. But random encounters in particular are “visible” to the party in a way that other random elements aren’t; they require strategy and calculation.

All that said, perhaps I’ve been using them too much and should tone it down a bit 🙂


About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

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