Random Encounters, Now With More Randomness!

I played around with my laminator recently and created a “deck” of encounters for when random encounters come up. The idea that I came up with is more along the lines of what type of encounter will come up, rather than exactly what shows up at a given time.

Keeping D&D 5th edition in mind, I wanted to make sure to keep the pillars of adventures in mind, so that random encounters were also reinforcing this three-pillared design as well.

How This Works

  • Whenever a random encounter might be called for, a player pulls one of these results from the deck
  • That result is set aside until all the other results are drawn, at which point it all gets reshuffled
The larger point is to make sure that I’m being pushed to having more complicated encounters, and some days that just have a lot going on at one time.

  • Combat Encounter–Something shows up and is already hostile; this doesn’t mean they can’t be calmed down or negotiated with, just that without some effort, the element that shows up will be hostile to the PCs.
  • Roleplaying Encounter–Something shows up that is not immediately hostile; this doesn’t mean that they can’t be made hostile by the PCs, but if the PCs do nothing, the element will not be hostile to the PCs. This element that shows up has to have a desire–a merchant wants to sell his wares, an animal might try to steal food or shiny objects. Nothing should show up and not have some drive to do something, which gives the PCs something to interact with.
  • Exploration Encounter–This can either be a random element that does something to the PCs (i.e. save to avoid exhaustion or damage), something that requires the PCs to do something (road or path blocked), or something along their regular path that can be interacted with (unmarked ruins, cache of treasure or supplies, landmark, or phenomenon). There should be something the PCs either must or can interact with in a meaningful way (i.e. not “you see a burned down house and you know for sure there is nothing in it of value,” versus “you see a burned down house””after exploring it, you find a journal that is partially burned”)
  • “X” & “Y” Encounter–This is an encounter with multiple elements occurring concurrently or in a manner that overlaps. For example, a merchant shows up in camp and asks for shelter, and is quickly followed by thieves following them.
  • Two Encounters and Three Encounters–This indicates that there are multiple encounters on the same day, but not at the same time. Some days are rougher than others.
  • Day–This encounter takes place while the PCs are traveling from point A to point B. This is an “on the road” encounter versus an “in camp” encounter.
  • Night–This encounter takes place while the PCs are resting and setting up camp after traveling. This is an “in camp” encounter versus an “on the road” encounter.
Other Prompts and Improvisation

This method may not completely replace other kinds of encounter tables. The GM may still want a random list of hostiles, neutrals or potential allies, or exploration elements in the game. The point of this is to make sure that the GM has an idea of the context of the encounter. 
This does mean that the GM is probably going to have to improvise what happens to an extent. Some older, more traditional encounter charts can at least imply “fight or ignore” what shows up. There have certainly been more in-depth encounter charts, but I wanted to shift the idea of providing context.
Story Beats

For GMs that are very conscious of story beats, and are concerned that these random contextual encounters might mess with the flow you are trying to establish or reinforce in the game, there is one other thing to keep in mind.
Changing the risk versus reward level for any given encounter is going to change the feel of any of these encounters, as will the specific stakes.
A serious downbeat for a combat encounter can be an encounter that is clearly one that the PCs should run from. An upbeat for a combat encounter might involve a fairly quick fight where the creatures have a clue for the ongoing story and a valuable item.
A serious downbeat for a roleplaying encounter may not involve someone that will fight the PCs, but might be able to ruin their reputation or enact consequences for them when they return to civilization after their travels. An upbeat can be someone whose desire for the encounter is literally to help them, with the character bestowing gifts or healing magic if the PCs don’t outright reject them.
A serious downbeat for exploration could be very dangerous, damaging weather, or something that makes the rest of the journey more difficult. An upbeat could be good weather that restores the characters’ mood and removes a level of fatigue or grants inspiration, or it could be an easily found cache of a ranger’s care package for travelers with food or even healing items.
Card List (For People That Don’t Want to Look At My Bad Photography)

  • Two Encounters (Draw Two More Cards)
  • Three Encounters (Draw Three More Cards)
  • Combat Encounter (Day)
  • Combat Encounter (Night)
  • Roleplaying Encounter (Day)
  • Roleplaying Encounter (Night)
  • Exploration Encounter (Day)
  • Exploration Encounter (Night)
  • Combat and Roleplaying Encounter (Day)
  • Combat and Roleplaying Encounter (Night)
  • Combat and Exploration Encounter (Day)
  • Combat and Exploration Encounter (Night)
  • Roleplaying and Exploration Encounter (Day)
  • Roleplaying and Exploration Encounter (Night)
  • Combat, Roleplaying, and Exploration Encounter (Day)
  • Combat, Roleplaying, and Exploration Encounter (Night)
Inspiration (In Real Life)

While this doesn’t work exactly like either of those systems, whenever I think about overland travel and random encounters, its hard for me not to think of the following game systems these days:
The One Ring
Adventures in Middle-earth (with uses the 5e OGL version of The One Ring’s Journey system)
13th Age (montage travel, which appears in the GM kit and some adventures and is further discussed  here: 13th Sage–More Uses for Montages

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