I was never a fan of random encounters, or even travel in general. It’s always felt like it’s delaying the “good part” of a D&D campaign and that I’m annoying the players for having yet another random group of creatures attack them.
Also, 5e’s mediocre/non-existent exploration rules don’t make this portion of the game more enticing to run.
However, running Curse of Strahd (CoS), I’ve also realized that I’ve both a) misunderstood the purpose of random encounters and b) ran them poorly. Random encounters don’t have to be random skirmishes with an assortment of creatures just to fit some combat into a session.
A great list of random encounters is a phenomenal vehicle for worldbuilding and dishing-out plot hooks. The overworld random encounter tables in CoS have generated more interest in the campaign and have given the party more time to show off and test their new skills as they level.
What’s a Random Encounter?
A random encounter is, as the name implies, an encounter that the party stumbles upon. Its occurrence is not premeditated or preplanned.
The encounter itself, however, is preplanned at least to some degree. Random encounters are selected as part of a list of encounters. When the party triggers a random encounter, the DM rolls on the random encounter table and proceeds to play out the encounter from there.
This list is usually premade. The DM can make it themselves so that it’s a list tailored to the location or scenario. While this requires some planning, it’ll be a personalized list for your campaign ensuring that the party will learn about and explore aspects that you believe are important.
The key here is that even the DM has no clue what the encounter is before it occurs. They’ll have whatever information is given to them via the table and that’s it.
The encounter is random, perhaps it’s from a curated list, but its occurrence is random.
Random Encounter Frequency
The DM is asked to roll a die (generally a d20) every so often as the party travels. This could be once every X minutes, once an hour, or once every Y hours. It’s dependant on the environment. A dungeon, for example, has more frequent random encounters than overland travel would.
The result of the die roll will determine whether or not the party faces a random encounter. The result that procs a random encounter is also dependant on the location.
For example, in Curse of Strahd, a random encounter will occur on a 18-20 while the party is traveling on the road. However, random encounters will occur on a 15-20 if they’re traveling off the road and through the wilderness.
This difference in encounter frequency is another worldbuilding benefit that random encounters bring to the game. It’s a quantifiable way to show how dangerous the untamed wilderness and dark crevices of the world are to the party.
Random Encounters Aren’t Just Combat
Oftentimes when one thinks of a random encounter they picture fighting a group of random creatures or NPCs.
You wouldn’t be wrong if you thought of this either. D&D is built around combat so it makes sense for many (if not most) of its random encounters to be combat-centric, or at least be solvable via combat.
However, combat isn’t the only flavor of random encounter. Any of the three pillars of play (Combat, Exploration, Social) can make up a random encounter.
In fact, I’d say that it’s important to sprinkle in some exploration and/or social encounters in an overworld travel random encounter list. This variety has come in handy in my Curse of Strahd game and is part of why my opinion has changed about random encounters.
The exploration pillar is engaged in random encounter tables in numerous ways. For example, one encounter could be a strange or interesting location for the party to interact with.
The party could explore a strange cave that they stumble across in the forest or check out the cliff face to survey the next portion of the journey. Of course, both of these instances could include combat or social encounters if desired.
However, exploration isn’t reserved for places. Interacting with objects and uncovering potential plot hooks also fall under the exploration pillar. Using CoS as an example, the party has a chance to stumble upon a lost trinket or a dead body as they traverse Barovia.
They’re also perfect fuel for plot hooks if desired. The party can seek out who the trinket belonged to or search for friends and loved ones of the body. This search may lead them toward new quests, information, etc. within Barovia.
Meeting and talking with people is a fantastic way to learn about the world around you. Bumping into various folks as you travel is a great way to learn more about how the common person interacts with the world.
Social encounters span a variety of different flavors of encounter. Here are a few I thought up on the fly as I wrote this section:
- Bumping into a group of fellow adventurers for a chance to exchange information
- Finding a traveling merchant with unique or rare items for sale
- Deescalating a hostage situation
- Multiple ways to solve this encounter as combat is a possible option
- Lending aid to a stranded family whose wagon has lost a wheel
The cool thing about social encounters is that they give the party a chance to flex their non-combat skills.
Face characters can flex their social muscles, of course, but skills like Medicine, Animal Handling, Performance, Insight, and various Intelligence checks might show up as well depending on how the party interacts with the encounter.
Again, keep in mind that an encounter doesn’t need a winner or loser. Sometimes there is no problem to solve in a social encounter. Take the “traveling merchant” scenario for example. The party can barter with the merchant, make small talk with them, or purchase wares from them. There’s no winner or loser in this encounter in a conventional sense.
Although if the party robbed the merchant then I’d say the merchant loses.
Running a Random Combat Encounter
A planned encounter gives you the benefit of preparation. You have all the time you desire to hand pick creatures, plot out initial creature positioning, and strategize before gameday.
You don’t (or shouldn’t) have these same advantages for random encounters. Well, you can, but if you go through prepping each random encounter you’ll waste a ton of time. I say waste because there’s a high chance that you won’t play a large percentage of the encounters on your random encounter table.
There’s no need to expend so much time prepping when you might not reap the rewards of doing so.
Instead, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the creatures if you aren’t already. Skim through the creatures’ statblocks and get an idea of what they do and how you could use them. Then, if their encounter is chosen, you have an inkling of how to play them.
One aspect of a random combat encounter that you can control is the battlemap. A scenic battlemap helps depict the setting just as much as the encounters themselves.
There are also tactical benefits for drawing a couple of different, simplistic battlemaps. A few boulders, trees, or other pieces of cover change the flow of an encounter significantly. They act as a tactical objective for the party and creatures to take due to the defenses they provide.
Keep your maps simple, but give them interesting aspects to make your encounters more dynamic.
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t spend too much time on this, just like with the creature prep. Make a couple of generalized maps at most and cycle through them as desired. Even a single battlemap is sufficient.
Don’t spend too much time on this. While random encounters are beneficial to a campaign or adventure, part of their benefit is the lack of prep needed to run them.
Random encounters are a great way to flesh out the world. A well-rounded list of random encounters has the party will meet new people, learn about the local creatures, and explore the nooks and crannies of the locale they’re traveling in.
This revelation is just one of many tricks and lessons I’ve learned since running a non-homebrew campaign. Honestly, I’d recommend everyone do so at some point as a different perspective will improve your DMing skills.
Sprinkling in random encounters makes the world feel inhabited. It gives the party a chance to interact with people and creatures on a smaller scale, making the game more personal. Plus, it’s a great way to set up plot hooks for side quests!