Wednesday we had one of the best sessions of the campaign so far. The characters have to make their way back to the settlement with the seven survivors of the wrecked ship. It is a week-long trip (at least), and here is where my extensive list of random encounters, locations and events comes into play.
It is a topic I’ve been reading about on the excellent DM David blog (for example: http://dmdavid.com/tag/three-unexpected-ways-wandering-monsters-improve-dd-play/) and I’ve used the same approach without fully realizing all the advantages. One advantage is that the random encounters create a real sense of threat when travelling, but they can also be a reward for exploring, by adding wondrous and strange locations with potential treasure and lore.
I’ve decided to post the random encounter table below, where my players can also see it.
Knowing the rules and being able to make decisions based on rules is already a core part
of D&D. Having a mechanical understanding of the encounter system can add a level of tension and excitement in my view. It should add depth and interesting discussions when the players understand the dangers and potential rewards of travel into lands where they don’t know what awaits over the next hill. It is certainly much more interesting than players with meta-knowledge of the monsters, which is why I alter monsters in almost all encounters in a meaningful way.
The game started after their hard encounter with kuo-toa. The half-orc Arak buried their casualty, while their aspiring leader, Jarn, tries to instill some confidence in the surviving NPCs without much luck (his character is only 16 years old, so that seemed very reasonable). They move their camp away from the carnage and successfully gain a full nights rest while scavengers of the forest fight over the kuo-toa corpses. In the morning they decide to split up (I don’t know how they dare…?). The ranger and druid will try to follow the trail of the final survivor of the ship wreck – a bodyguard of the royal envoy – a little longer, and return to the group before nightfall, as they travel much quicker in the forest. The rest of the group with the NPC survivors travel south.
The druid and ranger follows the trail, find a goblin trap the bodyguard walked into. A little later they find a pink giant mushroom that glows (random encounter), and avoid it out of fear. Finally, they find a place where he rested and were set upon by a goblin hunting party who followed his blood trail. He managed to defeat them, but retreated further into the woods. The two characters decide to turn back and catch up with the rest.
The main group reaches a wide gorge (random encounter), which is basically a skill challenge, which they can decide to forego and spend an extra day travelling, or attempt, where failure means a longer delay. They attempt the skill challenge and manages easily (natural 20), to get all the people across the gorge.
They camp and the ranger and druid catches up with them.
The next day I decide that the next time I roll a random encounter, I will introduce a significant random encounter that has a plot relevance. That happens the second night. They camp on a large cliff, and during the night the wizard is haunted by nightmares. He awakes with the sound of claws on rock and seeing empty eye sockets. He immediately casts a spell, and the two characters on guard notice that something is coming up the cliff.
Combat begins with 15 skeletons and two undead spell casters (5ht level sorcerers) arriving a round later. The plot hook is that they are after an item which the wizard has brought to the new lands (or more accurately, fled…). The two sorcerers are have cast fly, and are only interested in that item, and attacks the wizard. When they defeat him, one of them lands and grabs his backpack. The rest of the combat the undead tries to get away with the item, the fly spell fails however, and the gnome arcane trickster (who helped “procure” the item in the first place), manages to get the item out of the pack. Ultimately, the group defeats the undead, and that is the end of the session.
Next session will feature some pertinent questions for the wizard, and perhaps exploration of where the undead came from. And more travelling and random encounters!
Thoughts on the session:
Several things worked well. The random encounters, and the combat situation were fun and added a lot of flavor. The players were challenged and surprised by the dispel magic and other spells the undead cast. The combat was quite dynamic and tactically interesting, with various spells such as darkness and fog cloud used to protect the NPCs and characters. It worked almost as a game of ‘tag!’ and everyone played an important role.
I also use a bunch of notes with written questions to the characters, which players draw at random, typically when they’ve camped. Questions like: Who do you know who’ve been killed in the war? And: What is your fondest childhood memory? The first question came up in the session, and was great characterization for Jarn Ashford III.
The fact that there had been random encounters meant that the players seemed initially unaware that there was a plot reason for the combat. I really like that. Keeping players uncertain of what is planned and what is random I think will create a very interesting campaign. The players won’t feel the same inclination to go with what the DM presents, because they assume that it is where the plot is leading them, but will go with what their characters desires and thinks (I hope).
The random encounters also add fun for both me and the players, as I won’t know how the session and story will turn out either. I need to add a few things though: more lore connected to the world in the encounters, either via minor sites of interest or NPCs. I should also add actual random events/encounters with deeper plot hooks.
I also need to introduce rules for disengaging/fleeing from combat, as D&Ds movement rules are not useful for that. As there are overwhelming encounters on the list, there has to be a way to also withdraw or flee.
I need to add encountering NPCs to the list, to add variety to the list.
I have to keep being patient and let each session play out at the pace the dice dictates.
The Current Encounter Table:
This is the current encounter table I use. I’ve removed specific names from the list to avoid spoilers for my players. I try to include the distance of the encounter in the encounter description instead of having a separate random table. There is also another list with random monsters for the area they are in, when I roll 7, 10 or 13.
Encounter chance per day is 1 in 6 if in stealth mode or 2 in 6 if travelling normally. Roll twice if forced marching.
|2||An XX is devouring its prey, but might become more interested in the characters.|
|3||They run into a webbed area of the forest. There are X hiding among their webs.|
|4||The weather suddenly takes a turn: 1: heavy rain, 2 high winds, 3 fog 4 storm 5 roll twice 6: storm. Survival check DC 15 to maintain travel speed. Failure they have to make camp and loose 1 day.|
|5||The group finds a major random adventure site.|
|6||The camp is attacked or approached at night|
|7||The Group finds a site of interest|
|8||A party member encounters a goblin trap (Dex DC 15 pit trap with spikes 3d6+3 damage)|
|9||The group encounters an unanticipated obstacle, such as a fast flowing stream, a deep gorge or an area of marshlands. Moving through it requires a survival check DC 15. A success keeps up their speed, failure costs them 2 days of lost time. Moving around it takes 1 additional day.|
|10||The group is found by a hostile monster during the day.|
|11||An X approaches (plot relevant)|
|12||The Group encounters a group of elves, if they can spot them|
|13||The group is ambushed by goblins or hostile monsters|
|14||(Something extremely dangerous) approaches.|