Need some Help with Random Encounters

4th Edition

I'm running a 4E sandbox game soon and I'm trying to build some random encounter tables. This is my first sandbox style game, I usually run plot driven games, so I'm a little new to random encounters.

Specifically, this is going to be a wilderness exploration campaign. I'll have a variety of regions of varying difficulty (level) and I want random encounter tables for each area.

I've got down the basic jist of how to build the encounter table, what I'm struggling with is the "probability" of an encounter actually happening. Do I base it on time? Distance traveled? Other factors?

How do I determine that an encounter even takes place? When do I roll for the encounter table? Etc...

Any help/advice would be great.

And, any general advice on random encounters is also appreciated.


Hmm, my earlier post on this got eaten by the forums. :(

Anyway, one way to go about this is to frame wilderness travel as a skill challenge. For each region, you would have a number of possible encounters. There is an excellent article about this in this month's Dragon, as well, though the basics are pretty straightforward. A group would travel through the area, using whatever appropriate travel skills you choose (Nature, Perception, etc). Either on a failure, or through some other random determination, the PCs would stumble upon an encounter. If a dangerous one, the right skill check success might get them out of it - if they fail, they get to fight the encounter.

You can even weave encounters together a bit to help personalize the region and add a bit more of a narrative - more work, but can add a lot to how developed things feel.

Even when taking such an approach, though, you need to decide how often you want encounters to appear. One option in a skill challenge is to tie them to failures - this works well, in that it represents what happens when they stray from the safer path. On the other hand, it also means that a skilled enough party might avoid any dangers at all, or an unskilled party might constantly wander into trouble. The random chance is now influenced by party capability - which could be good or bad, depending on your outlook.

In the skill challenge article in this month's Dragon, the method Mearls uses is to have the DM roll a d20 whenever the party makes a navigation check. If the DM rolls higher than the player (not counting any modifiers), then an encounter happens. If this seems like too often, it is simply a matter of modifying what he needs to roll - if you want it to be rare, you could say the DM needs to roll at least 5 higher than the player to have anything happen. Or you can have multiple levels of encounters - if the DM rolls above the player, they get a non-combat encounter (finding a wandering merchant, strange ruins, etc), while if the DM rolls at least 5 higher, they roll on the combat encounter table instead.

Outside of the confines of a skill challenge, again, it really falls to you entirely. You can simply assign some possibility per day of travel, and roll from that. Do you just want it to be the occasional event, or is encountering the new and unusual going to be the primary focus of the game? You don't want 10 random fights to bog down the journey from one important location to another, if there is plot driving the story. But if you are letting the PCs set their own story, you can set up expectations for much more regular encounters.

The real challenge is making sure random encounters don't feel boring - just having a list of monsters to roll on can be dull. Flesh them out as random 'scenes' instead, or location with some background to them, and that is the real heart of random encounter creation.

I think it's best to use your own sense of timing with them and not roll to see when they happen. If the players look like they need a quick pick up and some action give them a random encounter. If they've just been through several encounters and need a break then it's probably not the best time. It's also nice for even random encounters to serve some sort of purpose to drive the story along- ie. maybe they get some information that helps them with a goal or they gain some hook that could lead them into a future adventure should they choose to bite, perhaps it allows them to make a new contact or new enemy. For instance, instead of being ambushed by bandits they see someone else being ambushed just up the road. The PCs can step in and help, which might allow them to make a useful new contact.

P.H. Dungeon wrote:
For instance, instead of being ambushed by bandits they see someone else being ambushed just up the road.

I like this idea. Makes it feel less like a random encounter.

I would say they happen just as often as is fun.

CourtFool wrote:
P.H. Dungeon wrote:
For instance, instead of being ambushed by bandits they see someone else being ambushed just up the road.

I like this idea. Makes it feel less like a random encounter.

I would say they happen just as often as is fun.

Random encounters are a classic idea from 2nd edition really.

You need to get a table generated of about maybe 6 common encounters based on the location. They'd maybe look like this:-

Swamp:Roll D10 per hour of travel, an encounter occurs on roll of a 1.
1) Lizardmen band
2) Giant Toads
3) Crocodiles:
4) Pirahna: Travel through waterways becomes Att vs Reflex DC(?), D8 damage.
5) Swamp Hag:
6) Black Dragon: Young, 3rd level encounter

Obviously you need to set an encounter to the party level from the options decided.

You can probably find some old Random Encounter Tables to use from older editions, they'll just need adjustments.

A combination of what everyone else stated should give you enough information to build a solid random encounter generator or at least pre-planned skill challenge. Just keep in mind how many healing surges are available throughout the day for the party, and you can provide more or less encounters, based on how gritty you want their adventure to be.

Thinking about it you could do the following:-

1) Lizardmen bands: Skill challenge Nature(understand their movements), Perception(track and avoid them).
4) Pirahna: Travel through waterways becomes Att vs Reflex DC(?), D8 damage. Skill challenge Nature( understand Pirahna), Athletics(swim) and\or acrobatics(balance on log in water).

Some really good skill challenge possbilities really.

ProsSteve wrote:

Random encounters are a classic idea from 2nd edition really.

The concept is older then 2nd. Probably just about as old as the game itself.

As described in several posts above, random encounters shouldn't be as "random" as they seem. Use "wandering monsters" and other encounters carfully, making them into tools for controlling the adventure's plot.

Encounter Goals:
Encounters (random or not) serve several purposes. By tailoring your encounters to accomplish these goals, you can improve the flow and thematic tension of your game.

Encounters should inform the players about their environment, in accordance with the theatrical maxim "show, don't tell". If the player hear rumors that the wilderness is dangerous, they won't be impressed. If they spot a distant dragon devouring the remains of an ogre, they'll know. Players told that an area aggressively punishes lawbreakers become more concerned when they see the Watch seize a petty thief and hack his hand off on the spot.

Some encounters are also threats meant to wear down the party, using up their resources and challenging them. Ideally, these encounters should give the players the feeling that they succeeded by "the skin of their teeth", barely pulling through without any PC fatalities. Err on the side of caution when building these: It's easier to add another encounter or a few more monsters than it is to weaken the encounter once it's underway.

Finally, some encounters exist primarily to let the PCs show off how heroic they are. These encounters need not be especially challenging, but give the characters a chance to effortlessly accomplish some task beyond the abilities of lesser mortals. A good example would be a scene where the PCs face a band of (hopelessly outclassed) brigands, gaining the respect of locals by demolishing the villains.

Although it sounds like I advocate total control of the storyline, I'm not completely against random encounters. By choosing encounters randomly off a pregenerated table, you create the illusion that the adventure environment functions independently of the players' actions. Instead of being arbitrarily chosen by the DM, the encounters seem as though they were chosen objectively. This encourages the players, making them feel that their choices drive the game.

In order to maintain tight control of the game's events while empowering your players, I recommend that you make a random encounter table, but pregenerate the encounters. Choose only the coolest, most interesting encounters for them to discover, then roll secretly when deciding if and when they will encounter something, so you can occasionally fudge the rolls if needed to adjust the pace of the game.

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