Saturday, 25 April 2015

Encounter lists, why are they so drab?

For quite some time, I've been using a computer database for my encounter lists, but recently I ran a few sessions in a different system, and found the encounter charts to be abysmal, so I quickly threw in some ideas that I thought I'd share with the community [note, by this I mean, unedited ramblings]

Why do I need to fudge encounter chart lists?

Back in the day, when I was a green GM, a DM if you will, players would enter a room in the dungeon and I would roll up the next encounter from a chart and they would fight it. I was 13, I had no other idea about anything other than the expensive (read: I couldn't afford so I made my own) pre-written adventures, which in hindsight, seemed to be a writer doing the very same thing, then giving some actual explanation why a beholder is in the room next to 20 orcs, in a Crypt that has been sealed for 50 years.

As I progressed, they of course became the 'random encounters' that characters would 'cut their teeth' on before the adventure, so they could test their 'leadership' and 'tactics' with the opportunity to heal up and even return to town, before they would repeat this process 3-10 times in a sealed environment.

Years Passed, and I found myself rolling, 2-3 times, and picking what seemed far more logical, rather than what the dice said.. but it felt wrong to fudge the dice.. going against fate, as it were..
Which Encounter to Choose.. Hmm, Maybe All? Seems logical!

So what was wrong?

Looking back at those charts, I see monsters too high a level, assigned only 1 value on the d100, while common creatures assigned several values.. but just like the casino, the house always wins. If you have a dragon on your chart, eventually the players will encounter it.

recently, a 12 day trek through semi-dangerous forest resulted in this:
Day 4, Dire tiger, day 5, Treant, day 8, 4 Bugbears, Day 9, 11 goblins & a Barghast, Day 12, 2 assassin Vines. All for a group of 4th levels.

Ahh TPK, how Schadenfreude
The Dire tiger mauled our tank, who couldn't participate in the fight with the Treant, so the whole group got wrecked, we had to camp to rest, but that made us vulnerable to the Bugbears, So while the goblins should have been a walk in the park, they almost slaughtered us and the Vines TPK'd the group.

Now, ignore the group.. lets look at the creatures.. We have a Dire Tiger and a Treant, within a days walk of each other.. The Scent of the Tiger, should have caused the Treant to be wary, which admittedly could have alerted him to come investigate, but in turn the Treant should cause the Dire Tiger to be wary or moving on from this neck of the woods..

Databased System

As I said, I use a Database system, which wouldn't allow such things to occur. creatures have a threat radius, a scent radius, a territorial radius and a position, some creatures ignore these things, others stay well back from such things, so certain creatures wouldn't be found dead, (literally) within the radii of other creatures, and others would (be found dead).

Another feature of databasing is that when players kill the Dire tiger, its gone from that neck of the woods, and the creatures react to the power/territory vacuum, some creatures increase their territory & breed more, others randomly move into worse neighbourhoods, perceiving the threat to be gone, to find a worse threat which annihilates them.

No DataBase.. how can I make a better list?

So after starting this game, in an area with no database, no system, I had to revert to my old knowledge of encounter lists, and thought.. surely there has to be a better way to do this.. hence this blog.. and I came up with a solution.. I'll be sure to put this into my own system for publishing later, but I think its cool enough to share with any reader:

First we start by ordering the danger rating of the encounter list, At the top, 01 - ? is the 1st level creature, keep the '% values, but scale it up to 300%.. i.e. if goblins was 3 numbers before (41-43), its 9 numbers now (41-50), if unicorns were 1 number, they're 3 numbers (actually for unicorns, I'd scale them back to 1 number and bump something else up by 2). Shift these around as you see fit.. creatures who would likely not care about other creatures, scents, territorial etc, give them higher %, while other more territorial, a lower %.

Next, Add in these two charts:

Encounter Modifier & Encounter Style.

Encounter Modifiers I leave 01-75 as "no modifier" and for each 25% I add in an increasing addition, such as " & pets (add d4 dogs of appropriate type)", or "increase numbers (increase the dice of creatures from d4 to d6+1, or d6 to d8+1)" or "aggressive, (+1 to hit, +1 to damage)". These also go up to 300.

Encounter Style I have things like, 01-25: Not here today, 26-50: tracks of _(roll on chart again).. nearby, 51-75: dead body of  _(roll on chart again).. 76-100: Ambush, 101-125: -Bandits, 126-150: Roll again & have fight each other, 151-175:  Boss monster of encounter roll. etc etc up to 300.

So here's where it gets interesting..

When you roll on the "do I get an encounter today %" initial listing, and get "nothing" you roll d3 and add 10% or 20% (normal vs dangerous terrain) to one of my charts (bit of paper behind the screen, add a notch, marker, etc) so I know that todays encounter could be nothing, or this could be the beginning of something worse, maybe the characters have entered the territory of some hideous beast. each day of "no encounter" is just increasing the likely hood that the next encounter is going to be bigger than before. The first 3 styles listed, are of ways that the group will not encounter this larger than normal beast, and if that happens, I'll have the next few days also be no encounter (this land is so dangerous, nothing wants to go here, but luckily the characters managed to 'bypass' its horrible lair) but the players won't know that they bypassed, instead they're thinking they are getting closer and closer to something even worse!!

Encounter a Lair, ensure no encounter rolls for trip home
My own lists include in the styles (at 01-25): Within the Lair: Ignore the modifier, and roll again at -25%, keep the modifier for future rolls, So while travelling trough the hills of the hill giants the players encounter some kobold travellers, easily defeated, but the danger of Hill giants is still close.

With a few test rolls, (and a spreadsheet for extensive testing) I had around 80% success rate, that the larger, deadlier creatures turned up far less often, in close proximity to anything else.. ensuring that if you do encounter something rather large, you'll have enough time to rest up, cause nothing with any brains, is going to be coming to the lair of this (now dead) beasty anytime soon.

and the GM doesn't have to feel like he's cheating, fudging the dice, anymore.


Chris Gonnerman said...

Hmm. I've always used traditional random encounter tables (such as you find in my Basic Fantasy RPG) but I've never felt like I was "cheating" when I chose an encounter (or chose to omit an encounter). The game isn't all numbers... it's about having a good time.

Of course, my players also know well enough to parley with treants, or pay off dragons, or whatever they have to do to survive encounters that are "too hard" for them otherwise.

derfinsterling said...

I don't use random encounters much. Either I pick a result or I set up a "not so random" encounter in advance when writing the adventure or I just skip the whole thing with narration. Whatever fits the situation and/or group best.