Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part I)

Killing the random Encounter table...

How often have your party of adventuresome adventurers been just wandering along, adventurously minding their own business when they have been beset upon by a bunch of inbred, poorly equipped XP fodder who’s only desire in life is to be chomped up by a party of bastard-hard adventurers (or die trying)? It’s happened to me. I wasn’t even playing.

There’s something about a bunch of hoods waylaying innocent travellers that is, at the same time, wholly believable and yet quite ridiculous. The trick to making these things interesting is to make them more… well… realistic. I’m of the opinion that any encounter rolled up on a random encounter table is probably better left out of your game.

“But, but, but…” I hear you cry¹. “How can I possibly make up enough interesting encounters? My world is a dangerous place, dangerous things happen, all the time.”

I know. According to the news, that’s true of Brixton. However, randomly rolling up a bunch of thugs, foxes, squirrels or angry trees to attack the players every now isn’t the best solution to making the world feel more dangerous. You have to face facts. No player wants their character killed off by what is nothing more than a random event, and what’s more, you don’t want to kill off your players (or their characters) in some random manner either. (Where’s the fun in that?) Therefore there’s a tendency to make these encounters pretty easy, which in turn ends up giving the impression that the world is full of suicidal animals and collections of aggressive homeless fruitcakes. I’m going to count that as a fail.

What makes a world feel dangerous is the perception of danger. People talking about how dangerous something is can be quite a bit more effective that actual danger. This is because actual danger is actually quite dangerous and may and up killing off your characters by mistake.

Of course, there’s no point in having all your tavern based beard-stroking rumourmongers wailing on about the dangerous nature of the road to the big city if there is in fact, no danger at all². In a world of heroic peril, we’re going to need some danger to go along with all those rumours and as noted, actual danger is better than randomly generated sudodanger. However, to introduce actual danger (of the kind that kills and eats characters for breakfast) you have to give your players a chance to detect, avoid and plan) If some heroic numbskulls are forewarned of danger, have plenty of opportunity to do something about it and yet still end up facing the danger without a decent plan… well then… they deserve to get eated.

So what we’re getting to here is a simple premise: Don’t roll up a gazillion different random tables of random encounters to randomly get your dumb scmuck heroes into some random pointless fight with something that really should have run a mile at the sight of them.

So what do you do?

Well, you roll your own.

You make up one new fresh blob of encounter juice, fresh from your brain-pit, bubbling and half-baked³. The trick to this is to paint the concept in broad strokes and only fill in detail where absolutely needed. I’m a big fan of a concept called lazy loading. You don’t go fetch all the results you need right away – you only fetch the ones you’re actually asked for. In this way the pool of your subconscious can mull over the half-formed idea and pass you interesting bits as required. (This is basically the key art of the fluid GM – I’ll bang on about this a lot)

Then – once you’ve got your encounter bubbled up inside you (maybe with a few loose notes on a scrap of toilet paper, just for reference) you look for places in the game where it can drop a misshapen tentacle into the heroes’ path. If it takes root and the players get involved, you just roll with it and let the thing go. If they dodge it and walk on (or just hack it off and set it on fire) then you just carry on as if nothing happened and look for another likely spot.

Well... that sounds easier said than done. And it is. But we'll get to the 'how' in the next part.... how to roll your own. Till then, hang on to your hat and hope for high winds...

¹ Well, I would hear if you came and shouted outside my window. Pretty loud, I’ve got double glazing and an ear infection.

² Actually – you can do that a couple of times – because, as we know from real life, people are always going on about how dangerous places are while in fact, people in those areas quite often go about their normal lives without ever witnessing any of the danger at all. Drug deals are a media frenzy of danger – but when’s the last time you got shot dead while picking up twenty Rothmans?

³ The encounter, not your brain.

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