Sunday, 21 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part V)

The guide to rolling your own

Tips and tricks of the Fluid GM

The example of the random bandit encounter (with option to become side quest) detailed over the last couple of posts (Find the start of this thread here) showed how you can make up a single interesting encounter to place in front of your heroes in lieu of rolling a random encounter from chart or table. The trick to making this a viable option is to minimize the amount of actual work involved in creating said encounter. The reason people use random encounter generation in the first place is because they can’t be buggered to make all this stuff up, but they want stuff to happen.

So, we want an interesting encounter (which will be more exciting, interesting and relevant than a randomly rolled one) but without the overhead of creation. Fine. The trick, funnily enough, is simply to be ruthless about what you need to invent. Because it’s essentially chance encounter (rather than a required element of the long term campaign plot) the detail you need is actually very small. If you think about it – when rolling up the “D6 wolves attack” random encounter on the table what preparation do you have? None. At all.

Simply spend 15 minutes in the car on the way to the session thinking about your encounter
First break it down to two simple bits of information.

  • What will the heroes encounter?
  • What does it want?

Sanity check this to make sure that it makes sense in your game world that what your encounter wants will allow it to target the heroes in order to get it.

Second think about the situation from the encounter’s point of view – how to they see the heroes? How can they get what they want from them without anything bad happening? What are the risks? How to they rationalize away those risks? Remember – this has to be done on the information that the encounter has available, be careful not to meta-game and use your own knowledge of the heroes to influence things. It’s a bit like playing chess against yourself – it’s quite hard to disregard what you know and look at it fresh – but try. Really try. When the heroes whip out that magic freeze ray and turn the bandit leader into a block of ice the bandits should be surprised - even if the heroes have pulled the same trick on other people. It’s tempting to try to make an encounter that somehow negates this tactic. Don’t. Save that for your plot.

Another quick example:

We need an encounter… um… right… I know! A particularly evil/tainted/hungry/aggressive pack of wolves are prowling the area in which the heroes are walking. They want to kill and eat something.

Sanity check. Why attack the heroes? Right – there’s nothing else about – all the game has gone – winter is setting in – the wolves are hungry. They’ve not seen anything worth eating all week.
So now we spend a little while thinking about it. There’s probably lots of interesting ideas about wolves. You can have the heroes spot the wolf trails earlier in the day – have them hear the howling at night while at the camp – have the heroes harried by the wolves over a reasonable time. (Wolves don’t just jump out of a bush and fight to the death – that’s a dumb tactic – they follow you – come closer and growl – test your defences – circle and wait. They may be hungry but they have remarkable stamina and have no need for straight stand up fight.

Also – thinking back to “what they want” – if the heroes don’t have the stomach for a fight they may well be able to avoid any conflict by finding an alternative food source for the hungry wolves¹. Also – the wolves may be hungry – but they’re not suicidal – if they’re badly injured in the fighting they’ll almost certainly die as they won’t be able to hunt. If the heroes prove to be too tough a nut to crack, the pack will reluctantly give up.

For encounters involving more humanoid persons you can have a list of random names² handy in case anyone asks “What’s your name?” or “Who do you work for?”

So where do you get your inspiration for these little bubbles of encounter gloop? Well – one tactic is to go back to the random encounter table and pick something from there that takes your fancy. Usually however, I just pick something that seems like an interesting idea. You can pillage interesting ideas from all over the place – films, books, TV adverts, supermarkets, blogs – even from things your players have said during previous sessions…

Player: “Well, we got through that dark wood ok – I’m glad there weren’t any of those giant ladybirds or anything!”

You, furiously scribbling a quick note on the label of your underpants: “Yes, you were lucky; I hear those are pretty common round these parts”

You’ll be amazed at how quickly players forget they even said things like that – however, a few weeks later when the giant ladybird eats one of their horses in the in the night it won’t seem strange at all…

Let’s recap before I wander off onto another topic entirely…

Random encounters: Bad

Making up you own the conventional way: Too much like hard work

Making it up entirely as you go along: Too risky and fraught with peril

The solution?

Roll your own encounter goo and add moral quandary to taste. Bake for two to three sessions and see who takes a bite.

Right – that’s enough of that nonsense – this topic is dragging on a bit now³ and I’m sure you’d rather read about something with more explosions in. Or something.

¹ Grandmothers and little girls in brightly coloured hoods are a favourite

² Check out the random name generation links for some ideas for where to get yourself random names

³ Mostly because I fail to keep on topic and start talking about something else, like that time I was standing on the railway bridge trying to flag down that low flying Spitfire when I accidentally started talking in semaphore to a pair of badgers who where… umm… wait a minute…

Random Name Generators

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