random table successes and failures

A couple months ago, I produced a set of fourteen tables for generating random encounters in the Great Plain of my “Ethos” 4E D&D campaign. I’ve used them for the past few games, and I think they were a huge success from my perspective. I’m taking the approach that the tables tell me what the party encounters, and I figure out why before the encounter begins.

My success with these tables has been directly proportional to my willingness to accept the results and run with them.

For example, in our most recent game, the party was nearly to its destination, and I knew there was a very slim chance of any encounters so close to the chapterhouse of the Geomancer’s Guild. I called it 5%, and then rolled a five on the percentile dice. So, great, what did the tables tell me? The party found a lone dwarven merchant. He was a good day and a half off away from the trade routes, so what was he doing? Well, he was lost. Bombo, you see, has never felt the need to use a map, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of direction sense. The party did some trading, talked with him for a while, and camped nearby overnight. Once they got moving in the morning, I figured the chances of another encounter were incredibly slim. I rolled the d% and got… a one.

I rolled again on the encounter table: roll twice and combine results. Great, that’s always fun. The results were: time distortion involving an earlier scene; and a lone dwarven merchant. Fantastic! (“I’m sort of disturbed,” said one player, “every time you roll on that table and then say ‘Huh!’”) Nearly to the chapterhouse, they saw Bombo ahead of them – had he gotten lost already and made incredible time getting ahead of them? Nope. He’d never met the party, and Orc pointed out to the rest of the PCs that if they asked him to trade, they’d find all the stuff they bought from him still in his wagon. They decided to leave well enough alone and let him go, but it seemed to me like a nice little encounter, provided entirely by the dice.

On the other hand, a few weeks ago I rolled for an encounter and got a similar result: roll three and combine results. The results boiled down to something like 6d6 human infantry, 1d4 elven scouts, and a ravine. The party hooked up with the elves for a joint attack against the imperial forces and destroyed them to a man. The ravine? It was basically mentioned as being nearby. The players wondered how they’d deal with it, but I stupidly said something like, “Oh, it’s nowhere near the human’s campground.”

What was I thinking? There were longbows on both sides, and a single bridge across the ravine. This was perfect setup for a battle with interesting terrain, forced movement (into the chasm), role-based strategy, and so on. I absolutely, totally blew it by not combining the three results. Why didn’t I? Honestly, I have no idea. I think it just escaped me that the ravine would make combat interesting, and that it was clearly dictated as part of the encounter, not as a boring prelude to it. Oops!

Anyway, I’m really very happy with these encounter tables. They took several hours to produce, but they’ve more than paid for themselves. They’ve drasticaly reduced the amount of time I spend preparing each game, and they make things more fun for me, because I have less idea what’s going to happen and less attachment to keeping things on rails. (I hate rails.)

It’s obvious that the next table I need, though, is for random names for towns and NPCs of various races. Every time I delay in giving a character’s name when asked, I feel like I’m telegraphing that, “This guy is just some schlub and not a written part.”

Written on October 24, 2011
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