Random encounters. The sign of a lazy GM? The cure for a slow spot in an adventure? The short answer: yes and yes. And no.
Confused? Good. So was I every time I ran into a band of blood-thirsty monsters, their only purpose was to exist so that you can kill them. It always seemed pointless, wasting precious story time. They seemed to exist in a state of limbo, completely separate from the rest of the game. But I never complained about the experience points I got for them. And after a time I wanted "just one more little random encounter." After all, another 100 XP and I could level before confronting the bad guy. Maybe they weren't so bad, after all.
Then I started running the games. I started to see why random encounters
were used. It wasn't just to kill time, all though that was frequently a good
use, since many of our games were completely off-the-cuff. But there was more.
Actual reasons for them to exist!
But I still hated them.
Then one day, I was sitting around with some friends, wasting idle moments of my life, and one of them was preparing a game. She was actually jotting down notes on the random encounters she wanted to use. She knew where they could be found, why they were out and about and how they would respond to the party. My initial thought, as much as I hate to admit it, was one of shock. How could she waste all that time on such insignificant experiences? They were random! Only there to whittle the characters down! But I paid attention while playing her games after that. And I was impressed! It all fell into place. The creatures were actually doing something when you found them. You could tell parts of their story from the way they looked.
One example I remember was a bear cub, nice and healthy, mewing away, lost from it's mother. Well, we found it, ready to defend ourselves before realizing it was just a cub. As we started to help it out, the mother came in. And she wasn't happy about us meddling with her baby. So she attacked. The thing I remember most, though, is that the mother's fur was hanging loosely, like she hadn't eaten much in a while. It was a great hint, that none of use really noticed till later, about the state of the forest. For some reason the creatures were disappearing. Most of the wildlife had fled or been killed. Those little details that she threw into the game really brought it to life.
If you find yourself or your players drudging through another trek through the forest, take a note from her example. I'm not saying that you have to spend the time preparing the encounters. While it can really help, too many of us game on the spur of the moment to make this really workable. But all it takes is a bit of thought before sending them against the party, and a healthy dose of common sense. You can even keep your random encounter tables. Just take a minute to consider your game and your environment.
Here's a few questions you might use to help you get used to this process. If you need to, just set these questions next to you while you're running the game. Just don't let any players see it, they might consider it cheating!
Be careful not to fall into another common trap, though, by having all of your encounters the same, changing only the names to protect the innocent. Variety is the spice of life. I don't know who said that, but it is absolutely true, and one of the 101 Golden Rules of Game Mastering.
So many possibilities, so little time...
Enjoy your brain,