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RANDOM LIMBO

 

GM: You're traveling through the forest. It's almost dark. And it's raining. You're surprised as blood-curdling screams rip through the quiet. Crashing through the undergrowth are five of the ugliest Trolls you've seen. What do you do?
Player: Can we tell why they are attacking?
GM: Umm...no.
Player: Any signs of a tribe, or clan or anything. I remember dealing with those Trolls in the Blood Fist Clan last winter. Maybe I could talk to them.
GM: Umm..no signs. They're attacking, what do you do?
Player: You mean they're just attacking? No provocation, nothing?
GM: Umm...nope. It's what I rolled. They're attacking.

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! I found, or read, or dreamed the reasoning, the philosophy, if you will, behind their uses. A random encounter serves the purpose of whittling away some of the PC's hit points before they meet the real encounters. That was the reason. Oh, of course, it also served to "promote realism." You couldn't expect to go wandering around through the forest for days on end without meeting creatures and monsters, now could we?

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!

  1. Why are the creatures here? Are they running from something? Do they live here, or are they just passing through? Did the party interrupt something, like a religious ceremony, or stumble onto a guard party who is making sure that no one interrupts what's going on?
  2. If they are intelligent creatures, are they on a mission? What would they have on them that might side track the party, or give them aid in what they're trying to do?
  3. How should they react to the party? Would they try to escape notice? Maybe they'd attack the party so that no one would survive to report their passing. If they're relatively unintelligent creatures, like a wild animal, what could make them desperate enough to attack a group of adventurers?
  4. Do they belong to a group or organization that might take offense at having some of their members killed? If so, is their any sign on them that tells what they belong to?
  5. How would they respond to the party talking to them? Would they ignore them and attack, or would they pause to see what the party has to say? Could they be bribed for passage?
That should be enough to create some exciting random encounters. Many things you come up with could lead into entire sub-plots within the story. They could also create life-long enemies for the party that could be recurring throughout their lives.

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,
Lonnie Ezell
lonnie@rpg.net

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