Structuring Encounter Tables

Random EncounterA couple weeks back I shared how I handle factions in my ORWA campaign. People seemed to like it. I like it when ya’ll like things. So in an effort to experience more of your approval, I’m going to tell you how I construct encounter tables. Once again, I don’t think I’ve got anything particularly revolutionary on my hands here. It’s just a method that I’ve put together over the last few years, which works well for me.

First off, all my encounter tables are 2d6 tables. The bell curve allows me to define some encounters as more or less frequent than others. The most frequent encounters can be a little mundane, and I’ll use them to create a feeling of place for the players. (More on that below). The less frequent encounters can be the zanier stuff that I love to include, but would end up making the game feel disjointed if they were omnipresent. You could, of course, get a similar effect with a 2d4 table or a 2d8 table, but I personally find the former too restrictive, and the latter too excessive.

2 is always a dragon, because we need more dragons. The game is called “Dungeons and Dragons,” yet in my experience, the appearances of dragons end up being exceedingly rare when contrasted with how often dungeons show up. They don’t need to be these hulking colossal beasts capable of stepping on PCs as though they were ants. They don’t need to be impossible to defeat, so long as they’re scary. A 10 hit dice lizard the size of a car, with a bite, two claw attacks, and a breath weapon, is more than enough.

These dragons can be interesting social encounters where the players try to figure out how to not get eaten. Dragons can also create a situation where the players feel they have to flee from combat. Both of these first options allow the dragon to become a recurring villain for the players, which may eventually drive them to seeking the final option: fight the dragon. And sure, there’s a good chance it will kill them. But there’s also a slim chance it won’t, and then they’ll have all of the wealth and glory that slaying a dragon will bring them.

Honestly I could write about dragons all day. I’m literally writing a book about dragons and how important they are to include in D&D. I’ll leave it by reiterating my thesis here: on the encounter table, 2 is always a dragon.

Likewise, 12 is always wizards. Because we need more wizards. Not because the game is called “Dungeons & Dragons & Wizards,” but because I fucking love wizards, and you know that you do too. Much like dragons, you can justify a wizard being pretty much anywhere, so there’s rarely any reason not to have a wizard in the 12 spot.

To facilitate this for myself, I wrote a d4 table of wizards. It’s a pretty short table, which has served me for about a year of real time without needing to be expanded, or have any of its entries replaced. Like dragons, I prefer for these to be frightening encounters, but not impossible to overcome by parley, flight, or combat. This requires a little beefing up from the standard magic user, which hey, look, I wrote a table to help you do that. I also usually include a retinue of devoted servants, which I presume most wizards of prestige would have.

7 is recurring characters. This isn’t as imperative to me as “2 is a dragon” or “12 is a wizard,” since it doesn’t always make sense for recurring characters to show up no matter where the players are. But I do like to include it wherever possible, because it’s a lot of fun.

I maintain a separate table for recurring characters, which I roll on whenever this comes up. There are basically two ways for an encounter to end up on that table. The first is to be a friendly NPC that the players enjoyed interacting with. For example, in ORWA, the players once visited a market, where they bought Giga Zucchinis from a guy with a crazy Russian accent who swore they would make your penis “better.” (Not bigger. Better.) The players had a raucous good time with him, so I threw him in the recurring character table, and he has become a kind of mascot for the game. Every time he shows up the players spend a good 10-15 minutes talking with him, and new players are inculcated into the joke.

The second way to get on the recurring characters list is if I think an antagonistic NPC has “unfinished business” with the party. Maybe they want to get payback, or maybe they just want to beat the party to the punch on completing some quest or another.

Recurring characters make the game world feel more interconnected. It’s not just a linear series of events, it’s a world where you can bump into an old friend, or discover that your past actions had unintended consequences.

I should note that I never put wizards or dragons onto the recurring character table. That would wreck the whole point of sticking those two options at the extreme ends of the table in the first place. They’re supposed to be rare, and scary. They can still recur, they just do it when a 2 or a 12 is rolled, rather than a 7.

6 and 8 are there to build a sense of place, as I mentioned above. When put together, these two results have a greater chance of coming up than any single result on the table. So, if you stick encounters that are emblematic of the environment’s theme in these two slots, it will make that theme more concrete and meaningful for the players. Which brings me back to ORWA’s factions.

Each of ORWA’s factions controls a territory, and each territory has its own encounter table. So when the players are in The Fighting Mongoose territory, an encounter would be rolled on The F.M. encounter table. But once they crossed over into another territory, encounters would be rolled on that territory’s encounter table. To create a sense of place, I want a good number of the encounters on each table to remind players of what territory they’re in.

So, while in Outsider territory, 6 and 8 might both be “2d6 Outsiders.” I might vary it up a bit, by having 6 be “2d6 outsiders on foot, without any urgent business” while 8 is “2d6 outsiders on mounts, who have a serious purpose.” Either way, 6 and 8 are usually pretty mundane. It feels boring to write, but in play it’s nice to have a little contrast with the weirder stuff you might encounter.

So with 2, 12, 7, 6 & 8 all assigned, that leaves a mere 6 “free” spaces that I have to get creative with. And while all of the above are meant to be infinitely repeatable, I like to make these remaining 6 spaces specific enough that they have to be re-stocked if the players kill them. I also like to divide them roughly 50/50 between weird encounters that support the sense of place, and weird encounters that are just plain weird.

I don’t feel like I need to explain weird encounters that are just plain weird. It’s literally whatever crazy shit you can possibly come up with. But what is a weird encounter that creates a sense of place? Here are some examples.

The Rulers Beneath the Black are religious fanatics. In their territory, one encounter might be an archbishop of the faith whose fanaticism is even more wildly out of hand than most. He’s calling down the powers of his god to smite people for wearing shoes on the wrong feet, or parting their hair incorrectly. Another encounter might be a street preacher surrounded by a prostrate crowd. A third might be someone practicing a minority faith in secret because they’re afraid of retribution from the establishment. All of these encounters remind the players of where they are in the world.

Another example is the territory of the Comet Callers. They’re all Wizards, which is why it’s one of the few places in my game where 12 isn’t a wizard, because both 6 and 8 are wizards. (Comet Caller territory is dangerous as shit.) In their lands, encounters will often be things that were obviously done by a wizard who isn’t currently present, such as an “undead work site,” where skeletons have set up fleshy equipment to perform some complex task with an obscure purpose. Perhaps the players will come upon a failed homunculus with wings and insect legs sticking out at random angles. Or maybe they’ll come upon a chain gang sifting through sand looking for some ancient jib-jab that a wizard believes to be here.

If I’m out of ideas and I just need to fill space, “open X monster book to a random page” is always an option. I’ver certainly got enough monster books sitting around, and there’s no reason I can’t do an on-the-fly monster conversion from Pathfinder to LotFP. Another good option that works pretty much anywhere is “2d20 raiders from the nearest opposing faction.”

One last thing I’d like to mention is that the dangers on the table should reflect how dangerous an area is supposed to be. Regarding ORWA, as I said in my previous post: unless you’re in the very heart of a faction’s territory, you’re never more than 2 steps from chaos. But that doesn’t mean that some places aren’t more or less dangerous than others. Certainly all of the major factions try to keep their territory safe. The Redstone Lords are notably better at it than anyone else is, so their encounter table is a little less dangerous than average. Meanwhile, places like No Man’s Land, the Sewers, or the territory belonging to The Friends of Needletooth Jack have much much more deadly encounter tables.

There’s nothing wrong with encounters that are more likely to end peacefully. They can still be interesting. As mentioned, the Redstone Lords are pretty good at keeping their territory safe. So instead of encountering a rampaging mutant monster, the players might encounter a political candidate looking to secure votes. They might stumble onto unique locations, like a slave market, or an announcer reading out a new law to a crowd.

And that’s how I write my encounter tables.

The End.

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One thought on “Structuring Encounter Tables”

  1. You know, I do something similar, but I have a “fill-in-as-you-go” roster that follows some rules. Mine is empty, and when I roll a 7 I create the encounter at 7 by means of an NPC generator that I have. There is a range of power levels (HD) at each slot, with 7 being the weakest and 2 and 12 being the strongest.

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