(Order of the Stick courtesy of Richard Berlew)
In Monday’s post on making overland travel more engaging, I discussed how a hex crawl might work in practice. As I noted, the whole concept seems rather dull until you add two elements: survival, and random encounters. I was only able to touch on these concepts briefly in that post, so now I’d like to delve more deeply into the idea of random encounters on a hex map, and how they can work within the context of Pathfinder. I’ll try not to simply repeat Trollsmyth on this issue, since he also covered it in Hex Mapping 17: You’re Everything that a Big Bad Wolf Could Want. Though, while I’m on the subject: if you’ve read my posts and you’re becoming interested in hex maps, read Trollsmyth’s entire series on them. He recently posted part 20, and each post has been thought provoking and informative.
So we’re all at least somewhat familiar with encounter tables, right? They’re not as common as they once were, but sourcebooks are still full of charts to be rolled on, and we’ve all played video game RPGs where walking will suddenly result in a blast of noise and a transition to a battle screen. You’ve probably even had a GM at some point who said they needed to ‘check for random encounters,’ followed by some behind-the-screen dice clattering. But like Vaarsuvius says, these are boring. And it’s true. When the GM “fades to black” anytime the party travels anywhere, random encounters are boring. It’s like being a cardboard duck in a shooting gallery: you’re moving, and you might get hit by something, but you don’t really have much say in it either way. Random encounters only work when the player is in control of their own movement, which in the wilderness, means that random encounters only work when there’s a hex crawl.
Self determination (i.e. PLAYER AGENCY) is not all which is required for a random encounter to be compelling. Before leaping into the construction of an encounter table we need to get two misconceptions out of the way. First, it’s essential to realize that random encounters are not random. There is an element of random determination involved, but whoever creates the encounter table controls the probabilities of each encounter type. Not only that: they control what types of encounters are even possible. It’s not as though you’re obligated to pull monsters from the bestiary without rhyme or reason once you decide to build an encounter table. That would be ridiculous. You populate your encounter table with encounters which make sense. If orcs and trolls are fighting for control of the forest, then the encounter table for the forest will be variations on that theme. There can be troll hunters, orc worg riders, 1d4 trolls on patrol, a battle between orcs and trolls, a wounded orc separated from his fellows, the list goes on. Who knows? Maybe the half-assed “trolls vs. orcs” story will pique your player’s interests. Maybe they’ll take it upon themselves to settle the forest feud.
That’s what you want. Trust me: no matter how brilliant you think your game’s overarching plot is, you will never have more fun as a game master than you will when your players start making up their own quests.
The second misconception about random encounters is that all encounters are combat. Apparently the only reason we’re rolling at all is to determine what type of monsters are encountered, and how many of them there are. If possible this idea is even more ludicrous than the first one. There’s so much to encounter in the wilderness! Abandoned buildings, the bones of a long dead adventurer, a lost child, an undelivered letter, a magical fountain the list could go on. Adventure and exploration have a lot more to offer than hostile creatures in need of a good skewering.
The first step in creating an encounter table is to determine what area it covers. Presumably you’ve already got your hex map, so unless your game world is a homogenous lump, you can look at it and see plains, forests, mountains, rivers, deserts, and so forth. Within each of these biomes, a countless number of interesting encounters are potentially hiding, and the manner of those encounters will likely be completely different in one part of the world than they will be in another. While traversing the planes of Gibbledy-Gop, your players might encounter mighty centaurs, but while in the forest of Creepyscaryeek they’re more likely to encounter orcs. And, if your players go south of the river Fishnstuff in the forest of Creepyscaryeek, then they’ll encounter ogres instead, since the orcs are afraid to cross the river. It’s up to you, as GM, to determine how large an area your encounter table will be used for. If you’re working on creating a fully developed world, you may even want to create a second map with color-coded outlines of areas, based on which encounter table that area uses. If you wanted to get fancy, you could even have some areas which were under the effects of two separate encounter tables.
Once you’ve marked your encounter table’s “Area of Influence,” you need to determine what’s going on there. This will inform your decisions later on when it comes time to populate the encounter table. Above I gave an example of a forest where trolls and orcs fighting one another, and that’s as good a place to start as any. But it needs more detail. Let’s say that there’s a number of elven ruins from an ancient forgotten civilization which the two groups are fighting over. Given that trolls are much stronger than orcs, there’s likely going to be many more of the latter than of the former, or else the trolls would have won the ware a long time ago. And, just for kicks, lets say that the orc leader made a deal with a high-ish level wizard who is now supplying the orcs with some basic magical equipment.
At this point we have enough information to start sketching out what the encounter table will look like. There are a number of ways you can set up the chart, using any number of different dice, but I like to keep things simple: 1d20 to determine the type of encounter, and then another 1d20 do determine the specific encounter. This provides enough options that it’s pretty unlikely the players will exhaust all of them within a few hours of gameplay, but so many that it becomes unwieldy to deal with. Of course if you’re working with larger or smaller areas–or longer or shorter amounts of time the players will spend in those areas–it may be prudent to use a more or less complicated chart. If you really wanted, you could roll 1d100 to determine which of 100 charts (each with 100 options of their own) you would roll on. Or you could just roll1d4 to determine which of four different encounter types your players will face. It’s entirely up to you and what you need, but the “1d20 twice” approach provides a nice healthy average, so that’s what I’ll use here.
The first d20 roll, as I mentioned above, will determine the type of encounter, or whether there is an encounter at all. It’s important to make sure that there’s a relatively good chance of the players not encountering anything. Otherwise the hex crawl will slow to…well…a crawl. The players are on an adventure, yes, but they likely also have a goal in mind. Excessive distraction from that goal will annoy them. I like to have about a 50% chance of nothing happening. The nice thing about the d20 is that each number on the die has a 5% chance of being rolled, so if we want to create a 50% chance of nothing happening, we assign the numbers 1 through 10 to “nothing.” And that range can be altered to increase or decrease the probability somewhat, but I would advise not straying too far from the 50% median. Too many random encounters can become frustrating, and a serious drain on the party’s resources. Likewise, too few random encounters makes the hex crawl boring.
50% of the die is left to assign, so lets do combat encounters next. Since the forest is a Trolls Vs. Orcs warzone, combat encounters should be relatively common. 25% seems like a good probability, so we’ll assign numbers 11 through 15 on the d20 to “combat.” Unlike “nothing,” other types of encounters can vary as wildly as you like. The peaceful plains near civilization may only have a 5 or 10% chance of combat encounters, while a party venturing deep into the territory of an evil empire may face a 30 or 40% combat rate.
With 50% assigned to “nothing,” and 25% assigned to “combat,” that leaves only five numbers left to assign, and there are a plethora of things we could put there. Interesting locations, traps, side quests, treasure, dungeon entrances, as with many things in tabletop RPGs, the limit is your imagination. For this encounter table, I think 16-17 (10%) will be Interesting Locations, 18-19 (10%) will be Special, and 20 (5%) will be Side Quests. And there we go, the first roll on the encounter table is taken care of. Rolling 1d20 will either result in “nothing,” or in one of four different types of interesting encounters. But the type of encounter is only half of the equation. Now we need to populate the second half of the encounter table, where we’ll determine specifics.
Combat: The combat chart should include a variety of different combat encounters. The obvious two are a band of orcs, and a band of trolls, but we can be more creative than that. And, more importantly, since combat encounters have a 25% chance of occurring, we need to be more creative than that. Since players are likely to encounter combat a number of times, we should have maybe 15-20 different possibilities on this table. They can include any number of things. The players could stumble onto a battle already in progress between orcs and trolls, which they could decide to participate in or not. They might encounter orcs riding worgs, or trolls carrying orc prisoners. Normal forest danger, like dire bears,can be on the list as well. Though your players will probably have more fun with the encounters that have a story behind them.
Interesting Locations: We’ve already mentioned that the orcs and the trolls are fighting over some ancient elven ruins, so those should be on this list. If you were so inclined, you could even include a number of different types of elven ruins: homes, government buildings, etc. Perhaps one might hide a dungeon entrance. Other types of interesting locations could include an orc village, a troll village, a reclusive wizard’s tower, an illusory copse of trees that one of the players accidentally walks through, or even just a meadow where the players can refill their water rations.
Special: Special is where you can put all the oddball stuff which doesn’t fit in your other categories. You might include a wounded orc warrior who was left behind by his comrades, or a fellow adventurer who got separated from their party and is now lost. If you are so inclined, you might even give your players a chance to find a treasure chest filled with gold which has been covered with dirt and leaves, or a powerful magic item dropped by some long past adventurer. Finding random treasure should probably be pretty uncommon though, and you may want to require a perception check to notice it.
Side Quests: You may not want to include side quests, but I think you should. First, the main questline is never quite as engaging to the players as we GMs would like to think it is. Providing them with occasional hooks to go off in a different direction lets them know they have alternatives. More importantly, showing that the world has a variety of tasks for them to handle, not all of which are related, helps encourage the players to think of your world as a living, diverse environment. Possible side quests include finding the entrance to a dungeon, finding a dead messenger with an important letter for a nearby king, or finding a village which needs the party’s assistance. And if you’d really like the players to continue on with the main quest before handling the side quest, you can always give them a time limit. E.g. “The world will blow up in 5 days and the dungeon where you can stop it from happening is 4 days away.”
A few final notes on using an encounter table:
- How often? Once you’ve got the chart made, determine how often you’re going to roll on it. You could roll once per hex, once per hour spent within the hex, once per day, whatever you want. Personally, I roll each time the party enters a hex, and roll once more during the night when the party is at rest (ignoring any results which are not capable of self-mobility, such as an ancient ruin.)
- A Gazebo Appears! Encounters should not simply “appear,” as though you’re playing a console RPG from the 90s. Take a moment to figure out how the players encounter whatever it is that you rolled. If it’s a location, do they see it in a valley as they reach the crest of a hill? Can they see it from a distance, or is it obscured by the treeline until they move closer? If it’s a monster, who sees who first? Perhaps you could figure out a simple third roll to determine whether or not the party is surprised. Trollsmyth has an excellent method for determining what a monster is doing when it’s encountered in the same hex mapping post I linked above.
- Wow, this forest sure has a lot of wizards… Some things ought to be taken off the encounter table once they’ve been encountered once. For example, if your players have already encountered one reclusive wizard’s tower in the forest, you may not want them to find another. In these cases, re-rolling is fine. However, you might also consider that encountering something twice could lead to an interesting story that you never intended. For example, perhaps the wizard’s tower exists in several locations at once, or teleports around the forest at random, or maybe there are two wizards here who don’t like one another very much. All those options could end up being way more fun than simply re-rolling.