Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Art of DMing: Everything I Needed to Know about Random Encounters I Learned from J.R.R. Tolkien

Back at the end of July I mentioned a random encounter I had rolled for my players, and how I tied it into the ongoing adventure.  While listening to an episode of Fear the Boot discussing travel in RPGs, I got to thinking about random encounters again.

The Boot guys (Booters? Booties?) seemed a little bit dismissive of random encounters in general, cracking jokes about the obligatory one random encounter during any particular travel scene and generally regarding them as speed bumps getting in the way of the real story. I think that's selling them short.  Random encounters are, if used correctly and in the right kind of game, a great tool for DMs - and to show what I mean, I'll be using examples from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again.

And this is what he saw. Three very large persons sitting round a very large fire of beech-​logs. They were toasting mutton on long spits of wood, and licking the gravy off their fingers. There was a fine toothsome smell. Also there was a barrel of good drink at hand, and they were drinking out of jugs. But they were trolls. Obviously trolls. Even Bilbo, in spite of his sheltered life, could see that: from the great heavy faces of them, and their size, and the shape of their legs, not to mention their language, which was not drawing-​room fashion at all, at all.
Bilbo and the dwarves encountering the trolls is just one of a long string of random encounters that they face on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug.  And from this we can take our first lesson:

1. Sometimes the random encounters are the story.

This is most true in "sandbox" style games, where there's no set plot that the DM has in mind, and the "story" is just "whatever happens to the characters".  But as we can see from the example above, random encounters can work even when there is a plot to the game - as long as it's the right kind of plot.  Random encounters work best for stories structured like The Hobbit, The Odyssey, or even Three Men in a Boat - stories about a journey, stories where the primary opposition is in the trial of getting from here to there.  You could literally build an entire story just from the random encounters a party meets while on their way to someplace they want to go.

Even if you've got a story in mind already, you can try to tie your random encounters into it - like the bandits I talked about in a previous post.  I knew there were bandits in the nearby castle, so making a connection there was the obvious thing to do.

Sometimes, though, there's no obvious connection, and it's just like the forces of nature are out to get you:
When he peeped out in the lightning-​flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-​giants were out and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang.
At this point, Bilbo and the dwarves strapped on weapons and strode out to defeat the stone giants in mortal combat…no, of course not.  In fact, they never interact with the giants at all - they hide in a cave to weather the storm (and get kidnapped by goblins, of course), but it teaches us the second lesson:

2. Random encounters don't have to be direct confrontations.

Sometimes random encounters are just there to provide flavor - they don't have to be a direct assault on the player characters, especially if the creature is far too powerful for them to defeat.  If you want to see some terrified players, describe the red dragon gliding in the sky high above their level 1 PCs and watch them scramble for cover.  It will be memorable without taking the time of dicing through a combat - and someday the players just might remember that dragon and come back to find it (and its treasure, of course).

The players don't even need to see the creature itself: let your imagination work.  If the encounter is bandits, maybe they come across the site of an ambush: dead guards, bloodstains, a lost horse wandering in the woods, discarded goods left where they fell from the wagon.  Instead of meeting an owlbear perhaps they see the trees where it sharpens its claws, and find a foot-long pinion the monster groomed out of its wing nearby.

And speaking of feathers:
Tonight the Lord of the Eagles was filled with curiosity to know what was afoot; so he summoned many other eagles to him, and they flew away from the mountains, and slowly circling ever round and round they came down, down, down towards the ring of the wolves and the meeting-​place of the goblins.
The arrival of the Great Eagles to rescue Bilbo and his companions from the goblins brings us to the third lesson:

3. Random encounters don't have to be hostile.

This is a lot easier to remember in a civilized/urban setting, where you're more likely to see humans or other intelligent creatures on the table.  But even out in the wilderness, your encounters don't need to end in bloodshed.  A bear might invade the party's campsite looking for an easy meal but be uninterested in  fighting for his supper.  They might spend a few tense moments before realizing that the manticore on the rock is sunning itself, stuffed full of the last adventuring party that came through and languidly deciding that the PCs aren't worth the effort.  Or they might be snatched up and pumped for information by a curious avian.

So there you have some important things to remember about random encounters: they don't have to be separate from the story, they don't have to be time-sucking combat sequences, they don't even have to be hostile.

"But Nunch," I can hear some of you saying, now that we've almost reached the end of our journey.  "None of what Bilbo went through had to be random encounters - they could have all been planned."   The thing is, if you do a random encounter right, the players shouldn't know if it was random or planned.  You're absolutely right - there's nothing that you can do with a random encounter in terms of the game  that you can't also do with a planned one.   But our final lesson is one thing that random encounters do that planned ones don't.
Not very good perhaps, but then you must remember that he had to make it up himself, on the spur of a very awkward moment. It did what he wanted any way. As he sang he threw some more stones and stamped. Practically all the spiders in the place came after him: some dropped to the ground, others raced along the branches, swung from tree to tree, or cast new ropes across the dark spaces.
Just like Bilbo when he was forced to deal with the spiders in Mirkwood:

4. Random encounters teach you to think on your feet.  

The experience of reacting to what a random roll of the dice gives you is training in some small way for reacting to the unexpected plans and ideas your players will throw at you.  Random encounters give you a chance to let some part of your world out of your control for a moment and then fold the results back in.  They force you to ask questions of yourself: why is the encounter there?  What is it doing? How can I integrate this with everything else that's going on in my campaign?  And just like the unexpected choices your players make, sometimes those questions (and their answers) can lead you to a far more interesting place than if everything went according to plan.

So there you have it: advice on random encounters I wish I had paid attention to decades ago when I was first cracking open that cardboard box with the dragon on the front.  Hopefully it's given you some ideas for random encounters that are more than just unthinking attacks interspersed with the occasional ambush.

No comments:

Post a Comment