Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Random Encounter Montage

Here's a mechanic for determining random encounters.

I've always hated giving the DM sole responsibility for accidentally running into a wandering monster. And when I ran lots of dungeon crawls, I'd always forget to roll. On the other end of the spectrum is one DM I played with who would dramatically roll a d12 for each hour of travel. His encounters were terrible, too. They typically involved an epic battle that completely distracted the party from the main story.

Anyhow, this method puts the chance of encounter in the hands of the PCs. It's a spin off of the 4e Skill Challenge mechanic, and will work well if you want to give your travel a montage feel. For every significant leg of the journey, each player must make a skill check. The DM should determine an appropriate DC/target roll that is consistent for the whole party. The player can choose the skill she wants to employ, as long as she describes how that skill is helping the party along. This is her moment in the montage to detail however she wants. Depending on the size of the group and the pace of the evening, going around the table once or twice should be enough.

Success means the party makes unimpeded progress. Failure means the player gets to play the lead role in a random encounter. Perhaps she is attacked first. Maybe she sets off the trip wire. Maybe she finds the mysterious ring of invisibility.

Alternately, if multiple players fail their checks, the DM could wait until the end of the montage sequence and present an encounter that encompasses the collective failure. That is, Sven's failure means the party will encounter a patrol of goblins, but since Maude also failed, the goblins will have a troll.

They Have a Cave Troll by Otis Frampton
The trick is in finding the balance. You don't want to have too many random encounters turning your evening into a suckfest, like aforementioned bad DM did. On the other hand, the risk of failure is what makes it fun, and putting that risk in the hands of the players makes it all the better.


  1. I really want to steal/borrow this idea as I like to have the players roll for as many things as possible (it makes them responsible). However, I do not totally understand the process you are describing. Could you provide me a couple of examples to show me what it would look like at the table?
    Thanks for your time!

    1. FYI, I just posted a clarification below...

  2. Hi Hank,

    I'm happy to clarify! The process is a lot like a Skill Challenge, except the penalty for failure isn't a set-back and potential failure of the challenge, since (presumably) you want the players to arrive at their destination. Instead, failure is what prompts the random encounter.

    By way of example, I'll use the same scenario with three possible outcomes. (I'll draw from my list of D6 skills, but any skill list will work.)

    A party of four is making the trek up a mountain to the ancient ruins. The journey will take a full day of travel, so the DM decides to make each player roll one skill check. She decides on a target of 15 for the of encounter. She turns it over to the players to describe the montage and make their rolls.

    Shirley the Mage rolls Survival, and describes a scene in the montage where the party is in a ravine, and she's determining direction based on the position of the sun.
    Dennis the Thief rolls his Climbing skill and describes hanging on to a cliff face with one hand while he boosts Shirley up to the ledge above them.
    Steve the Cleric uses his Swimming skill to dive into a pool and swim to a cave behind a waterfall, where he discovers an ancient staircase carved into the living rock.
    Ron the Fighter rolls Stamina, and describes his Arnold muscles rippling as he humps up the mountain carrying all the gear that the other girly-men couldn't manage.

    Now in the first outcome, everyone makes the target roll. Brilliant! The party gets to the top of the mountain without incident.

    In the second outcome, Steve the Cleric fails his Swimming check. This triggers an encounter, and Steve is at the center. After the montage, the DM describes the weary party dragging themselves over one last ridge, where they finally see the ruins. Steve puts a foot up on a log, which gives way and sends him tumbling down a hill. When he looks up, he sees six pairs of orc eyes staring at him, wondering how he fell into their camp. Roll initiative!

    In the third outcome, Steve the Cleric and Dennis the Thief both botch their rolls. Now at the end of the montage the party will still encounter six orcs, but the second failure steps it up a notch - the six orcs are bivouacking with two ogres.

    Does that clear it up?

  3. Sure does! Thanks!