Using Random Encounters to Build Campaigns

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Talanall
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Using Random Encounters to Build Campaigns

I've talked in several places about how much I like random encounters, and about how the Ancestral Burdens campaign that I've been running all these years really is almost entirely derived from random encounters that captured the players' interest and blew up into a "plot." At the moment I'm getting ready to close out Chapter 13: The Worm of Hatred, which has been all about temporarily pausing one of the longest-running of these random encounters turned plot threads, concerning a particularly evil werewolf named Berger Cole. Between the events of the past couple of chapters and my expectation that the PCs are going to head into a new section of Tolrea's Mereflow Valley region, I've been busy over the past few days, updating my existing tables and building new ones. Since I'm going to be replacing what I have with new material, this seems like a good time to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and explain how I've made the campaign run for the past ten years or so. I'd be curious to know whether my practices as discussed here are consistent with what other DMs use. Incidental comments over the years have made me think that a lot of DMs feel as if random encounters are a distraction from the "point" of the game.

Anyway, when I build an encounter table, I usually don't tailor it to match the average level of the party that I'm going to run it against. Instead, I use a status quo approach that is meant to give an opportunity for the PCs to encounter what's actually present. That doesn't mean that I don't have some wiggle room to avoid presenting encounters that I know will definitely result in the whole party getting wiped out, but it does mean that if something is roaming around that's virtually guaranteed to kill the PCs if they get into a fight with it, and they DO fight it, the campaign is going to come to an abrupt end. I don't particularly want that to happen, but I think the game is more exciting for everyone if a misjudgment about when to talk or flee versus when to fight could spell the end of the game. And I don't have guaranteed-fatal monsters roaming around just for the hell of it. Instead, I try to dream up an ecology of sorts, and I use that to decide what belongs on the table for a given stretch of real estate. One consequence of this policy is that the PCs can encounter creatures that want nothing to do with them. A herd of wild horses, for example, is likely to leave the PCs alone unless bothered. And most of the time, I expect the PCs to leave them alone—but since they're there, why not see if you can capture one and tame it? My general rule of thumb for random encounters is that I try to know why the encounter is there, how it will affect or react to the PCs, and what it'll do if the PCs avoid interacting with it.

With all that in mind, I'll explain the methods I use to build a encounter table that creates plots instead of serving as a distraction. At some point before this discussion is over, I'll also provide an actual table that I used for this campaign.

First of all, I look at the region I'm building for. What's the climate look like? The core rules recognize three basic climates: cold, temperate, and hot. And in general, what I do from there is follow a "one-step" rule, kind of like the core rules' approach to cleric alignment. If it's a cold region, then I'll populate the table mostly with creatures that reside in that climate, with a few temperate creatures mixed in. The same if it's a hot region. And if it's temperate, then usually I decide whether it's a cool or a warm version of temperate, and I'll intersperse appropriate cold or hot critters accordingly. This flexibility gets me some extra variety without making the table come out as gobbledygook.

I tend to ignore climate specifications associated with playable humanoid races unless the race has some kind of weakness to heat or cold, because (for example) hobgoblins are supposed to be native to warm hills, but their organizational habits include associations with ogres (temperate hills) and trolls (cold mountains). As you might be able to guess from this, I'm also relatively easygoing about the kind of terrain that's inhabited by playable races, short of some instance where the creature needs to have water in order to breathe, or shelter from the sun in order to avoid bursting into flames. I also consider myself at liberty not to include creatures that I arbitrarily decide are not endemic to a region. There are no dinosaurs in the Mereflow Valley, for example, even though several of them are supposedly native to temperate plains regions.

After determining climate, I figure out what the terrain is like. From that I derive a list of creatures that falls within the limitations of terrain and climate. Very often I follow a one-step rule for this, too, so that you might find hill-dwelling creatures on plains that are near hilly areas, or amphibious creatures in mountainous areas that have a river running through them. That's definitely what happens for the tables I use in Ancestral Burdens, because the Mereflow Valley is a small region with a lot of variety in its terrain. It's roughly the size of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas combined, but it contains all of the major kinds of terrain: forest, hills, marsh, mountains, plains and aquatic are all represented, and there's a desert region right next door. If the campaign were to move into an area in some other region that is composed almost entirely of open plains, there'd necessarily be a lot less diversity on the encounter tables for areas near the center.

After I've decided what climates and terrains I'm allowing on a table, I also decide which extraplanar critters, if any, are present. We won't get too far off track into the particulars of the Tolrea setting, but this is where I determine what "spirits," if any, have made their way into the mortal world. If I'm building a table for some other setting, I may skip this step unless I know that there's a spellcaster or other magical influence in the area to account for the presence of otherworldly critters. Similar concerns pertain to how many creatures with "any" for their environment are likely to make it onto the map; many of those are undead, and I like to have a clear idea of where they are coming from. In general, I try to have a "why" to explain any supernatural or exotic creature's presence on this part of the table, because that means I can take the random encounter for that creature and (potentially) blow it up into a plot. The plot concerning Berger Cole is an ultimate result of this policy.

Up to this point, I will not have assigned a percentile chance of encountering any of the creatures on my list, or a defined mechanism for saying how many of them are going to appear. It's just a list. Before I address those things, I consider what any intelligent races might have done to alter the natural environment around their habitations. If the area is made up of plains bordered by hills but it has been settled and tamed into farmland, then usually I decide that there should be fewer roaming monsters because of local patrols. But the trade-off is that the availability of food, goods, and money draws bandits, as well as raids by various monsters that collect treasure. If there's an unfriendly settlement or organization based in a neighboring area, then quite often the outbreak of hostility leads me to include them on the table, as well.

I always finish up my list with a set of NPCs and other special encounters. These can be anything from local farmers, hunters, or trappers who're on their way to market for supplies or to sell their harvests, to a wandering monk, to the aforementioned bandits or raiders, to a caravan or band of religious pilgrims. This usually is also where I include patrols by the local government or other authorities, and I use this space, likewise, for encounters that are meant to advance any plots that the PCs have stirred up but which are not necessarily their immediate priority. As a general rule, these encounters are pre-constructed in terms of the NPCs' stats and gear, but they usually aren't fleshed out for personality and history. I handle those things on the fly. These NPC encounters always have a separate file where I keep a list of rumors, goods, and so on that the PCs might get hold of through their interactions with the encounter.

Farmland
Temperate plains
Encounter distance 6d6 x 40 ft.
Verdant/civilized: hourly encounter chance 10% Day Night Encounter CR/EL 01-10 01-03 1d3 farmers (human com 1) and wagon with 2 mules 1/2 to 1 11-20 04-13 1d2+1 shepherds (human com 1) with 1d3 riding dogs 1 to 3 21-30 14-18 militia patrol (Keriel's Turn) 4 31-40 19-21 mercantile caravan 7 41-45 22-31 2d8+8 goblins on worg mounts 9 to 14+ 46-48 32-37 1d10+10 orcs, plus 2 3rd-level sergeants and 1 leader
of level 1d4+2) 8 to 9+ 49-50 38-42 1d2+2 ogres 5 to 7+ 51-52 43-47 1d4+1 hill giants 9 to 12+ 53-57 48-50 Velvet Purse caravan 10 58-59 51-55 2d8+8 hobgoblins 5 to 7+ 60-61 56-60 2d8+8 kobolds plus 1d3+1 dire weasels 5 to 10+ -- 61-62 vampire 7+ -- 63-66 1d4+1 vampire spawn 6 to 9 62-63 67-68 1d6-1 wights 3 to 9 64-70 69 religious pilgrims 7 71-75 70 wandering monk 8 76-80 71-72 Cleansing Flame agents 7 81-100 73-100 no encounter --

Once I've populated my list, I go through and figure out how many creatures of a given type are likely to show up. Most roam around in groups of several different sizes. Just for example, goblins can show up as a gang, band, warband, or tribe. You've encountered a warband, so far. As you'll see when you look at the sample table, there was no option to encounter any of the other groupings for goblins, and that's a decision I reached because (up until this point in the game) the goblinoid clans have not pressed close enough to the settled heartlands of the Mereflow Valley for you to encounter anything else. A gang includes only 1d6+3 members, which is so few that they'd face almost certain defeat if they were caught roaming where they shouldn't be. Goblins advance by character class, so I could have decided to use a gang of elite goblins . . . but that'd be like sending in Seal Team Six. A band is much larger, but it includes noncombatants. So you wouldn't expect to see them roaming around in hostile territory. A tribe has the same problem, although it may include several HUNDRED goblins rather than a few dozen. That left me with the warband, which consists of 2d8+8 goblins on worg mounts: fast, stealthy, and relatively small in number. Perfect for causing trouble and gathering information. This phase of my planning is also when I decide whether I'm going to advance some or all of the creatures in a group. Once I know how powerful and numerous a given monster is, I calculate a CR/EL range for that entry on the table.

Finally, I assign a percentile chance of having an encounter with each monster or NPC grouping. I always set it up with both day and night columns. Obviously, some creatures (like vampires and spectres) can only be out at night. So they get a "--" entry under the day column. Most of the time, I also place "--" under the night column for any creature that I think should only operate in daylight, like hawks or giant bees. Some monsters also get a note that they are only valid encounters when the party is moving; web-spinning spiders are a good example of this. Some encounters are more common in the day than in the night, or vice-versa, but possible in both. Insofar as I ever "tailor" an encounter table, I make encounters more likely or less likely based on how dangerous they are, or how interesting I think it would be to run that specific encounter (as I write this, I'm thinking of an encounter with a homebrewed "slitherweb" that I am running in the Cataclysm campaign, which got a couple of extra points on the table because I thought it would be fun).

Sometimes (as in the example table) I run out of encounters before I run out of percentile chances. If that happens, then most of the time I just have a line on end of the table that goes "no encounter." This is particularly likely if I'm preparing an encounter for a relatively safe area. I periodically revise these tables to reflect changes in the status of a given area; recent events in the plot of Ancestral Burdens have led me to revise the level of danger upward, although it still isn't a radical change. As the Mereflow Valley spirals closer to war, players can expect that subsequent drafts will contain higher and higher chances to encounter larger and larger groups of hostile humanoids. If war breaks out, its resolution could in turn bring about a wider prevalence of monstrous encounters, both as an outcome of dead combatants rising as undead, and as a result of population losses that will cause the abandonment of once-settled areas. If civilized people aren't hunting down monsters, they'll tend to breed and take over.

In play—and again, you can see this on the example table—what I'll do is roll 1d100 per hour, and check against the hourly chance for an encounter. If there is one, then I roll 1d100 again to see what kind, and work from there to flesh out numbers, strength, and distance. This is all stuff from the DMG 3.5, but there are no exemplary tables in there to walk you through the whole process. Once I have a starting distance, I use that to set Spot and Listen DCs for both the PCs and the creatures from the encounter. In most cases I set the base DC equal to 10+Dex+size modifier+check penalty+Hide or Move Silently for the largest creature for each side of the counter, and then adjust the DC to account for distance, and then I secretly roll Spot and Listen checks to see who (if anyone) sees the other side first. This is easily my least favorite part of a random encounter, because the math gets a little complicated, but I like the way it plays in and out of character, so I put up with it. The biggest downside is that it (arguably) penalizes the PCs if they have any kind of sizable mount or pack animal, since the base DC to spot most horses or mules is around 9. But in most cases, I think that having mounts is worth it because the PCs are able to travel significantly faster, and this reduces their overall chance to encounter things because they aren't on the trail for as long.

As I said, I'm curious to know if this is what other people do, or whether I'm weird.

Edited by: Talanall on 10/25/2017 - 20:00
deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Your idea of 'fun' with the slitherweb is questionable, so I'm going with weird. I think what you're doing is good and more people should do it, but it's also hard, so most people don't. It's certainly extremely appropriate for a sandbox where emulating a living environment is an important aspect of play. There are some types of games where it doesn't work as well.

In the table above, I'd wonder why there aren't more EL 1 or 2 encounters.

One computer game I really enjoyed was ChronoTrigger. The game involves a lot of choices and had multiple endings that were rather unusual for cRPGs - even most 'choose your own adventure novels' had just a few endings and there were lots of ways to die by being eaten by a grue (or a yeti, but the description was the same). In that game you're ultimately going to deal with the 'big bad' but there are a lot of adventures along the way. In this game you have an 'overland map' which has encounters that you can literally run into. There comes a point where you want to avoid those. They're not going to change the adventure because you're committed to the 'big bad' and the benefits of engaging are not worth the amount of time 'in real life' that you're going to commit to it. Basically you want to get to the part of the game that's fun and killing a random Black Bat isn't it.

I think there are a lot of reasons to play games and it attracts a lot of readers as both players and GMs. There are problems with a 'railroad' where the PCs have no choices but to continue on a plot that may not be that good. That's particularly true when the PCs goals don't align with that plot. But if you have characters that are committed to a plot, they're enjoying it and the encounters push them into something that they don't want to do and won't enjoy that's bad, too. It's supposed to be fun, and as nebulous as a concept as that is, for some games and groups too many random encounters become a distraction and a waste of time.

Using Ancestral Burdens the PCs have committed to killing Berger Cole. Warbands of goblins have a potential to derail that plot (shouldn't we save the world from impending war?) but could lead to a less satisfying experience. That at least involves a choice and players can deal with it. There could be a threat that was existential and therefore didn't involve a real choice (guess we have to drop our current mission and go deal with this). I'm not saying that your table will include anything along those lines, but it is a possibility. Effectively, random encounters can add fun elements and plot directions that make the game better, but they can also be boring or game-ruining (at least in theory).

If you've signed on for a campaign that promises to let you live through the novel you enjoyed, too many elements that the 'heroes' avoided in the narrative fiction can be a distraction. A giant bee is something that you mentioned and I don't see it included on the list. For 7th level characters a solitary bee might not be a challenge or worth the time to play out but is it worth including for verisimilitude? If the wandering farmers meet anything else on the list, they could certainly be in trouble!

I think fundamentally it becomes a question of how much you can fit into the game. If you are going to get 3-5 sessions and fights take an hour or more and the 'adventure' has enough fights that getting through it means not adding additional elements, I think that's a defensible position. If the players are signing on to 'come play through [i]Lord of the Iron Fortress[/i]' so they can share experiences in common with other people who played through it, 'sticking to the script' makes sense. If the game is 'come play in my sandbox' then there shouldn't be a script (other than some ideas of what is likely to happen if the players do nothing) and the random encounters aren't really random so much as fleshing out the environment.

A truly random '1 in a million' game ends everyone dies encounter is not going to be satisfying for anyone. Like with so many things in life, I think it's good if it's done well. It's better to leave it out entirely than do it badly. Like sex in gaming.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

deadDMwalking wrote:

Your idea of 'fun' with the slitherweb is questionable, so I'm going with weird. I think what you're doing is good and more people should do it, but it's also hard, so most people don't. It's certainly extremely appropriate for a sandbox where emulating a living environment is an important aspect of play. There are some types of games where it doesn't work as well.

All valid points. A little later you point out that if you only have a few sessions to work with, you might decide that you'd rather concentrate on actually running some adventure module. I really don't have anything against that point of view.

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In the table above, I'd wonder why there aren't more EL 1 or 2 encounters.

Mostly because EL 1-2 encounters don't happen very naturally in an environment that is well patrolled. The above is an encounter table for a piece of the Mereflow Valley that you guys have never actually visited, but it's far enough into the settled heartland of the region that I decided it wouldn't make sense to include a lot of encounters with mooks.

Secondarily, it's because a lot of CR 1/2 to 1 monsters usually don't run alone. For example, another table in my collection uses "1d12 ghouls (1d3: 1&2—no ghasts, 3—1d3+1 ghasts)" as a possible encounter. Depending on how this random encounter shakes out, it could be EL 1, or it could be EL 11. The upper end of that range presumes not only that you encounter the maximum possible number of ghouls, but also the max possible of ghasts, and that I advance them by Hit Dice until they are as strong as ghasts get.

Tertiarily, it's because of other encounters on the same table. The "wandering monk" encounter means a literal holy person who is wandering around the neighborhood, and one of the things she does is bless and bury the dead, specifically so that they don't rise from the grave to devour the living. The militia patrol is already killing wandering monsters if it can handle them, which is why the goblins are sending warbands instead of gangs of 2-5 (which would be an EL 2 encounter if populated with standard 1/3 CR gobbies).

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One computer game I really enjoyed was ChronoTrigger. The game involves a lot of choices and had multiple endings that were rather unusual for cRPGs - even most 'choose your own adventure novels' had just a few endings and there were lots of ways to die by being eaten by a grue (or a yeti, but the description was the same). In that game you're ultimately going to deal with the 'big bad' but there are a lot of adventures along the way. In this game you have an 'overland map' which has encounters that you can literally run into. There comes a point where you want to avoid those. They're not going to change the adventure because you're committed to the 'big bad' and the benefits of engaging are not worth the amount of time 'in real life' that you're going to commit to it. Basically you want to get to the part of the game that's fun and killing a random Black Bat isn't it.

I remember this game. Like you, I thought that the possibility of having multiple endings was the coolest thing ever, because it meant that my decisions actually mattered.

My frustration with it (and games like it) was twofold. First, I could never kill off the random monsters. No matter how many I defeated, there always would be more. Second, I knew perfectly well that the random monsters were there only for me to grind on for "leveling up" purposes. There wasn't a storyline to be drawn from those encounters. It just was a thing that I had to do in order to get big enough to be ready for the next stage of the plot.

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I think there are a lot of reasons to play games and it attracts a lot of readers as both players and GMs. There are problems with a 'railroad' where the PCs have no choices but to continue on a plot that may not be that good. That's particularly true when the PCs goals don't align with that plot. But if you have characters that are committed to a plot, they're enjoying it and the encounters push them into something that they don't want to do and won't enjoy that's bad, too. It's supposed to be fun, and as nebulous as a concept as that is, for some games and groups too many random encounters become a distraction and a waste of time.

This is a very fair observation. I'll address it more fully after your next point.

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Using Ancestral Burdens the PCs have committed to killing Berger Cole. Warbands of goblins have a potential to derail that plot (shouldn't we save the world from impending war?) but could lead to a less satisfying experience. That at least involves a choice and players can deal with it. There could be a threat that was existential and therefore didn't involve a real choice (guess we have to drop our current mission and go deal with this). I'm not saying that your table will include anything along those lines, but it is a possibility. Effectively, random encounters can add fun elements and plot directions that make the game better, but they can also be boring or game-ruining (at least in theory).

The possibility of a scenario like this is arguably the worst thing about trying to run everything more or less from random generators, but it's also one that I go to some pains to avoid.

I said in passing that when I prepare random encounters, I do it with some attention to what'll happen if the PCs don't get involved. The PCs' focus on eliminating Berger Cole isn't something I'm interested in discouraging, despite my periodic snickering about how funny it would be if he turned out to have been eaten by that dragon. The feud between the Bastards and Cole has been a net good for the Mereflow Valley (although now that Morville is gone, maybe that's not as true) because Cole's pack was growing. He'd been turning more people into werewolves, in a low-key kind of way, for some time, and lycanthropes are quite difficult to kill if you aren't set up specifically to deal with them. He was/is a genuine problem. The destruction of Morville was spectacularly awful, and I can't honestly say that it would have happened without the PCs involvement with Cole. But I think it's equally clear that if he were largely unopposed, Cole would have done something awful before long. There isn't any good way for you to know what awful thing he would have done, but it's a safe bet that there would have been something.

The "plot" associated with goblinoid raiding isn't existential. And that's because of a few principles. The most prominent is one that shows up in Real Life, too, which is that very few things that people say are of existential importance ACTUALLY ARE existential. Wars usually are not to the utter annihilation of the conquered. The adverse outcome of one political event, or even many political events in sequence, doesn't automatically spell defeat and ruin for the opposition party. Most of the time, most people involved in a war or political upset don't get blown off the planet. They often suffer, and often they have reason not to celebrate these events' effects on their lives. But they still exist, and their lives are still recognizably like what they might have been if they'd won instead of losing.

All in all, "the end of the world as we know it" scenarios are not the kind of thing that I leave up to random encounters. There is one starting to peep over the horizon for the Cataclysm game, but that was something I promised was going to be part of the game.

Another is that even if something IS existential, most people won't do anything about it unless they think it's also personal. Mr. Jobsworth doesn't like to stick his neck out.

At this point, there is almost certainly going to be war against the goblinoids in Ancestral Burdens. That's not a spoiler, I hope. It is arguably something that the PCs could have done something about if they had immediately dropped everything else and taken action to prevent it or make it harder for the goblinoids to win.

But I think it's also pretty reasonable for them to have been concentrating on the murderous werewolf who was antagonizing them specifically. And I certainly think it's reasonable for them to have thought of themselves as the kinds of people who could do something about werewolves, but who might see evidence of impending war and say that those kinds of things are too big for them to fix.

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If you've signed on for a campaign that promises to let you live through the novel you enjoyed, too many elements that the 'heroes' avoided in the narrative fiction can be a distraction. A giant bee is something that you mentioned and I don't see it included on the list. For 7th level characters a solitary bee might not be a challenge or worth the time to play out but is it worth including for verisimilitude? If the wandering farmers meet anything else on the list, they could certainly be in trouble!

I think it's certainly important that if a DM promises to deliver a thing, he or she ought to do everything that's reasonably practical in order to actually deliver it.

The giant bee is not on the sample table; it was included as an example of a creature that I consider strictly diurnal. I also didn't include any hawks, my other such example, on the sample table. In fact, I seldom bother to include hawks at all, because they really aren't interested in people unless people are interested in their nests. I've never been able to come up with a reasonable basis for an encounter with animals like them.

To return to the giant bee, though . . . yes, it's native to temperate plains. It can be encountered as a solitary creature, but its organization really works out to "1d20 giant bees." Bees are social, and you seldom meet just one. If you wandered the halfling plains of the Mereflow Valley for long enough, you would find some. If you encountered one or two, it'd probably end up being a "flavor" encounter unless you somehow antagonized them--bees are pretty docile creatures unless you fool with their hives. If you encountered 11 or so, which is roughly the average size of an encounter with giant bees, I'd probably decide that you had stumbled upon a hive, and run it as an EL 7-8 encounter.

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I think fundamentally it becomes a question of how much you can fit into the game. If you are going to get 3-5 sessions and fights take an hour or more and the 'adventure' has enough fights that getting through it means not adding additional elements, I think that's a defensible position. If the players are signing on to 'come play through Lord of the Iron Fortress' so they can share experiences in common with other people who played through it, 'sticking to the script' makes sense. If the game is 'come play in my sandbox' then there shouldn't be a script (other than some ideas of what is likely to happen if the players do nothing) and the random encounters aren't really random so much as fleshing out the environment.

I think we're substantially in agreement.

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A truly random '1 in a million' game ends everyone dies encounter is not going to be satisfying for anyone.

I would hate for it to happen like this, but basically I feel as if it's a risk that comes along with the kind of game I'm running with Ancestral Burdens.

Obviously, Cataclysm is a different story. The world's going to end, but before it does, the landscape of Enteria appears hellbent on trying to fuck the PCs to death.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

This is pretty much how I go about things, too. I remember a similar conversation in a thread Jeff started asking about random encounters from more of a, "What are they" starting point. 

Re: whether or not any of this contributes to a general trend toward aimlessness and chaos, well... that's ok. I don't particularly care if carefully scripted events take a backseat to weird weather or a tangent one or more of the characters wants to explore. PCs are going to do whatever they want to do anyway, so even if you're running an actual module you have to be prepared for things to take a hard left turn. I know all the tricks to present the illusion of choice and mitigate some of that randomness so that they end up going the places you always intended and running through the same adventure no matter what they do. But even all of that doesn't matter if they would really just rather do something else.

"Men are the only animals that devote themselves, day in and day out, to making one another unhappy. It is an art like any other. Its virtuosi are called altruists." - H.L. Mencken

Talanall
Talanall's picture

Yes. Also, I feel like the "illusion of choice" route can backfire if your PCs are all folks who've been DMs as well, and especially if one or more of them isn't willing to be steered. To a certain extent, I think that's ill behavior by the player, but I also can't really blame someone if the DM's intended plot turns out to be kind of lame.

As a player I try not to be disruptive in that fashion, but I'll freely admit that I like being allowed to wander off the rails. My favorite gaming sessions have always been the ones where the DM was unprepared and allowed me to set my own agenda, or where he just went along when I took a left turn and did something that he hadn't expected anyone could possibly want to attempt.

There also were occasions where the same DM had decided to start us on a plot that we weren't crazy about as a group, we were trying to derail the whole thing, and he was using all those varied tricks to get us back on script. I think it was kind of exasperating for both sides.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Board Rider
Board Rider's picture

Great topic.

Back when D&D was a lot of fun for me, and I was invested into the game, I really tried to plan for contingencies. However, I must admit, that I usually used the "illusion of choice" tactic even if the PCs wanted to go chasing after a random encounter much like Berger Cole in the Ancestral Burdens campaign. I would present the "welcome to my sandbox scenario", with a few planned encounters to try to hook the PCs into some planned plots but, if that failed I would try random encounters to get them back on track.

On a tabletop game that became more problematic as I got older because my gaming group would meet less and less. Generally speaking, everyone wanted to progress towards something when we did get to sit and play together. Given that we all had sat behind the screen there was an agreement that we would work with one another to be more or less railroaded towards a plot. That thought process morphed into us agreeing to just playing published modules. We had a bit more money by then to sustain this style of play and WoTC was hip deep in producing digital products for everyone to use in conjunction with their books. For a D&D player like me it was a great time to be alive.

Then 4E hit. I went balls deep into this edition. The Living Forgotten Realms Campaign was everything I needed. Like porn for the D&D scene. Lite story, quick, everyone knew what was going on, and it ended with a reward. It fit my play style, mostly because of my lifestyle and age, like a hand to glove. But, after a few years, I burned out and turned my back on D&D for a few years. I think I only played on this site.

That is where I am now. I only play on this site because the players are mature, well schooled, "get it", and generally work with my busy schedule. Gone are the days of tabletop gaming for me. I just don't have the time to invest into that commitment anymore. I don't have the desire either.

And that, to me, is the difference. If the DM and players have the time and commitment to allow a campaign to slow burn then random encounters and the sandbox play style works. If you play for a couple of hours a month, which is around what I am comfortable with, then a more focused game may be more beneficial.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

Board Rider wrote:

Great topic.

Thanks!

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Back when D&D was a lot of fun for me, and I was invested into the game, I really tried to plan for contingencies. However, I must admit, that I usually used the "illusion of choice" tactic even if the PCs wanted to go chasing after a random encounter much like Berger Cole in the Ancestral Burdens campaign. I would present the "welcome to my sandbox scenario", with a few planned encounters to try to hook the PCs into some planned plots but, if that failed I would try random encounters to get them back on track.

I've never actually played at a real table, in person. I started my gaming in a chat-based environment, using a dicebot. We didn't even really have a map, which sucked. The chat-based games were about as close as I ever got to a traditional pen-and-paper experience. Anyway, when I was running a weekly gaming session, my approach to the job relied a lot more heavily on "illusion of choice" techniques than it does now, although I did my best to include little details into the game for the players to investigate and make their own. I really like PbP gaming because it gives me a lot more time, as a DM, to be deliberate about what I'm doing.

When the game is happening in real time, the kind of randomized, totally open sandbox approach that I pursue for the Ancestral Burdens campaign was harder to pull off without an insane level of preparation. Besides, I wasn't nearly as experienced as a DM as I am today. I didn't start out with a burning interest in sandbox-style campaigns. It was more of an evolution, and partly it was a response to other players I was around when I started out.

The first DM I played with was an old fashioned seat-of-the-pants kind of guy, and he very much made it up as he went. I think technically the game was set in the Forgotten Realms, but he'd decided to set the game on an inhabited asteroid near Faerun's moon. In hindsight, the idea was to provide a frame of reference without actually having to deal with the setting proper. He was sort of following a storyline, but mostly he was just dicking around with a new rule set and throwing stuff at us as players to see what we did with it.

That guy eventually got tired of running a game, so Arkenian, who is a forumite here from time to time, took over the campaign and ran a fairly traditional on-the-rails kind of plot until it concluded. Then I started a game that I ran for probably a year. Maybe two. It was set in the Forgotten Realms, also, just because I'd been investing in books for the setting, and I started out as kind of a moderate between the first DM and Arkenian: I wanted to allow more freedom for the players to follow their impulses, within my limitations as a new DM, but I also wanted to have a plot. Dafyd, another forumite here, was a player in this campaign, as was Cronono.

For a first campaign, I fancy that it was a success, both in the sense that my players seemed happy with the game and in the sense that I actually finished my plot. I think the whole thing ran from about level 5 up through level 15 or so.

Subsequently I also ran several other games with members of the same gaming group, as well as with new players we recruited from various forums. None of them finished, and when the Eberron setting came out, I was really excited by several of the innovations it introduced, like the reduced emphasis on alignment and the "distant gods" approach to clerics and religion. The whole time, I was finding that I was more and more interested in building a world and facilitating the players and PCs' explorations of it than I was in actually telling a story. So my plots became more and more nebulous.

As a side note, I love running and playing in campaigns where the PCs are the villains, because I often feel as if villains act, and heroes react.

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On a tabletop game that became more problematic as I got older because my gaming group would meet less and less.

This is what happened to my gaming group, too. After awhile, it wasn't really feasible for me to run a weekly session anymore; we were all getting finished with school and getting jobs and lives. About the same time, Fixxxer was starting up the Archive, and I'd just finished the very first drafts of what eventually became the Tolrea setting. The Mereflow Valley section of the setting was my first contribution to the Archive, and I built it pretty much to see if the random town/city generators from the DMG were capable of producing useful content. It turned out that they were, and I ended up starting Ancestral Burdens because I wanted to see how far I could push the "random generator" thing. Accounting for a roughly two-year-long hiatus, I think that at this point I've been pushing it for a decade or so.

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Generally speaking, everyone wanted to progress towards something when we did get to sit and play together. Given that we all had sat behind the screen there was an agreement that we would work with one another to be more or less railroaded towards a plot.
Based on what I've experienced with Ancestral Burdens, I don't think that progress/plot is necessarily exclusive with freedom for the players to set their own agendas. To the contrary, most of the "plot" that has happened over the last ten years has been instigated by the PCs.

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That thought process morphed into us agreeing to just playing published modules. We had a bit more money by then to sustain this style of play and WoTC was hip deep in producing digital products for everyone to use in conjunction with their books. For a D&D player like me it was a great time to be alive.

That I know of, I've never played a published module, outside of MinusInnocence's 2EE campaign.

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Then 4E hit. I went balls deep into this edition. The Living Forgotten Realms Campaign was everything I needed. Like porn for the D&D scene. Lite story, quick, everyone knew what was going on, and it ended with a reward. It fit my play style, mostly because of my lifestyle and age, like a hand to glove. But, after a few years, I burned out and turned my back on D&D for a few years. I think I only played on this site.

That is where I am now. I only play on this site because the players are mature, well schooled, "get it", and generally work with my busy schedule. Gone are the days of tabletop gaming for me. I just don't have the time to invest into that commitment anymore. I don't have the desire either.

Same, with the exception of 4E (and now 5E). I really don't have an incentive to get into a new edition, especially since I've been gaming in 3.X for damned near 20 years and can now make it do whatever I want it to do.

And life in rural Louisiana has proved to mean that even if I wanted a tabletop group, I probably wouldn't be able to find one easily. I'm in a college town, so I'm sure that there are gamers around. But most are likely either college kids, or else they're old farts like me who've been playing with the same group for a couple of decades and aren't eager to risk a new, possibly immature, clueless, or just plain unpleasant newbie.

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And that, to me, is the difference. If the DM and players have the time and commitment to allow a campaign to slow burn then random encounters and the sandbox play style works. If you play for a couple of hours a month, which is around what I am comfortable with, then a more focused game may be more beneficial.

I guess. I don't really feel as if I do more prep work now than I did when I was running a weekly session. Probably less, in fact; it takes me an hour or two to gin up an encounter table, but then I use it for ages, and I don't really have to do any other planning.

Some of that's probably just because after 20 years, I can apply templates and advance monsters or NPCs almost in my sleep, but also to some degree it's because I keep good notes and tend not to have to duplicate my work.

I don't really know if playing in a sandbox campaign is substantially different for you guys as players.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

MinusInnocence
MinusInnocence's picture

In my experience, there's a LOT of prepwork when running a published module. It saves time on brainstorming and that's pretty much it. But even that isn't true because your own group has interests and specific combinations of skills and abilities that the PCs bring to the table such that it really behooves a decent DM to make accommodations for them no matter what the adventure says.

I don't really like published adventures except as inspirational material. 2EE is actually a pretty poor example of a series of modules, at least the way I run it, because I had to put the whole thing in a blender and start over using keywords and core concepts I really dug from the original text. We've also been off-track since... the morning Jelenneth was abducted, I guess? That's where the Heroes of Haranshire got off the train and decided to find their own way to the adventure's conclusion. They're sort of still traveling in the right direction, I guess, but I much prefer it this way. Tornadoes and all. I rankle at following anyone else's lead so winging it is a much more comfortable fit for me.

"Men are the only animals that devote themselves, day in and day out, to making one another unhappy. It is an art like any other. Its virtuosi are called altruists." - H.L. Mencken

Cronono
Cronono's picture

For many years, I never used random encounters in games I ran. I would use pseudo-random encounters that were always pre-planned and advanced one aspect of a plot. Each event would either foreshadow some other planned change to the world or would emphasize an already existing element to the story. In the past two years or so, I've run games where the ability to survive was a struggle just as much as accomplishing other overarching goals. In a sense, these random encounters fill the same role as pseudo-random encounters touching on the "survival" element of the story.

There was a time during college and law school where I was in sixteen tabletop games simultaneously. All sixteen were live, conducted every other week, and were around a table. Most of them were DnD 3.0 and 3.5, but this time also included some 4.0 games. Very, very few of those games used random encounters. I suspect the reason for this is logistical - setting up a battlemap is more time consuming than actually grabbing a few minis and a stat block. This actually changed a little bit in the transition from 3.5 to 4e. 4e had enough preprinted art assets that a map could be thrown together very quickly. I suspect that the folks I played with did not use many random encounters anyway because of our willingness to discard random encounters in 3.5.

A few years after law school, I moved to NYC. Gaming in NYC was harder, but not impossible. In NYC, there were so many different types of tabletop that it took a ton of work establishing expectations about games to ensure they didn't fall apart after a session or two. With such a tumultuous gaming environment, I learned more about online games while away from college friends. I think setting up random encounters in online games is even more difficult than using a dry erase market to draw on a battlemap. It made sense why quickly eroding games in NYC or online games might not have the capacity to handle random encounters.

The only reason I think some of my games can handle random encounters now is due to the increasing proficiency I have with online gaming platforms. I can create battlemaps in Roll20 complete with dynamic lighting and appropriate difficulty NPCs in the same time it takes for my players to finish arguing about what course of action they intend to take. Between my increasing interest in survival games and my increasing capability to handle randomness in a larger narrative, I think there are interesting ways to add random combat to a campaign as well.

Even in sandbox games, I think that pseudo-random encounters might still move the narrative forward better than truly random encounters. I think that my experience in NYC illustrates that tabletop games can provide fun in a host of different ways, including random and pseudo-random and no random encounters. I am eager to play more random encounter games, but that might just be because I'm having fun in your game, T.

Clearly, you should push people to respond more often so we can play more often.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

Cronono wrote:

For many years, I never used random encounters in games I ran. I would use pseudo-random encounters that were always pre-planned and advanced one aspect of a plot. Each event would either foreshadow some other planned change to the world or would emphasize an already existing element to the story. In the past two years or so, I've run games where the ability to survive was a struggle just as much as accomplishing other overarching goals. In a sense, these random encounters fill the same role as pseudo-random encounters touching on the "survival" element of the story.

I also use pseudo-random encounters that advance the plot. Or at least, I think that I do. You can't see them on the sample table I provided because I excised the plot-related entries that are still in use, but the tables I use in my Ancestral Burdens campaign include a lot of pre-planned encounters that will advance a plot element if they come up.

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There was a time during college and law school where I was in sixteen tabletop games simultaneously. All sixteen were live, conducted every other week, and were around a table. Most of them were DnD 3.0 and 3.5, but this time also included some 4.0 games. Very, very few of those games used random encounters. I suspect the reason for this is logistical - setting up a battlemap is more time consuming than actually grabbing a few minis and a stat block. This actually changed a little bit in the transition from 3.5 to 4e. 4e had enough preprinted art assets that a map could be thrown together very quickly. I suspect that the folks I played with did not use many random encounters anyway because of our willingness to discard random encounters in 3.5.

I wasn't as active as you (and all my gaming was online), but random encounters weren't commonplace in my first gaming group. There weren't any good ways to have an online battle map when I started playing D&D via chat, which was a nuisance. Roll20 is impressive; I would have been thrilled to have had something like it when I was starting out as a DM and player.

After my entirely positive experiences with mapping via GIMP and Photoshop, I'm honestly a little surprised that people rely on a dry-erase battlemap. I think that if I somehow ended up presiding over tabletop games starting tomorrow, I would use a small projector with a laptop.

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A few years after law school, I moved to NYC. Gaming in NYC was harder, but not impossible. In NYC, there were so many different types of tabletop that it took a ton of work establishing expectations about games to ensure they didn't fall apart after a session or two.

This has been a persistent issue for me as a DM over the years, and it's one of the reasons why I keep coming back to the Archive. The players here all get along, and we all seem to have basically compatible expectations about what we want/tolerate/dislike.

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The only reason I think some of my games can handle random encounters now is due to the increasing proficiency I have with online gaming platforms. I can create battlemaps in Roll20 complete with dynamic lighting and appropriate difficulty NPCs in the same time it takes for my players to finish arguing about what course of action they intend to take. Between my increasing interest in survival games and my increasing capability to handle randomness in a larger narrative, I think there are interesting ways to add random combat to a campaign as well.

Yeah, better mapping capabilities were transformational for me as a DM. The last time you played in one of my games, I tended not to do random anything. Ancestral Burdens was an experiment in doing everything at random, and it's turned out very nicely. But if it took me more than about 5 or 10 minutes to throw together a map for any given random encounter, I'm not sure that I'd enjoy it very much.

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Even in sandbox games, I think that pseudo-random encounters might still move the narrative forward better than truly random encounters. I think that my experience in NYC illustrates that tabletop games can provide fun in a host of different ways, including random and pseudo-random and no random encounters. I am eager to play more random encounter games, but that might just be because I'm having fun in your game, T.

As I remarked, I still use planned encounters on the random table. If you kick off a side plot, it still proceeds even if you don't follow it actively and never trigger a second encounter. Depending on the side plot, you might run into rumors about it later, or even have it pop up in relationship to a plot that you ARE pursuing.

My Ancestral Burdens campaign doesn't have a "main" plot. Whatever plot the PCs decide to pay attention to is the main plot.

In contradistinction to that, Cataclysm is a lot less random/pseudo-random. I still use encounter tables, and there are still potential side plots on them. But in that campaign I am actually going somewhere. It's not going to be nearly as sandbox-y as AB, going forward.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Time for you to put a thread up on your 'how to' for mapping.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

I'm not really opposed to doing so, but it's a lot of work and I'm not sure that it's worth it unless people would genuinely find it useful rather than merely interesting. I'd have to capture enough screenshots to make it easy to follow what I'm talking about.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Cronono
Cronono's picture

I can't tell you whether or not I would find it useful, as I don't know what it entails. That said, I am certainly interested.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

I generate my maps using an open-source alternative to Photoshop, called GIMP. As a rule, mine are 800 x 800 pixels in size, overlaid with a grid of 40 x 40 squares, which means that each square is 20 square pixels in dimension. If I set the diameter of my pencil/brush tools to 20, then they automatically draw at map scale for a single square, and I can set them up or down in multiples or fractions of 20 as needed for things that cover multiple squares.

I also use a set of pre-generated tokens to represent PCs and NPCs/monsters. Since the squares are of a known size that is divisible by 2, 4, 5 and 10, I can scale tokens up and down very easily. The base tokens are, again, set at 20 pixels. I generated 8 colors, all labeled 1-9, as well as a blank version for each color. This was partly to accommodate Obsidian_Spoon's colorblindness, and partly because I like the idea of being able to have up to 80 different creatures on a map, or up to 8 different factions in a battle.

Finally, I have a set of prepared, translucent artwork that I use to figure out the area of effect for spells and so forth. Each one, whether it's a cone or a circular radius, has a little dot that I plop onto the point of origin for an effect.

There also are various techniques I use to indicate fog/illumination/hidden threats like traps and quicksand, etc.

I don't think it's anything you couldn't do via Roll20, but it's extremely useful for PbP, and I suspect that it'd also have its place at an in-person tabletop session.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

Cronono
Cronono's picture

That's pretty neat. Your description doesn't seem overly complicated - was there other content over and above what you've described?

Talanall
Talanall's picture

Not really. There's a learning curve on the software, of course. That's standard. See http://www.emendator.net/dnd_files/battlemap_icons.zip for the art assets. That covers the grid, the PC/critter tokens, the area of effect artwork, etc.

GIMP is readily findable via Google. Out of the box, I think the brushes are even sized to 20 px. So basically you'd download and install it, start the program, and use the File menu to create a new image. There'll be a dialog that invites you to set the image's size. Set it to 800 x 800, and then use "Open as layers" to pull in your grid. There's a separate toolbar for your layer list, and once you open the grid, you should see one layer for the grid and one for the background. Whatever doodling you do after that will affect the layer you have selected, so if you want to draw terrain features, it's important to make sure you draw on your background. If you screw up, it's no big deal; you just use Ctrl+Z to step backward and undo it.

Everything should pretty well fit together. It can be a little hairy if you want to pull in pre-existing map artwork from a published adventure, but even that isn't so bad. It adds an extra step while you scale the published art up or down to match the grid.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

Thanks for the download link. I was getting started and I didn't want to build all the features from scratch. I'm new to GIMP but I have used Photoshop in the past and they're functionally equivalent. I'm certain I'm out of practice and was never really good to begin with, but I think I can play with it and see what I can do.

Talanall
Talanall's picture

You're welcome. Some of the icons may have little squares around them when you go to use them. I think I forgot a cleanup step when I was adding the black/white strokes around their outsides. Eventually I'll get around to fixing that, and when I do I'll upload the cleaned set.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold

deadDMwalking
deadDMwalking's picture

So here's something...

I was playing with the program and created a 'grassland' that includes green and yellow to give it an 'organic feel'. I pulled the grid you provided into a new layer and my background disappeared. In order to see the background and the grid I had to set the grid to a low opacity. But even at 5% (which was the lightest I felt I could see the grid) it substantially reduced the 'pop' or vibrancy of my background layer. That wouldn't do.

After trying to draw a grid by hand (which was an abject failure) I learned that you can insert a grid that is ACTUALLY PART OF THE IMAGE. Using 'show grid' creates a grid that appears only on my monitor but not on the saved image. But there's a better way.

Under: Filters → Render → Pattern → Grid

This lets you build a grid of the desired dimensions. I did 20x20 with offset 0 and it exactly duplicated the grid you had provided to me.

Here's the grassland background with grid on a separate layer:

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1BrWSHiF6263OZsmf7qAUgkjXFQTwpKGw

Edit - I'm not sure if that's going to share for everyone the way I expect it too, but if you want it and can't access it, let me know. It appears to open directly to a 'download' option because it is not previewable.

My plan for the moment is to look at maps in various modules and try to recreate them. Anything people are eager to see?

Talanall
Talanall's picture

The filter is nice, and I'm glad to have it pointed out to me. It wasn't a thing when I started learning GIMP back in 2005 or so, but it'll make my life a little simpler in the future because my pregenerated grid is only 800px x 800px. This filter will work for maps of arbitrary size, which is great because it means I can use much bigger maps overall.

I personally don't care so much about textured backgrounds. I'm very much a utilitarian about mapping; if I were playing at a tabletop you'd be more likely to see me use numbered counters, pretty much like what I do on digital maps, than painted minis. I respect the fact that many gamers enjoy the miniatures; it's just not my thing.

Insofar as my mapping style has changed over the years (and it has), it's been an evolution based on moments where I look back at an encounter and realize that I could have done things so that they'd play more smoothly and with less confusion for the players, and often with less headache for me.

In general, I have found that I get the best results when I build my maps with layers like so, going from top to bottom:

Magical/Other Effects
PCs
NPCs/Monsters
Grid
Webbing/Traps
Pathways
Walls/Fallen Logs
Trees
Light Undergrowth
Heavy Undergrowth
Rubble
Slopes
Quicksand
Deep Water/Bogs
Shallow Water/Bogs

This approach makes it so that your grid lines are visible ABOVE any other markings that are part of the map, and then tokens for the PCs, NPCs, and temporary effects can lie on top. Having magical effects at the top makes it easy to dial down their opacity so that I can see through them to judge which tokens fall within the area of effect.

There are two reasons I keep undergrowth, trees, etc. as separate layers. One is that I have learned by trial and error that it's best to have things separated in case I need to erase parts of the map. For example, a fireball or flaming sphere can set flammables alight. In a long battle, that can lead to the disappearance of vegetation. If I mash all of my terrain into a single layer, I can't edit cleanly.

The other is that hazards like quicksand, traps, etc. aren't supposed to be obvious. I draw them as separate layers so I can just hide the layer for each instance of such hazards. For related reasons, I also like to keep deep and shallow water separate unless conditions are such that the PCs can tell them apart at a glance.

My XCF files have lots of layers, often featuring individual layers for each discrete trap, web, secret door, room, etc.

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold