Monday, October 15, 2018

An Approach to Encounter Tables

I have begun work on the encounter tables I will need for this game, chiefly with the wilderness tables, since players will see those first and interact with them the most often. And as usual, starting to work on a thing for the megadungeon - which I am starting to realize is in desperate need of a proper name - has led me to start asking questions about the thing I need. So today, I will try to talk a little bit about encounter tables, where they excel, where they fall short, and what I plan on doing for mine.

So What Is It?

Encounter tables are tables of events that players might encounter while traveling through an area. Note that I keep saying "encounter tables" and not "wandering monster tables". This is intentional!

If they only generated random encounters with monsters, they being to erode player agency and miss out on a lot of opportunities to enrich the gaming experience. Instead, encounter tables include interesting events like sudden changes in weather or strange sounds, noncombat encounters like coming on a camp of woodsmen around a fire or even a party of rival adventurers, and natural hazards like landslides or quicksand. They also include mishaps like turning an ankle, getting stung by an insect, or other things that happen accidentally and cannot be easily avoided (without magic, of course!).

By contrast, a wandering monster table generates encounters with hostile creatures, and even if some parties and players do like to negotiate, open hostility tends to be met in kind. And even if the monsters aren't immediately aggressive, the players are conditioned to use a hammer when they see a nail; this will likely drive their behavior. So why is this bad? Three reasons spring to mind: it reduces agency, it's punitive instead of constructive, it solves a problem that doesn't exist.

First, it reduces agency because players don't get much choice in whether the encounter happens or not, and they have even less control over how it happens. The dice fall, the encounter is declared, and the players have to react. Second, the purpose of wandering monster tables was always to keep players on their toes and make sure they held some resources in reserve. A secondary job was to keep the PCs from dilly dallying too much. These aren't bad things, but the approach is all wrong. Wandering monster tables punish players for having BadWrongFun. No one likes that. Lastly, if your players are blowing all their resources and abusing resting or the pacing is too slow, that's not the (completely) players' fault! Depending on the game, it's not even a problem, either, so why are we trying to solve it? And if it is a problem, maybe the GM should work on maintaining better pacing, giving more clues so the players don't waste time, or offering time-based rewards. I'm not even trying and I've already given some solutions to the quasi-problems wandering monsters are suppose to fix.

So how are wandering encounter tables any different? Well, they aren't necessarily punitive in nature. The encounter is just an event. There's no guarantee that it will lead to combat or that it is even detrimental in nature. Maybe the PCs use a sudden fog that rises from a lake as cover to sneak around undetected, or maybe they decide to trade with a caravan they find camped beside the road. See? The table has provided depth. It's provided choices. It's provided agency.

Sure, sometimes the table will come up monsters, but that's not the point of it. And moreover, the players won't be conditioned to immediately turn every random monster into a combat, since not every random encounter is automatically combat. And it also provides a vehicle the GM can use to inject boatloads of flavor into the more mundane bits of his game. Walking to the dungeon and players are getting bored with counting trees? Roll an encounter and bam! The party passes an ancient withered oak with the rotting remnants of an unused noose dangling from a crooked limb. Isn't that better than "I'm bored, have 2d orcs"? I think so.

So What Am I Doing?


...wait's for it...

Ok, now that that's over, I'm trying to really take the advice above to heart. My main encounter tables (I will have quite a few, but that's a subject for a different post) simply determine the nature of the encounter - Nothing, People, Monster, Hazard, Event/Flavor, and combinations thereof. Each of those has a subtable for the area where they are broken down. Right now, I'm aiming for a better than 50% chance per day of something interesting happening at random. I suspect I'll set combat encounters down around a 25% probability, possibly lower. The players will have a fair amount of travel time to and from the dungeon, with one exception, and that one will have a more dangerous encounter table as the tradeoff for the faster transit time.

What does this look like in practice? So far, I've only begun on the encounter table for the Trollenmere, which is the quick and forbidding route to the dungeon. In a boat. In the middle of water. Don't fall overboard. So far, I have twenty noncombat encounters written up without even resorting to meeting other people on the lake, and my goal is to dream up 100 of them. They are all designed to turn the lake itself into a character. A rogue wave doesn't flip your boat (yes there is a roll involved), a wave attacks your boat. The lake isn't choppy and that makes it hard to swim; the water tries to swallow you. Completely discounting any actual combat, these and others should portray the lake as an malicious force out to get the players. It was there before you. It will be there after you. And it is not a thing to be trifled with.

This is the approach I am bringing to all of my encounter tables. How the others shape up will be interesting to see. I don't know that I have the energy or time to create 100 random ideas for every table, but I'll do my best where I think it will make the most impact. I may end up with a couple of generic Dungeon Events and Hazards tables. I might have a brain hurricane and have thousands of customized events. Either way, this approach should prove far more fruitful than just rolling for 3d goblins because the players are taking time to draw a map.

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