Monday, 20 August 2018
This is going to be a fairly detailed review of Wizards of the Coast's Tomb of Annihilation adventure (for 5th Edition of D&D), and the first in a mini-series of reviews of Tomb of Annihilation-related products. I'm writing these up partly for the sake of my own process as I prepare a campaign set in Chult, using ToA products (though with some hacking to make it tick). Partly they hopefully help other DMs planning to run it. This will include the official Tortle Package supplement, as well as some well-produced material from the DMs' Guild, which has obviously had a lot of thought put into it. So basically, anyone playing in my Meeple Games Chult campaign, look away now.
Here's the takeaway: Tomb of Annihilation is pretty good. In fact, at points, it verges on VERY good, and there's not many other Wizards' DnD adventures I'd say that about. Its flaws are real, however, and they are mostly the same issues that plague all Wizards adventures. Let's go chapter-by-chapter – it's tempting to do a Pros/Cons list, but there's a lot of content here to consider.
There's a bit of general intro guff here, but there's a lot of theoretically usable material: an adventure summary which sums up the presumed course of play, and gives a useful summary of NPCs with relevant information to that end. Now, I won't necessarily use this, as I don't presume my characters will follow the “storyline” (roughly, famous Lich is growing a baby Death God to maturity, and sucking in souls from the surrounding plane to feed it), but it's useful. Also useful is a mechanical summary at the outset of how the Soulmonger – the device Acererak the Lich is using to suck in souls – affects play. I don't actually love how pervasive the Soulmonger's “Death Curse” is, for various reasons, but again, it's no bad thing to put this all up front. There's stuff on character advancement, and starting at higher levels. There's then a hook to get characters involved in the main plot.
It's dreadful, and not just because it decides there's a main plot the characters must care about (which puts a lot of expectation on players who are investing in the game for months or years). The hook is ridiculous. An archmage who is being affected by the Death Curse – she's been resurrected before, and so is losing health due to the Soulmonger's effect – hires the 1st level PC chumps to investigate the source of the problem, in distant Chult (in the Forgotten Realms, 5th Edition's default setting). The book does answer the question why she isn't sending more powerful or competent people – she already has and they disappeared. So you are now the counsel of despair, it seems, dear players. It becomes clear over the course of the book that, “in the story”, other high-level resurrected people haven't bothered sending anyone to investigate. So the hopes of the world rest on the Chump Brigade. Which may sound dramatic to you, but I think it's mind-numbingly stupid.
There's then an overview of Chult; the majority of this is a description of the races of Chult, which include the way local subspecies of Goblins and Dwarves work. There's also a sidebar on local religion, which mentions the absentee local deity Ubtao, but doesn't mention his key role (now neglected) in keeping world-ending danger Dendar the Night Serpent in prison. This is all fine, if generic and written at some length. But at least some of the space in this subsection – and in the Introduction as a whole – could have been given over to an organized overview of the factions in the setting. There's a sidebar on Acererak, but little else. However, there's plenty of potential factional play, and some of it even gets explored elsewhere; factional play is good because it gives players choices, and choices which have a significant effect on the setting (rather than the standard adventure assumptions of the setting having significant effects on the characters' actions).
Chapter 1 – Port Nyanzaru
So this starts out with the statement that Chultans now rule themselves in the main Chultan settlement, having chased out colonial forces nine years ago. Chult is fantasy Africa, and so you can understand the concern; the historical neglect of actual Chultans in Forgotten Realms material has made the authors wary. But this seems like an obvious missed opportunity for real intrigue and choices – the idea of a Governor from Amn co-existing uneasily with local Merchant-Princes who themselves are split between oligarchic and monarchist ideologies, all of that with other colonial powers in the mix, and weirder forces out in the jungles...your players might actually have to make moral decisions! But that's immediately flattened out, and the possibilities are only ever touched upon.
There's some stuff on arrival which is over-descriptive but fine, and then 10 side-quests which you can get the players involved in. At the end of the chapter there's also a d100 table of, uh, 19 rumours, and an additional 10 random encounters for Port Nyanzaru in Appendix B. Not amazingly layed out or usable at the table. But there's some nice ideas in all this, and it definitely aims to make the campaign rich and interesting. Several of the side quests give you opportunities to introduce some of the “international factions” of the Forgotten Realms – the Harpers (secretive freedom fighters), the Zhentarim (international crime syndicate), the Lords Alliance (the United Nations of “okay” city-states). The problem is these factions are terrible. There is somewhere in the book a suggestion that different members of the Lords' Alliance might clash over colonial objectives if put to it, but that's not explored. Otherwise, generic shadowy Neutral-leaning freedom fighters, generic shadowy Evil-leaning criminals, and generic Lawful-leaning political guys are about as drab as it gets. I don't want to help any of them. (Also, these terrible factions come up in every official 5th Edition adventure. We're supposed to think they really matter, because they're everywhere. They don't matter. At all.)
The main map and key for the city of Port Nyanzaru comes next and is okay. There's some genuinely fun things – execution by dinosaur funnel, some vaguely interesting local NPCs, undead occasionally attacking the suburbs – though it's not terribly exciting, and the entries are long without always giving much value. This is followed by some fairly decent stuff – descriptions of the seven Merchant-Princes, each of whom has some kind of subplot/quirk available for use in play. There's then a sample Merchant Prince's Villa map and key, including particular motifs to customize each of the individual Princes. This is literally, and openly, generic; in this case I don't mind, as it's giving you maps and ideas for stuff players might actually do (you know, like raid a Prince's villa!). There's some nice stuff in here like a Fire Elemental trapped in service as a sauna-heater.
Next we get an actual summary of “Factions and their Representatives”, but though it mentions actual local players, it spends valuable words on redundant factions and doesn't really talk about any interplay between them. It also doesn't mention what local politics there actually might be, mostly focussing on the “international factions” who turn up in other books. As mentioned, terrible. Then there's a very brief section on weird miscellaneous things you can do like bet on dinosaur racing. Then a section on local guides who can take you into the jungle...and this is actually excellent. Sometimes verbose but great. There's a weretiger who will guide the PCs for free if they do a sidequest for her, and guides described as “disguised couatl”, “incompetent fortune hunters”, “barmy dwarf dragon slayer”, “Chultan druid and vegepygmy”, and “Yuan-ti spy”. The dwarf will deceive the PCs into thinking he can guide them anywhere but will actually just take them to kill the red dragon who ate his arm. This is great stuff. It should be noted some of these guides – and some of the factions – aren't actually in Port Nyanzaru, and though it makes sense to put together the info on all of the guides, it's not entirely satisfying organization.
Chapter 2 – The Land of Chult
So this chapter details the hexcrawl element of the adventure. Did I mention there was a hexcrawl? There's even a gorgeous map. The problem is, broadly speaking, that it's a bad hexcrawl. Some of the locations are great; I'll get to that in a second. But this chapter sums up a lot of the problems with this adventure, and with all published 5th Edition Wizards' adventures I've read.
ONE. Adventure Style. This adventure has a hexcrawl as a major part of it, with the theme of exploration pushed forward (with a players' version of the hexmap they can fill in by hand!!), even down to awesome guide NPCs being detailed. The second paragraph of this chapter says locations are intentionally not located/sorted by level or difficulty, because players need to judge when to fight, negotiate, or flee (and we've already read about how to replace characters who die, whose souls are lost to the Soulmonger). There are loads of locations detailed – something like 47 in about 50 pages, including several mini-dungeons.
That's all quite admirable, and exciting for some of us who like that kind of adventure. But the actual material doesn't in any way help it be a good version of that adventure. Player choice and consequences aren't really valued: in the second paragraph of this chapter it discusses how to get your players out of trouble if stuff gets too hard for the PCs.
The hex map is massive, with 10-mile hexes, which only map on to “normal pace” when travelling, not slow or fast – which makes it a little unwieldy. It also means there are absolutely enormous distances being covered, using an “okay” random encounter table (which I'll address under Appendices). This isn't very attractive, and doesn't make the exploring seem very exciting. Furthermore, there are virtually no locations in the southern and eastern sections of the map; that's all just empty space, unless you put work into populating it. That might sound like a good creative exercise, but if I'm buying a 240+ page adventure with a hexmap, I would love for it to be usable and worthwhile from the off. If half the map is essentially empty, that's a waste of paper and potentially of player time.
The location gazetteer is affected by this. It has LOADS of great stuff, and I don't want to detract too much from that, but let's take some examples from Fort Beluarian, Baldur's Gate local base. The Fort is fun; it has some interesting stuff going on, including a Lawful Evil commander who you can choose to get along with or undermine. It also takes 4 pages to detail a fairly generic fort. Let's rewrite two paragraphs. From the introduction to the location:
“Liara is puzzled by reports coming from her patrols to the south. They've crossed the trails of large creatures in the jungle that don't match anything known to live in Chult. The characters are planning to explore the region between the east coast and the River Tiryki, or they've already been there and seen anything unusual, she'd be grateful for any light they can shed on the mystery. (Her patrols are seeing signs of the frost giants searching for Artus Cimber.)”
“Liara has had reports of tracks of large humanoids unknown to her patrols (Frost Giant patrols from the Hvalspyd). She may hire characters to explore the region, or pay for information from those who have already done so.”
That's two and a half lines saved for something else. Now, one of the keyed locations:
“2. ORE GATE
Despite its name, this secondary gate on the south wall of the fort has nothing to do with ore. It's a sally port the fort's defenders can use to launch counterattacks against enemies assailing the main gate. It stays solidly closed and barred most of the time.”
This can be trimmed down dramatically:
“2. ORE GATE: Sally port. Closed and barred.”
This sort of fairly basic editing carried out throughout the chapter would free up acres of space for the purpose of detailing/creating other locations. I'm fine with the book expecting DMs to do some work in detailing locations in such a big setting, but that doesn't justify the incredible waste of space on show.
There's also the wider issue that the locations detailed are often chosen and written with an eye to advancing the “main plot”. Though the adventure sets itself up as an open world hexcrawl with an eye to player choice and consequences, the book itself makes clear that the only worthwhile
That said, some of the mini-dungeons are pretty good, as I said. Hrakhamar is an old dwarven mine inhabited by firenewts which has some good looping and some fun mechanical interactions. Kir Sabal, home to the hidden heir to the throne of Omu and a bunch of quite nice aarakocra, is detailed as a dungeon in case you want to rob it, which is exactly what some players will do. The Wyrmheart Mine has some good verticality, you can negotiate with the dragon there, and her loyal kobolds actually raise young, which makes them slightly less easy to genocide away with impunity. Then there's a random goblin village which can be launched via catapult if it needs to escape, and the locals farm ants. Barring some layout issues, this is all very usable, even if it needs some highlighting.
Chapter 3 – Dwellers of the Forbidden City
This relatively short chapter (the shortest full chapter in the book) is named after and inspired by the classic module I1, a 1st Edition module by David “Zeb” Cook. It's materially very different, but the DNA is there – the concept of an exotic ruined city ripe for exploration, with factions aplenty. However, this idea isn't taken too far. There is factional play – Yuan-Ti, Kobolds, Grungs, Thayan Wizards, some Tabaxi hunters – but it's fairly lightly covered and the locations detailed lean heavily in favour of those that directly advance the “main plot”.
Let's talk about that. 11 of the 20 locations are directly connected to accessing the Tomb of Annihilation; one is the Yuan-Ti base, one is the Tomb of Annihilation itself (both detailed in different chapters). The other nine are the Shrines of the Nine Trickster Gods of Omu, who the people of Omu turned to after their god Ubtao left them. These are all mini-dungeons focussed on puzzles, which allow access to the nine puzzle cubes needed to access the titular Tomb of Annihilation.
The Trickster Gods are interesting – and are an interesting element in play in the Tomb itself – and the shrines are pretty good. They each have riddles at their gates which give clues to how to solve the puzzles within. The puzzles are mostly “solvable”, which is nice; observant players should work them out, and not be forced into hint-begging. Most of the shrines require combat, which is a shame; though they encourage careful play and player skill as to the puzzles, blunt force enforced combat works against that style of play.
So great, you're collecting the puzzle cubes for the Tomb of Annihilation (there are a few ways of working out they're needed). Collecting them gets the PCs into direct conflict with the Yuan-Ti, who are reluctantly allied to Acererak. Those are both fun. But once you have eight of the cubes...the Yuan-Ti automatically steal the ninth, and leave an obvious trail so you have to go and clear their dungeon. I object to this – not so much because the Yuan-Ti might react in such a way, but because it “trapdoors” the players into a dungeon they may have sought to avoid. It's a version of the Quantum Ogre - “you WILL clear this dungeon, peon players!”. The PCs have to have a chance to outthink the Yuan-Ti and get all the cubes straight up. I'll have to think about how to change this.
Some of the other keyed locations are interesting. There's an overturned wagon with a nature spirit who could become friendly with the PCs, whilst underneath the wagon there's a Rosetta Stone-style tablet that lets the players translate ancient inscriptions in the city. You can rescue a grung from being thrown into some lava, and that lets you negotiate with the grung tribe which guards one of the Shrines. There's an amphitheatre full of dinosaurs including a massive T-Rex, which is kinda fun.
Omu isn't as much of an obvious lost opportunity as the general Chult chapter; it suffers from the same word-bloat and layout chaos, and is overfocussed for my tastes on getting PCs into the two big dungeons in the book, but it offers a bunch of gameable content.
Chapter 4 – Fane of the Night Serpent
So let's set aside the complaint that PCs are forced to go here, no matter how smart they are. This is a good dungeon, full of Yuan-Ti seeking to unleash a terrible and ancient evil (but not the death god in the Tomb of Annihilation). Why is it good?
ORDER OF BATTLE. There's a detailed roster of the Fane's inhabitants, including their reactions to the alert being raised if the PCs are on the loose inside. There's also a list of potential reinforcements who can arrive to fight the PCs or to restock the Fane. This makes the dungeon a living place, and is exceptionally helpful to the DM actually running it – there's no endless searching to find out who's where, but a single reference point.
LOOPING. There are at least two ways into every major area on the map. Players get to decide how they storm the keep – they can sneak around, they can find alternate routes, and so forth. This is both interesting in play and also is a way of emphasizing player agency.
NPC INTERPLAY. So the second-in-command of the Fane, the Naga priestess Fenthaza, will potentially ally with the PCs against her leader. There's a bunch of detailed prisoner NPCs who can be freed; some might reasonably join the PCs in an uprising, others need the PCs to look after them. There's also a bigger group of slave labourers who have been drugged into submission but could be roused. This means even in a dangerous dungeon there's a chance for social interaction, and different ways to solve the problems facing the PCs.
The environment itself has some nice weird things – dark oracle pools, blood altars, a hydra living in a lake – but I wouldn't say it's an inherently exciting setting. Its real merit is the dynamic behaviour of its inhabitants, and the physical design of it qua its dungeonic nature. It could, fairly easily, be dropped into another game; take away the alliance with Acererak, work out an alternate key treasure to the puzzle cube(s), and you've pretty much filed off the serial number.
One issue, though, is the effect of the Death Curse on the Yuan-Ti boss, Ras Nsi. Ras Nsi has previously been resurrected, and so is losing HP to the Death Curse. He starts the overall campaign with 107HP left out of his base 127; he is losing 1HP a day. Given PCs can travel one hex a day at a normal pace, and don't know where Omu is at the beginning of the adventure (and are far too low-level to deal with the Tomb), it will be some time before they arrive here. Of course, they may not fight Ras Nsi anyway, depending on the exact way things pan out in the Fane; but it's perfectly realistic that he could have 20HP or something when they arrive. It's not particularly improbable that he'll be dead by the time they arrive in Omu – which possibility doesn't seem to be accounted for, so far as I can see. Of course, the lamentable layout work might have obscured it. This is fixable, but requires either a serious look at the nature of the Death Curse, or simply making Ras Nsi immune to it (via not having been resurrected). That requires creating a slightly different source of tension between him and his second-in-command. All of that's fine – but it's work forced on the DM by content, rather than absence, in the book.
Chapter 5 – Tomb of the Nine Gods
Though the Tomb of the Nine Gods – that is, Acererak's Tomb of Annihilation – takes up a quarter of the book, it won't require that much space to review. That's because the flaws have been rehearsed above; layout makes it hard to use, the text is verbose, there's occasionally presumption of character intent (though much less).
Positives are often quicker to list. This is a good dungeon. It's about the largest one Wizards have ever designed, so far as I can think. I suppose some 3e/3.5e ones were pretty big, but certainly in 4th I can't think of anything on this scale, and even in 5th there's not much to compare it to. Technically Castle Ravenloft has 88 rooms to the Tomb's 81; but Strahd's lair takes up 56 pages compared to 66 for Acererak's. That's about the only competitor, as the largest dungeon in Princes of the Apocalypse takes up 36 pages, and none of the other adventures so far have a similar setpiece.
Size isn't everything, but in terms of offering a megadungeon experience with some longevity, this does it. Some of how it does it isn't just silly in the sense of comical (that's on theme for the book), but silly ludistically. What I mean is this: the environment is so various and so deadly that it essentially requires multiple runs and a roguelike mentality. That's not inappropriate or bad play, far from it, but it does inevitably lead to a different attitude to running the Tomb itself. In a similar vein, there are significant magic restrictions in the Tomb; though “coherent” (Acererak has put wards down or whatever), this is a less fun way of doing things. Rather than encouraging players to work out puzzles in creative ways – the purpose of the rule – it instead arbitrarily stymies them. A clear blanket rule over the types of magic warded against, rather than a bitty itemised list, would have been better. Even itemising effects by dungeon area (“this spell doesn't work against this”) would have been slightly better. (If nothing else, it's more of a pain for a DM to remember the 22 spells which have their rules changed than to know a general rule or just read the specific area.)
So it's a roguelike megadungeon. The fact it encourages learning is a key feature; you get to learn about traps from the evidence left by a failed expedition, by various riddles at each level, by the design itself indicating possible solutions; careful recon is also rewarded, with many hidden viewing ports and the like to use to analyse a room before you enter. This is a feature I think is generally well done. There are usually some common themes on each of the six levels, though not in the sense that each level is strictly “themed”; rather, one level is the lair of a Beholder, one is dominated by a puzzle where the rooms themselves are cogs in a gear puzzle, etc. Eventually, having collected 9 keys from the 9 tombs of the Trickster Gods (whose shrines you've already loote in Omu), you get down to the lair of the nascent death god Acererak is nourishing. If you defeat it and destroy the Soulmonger feeding it, you get to fight Acererak. That's the punchline of the campaign. There are a lot of ways down – multiple exits on each level, including ones skipping levels – there are countless puzzles, most of them good, and there are some interesting NPCs. NPC interaction isn't that heavy here compared to the Fane, but there is an Aboleth you can befriend (!), there's a Dao who can grant you wishes if you open his bottle, and so forth. It's a shame there's not more possible interplay suggested with the caretaker of the Tomb, Withers, or his Tomb Dwarves (dwarf zombie craftsmen!).
There's a lot of fun stuff here. Examples: a nycaloth librarian inspired by Gary Gygax; creepy dolls made by night hags which have trapped children's souls who can become your last best allies in the dungeon; the aforementioned rooms-as-cogs gear puzzle; the Trickster Gods sharing your body when you touch their corpses in their respective tombs; a bunch of prisoners and monsters stuck in Life-Trapping Mirrors, upon whose release some will aid you and some attack you; the five “key rooms” whose puzzles you have to solve to open the keyholes to the death god's lair, each of which has a solution partially dependent upon the specific shape of the keyhole it opens (Triangle, Square, Octagon, etc); and any other number of clever or fun things.
I suspect it'll take a moderate amount of prep to run – partly to bypass the endemic flaws of the book, partly because it's such a big environment. But it'll be worth it – it's full of clever challenges, and the players will earn the big moments as they learn to defeat and control their environment.
The appendices take up some stuff, but are mostly stat blocks, magic items, etc. Some of this is fun, some is pedestrian. The handouts for each of the Guides from Chapter 1 are great. The Tri-Frond Flower is a great plant-that-can-kill-you an Chwingas are cute kodama-like nature spirits. The random encounter tables (Chult, Port Nyanzuru, Omu) I've mentioned already. There's some good material here, including a variety of social encounters and some fun interactive ones, such as a chwinga trying to steal something small from the PCs. There's a list of (fascinating) dead explorers, which is excellent if morbid. Even the less interesting encounters tend to have a nice throwaway detail or adjective. However, there are a lot of them – many fairly workaday – and many take more words than necessary.
There's also a good quality double-sided poster hexmap, one side of which has the interior of Chult largely blank, to allow for explorers to fill it out (roguelike!). The cartography is by the excellent Mike Schley. Of course, there are issues with the literal contents of the hexmap – as mentioned above – but it's a fantastic artifact.
Much like the book, I've used too many words to say what I've said; the summary is that this is good, but long. It's worth working through, but it does require work. It isn't entirely convinced of its own approach – it wants to be a challenging, lethal hexcrawl, but prior to the Tomb of the Nine Gods, it openly undermines those objectives, via ways of softening the world and therefore removing consequences, and also via a poorly designed map/world which encourages driving towards the “objective” (decided for your players in advance) as soon as possible. It is, however, full of invention, has a properly realized fantasy environment, and is not too far off where it needs to be. It's also probably a generally good resource for fantasy campaigns set in the jungle or where exploration is a significant factor; this is why, I think, Skerple of Coins and Scrolls has adapted it for his Pirates campaign.
This book oes, I think, affirm Chris Perkins as a legitimately talented creator of adventures, alongside Reavers of Harkenwold and Out of the Abyss. I'll probably put up posts in the future about my own edits to this (though Skerples has beat me to it!), which may be of use to others.
Thursday, 2 August 2018
I am not an expert DM by any means, but I think random encounters are a very, very valuable part of Dungeons and Dragons. What they are and why they're important isn't always immediately apparent to DMs; I'm going to try to explore those issues here.
I'm going to address four aspects of random encounters: the way they relate to player agency; the way they relate to the verisimilitude; how they help the DM at the table; and what makes a good random encounter.
Player Agency and Consequences
I've seen objections to random encounters along the lines that they get in the way of the plot or main quest or are just time-consuming. Partly there's an issue of the type of game people are playing here. If a DM is running a Final Fantasy style series of set pieces with a “cinematic” plot, then random encounters – much like random encounters in JRPGs – might just be annoying. Players want to get on to the cool stuff, and as – inevitably – random encounters will here be seen as further combat challenges, but without plot significance, everyone will want to skip them.
Even for that sort of game, however, I would suggest that there is another way to run the game that you might enjoy more, even if (especially if!) story is important to you and your group. This style will involve random encounters not just as a necessary evil but as an integral part. But it requires killing your darlings.
A digression here: DMs love writing plots. I certainly do. But in 99% of cases, when we heavily invest in writing a plot, our games will suffer for it. We will require players to do the things we want them to, or at least let them exercise only very limited agency.
On the other hand, letting players “decide” the story benefits everyone in the long run, in my experience. They may need some hints and tips, and of course it happens in your world so you'll have created the possibilities for them, but dropping the idea of having a plot or a main quest can reap great benefits for you. You might of course worry that not having a main quest might lead to the characters being unheroic or doing weird things. You're right, they might – and your players will have had fun deciding to act like that! (Also, how much more impressive is character heroism when it's not required by the story – when it's not necessarily the path of least resistance?)
Dropping your (the DM's) idea of a story/plot/main quest also lends more importance to the things that actually happen. Your players might decide to help the revolution or just utilise the chaos to loot shops. They might fight the dragon or side with the dragon. As these choices weren't inevitable, they will matter more to everyone – knowledge of the road not travelled makes decisions mean more.
(Example One: one of my players in Talon's Height snuck away and released the Prince Most Magnificent in Shimmering Smoke, a Lawful Evil Efreet, after the Prince telepathically contacted them and offered a deal. A JRPG-style game wouldn't have involved that possibility; but in this case, the player got to choose. His choice will have consequences, positive and negative. The same would be true if he'd not let the Prince out.)
Example Two: The same with the Dragon's Tooth, the home of my Lawful Neutral Kobolds who have tension with nearby civilised peoples but can make peace – my main group quickly negotiated with the Kobolds after realising they weren't self-evidently evil, whilst another group I took through it got halfway before even beginning to suspect something strange was up. They had already incinerated the Kobold's eggs!)
How do random encounters fit into this? They help in at least two ways: consequences and emergent gameplay. When your players go out into the wilderness, there are risks to them (and sometimes opportunities). If they stay out in the wilderness for long periods, there are more risks to them before they get to somewhere safe. Taking those risks will cost the players – in hitdice, spell slots, potions, etc. And those consequences will directly relate to their choice to go into the wilderness. If my players travel through the Brightwood, they roll against the relative risk of that table (which is 1/6 per hex travelled on the hexmap) and if an encounter occurs they roll on that table, which is moderately dangerous, has several fey encounters, and has encounters relating to certain factions/NPCs. If they're in Cabbage Country, it's 1/12 chance and they'll roll on that table, which is a little less dangerous but has a bunch of weird, mysterious events, and has encounters relating to different factions/NPCs. This connects to “emergent gameplay” - the idea no-one quite knows what's going to happen til the session gets there, with randomised elements helping to produce a unique story for each party in the same environment. One group encounters Goblin foragers connected to Nimthur in Cabbage Country; another meets Pumpkinhead. Their stories are permanently changed by an event no-one could truly predict – and it was, in the final account, due to their decisions that it happened.
(Hint: Make players roll to see if they get a random encounter, and then make them roll on the table you've got hidden behind your screen. They don't know what result they get, but it gives them a sense of investment/agency. The Bard rolled the check that got everyone captured by interdimensional raiders!)
Random encounters can also help a sense of verisimilitude – that is, of the world being “real”, being “alive”. Obviously the game is fiction; but players often enjoy the game the more they don't have to explain away inconsistencies or weirdnesses. Random encounter tables – out of the direct control of the DM – give us a way of seeing the world “move”, of having events occur, of having an interactive ecology.
Of course it makes sense that there's a risk of encountering strange things in the monster forest. The players know it's a 1 in 6 chance, but given how dice work, that could be never or often. (Of course, you could add to this by increasing the chance of an encounter if the characters are moving quickly, making more noise – adding more realism and more choice!) This to me seems better than DMs just writing preset “random encounters” for every three days of travel or whatever – things aren't inevitable, the world bites back, and even the DM gets to be surprised sometimes. Additionally, the random (emergent gameplay) combination of elements – location, character situation, particular encounter – give an opportunity for creativity, as the DM works out how the encounter works or makes sense.
An important corollary of this point is as follows: the encounter table shouldn't be strictly levelled, nor should it be an array of combat encounters. In your bit of mythic fantasyland there may well be no high-level dragons or breaches into the Abyss...well, there might be, actually. Why wouldn't demons make a reality breach here, where the locals are weaker, rather than into the high-level Dwarf King's fortress? Wouldn't it be interesting find out how how your 3rd level party reacts when they find something SO dangerous? What if they come face-to-face with an Adult Green Dragon seeking a new home after being chased from its old one by giants? If they can't beat it, could they flee from it? What about negotiating with it? A Green Dragon in your debt sounds useful.
Of course it might make sense to only have one or two super-dangerous encounters on your table – partly because verisimilitude would suggest there's not enormous numbers of high-level dangers running around anyway, and partly because though realism helps, it's not the aim of the game. The aim is having fun, and so a mix of things is best.
Similarly, having random encounters essentially be combat encounters is boring. Not because combat isn't fun, or can't be; but because it will make players understand random encounters are part of the grind rather than part of the world. Virtually every random encounter on your table should be able to run in multiple ways. Sure, maybe one is just demons attacking, and that's going to have to be combat, but could the territorial heron-men be negotiated with? Perhaps some of the encounters should be strictly environmental – a strange circle of standing stones with magical properties, or a sudden lightning storm. Variety adds to a sense of realism, and to the potential interest players will have in the encounters themselves.
Ease of Use for the DM
Random encounters – and generally being able to randomly generate content – help a lot when your players go offpiste. What if you don't have things planned for the direction they're travelling? Dip into your encounter tables and find out what's there! These give you both floating encounters and something quick you don't have to have written out beforehand in detail. Of course, in some cases discretion may be required – when they ask to go to a town you haven't written up yet, you may be a little cautious about dropping the aforementioned Abyssal breach into it, at least if you have other intentions for the town. But bandits ambushing them en route, or them finding a cartman with a broken leg in the road, can provide you breathing space to work out what's happening next.
Designing Good Random Encounters
I don't know if I design good random encounters, and can't entirely describe how to design the sort of encounters I like, though certainly it helps if they are vivid and dynamic. But I can probably point to the sort of encounters I like and don't like.
A limited encounter table can be found in the (very worth reading) 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. It has tables sorted by terrain, but the actual entries tend just to be the name of the creature encountered (e.g., “Giant Weasel”). There are no environmental encounters in the main encounter tables, with any such event presumed to be determined separately by the DM. The City/Town Encounters have a special Explanation section which gives a little more advice, but still no colour. Now, this might not seem a bad thing; this gives the DM the whole job of working out the encounter, which may seem desirable. But in my experience a few sentences to make an encounter vivid, or even just quick and easy to run at the table, are very helpful.
An example of a slightly better encounter table can be found in Tomb of Annihilation, a pretty good adventure from Wizards of the Coast. It again has a number of tables, spread across different terrain types. The encounters even have a paragraph of description each, and some are quite fun and allow for interesting interactions. For instance:
CYCLOPS:A cyclops is journeying toward its home near Snapping Turtle Bay. It isn't looking for a fight, but any sudden moves or hostility from the characters might trigger one. The cyclops knows the region around Lake Luo and the western end of the Valley of Dread quite well, and it's never seen anything like Omu in those areas. Roll twice on the Treasure Drops table to see what treasure, if any, the cyclops has.
You can fight it, but it's probably easier to make friends with it. It can give you information. So it's a decent little encounter – but perhaps not instantly memorable or exciting.
Compare these two encounters from one neighbourhood of Marlinko, the subject of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, an excellent book by Chris Kutalik available from Drivethrurpg. One of these encounters is entirely trivial, the other is frankly silly, and both are very briefly written (shorter than the Cyclops entry):
Drunken boors: 2d6 drunken boors. Will descend on party and demand they drink with
them. Will not let them talk without interruption.
Maus. A wild-eyed paranoid dressed in the long-robed, woolen hat finery of a rustic boyar.
Maus rants and raves at the characters about the “Axis of Tindrthurn,” a secret postal and
matchmaking service that he claims is trying to kill him. If the Chaos Level is 6 or greater, he
is correct on all counts.
Both of these, to me, are immediately even more engaging and full of possibility than the Cyclops encounter, even though the Cyclops is surely the more inherently dramatic encounter. There's still plenty left to the DM's judgement and imagination; but these are both vivid and full of possibility, all within a couple of sentences.
Go and write an encounter table for the town your players are exploring. Add a wandering monster table to the gigantic dungeon they're descending. Add some weird stuff, add some chances for them to make friends (or enemies), and then let them be the masters of their fate. Use random encounters to make your world more open to player choice, to make it feel more real, and to save you time when your players go somewhere you hadn't expected. I think you'll reap the benefits very quickly.
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