Hi, I'm a veteran DM and game designer. I've run D&D summer camps for kids, games for friends, games at work, games in most major systems, and systems of my own design. I've also run hundreds of sessions in random-encounter-heavy sandboxes. Many of my players have loved the open-ended experience and wanted to start DMing similar games. However they've often run into challenges with incorporating random encounters that feel as compelling as the main adventures. In helping them out I realized I was using a simple formula I'd never thought about before:
Dan's Random Encounter Formula
– Random Encounters are Micro-Adventures –
Step 1: The Hook: The random encounter needs to start with some scene-setting moment that makes the players curious about learning more. The best ones are like great adventure hooks. Something mysterious or unusual is found, which is why it's worth mentioning it as a random encounter, and the players are tempted to investigate further.
Step 2: The Choice: TTRPGs are about making choices. The players aren't getting to experience satisfying action gameplay like a videogame, or the polished narrative of a book. They play to make choices, and you need them within your random encounters. Give the players a clear choice about what to do in the encounter, and make them curious as to what will happen based on their choice.
Step 3: The Meaningful Results: The choice needs to have a meaningful result, one that seems like it could affect the world around the players or directly affects their ability to pursue their goals. It can be as simple as taking damage (impacts their ability to survive on their current mission) or as profound as casting the world into an eternal winter. I've found a lot of success with giving players small, permanent benefits on their character, like gaining +1 to all sailing checks in the future because they helped the child of an ocean spirit.
Here are some example random encounters:
The Sword in the Stone
Hook: While exploring the woods, the Players find a sword embedded within a massive boulder. The sword glows softly with magical light.
Choice: Do we remove the sword from the stone?
Meaningful Result: The boulder was the head of a huge earth elemental that the sword was keeping in slumber. The earth elemental either (DM's Choice):
– Demands the players point it to the city it was originally trying to destroy before it was put to sleep.
– Begs the players to put the sword back in its head so it can go back to sleep.
The Flame Festival
Hook: The players stumble across a mysterious group of flame-haired people having a carnival in the wilds. They've erected a makeshift settlement overnight and people are singing, dancing, playing games, and more. They invite the players to join their revels.
Choice: Each player chooses whether to join in or not, the DM informing them if they join in they'll roll on a table to see what they get up to during the festival.
Meaningful Result: Something good happens to every player that participated except the one that rolls lowest. They win gold at games, gain inspiration from partying, etc. Resolve these events first. The lowest roller is swept off to a tent and seated around a banquet table. A live elf is brought in on a platter and the flame-haired people start eagerly devouring the elf alive.
If your system has sanity damage or similar, this is a good time to apply it.
Random Encounters are exciting to think about, but most random encounter tables aren't as fun in practice. The idea of rolling to find out what interesting thing the players will discover is great, but often the table just turns up entries like "2d4 wolves" or "two gnomes are arguing about which way the nearest town is".
Micro-adventures are much more exciting. I generally include at least a few while travelling between adventure locations, whether in the wilds or in a bigger city. These micro-adventures create a lot of memorable moments and sometimes even tempt players off their current objective to explore something else. I usually encourage this because an adventure hook they roll randomly on a table feels like a special, rare thing they discovered – and choosing to engage with it is their decision. I almost always roll on a d100 table of random encounters and put something extremely special – like a whole dungeon or sub-region to explore – on the 1 and 100 results.
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