Too often, a “Random Encounter” is seen as a combat encounter, one where a wandering monster stumbles upon your party and proceeds to eat your NPC companions before you even make it to the doors of the dungeon.
Random encounters can be so much more than that. I’d like to look at two types of random encounters, beginning with the aforementioned combat encounter.
I find myself completely avoiding random combat encounters when running 4e. Combat takes far too long within the system to waste a half hour (or more) on a fight with a wandering owlbear.
However, in other editions, including D&D Next, random combat encounters are much more viable, as you can start and finish a combat in about 15 minutes (based on your level and the power of a monster). The problem with random encounters is the… well… randomness of it. You’re walking down a well beaten path when… wait for it… (rolls dice, consults table) you are set upon by a Slaad! Your players know you’ve just rolled them up an encounter that has no bearing on the story. Things that have no bearing on the story should be nixed, right out.
However, if, before the game begins, you randomly roll on some tables and determine that the third night out, they run across a bugbear? Now you have a few moments to come up with why this bugbear is out here in the forest before your players even sit down at the table. Perhaps there’s a goblin camp nearby, and this bugbear was on patrol. Perhaps he was separated from his raiding party.
Combat encounters should be meaningful. Placing a random monster in the forest should tell the players that this forest is teeming with enemies, and that they should be careful. It should tell them that they’re closer to their destination, as they run into more and more frequent patrols of kobolds. Bottom line? Roll up those random encounters beforehand.
In non-combat encounters, players may encounter NPCS, events or other situations that may or may not be critical to the adventure at hand. Unlike combat, I don’t mind throwing tons of these at the players, even when unimportant to the plot. Random social encounters can breathe life into the setting. DMG 42 has some really fantastic random encounters, shown here. I’ve used a few myself, and they’re excellent.
Just like combat encounters, social encounters, even if simply describing a couple of merchants walking by and talking, or seeing a rogue cutting purses, should have a point. They may not be integral to the plot, but they should never feel random and useless. That rogue you see? He’ll turn up later to cut your purse if you don’t stop him now. Those merchants were talking about the upcoming mid-summer festival, which happens to coincide with your big plot point coming up. All random encounters can tie into your plot, or create new subplots. I advise rolling these up beforehand as well, as it gives you time to place them firmly within your setting and story, and avoid freezing up, trying to come up with something on the fly. There are some great random tables found in the latest D&D adventure, Murder in Baldur’s Gate. I suggest picking it up, if for nothing else than being a great resource for city design and city building.
Random encounters don’t have to be random. They can provide fantastic opportunities for both the DM and players to roleplay and interact in new and dynamic ways, and provide subtle ways of furthering the plot. As Bridget and I play a little 4e in Baldur’s Gate, I’ll let you know how our random encounters go.