Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Encounter Table's Shadow

Last week, a wise friend of mine said he chose to see the players as the encounter, turning the usual perspective on its head.  I must admit this has had considerable effect on my thinking process, leading to this series of posts.

After all, the player characters are the best example of destructive wanderers that we can name.  They slaughter and destroy everything, from dragons and lichs to whole builder monster villages, entirely with malevolence and largely on a random, whimsical basis.  No monster in the wilderness can tell when a group of well-armed, extremely knowledgeable aggressors will show up in astoundingly small numbers and bring an abrupt end to their culture, without showing the least sign of remorse.

When we build encounters, we build them for these players: and that is precisely why encounter tables don't work.  Consider: any encounter table built on the list of monsters we have will be heavy with vermin and passive wanderers ~ and no player party dreams of their opportunity to head out into the wilderness and slaughter giant insects, common predators and assorted hooved animals.  They are certainly not getting themselves equipped to clean out a valley of its giant rat infestation or putting an end to the plague of rot grubs that have been affecting the local herds.  Players want to fight destructive wanderers like chimera or purple worms, or builder monsters like giants and drow elves, or eradicators like mind flayers and undead. Any encounter table we make, however, is bound to produce a very low chance that one of these creatures will pop up.  Instead we will just get vermin and natural animals ~ because there are more of these kind of creatures that exist.

At the same time, builder monsters are mostly all alike.  Oh, giants are big and drow have lots of magic, but the principles from one humanoid group to the next are pretty much unvaried.  There's little majesty in slaughtering the 41st orc, even if the whole party has been cutting their way through a dungeon of three hundred creatures over the previous two sessions.  Builder monsters are fine as an appetizer, but we all know the players want something bigger.

The problem is, destructive wanderers in large numbers just don't make sense, ever.  How chaotic does the world have to be to ensure that the party always happens to be in the neighborhood of some massive horrorshow like a roc or a sphinx, just at the moment they go for a jaunt?  A little convenient, isn't it?  Of course, we can help mitigate the problem by having the party hear of some beast in the upland country a few hundred miles north, enabling them to rush up there in time to wipe out a small cadre force of manticore; but why in hell does it happen when the party shows up that there haven't been nine other groups, closer to the issue, who have already shown up and done the job?  Are the party the only force on the continent capable of dealing with these problems?  And if so, why is it everyone has no idea who they are?

Eradicators seem less socially problematic.  They're out there in the wilderness, quietly turning their 2,000 acre parcel of land into a charcoal-covered bowl of death and decay, without anyone knowing the least thing about it.  These monsters at least can be reasonably stumbled upon without prior knowledge ~ but let's face it.  Lichs, ghosts and beholders do not make the most joyful of prospective encounters.  Give the party a big hydra and they're happy ~ its just a lot of heads and fire-breathing, things we can predict and prepare for ... but even a few medusae will chill a player's blood like a Canadian winter morning.  I find players just aren't that anxious to test themselves against anything with virtually unlimited magic.

Here is the argument, then, for eliminating the random monster determiner: we can toss a few vermin and passive wanderers against a party at the beginning of an adventure, but the party's temperament will only sustain their presence so long before disgust and ennui sets in.  The DM has to be thinking, then, about whether or not this is the time for a destructive wanderer or a group of builder monsters; they can be thrown together but that's a well that gets stale after a few dozen examples.  We're probably best off with some sort of small destructive wanderer, something that wrecks a single dwelling, which can be dispatched quickly on the way to something more interesting.

Over time, we've got to maneuver the party into developing the confidence to tackle a good, deadly eradicator, exactly the sort of thing that makes them sweat.  This is not the time for messing up the tempo of the adventure with some meaningless random encounter pulled off a table.  Adventures can't be set up this way: it would be like supposing we could write a symphony with a set of dice, arguing that the only thing separating us from the success at this is a really good table, a table we just haven't thought of yet.

Any table will only result in producing discordant results.  The game's direction, momentum and feel demands more than chance, it demands a maestro, one who can balance the need of the world to unfold in a sane, believable manner, while showing a path that will enable the strength of resolve the players need to do something they won't believe they can do, even while they are doing it.  "How did we get into this mess?" is a question common to my world ~ and a very good question.  It describes players acting according to their hearts and not their heads ~ before using their heads to get out of their situation.

An encounter table would be unsatisfactory.  I think that's why I've stopped using them.  But it has taken this series of posts for me to see clearly why.  I hope the gentle reader will also see it, and stop feeling guilty for not using a table that has no practical purpose in running a good campaign.


Samuel Kernan said...

Do you use any aids to help you chart that path of increasing difficulty for the players? I could see a sort of menu of threats/opportunities that might be available in an area as a useful thing to jog one's thinking. Then you could select out what is relevant without relying on dice.

Thinking about it, that sounds kind of like your hex generator.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Here's a direction I'd like to see you take as part of this series: worked examples of encounters.

By that I mean, describe a scenario, and then what encounters you might produce based on (a) party interaction with environment and (b) what kind of of the 5 types you've established as being present here.

I don't think I've seen anyone do this kind of format before. And since here you discuss raising tension and affecting the feel of the game, which is something that other DMs haven't figured out yet, I think it would be useful to see transcribed your thought process while placing/choosing encounters.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'll take that challenge. I'll come up with something original and post about it this evening.

Alexis Smolensk said...

There, the post is up.