Saturday, May 30, 2009

Random Encounters

One of the most memorable things about previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons was, for me, the tables.

I loved the tables. As a 12-year-old, I could spend hours at the back of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide just rolling up hordes of loot for imaginary Ancient Gold Dragons. You were using 2d10 to simulate a number from one to one hundred, and if you happened to roll that double-zero you knew you were adding something extraordinary to the loot pile.

Hand in hand with the loot tables went the random encounter tables. If PCs were travelling overland, or deigning to camp in a dungeon, or exploring some unmapped part of the city slums, the DM could get out a handful of dice and hit them with some roaming group of random nasties straight from the darkest corners of the Monstrous Compendium. Few were the heroes combing the sands of the Desert of Desolation who would expect to come face to face with 2d10 flumphs!

Okay, let's be honest - the tables were rubbish. The Deck of Many Things alone could derail a game and the 1-in-200 chance of finding it on the corpse of a random orc was a campaign-destroying timebomb waiting to go off. Having a night's sleep disrupted by 2d6 bandits or 1d3 rabid dire bears was not fun, it was tiresome.

The tables were rubbish. But they were great rubbish. 4th Edition takes them out completely, and I think that may have been a mistake.

Here is a thing about humans: we are bad at assessing probability. We do not intuitively understand long odds and we disproportionately value the unlikely. We respond illogically to random reward schedules and the knowledge that a one-in-a-billion payoff could be right around the corner will keep us buying lottery tickets in defiance of the mathematical improbability of returning a profit.

Put simply: random tables don't have to make sense. We will endure 1d3 rabid dire bears again and again in the knowledge that if the DM had rolled a 96 on that table we'd be getting a wish-granting genie. We'll keep fighting the 2d6 bandits in the hope that next time the random encounter table will deliver a modron, or a tarrasque, or an asswere, or something else that we'd never normally see in a serious campaign.

Put simply, we'll enjoy a bad idea because of the promise of a disproportionately unlikely payoff. We're dumb like that, and if being dumb means we can enjoy things that don't make sense, then it's a curse with a shiny silver lining.

So: Thunderspire Labyrinth comes with a random encounter table.

If PCs crawl around in the Labyrinth too long, or go somewhere the DM wasn't expecting, or just if the DM was feeling bored, there's a table to roll on. The module provides 10 complete level-appropriate encounters that tie into the flavour and mythos of the mountain. Better yet, each and every encounter comes with a backstory and is either the end of a side-quest or the start of one.

A treasure-seeking wight, for example, drops hints of a loot-filled minotaur graveyard (coincidentally detailed in the Dungeon Magazine side treks). A mad dwarf attempts to enlist PCs in his one-man feud with his clan. My personal favourite is a gelatinous cube attended by three wraiths - the undead are bound to their corpses, which the cube is still slowly digesting. By my reckoning, there's more story in each of these random encounters than there is the rest of the module combined.

The encounters could have been the high point of Thunderspire, and it's a shame that there's a few impediments to their use. One is the XP budget I mentioned in the last post- the biggest and meanest of these encounters gives players nearly a half-level of XP all by itself. (Speaking of which, the option of rolling randomly for these encounters was surely tongue-in-cheek - a DM who puts a level 4 party up against a level 8 random encounter is asking for an accidental party wipe.)

Another issue is that none of these encounters really tie tightly into the main plot. At best they're supplemental (and redundant) to the key areas - there's five rooms of gnolls in the Well of Demons; do we really need another two random encounters of them? At worst, they're completely tangential to what's going on in the central quest chain - it's great to hear about a distant ruin filled with treasure, but if players want to check it out, they're going to be doing it instead of the content the module had planned for levels 5 and 6, not as well as. The problem with level-appropriate content is that there's only so much of it you can do before you level.

Anyway, it's nice that the module plans for the possibility that players would rather go randomly exploring than slog through a tedious sequence of rooms filled with Duergar, but it probably would have been better off just spending the time and page space making the Duergar suck less.

I really, really love this random encounter table for its intention, for its content, and for including a gelatinous cube, and if we're going to have 4th Edition random encounter tables this is absolutely the way to do them... but ultimately it doesn't work with Thunderspire. It's asking you to make a choice - Thunderspire, or random encounters - and it's not a choice that leaves Thunderspire looking good.

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Notes:

[1]
This article is entirely rhetorical; I did the maths, and then ignored it. The actual 2nd Edition chance of having a Deck of Many Things turn up in orc loot is 1 in 5,000 lairs, with no chance of finding one on a random individual. The wish-granting sort of 2nd Edition genie is either a common Efreeti or the ultra-rare Noble Djinni (representing 1% of Djinni civilisation). Both must be captured before they will grant wishes. You'll find these monsters on 0.51% of random encounters in tropical or subtropical desert, or 1.53% of random encounters occurring on the seventh level of a dungeon complex (chance of finding one on the sixth or eighth level of a dungeon = zero).

10 comments:

Anders Hällzon said...

Great minds think alike? Or fools seldom differ? Either way, it's nice to see that someone else had a similar idea about tying 4E random encounters to planned content - I'm not totally crazy. ;)

rpgtreehouse said...

I haven't got TL in front of me right now but what's that awesome encounter with the mad man who knows about an impending catastrophe yet is cursed to stick around and see it while remaining utterly silent?
A great idea that the PCs will probably never know about.

Greg Tannahill said...

RPGTreehouse - That's (I think) Vadriar, who I'll be coming to in time.

Zubon said...

a gelatinous cube attended by three wraiths - the undead are bound to their corpses, which the cube is still slowly digesting.That is a solid dose of awesome right there.

Greg Tannahill said...

I know! 4E has this necessity to mix strange monster types in order to create balanced encounters so when I see a really good reason for unlikely creatures to hang out it's one of the best parts of the game.

Brian said...

I'm actually running most if not all of the random encounters in TL because I think they add a lot of flavor to the atmosphere of the Labyrinth. Otherwise, it seems like it would just be a process of hiring a guide, warping to the correct part of the Labyrinth, and infiltrating the next base. I've linked each random encounter semi-logically with a destination the PCs might try to get to. So on their way to the Chamber of Eyes, for example, they were harried by the pack of hyenas from enc #2.

To account for these, I have slowed the XP advancement so they don't end up overleveled for H3. It does risk drawing out the "sour spot", but I'm hoping that the added variety of encounters will balance that out.

I've also implemented the Gendar fetch quests (from the FR conversion) to make more room for some of these encounters, so there's a good chance the party won't stumble on all of them. Their eyes light up at the promise of gold, though, so I won't be surprised if they abandon the main path for awhile to track some of this stuff down. They're becoming quite notorious for leaving things half-finished for awhile.

If anything, I'm guilty of giving the players way too many choices, but as most of them are veterans of WoW and its ilk they're apparently used to having scads of quests at the same time and seem to be coping okay.

And it's funny you should focus on it, I just did the G. Cube + Wraiths one last week and it was fantastic fun. I had the stone tablet that drops out be a map to the Miser's Pit (hooks to P2). I apparently like to signpost things well in advance.

Bryant said...

FWIW, my players are about to enter the final Tower in Thunderspire, and are 200 points away from level 7. If a party defeats absolutely everything in the way they'll wind up very close to 8th, but my group is pretty serious about avoiding combat when possible. From memory, they skipped the Refectory and missed two or three of the Horned Hold encounters.

The Horned Hold is nicely customizable, btw, depending on which way you choose to have the PCs enter -- there are two reasonable paths from the Seven Pillared Hall to the Hold. It's also not entirely out of the realm of possibility for players to skip the Big Bad -- the room with the undead (I'm being vague on purpose here) gives a back entry to the room with the slaves.

Greg Tannahill said...

Bryant - We skipped the Big Bad using the undead path, but I'm not sure what you're talking about in terms of two entrancces. I'll re-read the area before doing my posts, but the "back entrance" leads to the Grimmerzhul homeland and the Underdark - I'm not sure that counts as a feasible line of approach for PCs.

Bryant said...

As presented, I think area 1 is meant to be the front entrance while area 22 is the back entrance that leads to the Underdark, right?

Take another look at the map of the ruins on page 7 of the first book. The most direct major route to the Hold leaves the Hall southward and immediately turns east, along the Road of Shadows. It forks fairly early. If you go south, then turn east again at the next intersection, you approach the Hold from the west.

Conversely, if you go east at that first fork, you're headed for the Grimmerzhul Mines. You have to take a minor path south after crossing the chasm once to get to the northeast tower in the Hold.

Now go back and look at the Horned Hold map. Area 1 is the northeast tower.

This doesn't completely make sense. You'd think the Hold would be presented in logical order, which would imply that encounter H5 ought to be H1, because why wouldn't the PCs get the most direct route to the Hold -- especially if they get it from the drow? However, it's pretty clear that the module expects the PCs to approach from what is effectively the Grimmerzhul Mines side.

I suspect there was a miscommunication at some point between the module design and the map department. The setup text for H5 supports this -- it makes it sound like area 22's gate doesn't lead to the Road of Shadows in any way. Perhaps that southern spur of the Road of Shadows wasn't meant to exist?

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm pretty sure you're right, given the mixup about where encounter A1 takes place. The labyrinth map seems to be a whole-cloth invention of the cartographer without reference to any of the actual module text.