In this post I want to share the “Random Encounters and Vistas” house rules that we use in my ongoing D&D campaign. This set of rules has crossed game editions from OD&D (using the Rules Cyclopedia) through 2nd Edition AD&D and into today’s 5th Edition D&D incarnation of this campaign. Before you say it, yes, I know, every D&D blog under the Sun has their own random encounter rules. While some groups out there find the very concept of random encounters completely anathema to their style of play, there are still dozens of approaches to the rules for groups that find them useful. That’s one of my favorite parts about this grand new digital age for my most beloved hobby: there’s any number of ways to do any one thing in your games, something for everyone and then some. So here are mine.
Lately we’ve been playing a lot of exploration-heavy games in our main group. Be it exploring a newly-discovered southern continent in our Forthalome campaign (which I swear I will get back to some day), or traveling cross-country back in the northernmost reaches of the homeland in our Northwarde campaign, the process of The Journey has become a core focus in many of our sessions. The flow we use is in many ways similar to the “Hex Crawl” approach to gaming, albeit with a few personal twists and less of a main stage focus. For us, we always have a starting point and a destination in mind, and everything in between is largely undefined. Random encounters mixed with direct requests for improvisational player input help us flesh out all of that intervening space while also making it an active play event at the table.
My present day GMing style has evolved over the decades into about a 15% Prep vs 85% butt-pull approach to storytelling. I’ve grown especially fond of ongoing collaborative world-building, incorporating player suggestions into the establishment of our groups’ game worlds. I derive a lot of enjoyment from giving players as much input as possible – not only does it give everyone a direct buy-in to the settings we explore together, it also minimizes the amount of pre-game prepwork I have to do and constantly tests (and improves!) my GMing improv skills. By tying in a mix of player input with the classic concept of the Random Encounter, we manage to include action, world-building, and story collaboration all in just a couple of quick rolls.
Here’s how it all goes down in our games. When the group sets out for a longer voyage (as in multiple days or more), I switch to a flow of operations in which I roll for two random “encounters” twice each day. Using a roll of two d12s, the results tell me at what hours during the first and second halves of the day an encounter might occur. So if I roll and get a 4 and a 1, then I’ll plan for an encounter at 4 AM and again at 1 PM that day. And right now we’re doing one 24-mile hex of travel every day, so that results in two potential random events in every hex.
Next, when the time comes to resolve the random event, I roll 2D6 and consult the following:
Encounter Type (2d6)
- 2-5 = Monster (Roll 1D4: 1 = Monster Tracks, 2 = Monsters Unaware, 3 = Hostile Monsters, 4 = Monsters Ambush!)
- 6-9 = Vista
- 10-11 = Trap! (depends on game and location)
- 12 = Special (depends on game and location)
(Note that the last two options are somewhat variable based on whatever game we’re running. Some places have pre-built “special” encounters and traps, and with these rolls I insert one of them).
If the encounter involves monsters, I roll a d10 to determine the relative danger level of the Encounter, based off the party’s average level:
Encounter Danger Level (1d10)
- 1-2 = Easy (1 or 2 levels below)
- 3-7 = Moderate (roughly same level)
- 8-9 = Tough (1-2 levels above)
- 10 = Extreme (2-4 levels above)
These results port pretty neatly to most fantasy game systems, and have served me pretty well since we started with the Rules Cyclopedia a few years back. For D&D 5E, they even directly relate to that game’s own four-tiered encounter difficulty system. Personally, I tend to use “Extreme” to mean “Deadly… and beyond!” and my group has grown pretty used to the concept of running the hell away from the massive awful monster that just happened randomly across their path.
If the previous roll got a Vista I instead roll on the following table (1d10) and turn it over to a different player at the table to describe such a scene encountered that day:
Vista Type (1d10)
- Glorious to Behold
- Vile and Disgusting
- Simply Breathtaking
- Frightening to the Core
- Naturally Grisly
- Ancient and Seemingly Alien
- Uplifting and Encouraging
- Awe-Inspiring and Humbling
- Disturbingly Portentous
- Deeply Depressing
The Vistas rolls have led to some amazing bits of on the spot world-building within my campaigns. Here are some examples from recent months:
- The party noticed a clump of extremely sharp cliffs in the distance, as if the ground had been pulled up into the sky to form mountan-sized razors. A few massive birds (rocs) flitted around the sky-pointed cliffs, dropping “objects” (caravans, prey, etc) onto the spikes to kill them.
- While on a pee break in the woods, the team finds the corpses of two dead baby bears, recently crushed to death by a suddenly falling tree. The meat and pelts are mostly intact.
- On a long trek down the coast, the party encounters a hundred-or-so-foot stretch of the sandy beach that is blackened forged glass, jagged and twisted. Something unnatural happened here, but what?
- They happen upon an eerie stand of ash-white trees clumped very tightly together, growing out of parched stone. Feral sloth-like beasts guard the tree aggressively, keeping strangers away from the “questionably” shaped fruit of these bizarre trees.