Characteristics of Random Encounter Tables
All encounter tables share certain concepts. Before you begin creating your
own tables, some understanding of these basics is necessary.
Uniqueness: Although one could create a single encounter table and use it for every
situation, this is a grievous limitation on the wealth and detail possible in a
campaign world. Encounter tables add distinction and differentiation to areas.
Encounter tables can reflect conditions as basic as terrain or as complicated as
entire social structures.
This in mind, the DM should decide where in the campaign world each encounter
table applies. A single table could be made for all deserts; a separate table
could be made for the Desert of Shaar, which is noted for its fabulous beasts; a
further table could be made for the ten-mile area around the Palace of Yasath
in the Desert of Shaar, where the Emir of Yasath maintains patrols to keep the
beasts at bay. Within the palace an entirely different encounter table would be
needed, since the patrols don't tramp through the hallways and harems.
Each table says something about the conditions in a particular area—the level
of civilization, the degree of danger, even the magical weirdness of the area.
Although the players never see the entire table, such tables help the DM define
for himself the nature of his campaign world.
Frequency: All monsters have a frequency of appearance, whether given in the monster's
description or assumed by the DM. Orcs are more common than minotaurs, which are
seen more often than dragons, which, in turn, are seen more often than Tiamat,
Evil Queen of the Dragons. Frequency of appearance is normally listed as
common, uncommon, rare, very rare, and unique.
Common creatures normally account for 70% of the local population. They may be more
prolific or just more outgoing, more likely to show themselves to strangers.
Uncommon monsters fill the next 20%. They are fewer in number and tend to be more wary
Rare creatures account for another 7%. Such creatures are normally solitary,
exceptionally powerful, or very retiring.
Very rare creatures constitute only 3% of the population. They are truly exotic and
almost always extremely powerful. They may be creatures who have wandered far from
their normal range or whose magical nature is such that not many can possibly
exist at any one time in any one place.
Unique monsters are just that. They are individuals, specific and named. Such
creatures should never be used on random encounter tables. They are reserved for
The chance of encounter is not determined solely by the frequency listing,
however. The DM should also take into account a location's terrain or deadliness.
A polar bear can be considered unique only in the tropics and is very rare at
best even in the northernmost reaches of temperate lands. An orc living in the
deadliest area of an ancient ruin, an area populated by a dragon, mind flayers,
and medusae, would be very rare indeed (and very lucky to be alive). Frequency
must be modified to suit conditions.
Frequency must also be subservient to the conditions the DM desires to create.
If the DM wants a valley filled with magical creatures of incredible
deadliness, then rare and very rare creatures are going to be more frequent. A lost
valley filled with dinosaurs defies the normal chances of encountering such beasts.
Indeed, they could only be considered unique elsewhere.
Furthermore, frequency does not mean characters will encounter a creature 70%
or 20% of the time, only that it falls into a group that composes that
percentage of the population. The percentages and ratings given are not demographic
data; they are only guidelines.
Several common creatures will compose the bulk of the population, so that the
chance of meeting any particular type is less than 70%. The same is true for
all the other categories. In the end, the chance of meeting a particular type of
common creature is still greater than that of meeting an uncommon or very rare
Logic: The other significant factor restricting encounter tables is rationality.
Everything on the encounter table should be justifiable for one reason or another.
By requiring justification, the DM can quickly narrow his range of creature
choices down to a reasonable number, in essence winnowing the chaff from the wheat.
The first and easiest criteria are terrain and temperature. Camels aren't
found in jungles: kraken don't crawl across deserts. Glaring contradictions of
logic must be justified. Produce a woodland dryad in the middle of a barren waste
and the players are going to demand some explanation. Worse yet, they may assume
the encounter is significant to the adventure because it is so illogical,
which may in turn throw your entire adventure off track.
Even if the creature fits a given terrain, it may not be appropriate to the
setting. Just because an orc can appear on the plains doesn't mean it should, not
if those plains are at the heart of a fiercely guarded human empire. Out on
the fringes where raiding bands could slip across the border would be a far more
As important as terrain and temperature in assessing the logic of a random
encounter is the character of the society the table is supposed to reflect.
Balance what the players expect to meet with what would make a good adventure. At the
heart of an empire, the characters would expect to find farmers, merchants,
nobles, priests, and the like. The task for the DM is to find ways to make these
seemingly ordinary encounters interesting.
In wilderness areas and abandoned ruins, there may not be a particular culture
to consider. However, there is a society of sorts or, more accurately, an
ecosystem. This is often overlooked in dungeon settings. Just which creatures feed
on which? What relationships exist that allow all manner of diverse creatures
to live in the same place without annihilating each other? Does a creature's
random appearance make sense with what the characters know about the place?
Medusae make poor wandering monsters, since logic says there should be statues of
their victims in areas where they live. To round a corner and run into a medusa
who just happens to be strolling the caverns grates against logic.
Effect: Finally, as DM, consider the role of the random encounter. Such an encounter
is not a part of the adventure being told; it hasn't been worked into the plot
and doesn't advance the conflicts. A random encounter should not be the most
exciting event of an adventure. You don't want the players remembering only the
random encounter and forgetting the story you worked to create!
Random encounters provide breaks in the action and can build or release
tension. The characters are galloping after the desperately fleeing kidnappers.
Suddenly a flight of griffins, attracted by the clamor of the chase, swoop down,
aiming to make a meal of the player characters' horses. The kidnappers may escape
unless the characters can extricate themselves from the attack in mere moments!
The tension level goes up.
Random encounters can also wear the player characters down in preparation for
a larger, planned encounter. The uncertainty of the encounters adds an element
of risk for the players. Will the characters be strong enough? A random
encounter should rarely cripple a party (unless they are in a sorry state to begin
with), but each one should weaken them a little.
It doesn't matter if the player characters win every random encounter,
especially not if they are down a few more hit points, spells, and magical items after
each. Just knowing they are not at peak form and that they have expended their
abilities on wandering monsters makes the players nervous.
For these reasons, you don't want to use the most powerful and significant
creatures when creating random encounter tables. You certainly don't want to use
creatures that are more powerful than those in the rest of your adventure!
Random monsters should be less significant than those you have planned.
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