Random encounter lists have been around forever in a variety of games. Back in the earliest days of roleplaying, they were used to give different wilderness encounters as the party laboriously traveled over vast areas on foot. Encounter lists have refined and expanded as games have and are often used to provide a lot more information. My most recent use for Random Encounters has been to dish out setting information to players who are unfamiliar with the setting. It’s been an unexpected but super effective use of the format.
I’m currently running an Eberron campaign for many people who are new to the setting. While I’ve used other means to fill them in on the basics of the setting, they don’t have anywhere near complete knowledge of all the setting information, nor should they. Unless it is fun for them to memorize what is going on in the world, there is rarely any need for players to be experts in the knowledge of the world setting. What matters to them is what they interact with, and that is where the random encounter lists help in bringing the lore into the game being played at the table.
How To Use Random Encounter Lists for Lore
The first thing to do is to stop thinking about random encounter lists as being combat-oriented or being actually random. When using them to help convey information into your setting you are not often looking for the kind of random that you would get from an online generator that fills in generic details. Things like “the magic shop is filled with the smell of %name_of_incense% and has %generic_adornment% scattered around the shelves” are less useful to hooking the players into the setting. Instead, you want curated lists of interesting encounters that hook into bits of the lore or important/interesting things about the world. The lists work essentially as plot hooks that lead to deeper paths.
While a random list used for lore can have combat or action-oriented encounters, they should reflect more interesting glimpses at the life and happenings of the area you are building them for. A great example of this is the Random Encounters Sharn PDF from DM’s Guild.  . I downloaded this to take out some of the prep work when my group was in the city. I began using it to fill in my version of Sharn and start to include some of the things that hadn’t really come into the plot of my campaign. It was phenomenal for making the game feel more fluid in the party’s home city and it lead to…
The Bridge Where It Happens
As my players have traversed my version of Sharn, The City of Towers, I’ve constantly re-used maps. One such map has been titled “The Bridge Where It Happens” and we’ve built a tradition of having to cross that bridge through ANY trip through Sharn, no matter where the group is going. Once they arrive, I roll or peruse a random encounter table and grab an interesting thing to riff off of. “An entourage from the Talenta Plains is making its way down the street on their dinosaur mounts, drawing much attention.”
I’ve never included the Talenta Plains in the campaign, nor the dinosaur mounts. It just hasn’t fit the theme so far, but suddenly the players are engaged trying to corral stampeding triceratops and deinonychuses as the handlers have lost control. With that little setting hook, I’ve suddenly gotten them interested in that part of the world and learning more about it.
Similar results have occurred while the group crosses the bridge and is approached by a peddler selling setting unique loot they had purchased from previous adventurers. I didn’t have a reason for them to come across byeshk weapons, but now the group is intrigued by them and likes having something unique in their armory.
Getting The Most Out of Setting Oriented Random Lists
Using random encounter lists with an eye towards hooking players into setting themes can make your game more fluid and feel less rigid. It helps you focus on different things you may not have thought about in relation to your plot and makes the world feel alive. Things are happening around the players, not just to them or because they acted on them. The airship that pulls up and sends a signal asking if they want to race down the canyon past the six kings doesn’t have anything to do with their adventure to the Demon Wastes, but when I pause the game to roll on the random table and pull up that encounter the group delights that they’ve “discovered” this thing in the world. It’s not related to their quest, it takes maybe 3 rolls per person to pull in riggings, control the elemental, and activate the burst engine to get across the finish line. They get to learn about the six kings statues, get a small bit of loot for winning the race, and feel like the world is more 3 dimensional. It isn’t all about their quest, it’s just something that happens on the way.
To get the most out of this technique, there are some things to keep in mind with lists and implementing them.
- Â There are fewer combat or action encounters. Random encounters for travel are a different thing than random encounters for setting purposes. While it can be great to encounter different creatures JRPG style, they don’t say much about the world or lead to interesting insight… unless you make that happen. After defeating the chimera whose cave you stumbled across, you may find the remains of a house Tharashk group and their loot. Returning some of it to the house may provide a better reward or connection.
- Everything on the lists has a named, specific hook into something or could easily lead to one. For Eberron I take anything generic and pair it with a named element. If it says thieves guild, I replace it with the Daask or The Tyrants depending on where the group is or what is important.
- They are relatively short and grouped by some theme or specific area. You’ll never get through everything on a d100 list, but 10 d10s based on different types of areas or types of content in the city (mercantile, robbery, Upper Dura, etc.) help you hone in on the details of one specific trope.
- Don’t get lost in the details. A random list helps you pull things into your game you may not know intricate details about. Grab the book or an online article about it and garner the most important elements. Focus on those. With the Talenta dinosaur encounter, I didn’t worry about names for the tamers or types of dinosaurs until the group startled them and then had to apologize. I made those up on the fly and it fit the right niche for the encounter.
- If using for your own lore and setting, focus only on things that would be interesting in play. If the group encounters a bard spouting a song with the lore of the 13 branches of the current dynasty, it’s only interesting if it affects something currently. Focus on action. Maybe as the bard gets to a certain name, a cloaked figure is visibly startled and rushes out quickly. Now the players may become interested in why, track them down, and find a noble going secretly among the people or trying to escape some court plot on their life. Suddenly a connection to the lore of the noble house and the lore.
I’ve found random lists phenomenal for bringing in elements from the world and making it feel alive. Like in real life, we don’t know everything about every corporation, crime group, military, or creature that exists. It doesn’t matter greatly to us what to do to survive a bear attack until we encounter an angry bear in the wild. This holds true for many tabletop RPG settings. The details on the edges of our characters’ existences don’t truly matter until they come into focus. We may enjoy reading the lore, but in the game we enjoy encountering it, and not just as part of a prescribed plot-line.
Do you use random lists in your games? Do they focus on lore or setting elements or are they primarily to vary up combat encounters?