Posts Tagged ‘random encounter tables’

A short little post while I chew on bigger problems.
Unofficial Games has a post up about using a stealth system to help determine the occurrence of Wandering Monster events.  It’s a neat idea and something that I already do in a loose way: ie, if the PCs do something noisy I have the world around them react, and in certain environments that reaction can be guards showing up to see what’s going on.  Zzarchov seems to imply that there’s a more-formal system he’s using that tracks “suspicion” points, and he doesn’t go into details of how the system works (except generally that noisy things generate suspicion and at some point that suspicion becomes an encounter).  It’s not clear if there’s a threshold, or if it works like old Mage: The Ascension Paradox in that the GM can choose to slowly “burn off” suspicion in smaller encounters or let it build up into something Big and Bad.

I think it would be interesting (and it’s again something I implement informally) to use a similar system to track whether the PCs become aware of wandering monsters, whether it’s a sneaking goblin raiding party or a lumbering ogre looking for a meal.  Not sure exactly how you could translate that to this “suspicion points” system — either you’re telling players “he’s gained enough points, you’re suspicious that there’s something just a couple passages away,” or you’re dropping hints each time the creature gains points and waiting for the players to decide they’re suspicious enough to check it out (“an innocuous sound?  The GM said it, it must be important!”).

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

So I’m kind of in love with hexcrawl mechanics right now.  This is the structure from the Alexandrian post that really grabbed me, and though I can’t quite put my finger on why I think it just solves a lot of issues I’d had with running games that have any amount of travel. They’re an elegant way to give the party information on their surroundings, meaningful choices to make on where they go and how they get there, and a structure for random encounters that’s more than just “roll the dice to see what you fight.”

In fact, I think that the departure from hexcrawls as a meaningful game structure is the root of a lot of common problems that the hobby has these days. DMs lack the tools they need to build the games we want.

So, what do you need for a hexcrawl?  The only real essential is a hexmap, but you’ll also want a way to key the map with encounters.  One option is to simply key each hex by hand but that leads to a lot of potentially-wasted effort, and what happens if the party revisits the same hex?  Random Encounter Tables or a system for Wandering Monsters is the better way to go, in my opinion.

I’m currently using Hexographer to build my maps.  They’re pretty intuitive and you can use it for free online.  I bought a copy, but that’s because it’s hard for me to no go full-bore on things I get excited about.  I’m using the Atlas Hex templates from Welsh Piper, and building my map based on their guidelines for the same.

The cool thing about the templates is they readily scale from a map the size of Alaska down to a regional or local level; just keep dividing the scale by 5 to zoom in to a new map (or multiply be 5 to zoom out). There’s a tool here I use to get an idea of how big the Atlas and Region templates are (radius for the Atlas template is 312.5mi, radius for a Regional Template is 62.5mi, radius for a Hex template is 12.5mi).  The Welsh Piper guidelines for painting hexes are useful and produce reasonable/realistic results, though I think their rules should bend or break occasionally to get the map you want.  I’m not sure every mountain range needs 5 miles of foothills, but you’d need to ask yourself what it means to have Mountains bordering right on your Plains; maybe a sheer rock face?

There are lots of options for how to key your map with encounters, and I actually haven’t settled on one yet.  I may try various systems by turns to see which I like the most. Welsh Piper has a key-by-hand system based on their Atlas Hex templates and a notion of Major and Minor encounters (either of which can be anything from a settlement to a monster lair or a natural feature). They also have advice on how to make these encounters meaningful without adding a lot of extra prep work, and the advice can be useful regardless of what encounter system you’re using.

Roles, Rules, and Rolls has a couple of posts on a Random Encounter system that goes well with a key-by-hand system; in fact, I kind of love it.  The first post talks about how the system works, and the second post gives an example of what it’s like in play.  Basically, once you’ve keyed the hexes of your map, this system lets you randomly choose how the party experiences those features and monsters as they travel through hexes.  It allows for stumbling upon the creature’s lair, but also has options for finding clues about monsters in neighboring hexes or encountering a creature that’s ranging out from it’s home.  My only lament is that I haven’t figured out a good way to incorporate it with random encounter/wandering monster tables.

Random tables are the alternative to keying each hex by hand.  Instead you mark off regions of your map (the Hohum Plains or the Fifo Hills or the Everglades) and construct a table of encounters based on what characters are likely to find in that area.  Goblins in the forests, farmers on the plains, crude altars in the hills.  Paper & Pencils has some good advice on ways to build out random encounter tables.  And there are other considerations that can be useful regardless of what encounter structure you’re using, such as what the monster’s doing when the party finds it, but I think I’ll set that aside for now.