. . . or, How a Long-Forgotten Adventure Module Called Mad Mesa Made Me the Referee I Am Today.
I'm not going to waste time and space on the rationales for including random encounters in a roleplaying game - it's already been done better by someone else, and at this point, most gamers either get it or they don't.
One of the reasons random encounters get shat upon is, to paraphrase, 'wandering monsters are boring and distract from the adventure.' Now, bearing in mind that one of the roles of the referee is to make encounters interesting and integrate them with the setting, if you look only at the tables in, say, a published adventure like In Search of the Unknown - "Orcs (1-4)," "Giant Rats (2-5)," "Berserkers (1-2)" - and applied them uncritically - unthinkingly - by rote - then it's kinda-sort understandable why they might seem boring. However, the random encounter tables in most early sources were far more engaged and integrated with the setting, like the echoing footsteps and settling ruins, the hunting tick and the bandit reinforcements, of The Village of Hommlet. Other games and products ramped this up tremendously, from the fairly sparse on detail but gonzo and evocative Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy to the myriad slice-of-life-in-Sanctuary encounter tables in Chaosium's wonderful Thieves World box set to the gold standard of published sandbox settings, Chaosium's Griffin Mountain for RuneQuest. When I've described my approach to running a roleplaying game campaign on different intreweb forums over the years, I've been told many times that it sounds a lot like Griffin Mountain, which was interesting in that I'd never actually seen Griffin Mountain before finding a copy this past year - now that I have seen it, then I can say, yeah, my campaigns are a lot like that.
My original inspiration for random encounter design wasn't Griffin Mountain, however - it was TSR's Mad Mesa for Boot Hill.
But it's the "Chance Encounters" table that left a lasting impression on me.
First, every chance encounter is with a named individual - no "Orcs (1-4)" - with a distinctive motivation and a brief but revealing backstory - the brash kid out to make a name for himself, the snake oil salesman, the drunk and his temperance-preaching wife. This is, in my experience, what "Orcs (1-4)" should bring to the table, and in the hands if a capable referee, it does, but for some gamers this was a conceptual hurdle they apparently never managed to cross - generic 'wandering monsters' appeared at random and disappeared the same way, with no real connection to anything in the setting. There were certainly many more examples of random encounter tables that were woven into their locations - before I played Mad Mesa, I typically tied random encounters to locations with the adventure site - patrolling guards from the gatehouse, rats from the warren on level 1, Imperial Marines from the Dagger-class cruiser in docking bay 93, a pair of enemy agents conducting surveillance from a panel van. But a big part of what I took away from Mad Mesa's chance encounters was a sense of random encounters as strands in space leading off into the undiscovered portions of the game-world, of implications reaching beyond the immediate circumstances of the locale where the encounter takes place - Irving "the Mad" has nothing to do with the events taking place in Mad Mesa - rather, he is a part of the larger game-world.
What impressed me at age fifteen - and still impresses me today - was how the different pieces fit together in a non-linear way. The chance encounters - and can I add that "chance encounters" as a term of art kicks the everlovin' crap out of 'random encounters' or 'wandering monsters?' - were part of the events of the town, past and present, but they could be presented in a way that didn't require a pre-fabricated plot to unfold for them to make sense. The nature of a chance encounter with Skins McGregory and his Winchester is determined by when the encounter takes place and by the circumstances of the meeting, rather than by a particular order of events necessary to advance 'the story.' What story there is arises from the interplay of encounters.
Random encounters in my campaigns are an important part of the game-world delivery system. They represent the 'living world' which the adventurers inhabit, serving up a variety of unfolding events and chance meetings. When I sat down with the idea of running a cape-and-sword campaign, I compiled a short list of genre tropes appropriate to the campaign. "Coincidences abound" was the second one on my list: in swashbuckling tales, characters run into each other at opportune - and inopportune - moments, so I wanted that to be part of the campaign. The non-linear interaction between site-based encounters and random encounters provides a mechanism for introducing real, dice-driven coincidences into actual play, without the need for dropping a plot-hammer on the players. One such encounter already took place - a chance encounter with a duelist was followed up by another chance encounter with the same duelist at the horse-market. A visit to the Temple enclosure, the Black Cross club, the Louvre, or the Knights of Saint John commandery in Marseilles all include the possibility of meeting this same character as well. Absent other factors, such as player choices or consequences arising out of a chance meeting, the character's appearance is governed by the roll of the dice, and his story in the actual play is a record of his interactions with the adventurers.
Some random encounters in the campaign are pretty straightforward; like Chris Miller, Mad Mesa's would-be gunslinger, they draw first and ask questions later, if at all. An encounter with a band of highwaymen on a King's Road, or a brawler in a tavern, doesn't need to be loaded down with deep connections - they are slices of life in the swashbucklers' world of the 17th century. There are no recurring characters, no additional chance meetings - once you've met Irving the Mad, Wild West homicidal maniac, you're unlikely to meet him twice . . . one way or the other. But some of these encounters also get slightly more involved backstories. An encounter with a drunken nobleman in a tavern may have a strand that connects him through his brother, a parish priest, back to Cardinal Richelieu - imagine Chris Miller's brothers coming to avenge his death. By giving even simple encounters a small backstory which reaches out into the setting, everything the adventurers do may carry unexpected, far-reaching consequences, for better or worse.
This week I'm going to look at the ways and means by which I create random encounters for Le Ballet de l'Acier, my Flashing Blades campaign. Tomorrow I'll begin by putting together a random encounter using the tables provided by Flashing Blades itself.