Sep 23 2019

The DM’s Second-Best Friend: A Well-Stocked Encounter Table

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Friggin' orcs, man.

Friggin’ orcs, man.

My pal Inkblitz started a new D&D campaign on Saturday; it’s his second attempt, intended to be a series of standalone pick-up games for when the regular DMs aren’t ready to go. Naturally, we bombarded him with characters and backstories and enough potential intra-party conflict to make at least five Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In the days leading up to the first session, he confessed to being a bit nervous, and particularly with the crazy disaster of a party we came up with I don’t blame him. (Our collective alignment for this game is “chaotic dumbass”.)

My suggestion to him, based on four decades of DMing experience (holy crap) was to put together a handful of generic encounters to have ready no matter what we did, throw some juicy hooks for the main event at us, and then sit back and let us wreck the place.

In short: don’t start your game without a well-stocked encounter table! That way, nothing the players ever do could possibly be “wrong.” You expect them to go explore the Temple of Elemental Evil and instead they decide to go sailing off to the Tomb of Annihilation—which you don’t even own? No problem! Because on their way to the docks, they’re (rolls) waylaid by a press gang! Or possibly once they get on the ship, they (roll) get attacked by manticores!

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the virtues of random encounter tables in making a world feel “lived in,” etc., but their biggest value here is creating a “catchall” scenario that can save a game session that’s about to fall apart because the DM is caught flat-footed. By having a solid chunk of stuff that might happen, but doesn’t have to, you open up possibilities. The scenario may have gone off the rails… but it’s still within the field of play.

Note that I’m not advocating for a Quantum Ogre here—if anything, the exact opposite. A Quantum Ogre appears when it doesn’t matter if the party goes left or right, they meet the same ogre down either pathway, and while I can see the corner-cutting appeal of including such a beast in your prep, I would advise against it for reasons well-argued elsewhere. The very nature of the Quantum Ogre is that it is inescapable, and the players’ choice is all an illusion. In the case of Schrödinger’s Manticore (as I will now hereby dub any and all Emergency Backup Encounters), he wouldn’t even appear if the players hadn’t made the choice to go somewhere you hadn’t otherwise prepared for them to go. It is precisely the players exercising their freedom of choice that calls Schrödinger’s Manticore into existence.

“But why should I waste time prepping material that may never actually get used?” I hear some of you asking. First, because players are a perverse and ornery lot. I would wager that once you start building scenarios this way and loosening up on the reins of “plot,” you’ll find you end up using a lot more of your backup encounters than you expect. And second, because nothing ever is really wasted if you are savvy about it.

Thanks to the wonders of 5E’s Bounded Accuracy, on-level foes start to take on the properties of 4E’s minions as you out-level them. Sure, the press gang of Thugs that was a problem for the players at level one isn’t going to be any more than a speed bump at level four, but add a Bandit Captain or a Veteran and two more Thugs to that same encounter and change nothing else, and your players will still have something to chew on. The trio of ship-attacking manticores that were a good fight at level five, are still a good fight at level seven when they’ve been browbeat into the service of a chimera.

It’s true that the lifespan of an encounter isn’t infinite—even a press gang of Gladiators would be hard, er, pressed, to bother a twelfth level party, for instance. But y’know… your current campaign probably isn’t going to last forever. At some point, you’ll have a new party, who’ll be swanning off to adventures you haven’t prepped for yet in their own campaign. The manticores whose encounter never comes up this time around, could become an epic moment in that future game.

And for the record, Inkblitz’s game was just fine. When we did indeed wander off the map, he handled it with aplomb—and a backup scenario standing by. ;)

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