Random Encounter Decks - The Backstory
Name: Scott Docherty
Class & Level: D&D Addict 20
Race: Barely Human
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Hit Points: Less than I should have at this stage in life
AC: Battle-hardened shell coated in jelly belly
Abilities: Poorly-rolled standard array
Proficiences: Skilled with Jack Daniels
Back in what they call "the day", random encounters were the very definition of random. Long rest in the dungeon you say, let's roll this and see what happens. Camping not far from the beaten track you say, well I rolled this so say hi to my throng of wandering monsters. You had a table, you had monsters on that table, you rolled to see which of those monsters the party would face. Job done!
Over the years, the popularity of random encounters began to wane as the rules developed to reflect a richness entering the game. These days, let's face it, the game's matured. Players of today tend to want more from their time at the table. They want immersion. They want story arcs. They want entertainment and fun and heartbreak and drama and more. And they want this from the moment they sit at the table until the last dice are rolled.
And so, the need for more depth in random encounters has developed over time. It's now less about using them to control how quickly the players devour the pie, and more about making sure how juicy the pie tastes. You still have random encounter tables, but here's the thing. Although rolling on these tables is a random act, the leg work and thinking you then need to do to build up or maintain immersion, to add conflict and decision points, particularly if that doesn't come naturally to you, ends up making the encounter itself less random. It takes away from the theory of it being picked from the table and thrown swiftly at the players.
As a forever DM who plied his trade back within the casually energetic grids & hexes of the 80s, I've come to feel a need to minimise that leg work.
what's with random encounter tables?
The idea behind the random encounter deck came from years and years fleshing out the random encounter tables in the core rule books & modules. Although the tables are ok for encounter-building particularly for newer DMs, and although they're really well written and often suited quite masterfully to the settings for which they're written, for me, I've just come to find them lacking a fair bit in inspiration. The idea behind the tables is to let you roll up a quick encounter on the fly, so you can throw at the players a bunch of monsters or experiences that fit the setting or module you’re playing. Roll a 3, pull out 2d4 wolves. Roll a 6, here come 1d12 tarrasques! And so on.
But does that make an encounter?
I’d found that the challenge these tables threw up never seemed to balance well with the abilities or motivations of my players’ characters. But more crucially, my feeling was that random encounter tables are meant to give DMs something quick to add flavour to their sessions at the table, something to remind the characters that they’re delving in a world that’s alive and kicking and dangerous, so much so that at any given moment if they’re not alert, they might blunder into something they least expect.
But if the idea is to add an encounter quickly, to me this always seemed at odds with the theory that to surprise & delight your players, particularly more seasoned ones, pretty much all the encounters you lay before your players should be laced with conflict and decision points and dramatic questions, should relate thematically to your setting or campaign and, therefore, make some kind of sense to your players and build up the immersion.
Don't get me wrong, rolling up 2d4 wolves might be fun, I get that. It's the reason that, for each deck I created, I've also rolled up a bare bones version called The Quickening.
But what if those wolves aren’t simply after their dinner? What if they’ve been controlled magically to seek out something the party holds dear? What if the party meets those wolves on a terrain that begins to shift beneath them during the battle? What if other enemies appear as they fight? What if the wolves stand between the party and a friendly NPC who’s dangling on the edge of a cliff about to fall off? What if, after defeating the wolves, instead of crashing to the ground the wolves turn to ash which reforms in the air into a terrifying, ethereal being?
I found that even though rolling on these tables might let me access the actors in the encounter, the monsters or NPCs or loot the party would face, as the DM I still needed to work out how to make the encounter enticing, packed with flavour, relevant, immersive. And that takes work. And time. Which, as I say, takes away from the theory of the tables speeding things up.
one card at a time
So I had the idea of building my own tables. Tables that not only introduced the actors in the encounters, but also the hooks, the conflicts, the resolutions and twists that might make every encounter an amazing one to remember. Not scripts to railroad the players, but more like tables of guidelines to help me as DM react to their approach and get them quickly to the edge of their seats. And I wanted those tables to be accessible more quickly than looking up a book.
I love cards. I love Dungeon Mayhem and MtG. I love playing card games and watching card magic tricks. I love the idea of pulling cards at random to create something special.
What I wondered, therefore, was whether I could stuff a card deck full of exciting encounters that could be pulled at random at the table. Encounters packed with all you need to throw at the players as written, or if you prefer, to pull at random and then adjust slightly to fit what else you have planned. Encounters that can be added at any time or even begin or inspire a one-shot or campaign.
And so, ultimately my wondering transformed into the decks you see today. With the exception of The Outlander, which is packed with encounters you can play anywhere, each deck is suited for specific terrains or settings. As I no longer use challenge ratings to balance encounters, the cards assume that, as DM or GM, you will have a feel for how best to challenge your players, something my little guide on building & running random encounters can help you with.
Oh, and every deck has its own artwork, illustrated by the magnificent Robert Neil Ruthven. So all the writing and art for the project has been made 100% in Scotland fae girders!So go wild. Shuffle your deck, pull a card at random, then watch your players fly within the unparalleled realms of your imagination!