Whether you're a D&D player or a Dungeon Master, we've all been there: the party is camping between towns, or exploring a story sidepath, and the DM pulls out a random encounter that just feels... well... too random.
There's a time and place for random encounters at the tabletop, but if you rely on them too often, your campaign is going to feel disjointed, and your players will get in the habit of speeding through or zoning out to get to the next bit of relevant story.
Is there a better way?
Maybe! Or at least, I'd like to suggest an exercise for DMs that should help create more connective tissue between their encounters the main adventure or campaign.
Have you considered trying "un-random" encounters?
Yes, I know that sounds silly, but what I'm taking about is adding an element of intention to the encounters that party stumbles their way into. Not so much that you have to rewrite your campaign, but enough that each encounter feels uniquely bound the location or point in the story where it occurs.
The examples below use The Story Engine Deck, my deck of infinitely recombinable story prompts, to create new story threads focused on existing campaign elements.
You can download and print a free demo of the deck, but you can also just follow along by brainstorming ideas with pen and paper.
Creating new story/encounter threads around existing campaign elements
The key to creating semi-random encounter is to give it some solid footing in the existing elements of your campaign. To do this, you'll want to use the optional "Locking" mechanic on p. 3 of the guidebook PDF. Locking allows you to place a facedown card to represent an existing element of your campaign/adventure and then build a new story around it.
First, brainstorm a list of the existing NPCs, PCs, items of interest, and places of interest in your adventure. These are all candidates to lock into an encounter prompt.
The more integral the character, item, or place is to the main campaign story, the more connected the resulting encounters will feel. In general, I find that locking places and objects results in slightly more random-feeling encounters (which is usually easier to pull off) and locking characters creates more integrated encounters (which is more meaningful, but may require you to rewrite bits of the adventure to accommodate a new storyline).
Locking places and objects = semi-random encounter
For a semi-random encounter (something that won't have a major impact on the adventure structure, but will still feel relevant), lock a location you know the party is going to be visiting or an object you know they'll be interacting with. For example:
- The hilltop they'll be camping on
- The enchanted treasure map they're using to chart their adventure
"Lock" this story element by creating a Story Seed prompt and replacing the Anchor Card in third position with the locked card. What you'll end up with is a new NPC whose goal is tied to that element of that part's adventure. Usually, this will put them in the vicinity of the party, and likely at cross purposes—both essential for any encounter to work
For example, you might end up with something like this:
- A GARDENER + WANTS TO PROTECT + [THE HILLTOP CAMPSITE]: This might give you an idea for a flower-loving Druid who attacks them overnight for trampling the hilltop flowers. They can fight or try to defuse tension by repairing the damage they've done.
- A GUARDIAN + WANTS TO END AN OBLIGATION TO + [THE TREASURE MAP]: This prompt an idea for a treasure guardian whose Geas is bound to the existence of the map. They are forced to defend the treasure from the party, but if they can convince the party to destroy the map when they're done their quest, they can be set free.
Each of these encounters creates a story branch that connects to the main story but doesn't require the DM to rewrite the entire adventure.
Locking PCs/NPCs = integrated encounter
To create something more integral to the existing adventure plot, I would try locking an Agent Card facedown to replace either a party member or a really beloved NPC in the third position of the story seed.
This will put the existing character in the path of a newly created character with a specific motivation. For example:
- A WARLORD + WANTS TO LEARN THE SECRETS OF + [THE GUIDE WHO IS HELPING THE PARTY NAVIGATE THE MOUNTAINS]: Now the party is not only trying to navigate a dangerous mountain pass, but their only guide is on the run!
- A TWIN + WANTS TO LIMIT THE POWER OF + [THE PARTY'S CLERIC]: The cleric has a twin or doppelganger whose goal is to thwart the cleric's journey. Maybe they've chosen to serve the opposite domain, or maybe they're shadowing the party, waiting for the right moment to strike.
And of course, combat is an option!
If you want to turn any of these into a combat encounter, just ask yourself what kind of muscle the new character would bring to achieve their goal.
For the object/place examples:
- The "gardener" might be a druid with a plant elemental.
- The "guardian" might be some kind of genie whose lamp is actually a map tube. They might attack the party in an attempt to be destroyed if the party does not agree to their terms.
For the examples focused on characters:
- The "warlord" might have an elite troop of rangers with mountain lion companions.
- The "twin" might lead a cult of acolytes dedicated to the opposite domain of the party's cleric.
The seeds you come up with should be enough to get you starting on creating new characters to provide encounters for the PCs with really specific motivation-based contexts that will give you material to work with as a storyteller!
If a prompt isn't working, you can try drawing again or experiment with the techniques for adjusting a prompt on p. 5 of the guidebook—but those deserve a whole future blog unto themselves!