GM Tips: Better Random Encounters
This is Part Two in a Three Part series on Exploration in TTRPGs. You can catch up on Part One HERE.
Welcome back! Last time, we talked about how to make exploration a more interesting proposition to your party. We did this by leaning into more fantastical locales for exploration, and by giving the players a purpose, a reason to actually be exploring. We also spoke briefly about factions. Today, we’ll lean into the gameplay side of exploration.
First things first, let’s talk about classes. In games like D&D and Pathfinder – and even Vampire the Masquerade, although to a far lesser extent of course – there are specific classes or sometimes even races that are more geared towards exploration. There is, for example, the Ranger class in D&D. A ranger can choose their favored terrain, and the player would absolutely love the opportunity to showcase that ability by exploring such lands. This is yet another way to generate interest in exploration, one that’s tied into mechanics too.
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This next suggestion is one that your party might hate or love. It really depends. Have you thought about actually keeping track of the party’s provisions? Noting down how much food they have, how much water, all that stuff. Some groups might hate this, of course. But if your group agrees to do this – and to perhaps ban certain spells like Goodberry which make the whole process moot – your exploration game will suddenly get even more interesting, as the players will be forced to interact with the environment much more.
Speaking of the environment, in games that feature exploration heavily the terrain and weather themselves must be a character – an NPC that sometimes helps the party and at other times hinders it.
You can do this via random encounters. Generally, when exploring, it’s good to only have those if they can reinforce the feeling of exploring. Having a pack of random wolves or goblins attack the party doesn’t really serve much purpose, unless you want to highlight that the area is dangerous or something else of that nature. If the purpose is just to have the party fight, that doesn’t really do much.
Instead of combat, you can do something similar. At random times, some kind of natural event can happen – perhaps a rainstorm, or some kind of magical desert wave sweeps through the sands. Maybe that river of lava begins to erupt with force. Again, the more fantastical the disaster, the better.
Treat this event like combat. Have the players roll initiative, and do the same for the natural disaster. Before this whole thing begins, set out the parameters of what’s going on.
Let’s create a simple example. Let’s say that the players are walking across a valley when they hear the sound of crashing water. As they look up, they see that, ahead, a huge quantity of water has suddenly appeared and is making its way through the valley, poised to sweep the players away.
Roll initiative for the water as the players roll for their characters. Then, on the water’s initiative, move it closer to the players’ position, so they realize they only have a short amount of time to do something.
That something can be whatever they like, naturally. Perhaps someone wants to climb up the valley’s walls to safety. Someone else might want to find some cave or hole to hide themselves, or climb a tree, or set up a magical wall. Essentially, treat this exactly like a battle – allow the players to take the same amount of actions, that is.
This above example is pretty basic, as mentioned. But you can do far more strange things with this. If your players are walking across clouds, why not have them be struck by a meteor shower. And, as the meteors fall, perhaps parts of the cloud begin to break away and the PCs must jump from one cloud to the next to continue moving and avoid being separated.
These encounters both keep the players on their toes and also help immersion – the players feel like what they’re exploring is truly dangerous.
Of course, for all this danger, the players should also receive rewards. This ties back to when we talked about exploration having a purpose. What are the players looking for? Some flower to help craft a potion to heal someone? Long-lost treasure? No matter what the players’ purpose is, they should be rewarded.
And this reward shouldn’t just be in the end of the exploration. Don’t be afraid to improvise here. When your players ask if something exists, or if they can investigate something you’ve just described, let them. And make sure to reward them often for it. This teaches that exploration is rewarding through the most literal way possible, and it never fails to make the players excited to explore.
Next time, we’ll have a look at a couple more things you can do to tie exploration into gameplay and make it even more interesting.
How do you approach random events in your campaign? Let me know in the comments below!