Handling Random Encounters

I created a new tag for articles named “The Yora Rules” and pinned it to the top of the page. Over the years I developed a number of small mechanics and tweaks to the B/X rules and interpretations of rules that don’t clearly spell out a specific procedure. A big reason behind many of my procedure is to reduce the mental workload on my own brain in regard to how I am personally affected by ADHD. Some of my changes might seem superflous and no more easy or faster than the default rules, but they do work often a lot better with the way my brain works, resulting in a much faster and smoother game. I still think they are more elegant in some ways and could be very useful to anyone.

Some I’ve shared here before and have gotten a quite positive reception, so I thought it might be useful to have them all in one place. Frequently I lay out my entire thought process in excessive detail, which I think might be of interesting to some, but isn’t very useful to just looking up how I do certain things or to share it with other people. A year ago I wrote about how I handle random encounters, but that one’s just a wall of text, so here is the actual mechanics in one simple bit.

Step 1 (Preparation): Roll up groups of Creatures

Consider which areas of wilderness the party will likely travel through, how many random encounters are likely to happen on the way, and which dungeon levels they will be exploring in the next game. Use the respective Wandering Monster tables to roll up the creature type and creature number for as many encounters as you expect you will need and put them in short lists for each area.

Step 2 (Preparation): Roll Surprise for the Creatures

Roll 1d6 for each creature group on the list. On a 1 or 2, mark them as being surprised when the party encounters them.

Step 3: The Players roll for Wandering Monsters

In the Wilderness: Roll a die four times per day spend in the wilderness. One for morning, noon, evening, and night. Roll a d12 for most wilderness, or a d10 or d8 for particularly densely populated areas. If the party is in a dungeon at the time of an indicated random encounter, either ignore it or have the creatures run into the camp outside with the hirelings, mounts, and pack animals.

In a Dungeon: Roll a d12 at the start of every exploration turn. (The total number of encounters will be the same as rolling a d6 every two turns, but you don’t have to remember if you rolled last turn or not.)

Causing Attention: If the party does something to draw attention to them, like causing a big fire in the wilderness or making loud noise in a dungeon (such as fighting), make an extra wandering monster check right then and there. Any creatures allerted that way will arive in the next turn or later, in addition to the regular wandering monster check every turn in a dungeon.

Something always happens on a 1: When the die roll is a 1, a random encounter happens. Tell the players that a 1 means encounter before rolling the die in the open. Or better, let a player roll the die. Show the players plain to see that you didn’t make this encounter happen at a moment in the game that you thought would be fun. You’re not making things hard for them when they are weak, or delay challenges until they are ready for them.

Step 4: Referencing the Prepared Encounter List

I am putting this here as step 4, but actually you don’t need to look at the list at this point. Because you already prepared the list in advanced, you knew the kind of creatures and number of creatures in this encounter and whether they will be surprised or aware since the previous random encounter was completed. This is the reason why I prepare this list in advance. Any time the players are talking among themselves to decide on their next step, I can put some thought on how I would use this group of creature if it is encountered in one of the two or three rooms the players might choose to explore next. I do not have to make something up on the spot right as I roll the die on the wandering monster table, which usually ends up just being “there are X number of Y standing in the middle of the room”, which is boring. Having just a minute or half to think about it without all the players staring at you waiting in anticipation to hear what they just ran into can make a big difference.

Step 5: The Players roll for Surprise

One of the players rolls a d6. On a 1 or 2, the party is surprised. (For some creatures encountered, it’s on a 1 to 3.)

If the players are not surprised but the creatures are, the players have one round to act before the creatures spot them. They can use that round to quickly retreat back around the corner they just passed or move into a nearby suitable hiding spot. If they do, the creatures remain unaware of the party until the players do something to reveal their presence.

Step 6: Roll for Distance

In the Widerness: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 4d6 x 30 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 2d6 x 30 feet.

In a Dungeon: Creatures that are not surprised spot the other group from 2d6 x 10 feet away. If both groups are surprised, they spot each other at 1d6 x 10 feet.

Step 7: The Players make a Raction Roll

If the creatures’ attitude towards the party is not obvious because of circumstances (like mindless undead or guards searching a castle on alert), have the players make a reaction roll.

If the party has been surprised but the creatures are not, roll 2d6 for the reaction roll. (No Charisma modifiers apply.)

If the party is not surprised, one character may greet the creatures. That character rolls 2d6 plus the Charisma bonus to reaction rolls.

2: The creatures start to attack immediately.

3-5: The creatures are hostile. They threaten the party with violence to hand over their treasure, be taken prisoner, or to immediately leave the area, depending on what seems appropriate in that situation.

6-8: The creatures are uncertain and observe what the party does next. After the party has reacted in some way, the character doing the talking makes another reaction roll with a bonus or penalty depending on what was said or done.

9-11: The creatures don’t want trouble. They might ignore the party of leave the area, depending on if they seem to be a threat or not. Intelligent creatures might be cordial but not interested in further interactions beyond common pleasantries.

12+: The creatures are friendly. They might invite the party to their camp or lair, offer useful information, or propose to join forces.

Step 8: Resolve the Encounter

The encounter either ends in a fight or a conversation. (Which might result in a fight later.)

Additional Note: Surprised Parties

There is one kind of encounter situation that the B/X procedure does not enable, and that is creatures spotting the party without being noticed and following them around for a while. When the players make the wandering monster check and it rolls a 1, they know something is there. You can’t tell them “you don’t notice anything”. Also, the players are supposed to roll the reaction roll themselves where they can see it. When that 1 is rolled for wandering monsters, the encounter has to happen now.

This is one of the main reasons I don’t roll up the creatures and their number in the middle of play after a wandering monster check and prepare them in advance instead. Same for rolling their surprise.

If I know I have a creature that would stay hidden if it catches the party by surprise, and that creature will not be surprised itself, then I can spend some thought on what it will do if the party fails their own surprise roll, depending on the reaction roll:

Immediate Attack: The creature has been stalking the party for a while and decides to jump them now, getting a free round to attack before the party can react.

Hostile: The creature decides this is a good moment to confront the party. It’s positioned in a way that is most advantageous to itself and no roll for encounter distance is necessary.

Uncertain: Keep rerolling until you get a different result. The creature has been observing what the players do while it was hiding.

Avoiding Trouble: This is inconvenient since the creature can just escape without the players ever knowing it was there. I guess the best option is to let one player catch a glimpse of it before it disappears, and if the party pursues they won’t find any trail to follow.

Friendly: The creature just comes out in the open to greet the party.

Only the first two really depend on the geometry of the area they are encountered in. If the players end up not being surprised for that encounter, they will run into the creature in the middle of doing whatever it is doing. So there are really just three possible things worth considering in light of the next environment the players decide to enter.

Improved Rules for Foraging and Hunting

A while back I wrote about a somewhat more detailed version of the rules for foraging and hunting from the Expert Set. Forget all of that. This is better.

Foraging: When a party is travelling through an area that has a decent amount of plants growing in it that humanoids can eat, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the PCs can collect 1d6 rations of food per day by simply picking up what they spot growing next to the trail they are travelling on. If the party includes characters with special wilderness skills, they have a 2 in 6 chance to find things they can eat.

Hunting: When a party is staying at one campsite for a whole day, they can send out hunters or hunting parties to hunt for food. At the end of the day, each hunting party returns with 1d6 rations of food (1d8 if the party includes a character with special wilderness skills). While the hunters are out hunting, a wandering monsters check is made for each hunting party and for the camp.

Water: Unless otherwise specified by the GM, the party comes across sufficient sources of drinkable water each day they travel through the wilderness. No rations of water have to be consumed at the end of the day. (Assume all characters refilled the water rations they consumed during the day when they had opportunities.) Characters spending most of the day inside dungeons do not have access to sources of water unless the GM specifies otherwise, and must consome a ration of water at the end of the day.

Lack of Food: Characters who do not eat one ration of food in a day, suffer 1 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic.

Lack of Water: Characters who do not have one ration of water in a day, suffer 1d4 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic. After 3 days + 1 day per CON bonus, the character dies.

The idea here is that in an average wilderness environment, parties will not have much trouble keeping themselves fed by hunting, but replenishing their supply of rations will either take a considerable amount of time or require splitting the hunters up into several smaller groups. Both options mean an increased number of wandering monster encounters before the party makes it back to a town or their base. It’s a very simple mechanic but gives the players a lot of variables they have to pick, like the amount of food supplies they keep, how they pack them among their PCs, hirelings, and pack animals, at what point low supplies might be a reason to turn back, how to split the party, deciding which hirelings to send into the woods to uncertain fates or who to leave behind to guard the camp, and when it might be worth it to keep pushing ahead while starving instead of stopping to hunt. I see a huge potential for amazing unscripted adventures simply because a randomly encountered wyvern made off with the mule carrying half of the party’s food.

Extensive playtesting will be needed to dial in on the best die to roll for the amount of rations provided by hunting so that it severely inconveniences the party without getting it completely stuck and unable to continue towards their destination. But otherwise I’m really excited to give this a test run.

Discovering Sites in the Wilderness

I’m a big fan of wilderness sandbox campaigns, but never been really enthusiastic about the hexcrawling approach, in the sense of “go from hex to hex until you find something”. A 6-mile hex is something like 80 km². Even a large castle might not be noticed while simply moving through such an area, and if the area is forest or mountains, you would have to run straight into it. Spending some amount of time to search a hex to see if you discover something also doesn’t seem convincing to me. If you’re a treasure hunter, you wouldn’t just pick a random spot in the wilderness and start searching it with a fine comb. That takes way too long to find anything of interest. What I believe adventurers would do is trying to make their way to sites that they already know about and that look promising for holding treasure.

Under this approach to adventuring, the players first need to have clues where to look for treasure and adventure. So here’s a couple of ways that PCs can learn of new sites to add to their own map.

Highly Visible: Castles and watchtowers are commonly build on high points where they can overlook a lot of the surrounding areas. Sites like that could be spotted by simply being in the same hex they are in. Or in particularly clear terrain, even by being in a hex next to it. Though if the site is hidden among trees or mountains, it would remain hidden even party is moving through the same hex.

Sites on Roads and Rivers: If a site is directly on an old road or a river that the party is using for navigation, the players discover it automatically when they pass that spot. In some cases, it might even make sense to road signs or something similar point the players that something worth investigating lies down a side path from the road the party is currently traveling on.

Found Maps: Players can find maps among the treasures they pick up which show some sites that are known to them, and some sites that are not. This allows them to go search for and discover the new locations by following the clues on the map. They could also buy maps from certain individuals, or be given a map as a reward from grateful NPCs.

Rumors and Quests: Locals simply tell the party about sites they know but are not on most maps. This also provides the players with some vague idea of what they might have to deal with when they get there.

Following Tracks: After a random encounter, if the players try to follow fleeing enemies or follow their trail to where defeated enemies came from, the tracks can lead them to a nearby site where the creatures have their lair. If no matching site is anywhere nearby on the GM’s map, a quick lair can be put together with a small cave or campsite plan and rolling up a lair encounter by the wilderness encounter rules.

By using all five of these methods to give players hints where they can find new sites they didn’t yet know about, it should be quite easy to make it all feel quite natural and a consequence of the players’ actions, rather than the GM deciding the party needs a new site to be send to. It’s not a big red glowing sign telling the players “the next prepared adventure is here”.

Expanded Wilderness Travel Rules

Expanding on my table for wilderness travel rates from a few days ago. For maximum efficiency, I am simply listing travel rates in 6-mile hexes. I think in the same way that a 10-minute Turn is not exactly 60 rounds or 600 seconds, we don’t need to treat a 6-mile hex as exactly ….31680 feet. (I had to look that up, and so would you. Those units are stupid!) In actual play, both duration and distance are abstract fiction that don’t relate to anything physical. And characters in the game world would not have actually have any means to measure either distance or time with any accuracy anyway. In a game, if players ask an NPC for a distance to a place or how long it would take to get there, that NPC would give them a rough guess like “some 10 miles” or “three days, if you keep a good pace”. That’s good enough on the players side. When I run wilderness adventures, I am fully in the camp of “the players never get to see any hex maps”. The hex map is a tool for the GM, just like random encounter tables. And for the purpose of telling the players when they arrive at a point, you really only need hexes. Miles are meaningless from a mechanical point. Or at least they are if you have a system for travel speeds in place that doesn’t have any granularity smaller than a hex. Which is what the following tables are all about.

Land Travel

Encumbrance Easy Terrain
Difficult Terrain
Unencumbered 6 hexes 3 hexes
Encumbered 4 hexes 2 hexes
Heavily Encumbered 2 hexes 1 hex

As I mentioned in my previous post, this is based on the assumption that a healthy adventurer with no significant load can cover 36 miles on a road or easy ground in a day. That would actually be quite impressive for a real human, but still plausible. However, in practice characters traveling through the wilderness to explore dangerous ruins and caves will be carrying quite a lot of stuff, and mostly deal with difficult terrain once they get off the roads, so that travel rate will rarely come up in actual play. So for the sake of easy use by the GM, I have no issue with that table maybe getting a bit high.

River Travel

River Speed
Base Speed 4 hexes 4 hexes
Slow Flow 3 hexes 5 hexes
Fast Flow 2 hexes 6 hexes
Rapid Flow 1 hex 7 hexes

From all I could find, going at 3 miles per hour ± the speed of the water is a pretty common speed when paddling on a river. Take that by 8 hours and you get 24 miles per day, or 4 hexes. If you go with the water flow, you’re going to get a bit more, if you’re going against it, you’ll get a bit less. If you wanted to, you could probably quite easily calculate what the flow speeds in the table above would be in miles per hour. But since player character’s won’t be measuring that during play, “slow”, “fast” an “rapid” are good enough for me.

Switching Pace

Something that I think would be neat to have is a system in which you can seamlessly have the party switch from one pace to another, like going a certain distance by boat, then continuing by foot on a road for a while, and covering the rest of the day’s travel on a mountain path. It could be done, but for that you really would need 1-mile hexes, and that’s just way too small for my own needs. At this point, I am diverting from my usual approach to get the mechanics all neat and consistent, and instead just guestimate things. If the party wants to move into a hex with terrain and encumbrance that would allow for 2 hexes per day, just check if they still have half of the day left. If yes, their camping spot for the night will be in the next hex. If not, it’s going to be in the last hey that they reached. It’s imprecise, but good enough for me.

Random Encounters

I know many people like to check for random encounters in the wilderness once per hex that party moves through, but I found that to actually not make much sense to me. Yes, you are moving through more area when traveling at a faster speed, so there are more spots you pass through where you could encounter something. But you’re also going to spend less time in each spot, which reduces the chances that you are in any one given place just as other creatures are passing through it. I think that just cancels each other out and travel speed does not actually affect the chance of encountering something on a given day. Only the total time spend in the wilderness does.

So I simply roll for random encounters four times per day. Once in the morning, once around noon, once in the afternoon, and then one more check during the night. Regarding which hex a random encounter takes place in, I am again going with “make something up”. If a party is traveling four hexes in a day and a random encounter happens during noon, is it locate in the second hex or the third hex? I don’t know, pick one. It really doesn’t matter.

To check for an encounter, roll a dice that reflects the likelihood of encountering anything in the area the party is traveling through. Going with my paradigm of something always happens on a 1, smaller dice result in more encounters, and larger dice in fewer encounters.

Encounter Density Encounter Check Dice
Desolate d10
Sparse d8
Average d6
Populated d4

I can totally understand if this system is a bit too abstracted and not granular enough for some people. But I like its neatness in how easy it is for actual use during play, while still overall being somewhat plausible in the distances a party can cover in a day and not diverging too significantly from the distances and durations you’d get with using the exact numbers from the Expert Rules.

Recovering arrows after a fight

Thanks, Dewwy, for this suggestion.

Someone pointed out to me that when parties go on very long adventures far away from civilization, it’s not just food and light sources they can run out of, but arrows are also a limiting factor for how long they can go before having to return to resupply. But there’s always plenty of arrows around after a fight, many of which are still perfectly usable.

In D&D 3rd edition, there was a rule that all arrows are destroyed if they hit, and have a 50% chance to be recoverable on a miss. To that you’d have to add all the arrows still in the quivers of fallen enemies. I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing that because  it’s just too fiddly to count the number of misses arrows that were fired, on the minor chance that a player actually cares to go looking for them. There’s a lot of such rules that are too fiddly for actual use that D&D has collected over the years. But here’s a very simple and easy alternative solution.

If PCs go collecting arrows after a fight, they recover 1d10 arrows for every archer involved in the fight.

It’s a complete abstraction, of course. But for something this minor, abstracting it is exactly the way to go. Those arrows might still be in the quiver of dead or captured archers. Some might stick in corpses or somewhere in the ground or trees. And a lot got broken on impact or disappeared into the undergrowth. 5.5. arrows on average per archer might be a bit low, but for the purpose of adventurers deep in the  wilderness, we actually want arrows to seem like a limited resource. If there’s more around than the players would ever need, then there’d be no point in tracking them in the first place.

I also found out that someone who’s skilled at it can make a stone arrowhead in 15 minutes. It takes a bit more to make a complete arrow, so let’s say 2 arrow per hour. In a whole day of working, a character with the required skill could make 20 arrows, which just happens to be the default quiver size in most games I’ve seen. For my campaign, I’m thinking of treating stone arrows just like regular arrows, except that they use a die one size smaller to roll for damage.

Trade Goods as Treasure

This is one of these “I made this, so I might as well share it” things.

In my setting, travelling merchants are supposed to be a really big deal. And I also enjoy the players having to deal with encumbrance. Making exotic goods into a type of treasure that can be found is the sensible thing to do.

In my encumbrance system, weights are rounded up to the next multiple of 10 and then divided by 10. So the average weight for an item with an Encumbrance load of 1 is around 5 pounds. (Equally, the encumbrance limits for characters are divided by 5 to get the number of items that can be carried instead of the weight in pounds.) The quantities listed in this table have been chosen accordingly and the resulting prices and container capacities are based on the numbers from the 5th Ed. Player’s Handbook. If players come across these goods and want to take them as treasure, the only relevant number at that moment is how much they can carry while staying under the Encumbrance limits. Players won’t be trading in silk by meter but by encumbrance unit.

For the sake of simplicity, the numbers for kegs and barrels of ale and wine are rounded to easy number. The actual values for any of these goods are completely made up anyway.

Item Quantity Price Encumbrance
Sack of grain 30 lb. 3 sp 3
Sack of flour 30 lb. 6 sp 3
Pouch of salt 5 lb. 2 sp 1
Pouch of ginger 5 lb. 50 sp 1
Pouch of cinnamon or pepper 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Pouch of cloves 5 lb. 150 sp 1
Pouch of saffron 5 lb. 750 sp 1
Keg of ale 20 l 10 sp 4
Barrel of ale 200 l 100 sp 40
Keg of wine 20 l 20 sp 4
Barrel of wine 200 l 200 sp 40
Bottle of expensive wine 1 l 100 sp 1
Keg of expensive wine 20 l 2,000 sp 4
Canvas 6 sq. yd. 6 sp 1
Cotton cloth 20 sq. yd. 100 sp 1
Linen 12 sq. yd. 600 sp 1
Silk 24 sq. yd. 2,400 sp 1
Iron 5 lb. 5 sp 1
Copper 5 lb. 25 sp 1
Tin 5 lb. 100 sp 1
Silver 5 lb. 250 sp 1
Gold 5 lb. 2,500 sp 1