Dynamic Encounter Tables
More than just what you find...
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people... the Druids
No one knows who they were, or... what they were doing
— "Stonehenge" Spinal Tap
We’re four posts into this series and I’ve not yet managed to elevate the discussion about encounter tables beyond their basic die-roll-encounter-type form.
But I think the extra time was worth it. At the very least, by now you should have enough information to make decisions about when to use a nested table or when to rely on a bell curve vs. an equal-weight distribution. And, hey, I’ve learned some math, too. Win-win.
My model for dynamic encounter tables is inspired by Noisms over at Monsters And Manuals. It’s a “noun-verb-object” format that notes what you encounter, what they’re doing, and what they’re doing it to. It’s a scant treatment, but that’s rather the point: As Noisms puts it, the format forces the GM to come up with a narrative to connect the pieces together.
Aside from the extra detail this format provides, the “forced” creativity is what makes the table truly useful. In that spirit, I’d like to try another route to the same destination.
Here’s the Insect (Crawler) sub-table from before; roll separate d6s for each of the additional columns:
This is whatever the Subject is after. It’s always a noun, but it could be anything that makes sense in your setting. You can create sub-tables of nouns to drill down from vague (e.g., [Food] or [Treasure]) to specific (e.g., "Carrots" or "The Egg of Mantumbi").
In all cases, the Subject utilises his most effective tools to get what he wants—cunning, stealth, diplomacy, tricks, magic, or brute force—whatever is most expedient. It does not mean he is unnecessarily rash and incautious. Unless perhaps hindered by a Complication (see below), the Subject works to the best of his ability.
This is something that colours the encounter, and it can apply to the Subject, the thing it Wants, the environment, or the circumstances under which the encounter occurs. It is always an adjective, but again, could be anything that makes sense in your setting, and also again, you can also create sub-tables to whatever level of detail you desire (e.g., general complications like [Wounded] or [Insane] , or specifics like “Bleeding” or “Delusional”) .
At its core, the Complication is simply a way to nuance the encounter and make it more interesting and challenging for the players than just a roll for initiative—that's why it's a complication. Feel free to ignore or re-roll as you see fit.
This is the fun part: piecing the words together to make up a decent encounter. Just off the top of my head, how about:
5, 4, 5: Hunting Spider wants Shiny Things complicated by Supernatural
There are silvery nuggets woven into the spider’s web, and they have magical properties.
6, 1, 4: Swarm wants Food complicated by Controlled
A locust swarm is sent by a sorcerer to plague the insubordinate villagers he rules.
3, 2, 3: Tiger Beetle wants a Mate complicated by Insanity
Clearly, this bug is cuckoo for copulation—best stay out of its way!
I recommend you start with the nested encounter tables and drill down normally. Use the format above when you get to the last sub-table. This lets you customise the options to fit the encounter type. In other words, humans and bugs have different Wants and Complications—this is a great way to illustrate those differences.
That said, you can fill in the Wants and Complications columns with any words you want . Naturally, this gives you an excellent opportunity to customise the setting via your choice of things and descriptors.
If you’re stuck for nouns and adjectives, check out the tools at WordGenerator.net. The only drawback is that you get your words one at a time, so you may have to do a lot of clicking before you find something you can use.
I like the Wants/Complication approach because it's very open-ended, though that can sometimes require more brain-effort from the GM. Like Noisms' format, this approach does let you tweak the possible results as your setting develops. In that respect, these are truly dynamic tables.
So, simple question: what are your thoughts, and how would you improve it?
By the way, I apologise for my posting infrequency lately—while work is busy and interesting, it’s taken up a lot of time. I don’t think the work load will abate anytime soon, but neither is this site going away. Thanks for your patience.