Keep Randomness Out of Your Encounters!

Update: I want to be perfectly clear about the intent of this post.  I am NOT advocating removing randomness from the game or speaking against “random encounters.”  This post was intended as a cautionary tale about careful encounter planning  and that is all. Read on to see what all the hubbub is about…

I played a “Living Forgotten Realms” encounter last week that really annoyed me. I mean it REALLY annoyed me. And that annoyance haunted me for the better part of a week until I decided to post about it. Nothing like a nice, spleen-filled post to really make a gamer feel better.

The encounter seemed simple enough. The party walked into a sewer temple with some dire rats. Combat ensued, but every couple of rounds, more rats popped up from nowhere. Soon enough we figured out that an invisible wererat summoned a pair of dire rats on his turn, assuming his power “recharged.” That is, the DM rolled a 5-6 on a d6. Sadly, he recharged…almost every round. The fun part was we had no cleric and each rat had 50 hp! Roughly every other round 100 hp of monsters popped on the battlefield. After a few rounds, we ran like little girls. Four PCs in 4E D&D cannot dish out enough damage to get through that many critters.

The module designer failed to account for the potential of the summoning happening nearly every round. It is one thing for a breath weapon to recharge every round. It only does damage. Creature summoning is another matter entirely. A creature controls movement, moves tactically, does damage and absorbs attacks. This is far more powerful than a 3d6+4 breath weapon.

Which leads me to my point; never allow a dice roll determine how difficult an encounter becomes. If you want a tough encounter, look at your party and throw enough NPCs at them to give them a challenge. Letting chaos decide how many creatures appear on the battle map is a recipe for a TPK and a very angry game group.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

18 thoughts on “Keep Randomness Out of Your Encounters!

  • March 5, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    I like a little randomness every now and again, but that situation does sound extremely annoying. It really should’ve been an encounter ability.

    Ork Mellish as captcha, wow.

  • March 6, 2009 at 2:19 am

    So, you did not manage to push through on your first attempt; retreat, regroup, get lots of burning oil or some other area of effect attacks, retry. Or go do something else until gaining a level or two and then come back, though this might not be an option in living play.

    I’m all for using dice to determine how difficult an encounter is, as long as the game is not a railroad and it is possible to avoid the encounter, both of which should be true in any decent game. (Maybe my design sensibilities are just not suited for living play.)

  • March 6, 2009 at 2:24 am

    Having read the adventure, I noted one inaccuracy.

    With a group of 4 PCs, the adventure specifies that the ability only recharges on a 6.

    Secondly: You had no indication that there was another creature there? The adventure specifically indicates that the wererat is supposed to address the party prior to the appearance of the first rats. It sounds as if you had no clue there was anyone there aside from the rats at first. If so, the DM denied you essential information that might have affected what you did, when. (This wererat asks you to leave him in peace as he merely wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, the designer didn’t allow actually doing so – or negotiating with him in any way (if you speak a word, he attacks) – to be a realistic option, however. And even if you capture him, he asks you to kill him. A potentially interesting and tragic character wasted because who wants to worry about non-combat alternatives…).

    That said, the RPGA LFR specifically empowers and expects DMs to make such adjustments as are necessary to ensure the fun of the group. If the DM saw this as a problem and failed to make the necessary adjustments, it is his own fault, not the designers.

    And if the DM failed to see the problem that was developing, the problem is probably not really with the designer either.

    That is why \DME\ (Dungeon Master Empowerment) has been specifically encouraged.

    From the beginning of the same adventure:

    You are empowered to make adjustments to
    the adventure and make decisions about
    how the group interacts with the world of
    this adventure. This is especially important
    and applicable outside of combat encounters,
    but feel free to use the \scaling the encounter\
    advice (usually for adjusting to different-sized
    groups) to adjust combat encounters for groups
    that are having too easy or too hard of a time in
    an adventure.

    Don’t make the adventure too easy or too
    difficult for a group. Never being challenged
    makes for a boring game, and being
    overwhelmed makes for a frustrating game.

    And finally: Your whole premise is based on the assumption that success (or at least ‘level appropriate balance’) ought to be a foregone conclusion.


    Why must all encounters be designed to be predicably easy?

    Shouldn’t knowing when you are overmatched and knowing when to run be a part of the game?

    What is wrong with the party having to stage a strategic withdrawal, only to return another day, better prepared?


  • March 6, 2009 at 5:00 am

    The Dice killed the day. It happens sometimes but that it really one wicked power.

  • March 6, 2009 at 3:08 am

    I actually prefer built in randomness because it helps simulate something I saw demonstrated again and again in the SCA, the Any Sunday Rule. “On any given Sunday, any one fighter can beat any other one fighter.”

    And it was true. Whether because they had a bad day or the new guy was just that good that time, I watched more than once as people with 5+ years of fighting practice with any number of weapon types get soundly beat by the newbie who started last week.

    Having randomness built into the game helps add that flavor and risk to it. And as the guys from the Shire would say, “Don’t like it? Don’t go in the circle.”

  • March 6, 2009 at 10:10 am

    @sysuro–You are correct, the recharge is only on a 6, but it still recharged almost every round. I do take issue with your statement that this is not a design issue. Of course, the DM could tweak the encounter on the fly and make it work. That goes without saying. My main issue is that the encounter designer created a situation where it becomes mathematically impossible to defeat the encounter. I do not mind tough encounters, even unwinnable ones if there is a good story reason. This one just felt like poor encounter design.

    @viriatha–I am all for difficult encounter, even a chance of failure…in a home game. LFR is not that type of campaign. It is described as a fun, light RPG experience with low barriers to entry. Trust me, this fight was not fun.

    @Tommi–Nice idea, but this is LFR. What you suggest is outside the game parameters.

  • March 6, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I agree with Trask, this was horribly designed. I can live with it not being an encounter power and have a recharge. However, there needs to be a cap. Say, the power can only be used if there are no other previously summon critters on the field. That way the plays aren’t swarmed.

  • March 6, 2009 at 9:49 am

    I ran a random Delve, #28-1, the other day. The three Deathsworn creatures basically determined whether the entire team would be useful that turn or not, because they have a 50% recharge ability which lets them teleport a huge distance away and become insubstantial for a turn when they attack. It made the battle pretty damn swingy, and this was before they even got a chance to see the Balor through the cloud (which, incidentally, wasn’t actually defined properly.. it just says it’s ‘within the entrance’ but doesn’t show on the map or on the text how large it’s supposed to be)

  • March 6, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    This is why I will never play a living game.
    The idea of ‘parameters’ is anathema to me. I’d be thrown out because I’d basically ignore the module and do whatever I damn well pleased as a GM. GMs have infinite power and designers make suggestions. The idea that I as a GM should follow someone’s railroad plot and not run the game however I damn well please is galling and I won’t bloody do it.

    The same goes for playing as a player. If I’m not allowed to play my character in a reasonable way because the ‘game parameters’ don’t permit it, I’d fling my dice at the GM, call the module designer a nazi ass-hat and storm off.

    Grr. The idea of having to conform to Living campaign rules pisses me off from the get-go. If you like doing it, fine, but I just can’t play that way.

  • March 7, 2009 at 8:37 am

    My question is:

    What is the difference between a creature that ‘gets lucky’ and wins the encounter becuase it happens to rolls a couple of key criticals and a creature that ‘gets lucky’ and happens to win the encoutner because it happens to recharge a key ability a couple of times?

    In both cases, the dice are influencing the outcome and generating a statistically less-likely outcome. And in both cases, DMs who are inclined to fudge the dice might be expected to do so and DMs who are inclined to let them fall as they may would be expected to do so.

    And any DM who is in the second camp is likely, imho, to see this as the natural order of things (i.e. the players don’t always get to win).

    This is, imho, no more ‘bad design’ than using dice in the first place is bad design.

    But what I mostly disagree with is the assertion:

    the encounter designer created a situation where it becomes mathematically impossible to defeat the encounter. I do not mind tough encounters, even unwinnable ones if there is a good story reason.

    As I see it, the designer did not create a mathematically unwinnable encounter. He created a situation where if a statistically unlikely occurance happens the encounter might become unwinnable. Or, arguably, retreating became preferable to staying – since you didn’t stick around you don’t know if you would have won or not. Perhaps it would have stopped recharging and you would have won the day. Perhaps not. And that uncertainty is, imho, a huge part of the game.

    Isn’t the possibility of the statistically unlikely the reason we use dice in the first place? If you wanted the outcome to always fall into the most likely possible outcome – or if you only want to lose when “there is a good story reason”, why bother roll at all?

    And does this mean that you discount the possibility of emergent story – the story arising from the outcome (“the players learn that they are capable of failure”) as opposed to the outcome arising out of the story (“the players defeat their enemies”)?


  • March 9, 2009 at 10:17 am

    This may come off the wrong way, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re that opposed to randomness, it may be a good idea to stop playing D&D and check out Nobilis or Amber Diceless instead.

    Randomness is inherent in D&D, from whether attacks hit or not to whether or not saves are made. Chaos is integral. There’s nothing wrong with being annoyed by that – different strokes for different folks – but why play a game if it’s going to annoy you?

  • March 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I’m with the “randomness is part of the game” folks. If this kind of thing happened every time, sure, that’d be a problem, but the occasional unexpectedly difficult encounter is “well within parameters” for D&D.

  • March 9, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    are you kidding me? There are times when you simply have to run from combat. And if you remove the random chance generation from your game, why are you playing a dice-based game at all? The odds are against said wererat summoning every turn at 1 in 3. But odds are reset every time it happens. Sometimes you should be challeged by a fight you can never win. It teaches a player not to think that everything thrown at them is defeatable You couldn’t win a fight. deal with it.

  • March 10, 2009 at 3:53 am

    Your position is, I’m afraid, completely incoherent. You claim that:

    (1) \I am NOT advocating removing randomness from the game…\

    But then you say:

    (2) \Which leads me to my point; never allow a dice roll determine how difficult an encounter becomes.\

    But, of course, the only way to prevent randomness from determining the difficulty of an encounter is to remove randomness from the game.

    Yeah, the rat summoner got some lucky recharge rolls. But that luck of the dice could have just as easily been him rolling a string of hits while you guys rolled poorly and got a string of misses.

    You also say:

    (3) (in the comments) \My main issue is that the encounter designer created a situation where it becomes mathematically impossible to defeat the encounter.\

    Actually, randomness in combat is specifically one of the ways in which the outcome of a combat doesn’t become mathematically impossible. (Improbable, maybe. Impossible? Never.)

    If there is, in fact, a problem with the encounter design (and not just a string of unlucky rolls), then that problem lies not in the mere existence of randomness, but in the specific probability of that randomness.

  • March 18, 2009 at 9:35 am

    I can’t decide if I want to agree with you, or disagree with you. I guess it depends on the party and if you put them in that situation, or they put themselves in that situation. I know that I’ve encountered some other creatures in D&D 4e that were ridiculously powered for their level. The problem when you make a system so numerical like D&D, is that you have to make choices as a dungeon master on whether or not to fudge rolls when the math of the designers fail. For some, fudging rolls and situations is not a big deal. For others, it is heresy.

  • March 22, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    lets take this issue at both perspectives… randomness is good because it will keep the players (and sometimes you) on their toes. if your were to keep a linear encounter string the players would be prepared for almost every battle, randomness makes the players think, “will it be goblins or golems?”. it also helps those people (like me) who just cant make up their minds on an encounter, you dont want to make it to repeditive but you still need the series of battles to amke sense of why the monsters are there in the first place. random encounters are also good for parties that arent much in for the role playing and the “but why…” questions and are more there for the “hack-slash-kill-take treasure” style of gameplay.
    BUT… random encounters are bad because it makes the roleplaying a bit shaky and insane. if you tell them that their entering a goblin controlled dungeon and you throw in an owlbear, thats makes a good questionable encounter mabey once, but more than that the players get tuned out of the game and starts asking unanswerable questions (unless your a clever DM and you write down the reasons for the weard stuff).
    anyway i think randomness is a personal taste and it can be good if the players wander away from the dungeon and out into wilderness, but thats both veiws on random encounters so give me some replys on it.

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  • May 11, 2009 at 8:42 am

    Well, dragonblix, I think that’s not quite the whole story. A good random encounter table is usually made from monsters that actually have lairs somewhere nearby that the PCs can look into, which usually satisfies the “But why?” crowd.

    The reason they were invented is not just to fill in gaps in creativity, either (although they certainly do that well). The older editions of D&D mostly award XP for getting treasure. Wandering monsters don’t have any, and the DM rolls for them every half-hour or so of game time. There was not much benefit to the players for fighting them.

    You ever have your players go, fight one encounter, blow all their entire arsenal of big spells and X/day magic item powers, then sleeping in the dungeon and regaining everything before moving on? Random encounters are designed to discourage them from doing that. When you have on average three encounters a night interrupting your sleep, you practically have to retreat and regroup in order to get any sleep.

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