Ambling Itinerant Roaming Encounters
Some of you like wandering monster tables, and some of you hate them. I think part of the dislike when I bring them up comes from my sloppy naming, because it makes you think of the old style where you just pull random critters out of a book and roll initiative.
My version for my campaigns is more curated. I like them because they are dynamic world tools, plot tools, and prep-saving tools.
Maybe I should call them Roaming Encounter Tables. Or Ambling Encounter Tables. Prowling Tables? Read today’s Musing and help me come up with a name for them as a GM Tool so we don’t get more confusion in the future.
I have one specific tip for you right now about adding a certain entry in your tables. Two tips, actually.
But before I dig into that, I want to recap briefly how I make Roaming Encounter Tables so we’re on the same page here.
Step 1: Add Local Dangers
Here’s where you grab your gazetteers, almanacks, and monster manuals. Based on the terrain types in this area, and general climate, make a list of possible creatures the PCs could encounter.
I like these entries because it would be natural for bears, wasps, and shock lizards to be random dangers the party might encounter. It’s good world flavour.
Your curation here goes a long way in communicating the wildness of the setting.
Step 2: Add NPCs
Next, add NPCs from your campaign the PCs might encounter.
If you use Campaign Logger, simply pull up your Cast of Characters and scan for great candidates.
I like these entries not only for roleplaying encounters, but to create a dynamic world and to make new relationships within my campaign.
NPCs don’t stand frozen waiting for the PCs to enter the scene so they can come alive. Like Westworld, NPCs should be doing their own thing and the PCs are interrupters. A dynamic world.
Also, each interaction with an NPC is a chance to create a new Cause & Effect Loop in your game. Let the players do something that triggers a new headache for them.
For example, the party might meet someone from the tavern out hunting and let slip the quest they’re on.
Hunter: “A magic sword you say?”
PC: “Guarded by a terrible beast of legend. Have you seen a dark cave around here with an X carved above it?”
Hunter: “No, but I’ll keep an eye out for you!”
The hunter then returns to the tavern. And what’s he going to do? That’s right. For anyone with an extra ale lying around, he’ll spill the beans.
Now we’ve got dudes on horses following other dudes with bloodhounds looking for the cave. The Cult Of Cave X thinks doomsday has finally arrived and are out in force. And the surly alchemist hires a group fresh out of AAA Adventuring Academy to go get pieces of the beast of legend for his glass jar collection.
And guess what? That’s three new entries for your Ambling Encounter Table.
Because between sessions, I update my table. I started doing this last campaign, actually, and it works great.
- Remove entries no longer valid or have become boring or repetitive
- Add entries based on session events
- Add entries based on Loopy Plans
In this way, your tables become dynamic, relevant, and have full continuity.
Step 3: Add Plot
Last, mine your campaign for plot events and situations that could collide with the PCs.
Add villain minions, ally spies, and neutral NPCs acting as Secondary Agents.
Also add items, clues, warnings, red herrings, tricks, and anything else that could hook back into your plot threads.
These encounters do not conclude plots or decide anything. I put them in my tables to:
- Remind the PCs about Impending Dooms and Grim Portents
- To allow players to make my simple plots deeper with their actions
- To also make plots dynamic and not frozen in place until the PCs throw torchlight upon them
The structure of your typical Wandering Monster encounter gets boring after awhile. Roll surprise. Roll initiative. Start erasing hit points.
Switch things up by making some encounters 5 Room Dungeons. 5RDs don’t have to be dungeons or even site-based. They are more about guiding the structure of 3-7 encounters.
Next time you roll Giant Wasp Nest, think how you could make that a 5RD:
- Entrance: Buzzing noise growing louder.
- Puzzle: A giant wasp inspects each PC. If unmolested they lose interest and return to their nest, and PCs can travel on safely if they avoid nest.
- Trick: There’s a second nest hidden nearby!
- Climax: Territorial wasps attack.
- Reward: Harvested honey can heal 1d3 damage. D10 doses -1 per damage that was done to the nest.
A 5RD does a nice job of changing up gameplay pretty much any way you like.
Ok, with table setup summarized for us, here’s the first tip I mentioned I wanted to pass along. Add another step:
Step 4: What’s It Doing?
We now have several categories of entries in your Wandering Monster Table.
- Animals, beasts, vermin, and other natural threats
- NPCs from your Cast of Characters
- Plot events and 5RDs
For each category, make a simple table of action/motive. This Action Sub-Table helps you change-up encounters and makes your world feel more dynamic. It should also give you inspiration for encounter setup and details.
Animals & Beasts:
- Protecting lair
- Searching for food/stalking prey
- Confronting a rival
- With young, teaching and eating
- Headed to the nearest water source
- Licking a fresh wound
- Fighting an NPC
- Building a lair or nest
- On a Quest or Combat Mission
- Captured or caught in a Hazard
- Arguing loudly
- Setting up camp or resting and eating
- Doing a little business or diplomacy
- Spying on or tracking something/someone
- Waiting in ambush but not for the PCs
- Suffering from pest attacks
- Seeking revenge
- Outpost or waymeet
- Resource production/protection
Plot is tough as the table should be customized to your campaign. A simple hack is to just take your intended Next Action from your Loopy Plan and incorporate it into the encounter.
Another reason I like this curated table method is Six Degrees of Separation. Everybody is connected to everybody somehow within 6 links of a relationship chain.
Likewise, if many things in your campaign get two or three degrees of separation via chance encounters, it creates a wonderful feeling of depth and verisimilitude.
That brings me to the second tip for you. I got this idea from the Goblin Punch blog.
Add another step:
Step 5: Add Clues
A fourth type of entry you can add to your tables is Clues To What’s On The Wandering Monster Table.
The PCs encounter spoor, a recent campsite, tracks, and other details of what they might encounter later.
This suddenly makes the world feel smaller and more threatening to the PCs. A bit claustrophobic perhaps, as the players realize they are not alone and they can’t just whack every threat when it becomes known to relieve the tension.
They won’t know for sure what the clue portends unless you want to turn it into a puzzle. So the players must stew.
The clue might also give PCs a chance to plan and make strategic choices. That’s cool gameplay too.
You can drop clues into your table a couple different ways. The clues might be specific line entries awaiting rolling. The clues might be in your Action Sub-Tables. The clues might be placed before line entries, so the first time an entry gets rolled you drop the clue, and then the second time the entry gets rolled you trigger the actual encounter.
When I’ve brought up wandering monster tables before, some readers let me know they create set encounters and think rolling to trigger them is a poor approach.
I think my system is different and I’ve just done a bad job explaining it before.
First, my Roaming Encounter Tables are for secondary type encounters and events. They are not for key plot encounters or main adventure encounters. If a table item never gets rolled, it does not derail continuity or stymie the plot.
Second, I feel I’m creating a light-prep dynamic encounter creation system that hooks deeply into my existing campaign. Encounters have context, relevance, and integration. Yet, it takes me just five minutes to update my table between sessions.
Third, I get to run ad hoc encounters. I dislike complicated set-piece encounters these days unless I know they’ll trigger for sure and they’ll trigger because of Cause & Effect. It’s tough to avoid sometimes, and that’s ok. But this five step approach gives me the best of both worlds, no pun intended.