So I've recently come across a bit of discussion around Encounter Tables. Y'know, there's a table and you roll a die, depending on what you get there's a different thing that shows up in your game all of a sudden.
A lot of people seem to avoid them or think they're dumb, and I think this is largely due to misconceptions about how they're used. If they really, honestly, don't fit into your style of play that's cool. I didn't like them either to start with, or rather didn't appreciate the intent behind the design.
I flippin' love 'em now though. As a random table convert, I'm going to address someof the false impressions I have seen floating around that I personally had too, and why they're not totally accurate.
(ps if you're reading this post and have a problem I don't address here, leave a comment and I'll happily discuss it with you!)
Problem: "This table is just a boring list of monsters to fight. I want something better than straightforward combat encounters."
Ok, you actually have two problems here. Your first is that you see a generic, boring monster and don't immediately think of more interesting ways to use it, adapt it, work it into something you'll enjoy running and your players will enjoy fighting. It's ok - that's an instinct you'll develop over time as you run more games and find your groove.
The second, much clearer problem is this: what you are looking at is not an encounter table.
Back in the day, every dungeon worth its salt had a Wandering Monster table. The idea was that if you stayed in one spot too long - to rest or try to pick a lock seven times or copy down all the ancient runes carved into the doorway into your sketchbook, then a monster would show up to ruin your day. It made dungeon crawls more fun and dangerous, pressing players for time and forcing quick thinking and creative plans.
A Wandering Monster table is not a Random Encounter table. If the table you're looking at just has monsters to fight, that's a different thing. Random Encounter tables are full of all kinds of encounters - some potentially violent, some not. Maybe all not, even.
(It's also worth pointing out that, as far as I'm aware, AD&D only had a one in thirty-six chance of a random monster being violently disposed towards the party. Who says those monsters have to be combat encounters anyway?)
Problem: "This encounter is random and therefore has no relevance to my campaign/story."
It does now! A random table is an excuse to exercise your creativity and work something new and disparate into your campaign in a way you wouldn't have thought of before. Isn't it great when your players go off the rails and do unexpected things? Now they won't know what to expect either - because you don't yourself!
You shouldn't have a story planned out for your players to follow like breadcrumbs, with occasional side missions. That's novel-writing talk, that's video game RPG talk. Snap out of it! Make a situation with inherent tension, buttons to push - and then drop your players in the middle of it with a clear goal and see what happens. The story comes during and after play, not before.
Problem: "The content of this particular table isn't relevant to my campaign."
Ok, fine. There are other tables that are, guaranteed. Find a better one, or make one yourself if your campaign is super-specific. What kinds of things is someone likely to come across in this part of your world? Think of a few, note them down, and roll for it.
Problem: "I really don't like one or two of the entries, the rest are fine though."
You're a GM! Since when did you let the rules as written stop you from doing something? Just swap those entries out with better ones, or make a note next to them to ignore them and roll again.
Problem: "That's way too much prep work! I have to think up what happens in all these encounters? I'll just stick to my one pre-planned story beat, thanks."
You don't have to prep each encounter first. You don't have to prep any of them. That's why you have the table.
Read the table over before you play and let some initial thoughts start to form. Then when you play, roll, read the entry, and just fly it by the seat of your pants.
A good encounter table will have enough information to run the encounter right there - you might have to look up stats in the monster manual, but that's fine, you can read. Use the information, let your mind fill in the gaps.
There is no difference to your players between something you read from a book and something you made up - they are both just as real within the game world from the moment you say them out loud.
Problem: "This encounter would add an entirely new complication into my tightly-knit story."
What did we just say? No stories. Go and write a book.
But seriously, maybe your campaign is pretty finely tuned, with just a few intricate moving parts interacting with one another, and anything too out of the blue would ruin that. I'm not saying random tables work for every campaign. But assuming you're not running a murder mystery or something - deal with it. Add those complications. Embrace the randomness.
Which leads me to:
Problem: "It's too random. I like to know what's going to happen next and have a handle on things."
You roll a twenty-sided die every time something even remotely interesting happens, and you're claiming to have a problem with randomness?
This post brought to you by Encounter Tables. I made some a couple of weeks ago, you can check them out here. If you want better ones written by better writers, one of my favourite writers of random tables is Scrap Princess. Look em up.