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Encounter Tables

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Gamer Lifestyle
Borderland Explorer
I am viewing Johnn's New Loopy Planning Video (if you aren't a patron or Wizard of Adventure, the previous link might not work for you, here is the original article as an alternative) at the moment. Therein he is talking about encounter tables.

I have always struggled with creating (random) encounter tables.

I like them. I like Classic Traveller, which defines a structure for these tables I have to fill in. But I am missing a structure or recipe for creating tables in other systems.

So how do you create random encounter tables?
How do you handle different themes?
How do you handle challenge ratings?
How do you decide on likelihood?
Do you include modifiers for circumstances?
What else do you address when creating encounter tables?

(Please don't just post "I don't do encounter tables." I am looking for recipes and not for your opinion on encounter tables.)
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Great idea to start a thread about how to create random encounter tables.

Let me give two examples of how I created random encounter tables.

Just some foreword:
  • I usually don't create a table for some possible future usability, I create random tables for specific sessions in which I want to use them.
  • Thus, I am fairly certain already which group is encountering them and when/where. The content though is fairly random.
  • I don't use them for lack of ideas during a session, but to use a game in a game approach, so as to make this session even more interesting to the players. That said, of course the players are the ones rolling on the table, but they don't know what will be on it.
  • And I want to make it such, that the area / circumstances have a definite influence on the roll.
  • Not all of those encounters are combat encounters, but some are rather to portrait a mood (especially in Deep Diving below).
  • I usually set a danger rating per area and thus I make the dangers more dangerous the deeper the adventurers delve into it.
  • I usually use those entries to set the stage for an encounter. But what will actually happen will be decided in the moment.
  • Also, I try to order the entries from peaceful to dangerous, so that players rollling on these tables already expect something of the sort immediately after their roll.
  • I determine the probability according to likeliness and how much I would like it to happen. In Deep Diving all elements have equal probability. I didn't care to think about it.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Deep Diving
Shadowrun. Lake within Seattle. Near a swimming research facility that spouts toxic wastes into the sea. Critters and spirits and pollution down below, but also an underwater village, rift and another research facility.
  1. Shallow waters
    0-10m | 2 random encounters/events (d6 random encounter table: modern pollution)
    1. You see a colorful school of small fish.
    2. Colorful lights sweep across the surface of the water above you. Certainly a couple of intense party spotlights from Bellevue that break on the surface of the water. While others are partying, you slowly descend deeper into a quiet, unknown world.
    3. A small goldfish drifts past you, dead on his back.
    4. A plastic bag swims past you with a jazz inhaler caught in it.
    5. (I never came around to finishing this list)
    6. Suddenly, your submarine's propeller get's loud and caughs out sounds that are not natural. Your submarine stops to a halt as you see what has been cought in your propellers: a huge parachute. It completely entangled your propellers. And then, without warning, the dead body of a man slams against your front window. His face is half eaten by the many small fish swarming him.

  2. Medium depths
    10-25m | 2 random encounters/events (d6 random encounter table: serene darkness)
    1. You come to the bottom of the lake. Or at least that is what you think for a moment. Land masses rise from the depths of the lake and form a kind of intermediate floor. A few fish can be seen and algae dance in invisible currents. But at the edge of the false bottom it goes much deeper down.
    2. It's dark and lonely around you. No sound can be heard, no movement can be seen. You can't see far, but it seems you're all alone down here. Nobody can help you.
    3. Your heat sensors suddenly shoots up. Shortly thereafter, a violent current hits you.
    4. The dark water turns increasingly darker. Something has accumulated in this environment and envelops you. The toxin levels suddenly skyrocket ...
    5. A school of colorful fish suddenly swims away in a great hurry. The little fish frantically swim for their lives ...
    6. Suddenly a big fish sticks to your window. He sucks himself tight with its mouth and clings fast. Slowly recovering from the first shock, you can now see several rows of small, pointed teeth. A grinding noise fills the submarine as the three-eyed creature lets out a strong acid from its pores and the window begins to smell and fog.

  3. Bottom of the Lake
    25-50m | 2 random encounters/events (d6 random encounter table: grotesk structures)
    Soon the PCs reach the strange bottom of the lake littered with remnants of past centuries, but there is nothing like an underwater station or a colony. This can't be right...

    A) Here the PCs CAN FIND a specific encounter, namely the bubbling underwater gorge that leads even deeper (new area unlocked: Magma depths)

    B) And in addition, they CAN FIND the Genesis underwater station (new area unlocked: Genesis underwater station)
    1. You come to the bottom of the lake. You see an encrusted landscape, distorted forests of strange plants which wave in an invisible current.
    2. In the depths, you discover an old airplane, carefully balancing on a jaggered rock formation. It's encrusted over and over and has been down here for over 50 years for sure. Briefly, you believe you have seen movement behind the panes ...
    3. At the bottom of the lake you discover a metallic construction. There are many old barrels neatly fastened on rusty metal grids.
    4. Something big moves in the dark ...
    5. At the bottom of the lake you can make out something that looks like a round structure near craggy rocks. As you look closer, it doesn't seem to be of natural origin. Lights can be seen from there. And then you discover the Genesis logo. You have found the research facility.
      [New area unlocked: Underwater Research Facility]
    6. At the bottom of the lake you discover a hidden gorge from which dark clouds rise. Noises can be heard indistinctly from below.
      [New area unlocked: Underwater 50-100m]

  4. Magma depths
    25-100m | 2 random encounters/events (d6 random encounter table: volcanic maze)
    Here the PCs CAN FIND the volcanic tunnel to the ocean, the merrow colony, the deep sea mine and eventually, the remnants of a starship which will turn upside down everything they believed to know about this world (new areas unlocked: remaining)
    1. When you come along a few craggy rocks, suddenly the rocks light up in countless colors. The previously matt corals react to your presence and give off light in many colors. It is beautiful, but on the downside, you can be seen from far away ...
    2. It is deepest darkness around you. You see nothing. No rural dweller dares to venture into these depths.
    3. Deepest darkness. You are all alone in this world that is not made for your delicate bodies. Suddenly your submarine creaks ...
    4. On the walls of a deep ravine, you can make out some strange structures. Something is there and it seems to glow from within ...
    5. (I never came around to finishing this list)
    6. In the deep gorges below the lake you discover a deep hole in the walls of the rugged rocks at one point. A factory drone stands rigid and rusty at the entrance to the tunnel. A logo is only half visible under incrustations, but you can at least make out a "... Dyn ...". [New area unlocked: Tunnel under Lake Sammamish]
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Glow City
Shadowrun. Within the Redmond Barrens. Environmental dangers. A radioactive zone. Almost completely deserted. Some people in hazmet suits survive there. There are still several places with a lot of valuable loot. But there are also toxic spirits, mutated critters and ghouls.

In the next part, Glow City, I asked every player to roll dice when they came to a new area. Each player would roll on a different table, one for streets and buildings, one for people and critter, one for objects, and one for events. All this creates a scene from different angles.

In addition, I added modifications to their rolls depending on the area they were in to represent that it becomes more and more dangerous and some people will not be found near the origin of the catastrophe (and place of most radiation), but some "things" will only be found there.


Rings of Danger

Green Ring | "Slightly Polluted" | Outskirts, Squatters, Gangers | Roll +0
HGS: 2, Noise: 2, Radiation dmg 2P/h (heat, nausea, headache, blindness, …)

Yellow Ring | "Contaminated" | Squatters, Gangers, Ghouls, Paracritters | Roll +1
HGS: 3, Noise: 4, Dangerous +1, Radiation 4P/30min

Orange Ring | "Dangerous" | Empty, Gangers, Ghouls, Paracritters | Roll +2
HGS: 4, Noise: 6, Dangerous +2, Radiation 6P/10min

Red Ring | "Extremely dangerous" | Near meltdown | Roll +2 (upgraded)
HGS: 6, Noise: 8, Dangerous +4, Radiation 8P/1min

Buildings
  1. Residential buildings
    1. Squatter (roll once more on Metahuman table)
    2. Gang symbol on the wall ("Salvation")
    3. Central building for food / water / goods sharing
    4. Empty
    5. Center of the Free Church of Radium
    6. A nice residential building complex
    7. Some foul smell is coming out of these buildings (Ghouls)
    8. Completely destroyed buildings all around. These had been in the blast cone.
  2. Businesses
    1. Tobacco products
    2. Stuffer Shack
    3. Electronics
    4. Café
    5. Barber
    6. Restaurant
    7. Security company still clustered with several weapons
    8. Completely destroyed buildings all around. These had been in the blast cone.
  3. Empty Garage
  4. Park
  5. Antique Postal Office
  6. Security fence / wall
  7. Toxic waste dump (with toxic rats)
  8. 2 reactors with control buildings
Streets
  1. Gang symbol on the wall ("Salvation")
  2. The street is blockaded off
  3. Empty
  4. Objects (roll once more on Objects table)
  5. Dead (roll once more on Metahuman and Objects table or Paracritters)
  6. Metahumans (roll once more on Metahuman table)
  7. Paracritters (roll once more on Paracritters table)
  8. Spirits
Metahumans
  1. Squatter
  2. Some unnamed barren's hooligans
  3. Nobody
  4. Gang members
    1. Rusted Stilettos gang
    2. Rusted Stilettos gang
    3. Rusted Stilettos gang
    4. Crimson Crush gang
    5. Spiders gang
    6. Spiders gang
    7. 162s Ghouls
    8. 162s Ghouls
  5. Members of the Church of Radium
  6. Dead people
    1. child (with old teddy bear)
    2. Is currently committing suicide
    3. Raped
    4. Died of cancer / radiation (maybe with contaminated water bottle)
    5. Killed and completely robbed
    6. Others are already on the corpse
    7. Just died and still has something valuable with them (chewed upon by Ghouls or shot by corporate units)
    8. They are ghouls!
  7. Radium Girl
  8. Corporate unit (Shiawase)
(Para)critters
  1. Rats
  2. A kind dog (with a dripping wound on its side)
  3. None
  4. Hellhound / Barghest
  5. Mutant Paracritter
  6. Toxic Spirit / Orphan Spirit
  7. Bones of a Giant Animal (a whale with legs?)
  8. A huge nest of spiders
Objects
- Outside -
  1. Garbage / park bench / lantern
  2. Drugs
  3. Nothing
  4. Vehicle
    1. Drone
    2. Car
    3. Car
    4. Truck
    5. Bike
    6. Armored car
    7. Crashed helicopter
    8. Tank
  5. Weapon
  6. Treasure (roll twice and ignore 'nothing')
  7. Heavily irradiated object
  8. Lush plants
- Inside -
  1. Food / Beverages
  2. Garbage
  3. Nothing
  4. Household items / Drone
  5. Drugs
  6. Weapons
  7. Heavily irradiated object
  8. Treasure (roll three times and ignore 'nothing')
Events
  1. Some people are having a party
  2. Food distribution
  3. Nothing
  4. Quarrel
    1. A simple quarrel between two people (food/shelter/relationships...)
    2. For life and death about a child (which is to be sold in the bodymall for food)
    3. A rabid or mad person or a person under the influence of a BTL chip who quarrels with everyone
    4. A skirmish between a nest of spiders and a gang of rats flooding into the streets (very strange)
    5. Two gangs clashing and fighting for territory
    6. A shoot out between some other Shadowrunner and the local gang
    7. Suddenly, a metamagic conflict becomes visible in the streets
    8. A violent war between spider spirits and ant spirits
  5. Ambush
  6. Large group
    1. A group of sqatters that have suddenly been evicted
    2. A huge nest of cockroaches fleeing from a building
    3. Free Church of Radium demonstrating through the streets
    4. Rusted stilettos gang readying for a skirmish with another gang
    5. A group of strangely coordinated people wearing yellow hazmet suits, all of different gangs and social strata (insect spirits inhabiting the bodies)
    6. A group of hunting 162s Ghouls
    7. Shiawase Corporation Squad
    8. A large nest of huge Spiders including the ancient spider spirit Itsy-Bitsy
  7. Magical event (speaking object, ...)
  8. Violent magical surge / void / shift

I hope this helps a little bit.
 

ExileInParadise

RPG Therapist
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
I like them. I like Classic Traveller, which defines a structure for these tables I have to fill in. But I am missing a structure or recipe for creating tables in other systems.

So how do you create random encounter tables?
How do you handle different themes?
How do you handle challenge ratings?
How do you decide on likelihood?
Do you include modifiers for circumstances?
What else do you address when creating encounter tables?

(Please don't just post "I don't do encounter tables." I am looking for recipes and not for your opinion on encounter tables.)
I guess I am probably just a creature of habit from old school RPG/D&D.

Encounter tables (for me) start with the "terrain" - is it urban, rural, wilderness.
Next, why would the players BE there - what's the "hook" that triggers the encounter from the player view?
Then, brainstorm all the things they can run into: traps, ruins, the ecology of the creatures that live there, the people who might have settled, others passing through from some reason, etc. You just make a list - or even better - scan through previously made lists (yours and others).
Now weed out the list of ideas that you *don't want* to run as an encounter in the next few sessions.
If something is "close" but "not quite right" can it be reskinned to fit this circumstance?
Finally, you pick probabilities - this can be the easiest: just treat the "random" encounter table as a scratch off list and use each item you brainstormed once, in order.
The only time "probability" of encounter really matters is when you're simulating an ecology... or a table of the random encounters you might have with creatures just doing their normal business of living in an area.
Then you think of it as "likelihood that a party will encounter the thing each hour, or day, whatever time unit... while they are in the area"
Then you can throw a dart at a dartboard and use the number as a "1 in #" chance each day of encounter.
The specific numbers don't really matter unless you're trying to realsitically simulate some existing thing.

So, here's kind of a thinking out loud example of the noise above:
Where are the players? Terrain: Wilderness (jungle, space, underground, what have you)

Why are the players there? Moving through hex to get to ... - camping - scouting for food as they move

What could happen?
Animal attacks - bears, bulettes, wasps, dragons, what have you - what *lives* here?
Natural weather hazard - a storm turns the turf into muddy mess
Terrain hazard - broken rocky ground that slows them down
Wandering NPCs - hunters, criminals, settlers, other adventurers, madmen on vision quest, wizard gathering spell components, woodcutter, fur trapper

So, which if those encounters don't fit your upcoming session plan - cross them off for now, but save the ideas for later reuse

Now you have a list of ... possibilities.
Which need probabilities?
The weather and the animals.
For those, you break up days into hours-long blocks - morning, afternoon, evening, night.
What are players doing in those?
Morning - breakfast, pray/learn spells, tend animals, break camp, move on
Afternoon - stop, lunch and tend animals, break camp, move on
Evening - stop, tend animals, set camp, dinner
Night - set watch - rest

Each block might have a weather check and an animal encounter check if you want random surprise.
My guesswork starting point is basically choose a 1 in X value - where X is the number of the days the party would be crossing wilderness hexes
10 days trip - start each idea for an encounter with a 1 in 10 - and try to make the table have 10 different interesting ideas for that.
Day 1 - morning - rabbits at dawn - nice breakfast idea...
Day 4 - night - curious hungry bear

etc.

So, I just made all that up off the top of my head for this reply without cracking a book or diving into notes - maybe 10-15 minutes tops?

All of the old D&D and AD&D books have random encounter tables by terrain that are wildly reusable / expandable.
 

ELF

Generator Sage
Staff member
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
You could also categorize the encounters based on their purpose (for example combat, hazard, challenge, puzzle, exploration, investigation, moral choice, roleplaying, lore, sense of wonder, comedy, reward, etc).
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Exactly. I think most random encounter tables don't need probabilities, if you create them for sessions, not for areas. Nevertheless, I included some more likely events above. E.g. it is much more likely to encounter cars than bikes or trucks in the typical residential/business urban areas. Thus, I listed cars twice. Also, I almost always use an entry for "nothing" or "nobody".
Further, I try to only list encounters where I have a direction / scene in mind, something where I can definitely say that it probably results in a combat encounter, roleplay encounter, puzzle, moral choice, reward, exploration, information, comedy, etc. I try to mix a bit of everything into my encounters, but I don't intend to enforce a combat encounter when there was "just" a roleplay encounter before. If the players roll three exploration encounters in a row, than that's it. That's their luck and they understand it. Next time they come to this area, it could be different. I reuse the lists for the next time they come here and the players know that. That said, it is never determined that an encounter with an NPC or critter is going to be a combat encounter. That totally depends on the PCs.
But to give a little balance and control to the system, I mostly know which areas they will move through and I have a rising level of danger due to this. In the above example, when the PCs move from the Green Ring to the Orange / Red Ring of danger, the first two entries will not happen anymore. They are more peaceful entries. 3 is again nothing. 4-6 is available in all areas and gives a standard feel for the area. 7 is new and almost always dangerous. 8 is the most dangerous event that could happen for the PCs. By this, I can increase the danger to the PCs during the session.

In case of the Borderland, I would probably make it similar. Let's take the Black Fang Knolls (still tier 1, I believe).
I would probably differentiate between (A) the hilly outskirts, (B) the light forest, and (C) the deep forest.
We heard rumors about deer getting scarce and black pillars of smoke rising from the deep forest. We know about the orcish Blackfang tribe within the Black Fang Knolls.
So, I would have animals (and a sub list for these), a specific entry for orcs (number and profession depending on area), hard to traverse ground or weather elements, dead bodies and leftover camp sites for information, and maybe some tracks of some other dangerous creature within the Black Fang Knolls, which could be investigated. The change of area should be eminent though, e.g. in this case with the description that the forest is now all around them, and later the PCs may find orcish totem poles demarking their territory to other orc or goblin tribes.
 

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Gamer Lifestyle
Borderland Explorer
I hope this helps a little bit.
Did you prepare this for an actual adventure? Respect!

Yes, this is helping. I like the fact that you included not only monsters but household devices and such.
 

JochenL

CL Byte Sprite
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Gamer Lifestyle
Borderland Explorer
Encounter tables (for me) start with the "terrain" - is it urban, rural, wilderness.
Next, why would the players BE there - what's the "hook" that triggers the encounter from the player view?
Then, brainstorm all the things they can run into: traps, ruins, the ecology of the creatures that live there, the people who might have settled, others passing through from some reason, etc. You just make a list - or even better - scan through previously made lists (yours and others).
Now weed out the list of ideas that you *don't want* to run as an encounter in the next few sessions.
If something is "close" but "not quite right" can it be reskinned to fit this circumstance?
Finally, you pick probabilities - this can be the easiest: just treat the "random" encounter table as a scratch off list and use each item you brainstormed once, in order.
The only time "probability" of encounter really matters is when you're simulating an ecology... or a table of the random encounters you might have with creatures just doing their normal business of living in an area.
Then you think of it as "likelihood that a party will encounter the thing each hour, or day, whatever time unit... while they are in the area"
Then you can throw a dart at a dartboard and use the number as a "1 in #" chance each day of encounter.
The specific numbers don't really matter unless you're trying to realsitically simulate some existing thing.
This is a cool recipe that I will formalize for me - thanks, @ExileInParadise!
 
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