I abandoned the notion of a random encounter table while running 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. That is to say, decades ago. Damn I’m old right? For the Detroit Marches, I went back to the tables as a means of telling the story of the area. The Black River Bayou is uncharted, unpredictable, and full of danger.
A random encounter table can make the nature of things part of the story itself. The bayou is teeming with life all along a slowly winding river. Wild animals have their patterns, but to outsiders who know nothing of these animals and their habits, it’s all chaos. Throw in sentient creatures like Bullywug’s and suddenly even their order and habits feels chaotic and strange.
That creates a strong sense of “I don’t know what’s around the river-bend but I can’t count on it being safe.” A random encounter table can enforce that by creating encounters almost anywhere, no matter the convenience to adventurers on their quest. That’s how it tells the story by saying “This bayou is alive, has a mind of it’s own, and isn’t concerned about your adventure ideas.“
Or in more plain words “Hey, a gator just started swimming toward your canoes!” Which is mighty inconvenient unless you planned on chasing down some gator skin.
The trick in the randomness is to create a pattern. For me that’s creating three layers of tables.
The first focuses on the natural wild animals you find in the bayou. That means gators, bears, deer, snakes, and more! I’m ignoring animals that would make a dull encounter (sparrows, etc.), and focusing on animals that might be scary and exciting.
The second focused on beasts and D&D creatures that don’t have much more than a simple survival agenda, but create potentially dangerous encounters. Giant lizards, blights, even bigger snakes, super gators, etc. These are creatures that may ignore you, or may target you, or may just want to keep you out of it’s home. They still lack an agenda to accomplish larger tasks, but are more than a scared buck that wants to keep you away from it’s doe.
The last table focuses on sentient creatures that are native to the swamp, have agendas, cultures, and an ecosystem between themselves. The dominant example for the area the characters in the bayou have explored is the bullywug. Instead of just having that race listed on the table, I’ve got a few specific encounter groups that may feel random, but hint at the story of the area all the same. As the characters learn more about these frog men, that randomness will peel away and make more sense.
There are also other similar humanoids on the tables, but so far there’s nothing I can share there without violating spoilers.
When the random encounter check has indicated an interaction I roll to see which of the tree tables I should consult, and then roll on that table. That keeps the mix interesting and let’s the region tell it’s own story. If the characters are close to a Bullywug village I can skip the first random roll and focus on the table that’s most likely to produce a Bullywug encounter. That keeps the random nature of things, but also helps it make sense. You should find more Bullywugs near their villages.
Watching the players interact with these tables via their characters has proven to be a lot of fun. The first discovery of giant lizards turned into a longer term plot point. There are now multiple characters angling on finding out how to capture the lizards, train them, and then ride them as mounts through the bayou. It’s a great idea, more fun than anything I’d have thought up, and it came out of complete randomness up front. The character interest has caused me to flip over to active design on them, but it was the random encounter table that made it a story… and more:
You can script something like that, but you can’t force it. A random encounter table can just let it happen. Suddenly the story has a whole new element to consider, and some damn cool player art.