Monday, December 19, 2022

Developing A World Through Encounter Tables

 Random encounter and wandering monster tables are underused; not only from a mechanical standpoint, as thy have fallen out of favor in modern play and so their power to build tension has been lost, but from a world-building angle as well. A good  encounter table is capable of providing hooks and lore by showing, not telling.

I want to provide an example from my daily blog for the Dungeon23 challenge: Into the Devouring Wilderness. This is a area that runs down the center of the hex crawl I am building,

Here's the original article:

AREA: The North Road

 The North Road was created to make it possible to travel overland from Vesban to the port of Alliri. Without the road, people have to follow the Valtass to the sea and then sail West. A well-maintained land road serviced by carriages  made getting to and from Alliri from the heartlands of Tassia much easier.

In the High Age, and the early Age of Man, Tassia's outriders, the Wayknights, teamed up with peasant rangers and elves to protect the region.

Today, however, the North Road has become increasingly dangerous. The curse is placed on the woodland often create false trails near road bends that leave people into dark and dangerous places. Savage creatures like ax beaks have been released from the old fairy trods to pray upon man. And it is rumored that the dead do not rest in the old cemeteries and necropoli along the road.

When people started fleeing the woodland during the crusades, and then again when the wilderness became twisted in the last couple of generations, it became the policy of the way nights to burn all abandoned houses, because red caps, gremlins, or bogarts infest any building left derelict for more than a few months.

Houses burned by the way nights became referred to as North road torches, because they could be seen almost every night during the early days of the crusades. It is a phrase that signifies despair, the belief that man is marching towards extinction.

The North Road  follows south from Alliri through Hex 0101, 0202, 0203, & 0204 them extends another 240 miles to Vesban.

Random Encounters on the North Road

d4+d6Day Encountersd4+d6Night Encounters
2Bell & Hammer patrol (1d4+2 Bell & Hammer Witch Hunters)22d6 Hate-Breed (use Orcs in standard OSR games
32d4 Axe Beaks32d4 Axe Beaks
4Patrol of 2d10 soldiers from Alliri41d4+1 Smokies* hunting an Ogre
5Extreme Weather5Extreme Weather
6Coach with 1d3 armed guards escorting 1d3 nobles or wealthy merchants6Armed campsite with 2d3 guards and 1d3 nobles or merchants
7Wandering madman7Wandering madman
82d10 Common Travelers (1 in 6 chance of being under attack by boggarts82d10 wolves
9Roll on special encounters9Roll on special encounters
102d6 Red Talon Cultists102d3 Red Talon Cultists

Special Encounters

d12Special Encounters
1A lost child, nearly starwved weeps by the roadside. Roll a d6 1-3 her parents are looking for her and a searching party will be encountered within 1d3 hours. On a 4-5 it is a fey trick, and the child is a boggart in disguise. On a 6 the child is a ghost and will lead the PCs to the site of a tragedy and a rich treasure.
2A weary Crusader carries a coffin with the corpse of an elf maid chained to his back as penance looks for the secret to redemption or final death.
3Broken Wagon surrounded by corpses, a trail leads to where hate breed (1-3 on 1d6) red talon cultists (4-5 on 1d6), or mourners (6 on 1d6) torment and plan to sacrifice 1d4 women and children
4Ghostly House*
5Evoral the Torch*
61d3 Bell & Hammer Witch Hunters ambushed by 2d4 smokies*. 1d3 additional witch hunters lie dead
72d3 Red Talon Cultists leading 1d3 soldiers away to be sacrificed.
8The White Hart leads the PCs to a door to fairyland
91d4 Bell & Hammer Witch Hunters in a ranged battle with 2d4 Red Talon Cultists.
10A Tzwa Bloodletter hunts an exhausted commoner who fled an attack on a nearby village.
11A Procession of 3d8 unearthly beautiful elves and Sidhe walk across the road, using Mondas as a shortcut between trods. They will enslave or kill the PCs if they draw attention to themselves.
12The Glatisant stalks nearby, hunting the prey set for it by a powerful fae prince. There is a 1-in-29 chance it's prey is a PC based on some Crusade-era grudge on their ancestors. Otherwise it will ignore the PCs unless provoked.

*Indicates an encounter to be expanded on later.

The Reasoning for my Choices

The first part of the article is setup for the GM. It isn't actually helpful to read it to the players; in the game a lore dump like that will bore your players to tears 

The key to making a world pop is to show, not tell.

The roadside of the North Road can be littered with the charred and overgrown ruins of abandoned thorps. An NPC can use the phrase "North Road Torches,' or maybe a Crusade-era memorial can be seen in the distance decorated with elven swords.

But while a GM can plan a few of these, and I can populate a few burned buildings in the hexes, I want the area to have some life. This is where my random encounter table can excel.

I start with some encounters and clashes between the factions. This helps give life to NPCs.

I added weather, because in Deathtrap Lite I have created a system for PCs handling extreme weather and exposure that I feel is worth showcasing 

Then I wanted to add in a few typical dangers to the area: axe-beaks, wolves, fey tricks, and the madmen who wander the roadways of Tassia  This will affirm the basic ideas of my setting.

Those handled, I wanted to capture the fear and hurry that specifically the North Road engenders in the campaign. Heavily-armed coaches, militarized campsites, marching soldier,s and frightened refugees all add the idea that humans fear this place, and would rather not be here. There are no wandering peddlers or pilgrims on the North Road.

Finally , I created a special, rare encounter table that would tell something of the history of the area.

  • Elves still wandering the wood with grudges from the crusade.
  • Human sacrifice from people who cling to the Old Gods.
  • A ghost of a burning house where people were caught inside.
  • The damned spirit of a ranger who burned houses when inhabitants were still inside to try to force them to flee .
  • The Glatisant a fae hunter-killer seeking some poor soul
  • A wagon with missing people.

After a few of these, the players will know exactly what kind of place they find themselves in without the need for any lengthy lore dumps.

Great Examples

This certainly isn't my own unique example of using encounter tables to tell the story of a place in rich, living detail. If you can get your hands on it, check out Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City for some of the most rich encounter and carousing tables you have ever seen. 

Michael Prescott's Trilemma Adventures make incredible use of random encounter tables to enrich the dungeon.

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