2d8 Zombies

I had not realised that an entire week had gone by with not new posts to the blog!

This blog is inspired by Hurin’s experience with 5e.

So right now Randomisers are really popular. I have blogged recently about one of mine with the catchy name of Normal People, JDale is developing his Random NPC script. Egdcltd is looking at creating random generators as apps. Incidentally I have created all the core functionality of my first android app this weekend and I am now just writing the fluff like instructions and help.

There is an entire MeWe group dedicated to RPG randomisers from random dungeons to encounters to towns and cities.

The oldest randomiser of them all is the wandering monster. It is random at the top level as we roll every x hours to see if a random encounter occurs. We then roll on a table to see what the encounter should be and then there is the No enc., number, the dreaded 2d8 zombies.

I have been thinking a lot about random encounters. In a recent adventure I published rather than specifying who or what was in each location I used a 1d6 table. This is the table from one location:

Random Location Events

Location 1

  1. An Idiyva archer is instructing young warriors in caring for their bows.
  2. A pair of lookouts are suddenly alert, they think they have seen something unusual outside.
  3. A female Idiyva arrives hauling a great bundle of firewood. She replenishes the stock of kindling before moving on.
  4. An Idiyva lookout on duty is being replaced by a change of guard.
  5. An Idiyva guard has a shoulder basket of arrows. He visits each guard and offers them replacement arrows. He visits each guard in turn then moves on.
  6. Two Idiyva guards are playing a game of dice rather than paying attention to their watch post. The game is good natured at the moment.

The intention is that the random events should tell the GM what is happening. I actually never explicitly say roll a d6 and you could just as easily have most of them happen sequentially or in parallel.

At no point do I ever state how many are encountered in terms of a die roll. It is simply natural that two guards would play a game to pass the time. Beyond that these are really just ones and twos.

Some of the encounters are intentionally repeated, the female with the kindling turns up repeatedly as she is walking the entire settlement restocking firewood.

The adventure this is from is not intended to be a hackfest, but rather one where the characters are either lead through as guests or are sneaking through as thieves in the night. In both of these cases having guards and civilians moving around make planning an incursion or trying to avoid guards much more challenging. That is the point of course, avoiding a fight and increasing the tension makes for good roleplaying. Sometimes you want a challenge that does not involve putting everyone to the sword.

Brian posted some themed Shadow World encounters and in that situation I think random encounters can really reinforce the setting and bring the world to life.

The only think I don’t like about wandering encounters is the number encountered. This is doubly true in Rolemaster where it is not necessarily the creature that is the deciding factor in how dangerous an encounter is but the number encountered. Lets take the cliche of 2d8 Zombies.

For most heroes or party’s 2 Zombies is not really a challenge. They are slow and not exactly the greatest of tacticians. On the other hand 16 zombies is a potential death sentence for most party’s who would be facing two, three or even four against one and everyone would be outflanked, they could not parry everyone and still attack effectively. In my world magical armour is not common, in fact no PC has any kind of DB boosting magic or superior quality items at all and they are now 6th level. The point is that the Zombies can and will hit them and can and will deliver criticals even without open ended rolls. If you are taking criticals then you WILL get stunned at some point. Once you are stunned, outnumbered and surrounded you will die!

The problem is that we have a habit of slavishly following the number encountered die roll.

For the past few years I have eschewed random encounters. The thought process I went through was to ask myself “What purpose does this encounter serve?” If it was just to grind the party down or to use up party resources then was a random encounter the best mechanism to achieve that?

My solution to that question or dilemma was to start being more fuzzy with my numbers encountered in my scripted encounters. By this I mean if I wanted the characters to fight, defeat or outwit the guards in the barracks then I would have an idea of how many guards I needed. If the fight was going too easily for the characters then I would do something like have a fresh guard rush into the barracks from the latrines still doing up his britches. Despite his comic entrance he is still a fresh combatant that could look at where he was most needed and join the fight. I could introduce a few more guards from here or there as needed to increase the threat level as long as I did not over power the encounter from the start.

This approach made encounters more fluid. They were not railroaded. I never hinged the plot on a fight being lost and the characters captured. If they won the fight then fair play to players. On the other hand I could put the party under more pressure especially their resource management including power points.

To me this doesn’t feel like ‘fudging’. If there is a castle full of guards then it is entirely consistent that someone should at some point be in the latrines or had been sent from the barracks to deliver a message and is now returning. Castle guards are not rooted to the spot, they should move around so I can have as many as I want. The same is true of orcs in an orc hold or lizardmen in a swamp. Once I introduce a guard then it is all above board and legitimate and he fights are full ability.

That was then, this is now.

I have swung back the other way and I am more a fan of random encounters but I am making them much more hand crafted and their function is the colour in the setting, not just at a world level but at a very local level.

In that Idiyva settlement I wanted to make a coherent settlement and by observing the Idiyva going about their daily business you could figure out how they lived, worked, and how the family unit operated. The random encounters were each a little window into their world, or that was the thinking behind them.

Does this create more work? Yes it certainly needs more prep to hand craft random encounter tables. It does mean that I could create a near infinite settlement and populate it with threats and challenges as a backdrop to the characters mission and the whole thing would be coherent and cohesive.

I keep coming back to the thought that the only thing that is bad about random encounters is the number appearing. That is the challenge in building these ‘wandering monster’ type tables. That is the thing that needs fixing.