You encounter 2d8 Zombies

I absolutely detest D&D style wandering monster encounters. Take the title example, the problems with 2d8 zombies are almost too many to list, where did the zombies come from, who made them, why are they there? Even the 2d8 bit irks me. Against a party of PCs 2 zombies is quite possibly a bit of a non-event. 16 zombies could quite possibly be a potential TPK.

What is the point of the encounter?

If it is resource attrition, to grind the party down before they reach the end of level boss then shouldn’t it be part of the primary adventure notes? Wandering monsters or random encounters are normally in addition to the set locations and encounters.

If the random encounter tables are well constructed then I accept that as the party move from locale to locale then the sorts of encounters they have will change with the territory.

If my memory serves I seem to remember that the GM would roll 1d6 every hour or so to see if there was a random encounter. The last time I made random encounter tables I created one for each floor of a castle keep. The random encounters on the upper floor were things like servants carry laundry, children of the residents with their governess playing with marionette puppets and a nurse with a baby. In the lower floors their were more kitchen servants, off duty guards, handymen carrying out minor building repairs. The random encounters reflected the day to day life of the castle. It meant that the players could not sneak around the castle corridors with impunity. Killing these people would have consequences even if the body was not discovered, they would be missed and mostly quite quickly. Incidentally I discovered that a random encounter with six kids playing hide and seek can cause absolute havoc with a parties attempt to infiltrate a castle!

This is not intended as a rant against D&D, I am going somewhere with this…

Last week I talked about Fate points and about using a toned down version for minor skill rolls.  There is a bit of that in what comes next.

I have also talked about relative encounters, there is a bit of that in this.

So imagine you scrap random encounters completely. We keep the encounters but we get rid of the random bit. What would be nice would be a non random way of getting unexpected encounters.

This is going to sound like a digression but bear with me…

Looking at skill checks RMC has two levels of nearly but not quite made it. 76-90 was Partial Success and 91-110 was Near Success. RM2 and thankfully RMU has ditched the Near Success band and you have 76-100 as Partial Success and 101+ for success. I have always hated the Eleventy-one+ for success, but that is not relevant here.

The only problem with this graduated levels of success is that starting characters have very little chance of ever succeeding at anything that isn’t an absolute core skill. In RMC you pretty much need an open ended roll do anything.

As a GM you cannot use any difficulty ratings beyond ‘normal’ or the party will probably hit a brick wall of an unopenable door or unfindable clue.

So imagine that as a GM we count Partial Successes as Success but you also keep a tally of each ‘bump up’. You then fix a break point for each location. If your tally of bumps equals the break point you trigger an encounter.

So for example you put a break point of 3 against the scene set in a bandit camp. The players are trying to sneak in to the camp, trying to spot any guards one player gets a partial success, you elevate this to success but keep a score of 1. The players make their plan and then try and sneak in, rolling their stalking skill. The mage gets a partial success making the tally now 2. The players approach a corral of horses and the ranger tries to use animal handling to calm the horses and gets another partial. The tally is now 3 and the break point is reached. As GM you can toss in an extra encounter (A groom checking on the horses?) and reset the tally back to zero.

What we are doing is making the characters more competent as we count partial successes as successes but balancing the books by throwing more complications at the party.

More heavily patrolled or traffic areas would have a lower break point value as people are more likely to maybe sense the slight feeling of something being not quite right or maybe the characters have left a clue or evidence of their activities.

This can work in any situation, if the party are moving around a souk trying to haggle over prices then a handful of partial successes may be enough to have marked them out as non-locals by a street gang.

If you want encounters to lead to combat, we do a lot of hack and slash so ours frequently will, then we can use relative encounters so they are always balanced to the power of the party, this gets rid of the 2d8 bit in the title.

So this idea makes characters more capable in a similar way to inspiration, removes the random element of wandering monsters and pitches the wandering monster to the power of the party. It can also give you that lovely warm glow feeling of being a really evil GM as you benevolently allow a character to succeed while at the same time knowing that there is one more tick on the ‘shit happens’ register.


8 Replies to “You encounter 2d8 Zombies”

  1. There is something to be said for building your own encounter tables. I’ve also come across a supplements with lists of reasons why a wandering monster would be encountered (rather than simply there to cause problems for the characters). Maybe I’ll try writing a larger one of those – d20 tables don’t go far.

  2. I’m so glad you called out DnD on the ‘2d8 zombies’ crap. It has been a bee in my bonnet for a long time now. I was greatly frustrated to see that totally random system reintroduced in DnD 5e. I ran a group through the ‘Out of the Abyss’ module, and their random encounters were just as terrible: one result for example was something like, ‘1d3 Hook Horrors’. Well, at my party’s level, 1 Hook Horror is too easy; 2 is a good challenge; and 3 is probably a Total Party Kill. Do they really want me to roll randomly for that? I don’t.

    The designers have waived away some of these concerns by saying that the PCs should be aware that they can’t always fight everything and might need to run away. I agree with the point in principle, but this is not a sufficient excuse for lazy module design. The module could for example say, ‘1 Hook horror if party is levels 1-3, 2 if party is levels 4-6, and 3 if party is 7+’. That way, I have a reasonable encounter I can throw at my party without having to fudge the dice. If I want to let them know that there are times when they have to run, I’ll throw Tiamat against them and give them a chance of escaping. I won’t do it every time I get a random encounter.

    Ditto on Rolemaster’s 111 for success (so glad that is gone, and 101 is the standard needed for success in RMU!).

    What you are suggesting with the partial successes reminds me somewhat of DnD 4e’s Skill Challenges. The idea with them was that there were a set number of skill successes you needed to get before you accrued a set number of failures. So for example, the challenge of ‘Sneak into enemy camp’ might require five successes before three failures. I know many people feel the need to hate on 4e, but this was one thing that I really enjoyed. Skill challenges, together with inspiration dice, had my players — who are primarily hack and slashers — trying to use their skills in unique ways, and even at times (gasp!) roleplaying.

    1. Not played 4e but what I was thinking is that upgrading from partial to full successes keeps the story going forward but at the same time there is a balancing factor that we can use to up the challenge for the characters.

      1. You could even combine the two. E.g.:

        –Five successes before three failures: No orcs are aware of party
        –Three successes or five partial successes before three failures: Two orcs are on alert
        –Less than three full successes or five partial successes before three failures: All the orcs are on alert.

        1. Anything that keeps the story moving forward but doesn’t let the characters off scot free has to be worth considering.

  3. Honestly, I don’t have a problem with random encounters – so long as the person using them realises that “encounter” doesn’t necessarily mean “fight” – it just means that you’ve found something where you weren’t expecting to (or it found you).

    If you roll bandits, for example, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be in any mood to attack a band of well armed travellers who don’t look like they’re carrying much of value – and if the bandits aren’t actually hiding, they’ll just look like armed travellers – not too different from the PCs.

    Used well (ideally with custom tables that make sense for the setting and themes you’re going for), random encounters can make the world feel less gamey and more lived in. In a more traditional dungeon crawl, for example, if the party is in a system of caverns inhabited by a tribe of kobolds and a tribe of goblins, they might encounter kobolds, goblins, kobolds fighting goblins, or even named NPCs from one faction or the other (after all, they’re not going to remain in one room for all eternity). That said, unless there’s a necromancer somewhere in those caverns, you should not have zombies on that table.

    1. Brian’s Shadow World encounter tables include such events as weather effects and natural ‘accidents’.

      There is certainly much more to encounters than wandering monsters. I think the absolute key has to be tightly focused encounter tables to reinforce the theme and style of the characters location.

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