All about Encounter Tables

Encounter tables have had a mixed press in gaming history, as a useful tool for some and an outdated legacy for others.

I've loved random encounter tables since first using since fun experiences with 2nd Edition D&D super-dungeon Undermountain.

I mentioned them in Random Generation for GMs - During the Game and here we dive deeper into the basics, evolution and uses of encounter tables.

A Simple Encounter Table

At its simplest you would use an encounter table to randomise something for your players when they are travelling, bored, wasting time or it makes sense. An example of a 1d6 encounter table would be:

  1. 1d6 orcs
  2. 1 ogre
  3. 2d6 wolves
  4. 1d6+1 orcs lead by an ogre
  5. a merchant with 1d6 guards
  6. 3d6 goblins

As well as creatures your tables can contain hazards, weather or anything else you can think of.

Random Encounters in 1979

A look in the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition (1979) reveals a complex group of tables and charts for generating encounters. Included are rules for dungeon levels (1-10), wilderness by terrain type and urban encounters.

The primary focus is to provide monsters to fight, although the advice for encountering another adventuring party tells you "A character party feeling itself weak in relation to the adventurers encountered will certainly attempt to avoid negotiate or use wit and guile to bluff their way out of actual combat"

Random Encounters in 2014

35 years later in the DMG for D&D 5th Edition we we are told

"a well designed random encounter can serve a variety of useful purposes"

Examples include:

  • Creating urgency
  • Establishing atmosphere
  • Draining character resources
  • Provide Assistance
  • Adding interest
  • Reinforcing campaign themes.

Also mentioned are using encounter tables when players are off-track, taking a rest or on a long, uneventful journey.

Complexity of Encounter Tables

As well as my 1d6 encounter table, there are the more common d20 or d100 versions.

You could use a weighted table with rarer and more common entries, the D&D 5E DMG has a forest encounter table that uses a 1d8 and 1d12 to generate a number between 2-20, with rarer options at the start and end of the table.

Lastly there is the complex array of tables and sub-tables that add twists such as intention, allies, encounter location and environment effects.

Price of Complexity

The more complex the system for creating an encounter, the longer it takes to use in prep or during the game, reducing the appeal for using them.

But if you can generate the encounter at the click of a button, from a website or phone app, then the complexity of the tables matters far less. If you use custom encounter tables then again this becomes a less valid option.

I'll look at some sites and apps we can use for encounter generation in future posts.

Uses Beyond Combat

I find the uses for encounter tables beyond a simple fight to be the most interesting.

  • Providing a traveller they can use for news, advice or trade
  • Used to find what created the tracks they have come across
  • Detailing what dead bodies they find on the roadside
  • Used ahead of time as inspiration for more detailed encounters
  • Simply to add flavour, such as an encounter they see in the distance or a traveller with a tale
  • Used to lure or guide the party towards a particular location or goal

Fixed and Relative?

A fixed (traditional) encounter table will generate the same result no matter the power of the PCs, where a relative one will vary the generated encounter, producing a stronger encounter for combat-focused results. There are many encounters where the relative power of the PCs shouldn't matter, including those meant for flavour, information or to aid the party.

Useful in Worldbuilding

For me encounter tables can tell a lot about the region or world they are set in, by looking at the contents of existing ones or through the act of creating a new one. The creatures that are listed, how common they are encountered and their numbers give an idea of the dangers and conflicts in the world.

I'll explore this further when we take a look at what we can tell from a Deadlands encounter table, and then expand it again when we build an encounter table for one of my current campaign.

Future Encounters

If you have a memorable experience from using an encounter table or know of a good example or online generator then leave a comment or tweet @pie_dragon