I was talking to my friend – a fellow DM – about his homebrew setting, and how he was planning on mapping out the world using the hexgrid. He was explaining how these hexgrid spaces would have decision points among them so that multiple things would happen while traveling during the day.
This may not be a new concept to some DMs. I believe I’ve heard Matt Colville mention something like this in his own setting. Also, it makes sense. It’s a good strategy to use in order to inject some drama or tension into the game.
I told my friend that I really admired that about homebrew campaigns – how you can have those really exciting and interesting encounters while traveling. Even if it’s a homebrew campaign set in a place like the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk, you can still – as DM – create your own encounters that could have lasting effects on the game.
I said that because I was thinking about my current Curse of Strahd campaign. And also thinking about Storm King’s Thunder, and Hoard of the Dragon Queen. I was thinking about the Random Encounter tables that those campaign books include for you to use while the adventurers spend time in the wilderness.
This is no offense to the D&D content creators…but they’re not very interesting.
In fact, while running Curse of Strahd…I’ve kind of thrown them out the window.
Sure, I’ve used a couple of them earlier on in the game, but that was to set the mood and the tone of the campaign. Zombies, killer druids, evil plants…that was a taste of what Barovia had to offer. Once the characters got really involved in the plot, I stopped doing those encounters.
This is because all they are – typically – are monsters for the players to fight. A road block on their journey to slow them down, drain their resources, and make the game more difficult. In my opinion, a more difficult game does not make for a more interesting game.
Now what I do is I plan for an encounter. I think of a really cool situation that the encounter could serve, in a storytelling way. Note that these random encounters don’t include really interesting NPCs or dilemmas for the party to solve (save for Hoard of the Dragon Queen…that one has some cool encounter ideas in it, like the golden stag). But especially in SKT and CoS…they’re just monsters, really.
You can’t roll a 20 on the encounter table in Curse of Strahd and get Mordenkainen himself, for example, even though the Mad Mage is shuffling around the Baratok Mountains in Barovia. And why not? That’d make for a very interesting encounter!
So, instead, what I’ve been doing is homebrewing the campaign book content.
I look ahead at what the adventurers are about to do or where they’re about to go and I pick out interesting events that I think would help to enrich the story. If you’re following along in the Curse of Strahd campaign diaries I write here, you’ll note that I haven’t yet introduced the werewolves, the dusk elves (save for Savid), Baba Lysaga, Rudolph, the Mad Mage, and a small handful of other elements.
There are reasons for this. I may have mentioned them in-game to the characters, but they haven’t met them yet. I think those all make for much more interesting “random” encounters than what the book provides.
Sure, you get the adrenaline and the excitement when you’re walking to your next location and ZOMBIES BURST OUT OF THE GROUND OMG! But then when you’re done fighting them…there’s no real lasting effects or consequences (unless the encounter kills a character), and the excitement level returns to what it was before.
Instead, consider this option:
The party is ambushed by a group of druids and their berserkers (who worship Strahd as the God of Barovia). During the fray, a small hunting pack of werewolves leap into the battlefield…and start attacking the druids!! The party notices and decides not to fight the werewolves, but helps them finish off the druids.
Then, the werewolves turn human and tell the party that the druids believe they are the only worthy servants of Strahd, and deserve rightful control over the lands of Barovia. They have been growing in power and encroaching on the werewolves territory, making it harder and harder to feed their children, let alone themselves.
They request the party aid them in thinning the druids’ numbers, and see what foul ritual they are preparing upon their territory of Yester Hill.
That introduces the werewolves in a badass way that actually has consequences on the story and the decisions that the party will make. It helps them to form an uneasy alliance – as the werewolves will likely eventually turn on them because they, too, are servants of Strahd. So maybe they’re doing this to help gain more ground within Barovia and appear more powerful to Strahd while eventually delivering the party to Strahd as a gesture of servitude.
I don’t know. There’s a lot of ways you can go with this. This is just an example. It also helps to lead your party to Yester Hill (if they’re ready for it) to start the Wintersplinter event that happens there. So, hey, double-trouble.
Anyway, my point in all of this is that I feel like the random encounters – while, yes, they’re meant to be “random” and thus cannot totally be based around story and plot elements within a written campaign – they’re still too inconsequential and somewhat boring.
It’s simple to create a list of scenarios, taken from the various information provided to you in the campaign book, that you want to introduce to your party based on party level and based on what story elements you want to introduce and where and when. These encounters may still seem random to your players – especially if you do some fake die rolls behind the DM screen – and yet they will have lasting effects on your campaign story and the memories of your players.
That’s my two cents. I like my games to be more memorable, to have more punch to them. So it’s worth it to me to go out of my way to rework the content provided into something a little more substantial. Besides a lot of the travel time that my party spends is taken by exposition told by NPCs in the party, as that’s somewhat necessary. So that kind of takes the place of “random encounters.”
In what ways have you taken published book content and customized it to fit the game you were running?
Until next time, Well Met!