Fixing Random Encounters Dungeons and Dragons 5e

Have you ever tried to run a random encounter RAW? Did it fall flat? I have, many times. I’m a big fan of random encounters believing they give a sense of realism and danger to my party’s adventuring world, but I think many of us are running them the wrong way.

In most situations a random encounter probably plays out similar to this:

Party takes a long rest.

D20 roll for random encounter.

Establish watches, roll perception.

Your hear (or don’t hear) a noise.

Determine surprise.

Roll Initiative.

Combat slog.

Or something like that. And while a hungry bear lumbering into camp is a classic, it gets old after the first few times.

And I think this is where we get it wrong. Totally randomizing events based on dice rolls is a mechanic integral to D&D. However, unless you excel at improv or are an experienced DM, translating that into a dramatic and interesting encounter can be very challenging. Instead of creating an encounter on the fly, I recommend building a few ahead of time and utilizing them in a Semi-Random Encounter List. Let’s break this down.

Building the List

For the most part, you know the environment where you party will generally be throughout your campaign or at least the next few sessions. An environment could be a biome, a settlement, a geographical feature, a plane, any number of things that make up the locations of the party’s adventures. Knowing this, you’ll have a good understanding of what type of monsters/npcs/hazards the party can expect to face and if not, flip through the monster manual or a prewritten adventure to start generating ideas.

With this is mind, we can start incorporating encounters in our list. We won’t go into encounter building basics here, but there are plenty of resources to guide you through it. Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Masters Guide as well as Xanthars Guide to Everything has the official rules for creating encounters. Of course, there is material with prewritten encounters that you can work into your list. Here’s a few below.

Amazing Encounters & Places – CZRPG

Out of the Box – Nerdarchy

Book of Challenges – WotC (Not 5th Edition but still great material)

Total Party Kill Handbook – 2cGaming

Make your own, use preuilds, whatever your method, you should have a small list of encounter ideas ready to roll. You can number them 1-20, have them spread throughout a notebook, or a deck of flash cards, you just want something fleshed out ahead of time.

The idea of building the encounters out ahead of time is that it gives the ability to add more detail. Even five minutes of planning outside of session can lead to an immensely richer encounter versus making one up in the moment, your players staring at you waiting to hear what comes next.

Using the List

I use my list as a stand in for a random encounter table. Instead of rolling x times per distance travelled or watch shifts or whatever, I just roll at the start of the adventuring day (when it makes sense). If one comes up, I just choose the time or place where it happens, pick the next encounter on my  list and run it at the appropriate moment.

Your players don’t need to know your doing this.  You can keep rolling at all the typical times and keep up the appearance of imminent danger but, knowing when and where the encounter is going to happen allows you to strategize the monsters tactics, vary the goals, raise the stakes, flesh out the location, and ultimately run a more exciting and engaging encounter.  

So that’s how I run my random encounters. Do you have a different way? If so, I want to hear all about it in the comments below!

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