Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

On Wandering Monsters and Unplanned Encounters – Revisited

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 2, 2012

A few years ago, I wrote in the defense of “wandering monsters” and semi-random encounters in RPGs.

My opinion hasn’t changed too much, though I do have a bit more hindsight experience today (both as a player and game developer).

While we often refer to them as “random encounters” (or, in the old days of D&D, “Wandering Monsters”), ultimately what we’re talking about is an unplanned (by the player) combat encounter. The traditional combat encounter in RPGs is started by the players kicking open the door of the monster’s lair and engaging the enemy. The players govern the timing, and will often have a chance to prepare for the encounter in advance – casting any defensive spells, reloading their guns, drinking any healing potions before the next encounter. In other words, the players are on the offense, and thus have the initiative (I’m talking the classical use of the word “initiative,” not the common turn-based game term that simply dictates who moves in what order).

Engaging the enemy on your own terms, in your own time, is always easier.  That’s the advantage of offense.

Unplanned combat encounters force the player(s) to play defense. And not usually with a nice fortified defensive advantage, either. The player may be caught unprepared.  It may disrupt the best-laid plans.

Having played a lot of 3.x edition Dungeons & Dragons, I became fascinated by how the game mechanics made such such a difference between the players attacking a dragon and the players being attacked by a dragon. Given the opportunity for adequate preparation – particularly attacking a dragon in an underground area that inhibited its mobility, and preparing magical defenses against the dragon’s breath weapon attack – a combat with a dragon of the appropriate challenge rating was a difficult venture but not exceptionally dangerous. But the same dragon attacking the party out in the open when they haven’t had time to prepare? Whole ‘nother story, and often one that resulted in one or more characters dead or unconscious by the end.

Individually, surprise patrols or ambushes or chance encounters aren’t the kinds of things players relish (though it may be something they seek out, when grinding for that last bit of XP, gold, or some other loot they need). I remember some such encounters causing me some serious frustration in the Gold Box days, where a chance encounter could mean another 20 – 30 minutes (or more) of tedious, repetitive combat. Ditto for Wizardry 8, where I actually timed the combats at sometimes nearly an hour in length even with the third-party combat speed accelerators. I don’t think combats should last that long anyway, but when they are thrown at you when you are trying to do something else, they can be infuriating.  With a few exceptions (usually story-driven, like the above dragon attacks), unplanned encounters should not be major events.

Instead, unplanned encounters should usually serve more as bumps in the road, wrinkles in plans, and as a threat to keep the tension up. The player should not be in 100% control of the pacing of the game outside of a “safe” areas. They are there to keep the players on their toes, and to keep things from becoming too predictable (and boring). Unplanned encounters add a sense of — well, maybe not realism, but at least the feeling of dynamism to a game.  This is not a passive, static world, but one that may actively try to kill you if it can.

But in many ways, they keep the game interesting not for their constant presence, but by their potential.  The threat of stumbling into a patrol at an inopportune time is just as effective as the encounter itself. They may work best as a threat to keep the game moving, rather than an actual activity that slows the game down.

In short, unplanned encounters  should be the spice, not the meat, of the game.

As a side-note, “safe” areas should be safe – and any unplanned encounter within such areas should be a Big Plot-Development Deal!  Those scars from The Bard’s Tale may never fully heal…

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I always felt Quest For Glory did random encounters well. You usually had the opportunity to run away, combat was quite quick and the variation in monsters was good. Quite often you could complete the game with a very minimum of combat, which is always a plus in my book.

  • jwmeep said,

    I do like random encounters in some cases, but some games handle them wrong. In a game like Frayed Knights which is centered around combat, I don’t mind them much (though I do with they weren’t as frequent). In a game that gives you a ton of different ways to handle problems, the random encounters tend to be really annoying since they tend to break the system. For example the classic Fallout. They player had a ton of options to handle menacing situations. Sneak around them, set up traps, talk your way out, fight your way out, etc. But those really only worked with the maps as part of the main story. In a random combat situation, like bandit patrols, all you could really do is just fight them.

    If you have random combat, it better fit your design philosophy. If players can talk their way out of combat as part of story missions, shouldn’t they be able to talk to the people as part of those random encounters? Or sneak, or whatever?

  • Armaan said,

    I wish someone would make a decent RPG that was all about random encounters. No story, no exploration, just random battles with a nice level-up system. Can you make that happen? lol

  • Cuthalion said,

    I agree.

    I’d also add that unplanned encounters are typically the renewable encounters of the game — the encounters that allow you to build up your strength if the developers misjudged how difficult you, one of thousands of players, would find a particular difficulty spike. They let you pull a spike down until it’s low enough for you to climb over. Beating major battles stops being dependent completely on your performance in those battles alone, but can be fought in part indirectly, through the random encounters of the game.

    Just don’t make them every two steps. Please.

  • Cuthalion said,

    @Armaan: Diablo?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Try RRRRPG (Really Really Random RPG) 🙂

  • Daniel King said,

    I always seek out and kill every single enemy in most RPG’s, assuming there isn’t an infinite amount! Wiz 8 was slow but engrossing I’ve put months at a time into that game. 🙂

  • Void said,

    @Armaan: Darklands

  • Xenovore said,

    +1 to what jwmeep said.

    Yeah, I’m not a big fan of stuff popping out of thin air, so for the most part I think random encounters suck. Or more specifically, the way most random encounters are implemented sucks: Dropping stuff right on top of the player without warning (and with no recourse except combat) is just weak design these days. Back in the day, the technology wasn’t really there to support much more than a RNG and some lookup tables. These days, we’ve got hugely better ways of handling encounters.

    At the very least, random encounters should be spawned out of sight of the player; check visibility on nearby spawn nodes, and pick one that’s out of sight.

    A good example of a way to do it is in Borderlands — there are locations which provide spawns: creature dens or bandit huts. So then if stuff does spawn when the player approaches, it doesn’t just poof in out of thin air, it actually comes out of its den or hut.