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…
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