Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Alternatives to the Random Encounter Clock

One of, if not the chief function of random encounters is to force the players to make decisions about what to do and what to leave alone. This is usually expressed as a penalty for taking more time or extraneous actions, and it usually is, since random encounter rolling is usually tied to time spent - i.e., actions taken.

Unfortunately, in my experience of GURPS this pretty much completely breaks down. Further, even in systems where it usually works, there are downsides. Perhaps the encounters are too dangerous, especially in a densely-inhabited dungeon where they would bring others. If handled poorly they can become a joke or a severe annoyance for the players. Sometimes they send the wrong message, or they simply aren't wanted in your dungeon.

Nevertheless the function of rewarding time and action economy is worthwhile to salvage. I originally thought of using random encounter tables along with faction diagrams to give reinforcements to the set-piece monsters, but the more I mulled this over, the less I liked the idea. One of the reasons random encounters work is because they give immediate consequences to the players. Generally, immediate consequences are better for informing behaviour than mediate. With the reinforcement idea, or any other scheme that puts off the results, players are more likely to shoot themselves in the collective foot. In the example given, they'd most likely keep doing whatever until the monster density became so great there was no feasible way to proceed, or until it maximized - and then there would be no further disincentive.

Then I had a breakthrough: why does a wandering monster system have to involve monsters at all? If the central point is to make the players economize their actions, that can be done without monsters as easily as with. Further, avoiding monsters makes it work for systems like GURPS as well, where the attrition due to combat is nowhere near as strong as it is in D&D.

To that end, I give you a few 'timers' I've been thinking over lately:

The Timed Dungeon

The essential feature here is that the dungeon itself has some integral timer which makes exploration progressively more dangerous or difficult. Some specific examples:
  • The dungeon is flooding: every <interval> more and more of the dungeon is underwater. To do this you need to know the source, and the relative elevations of various rooms. I'd recommend giving rooms four states - dry, ankle-deep, chest-deep, over-your-head, completely-filled - and rate the source(s) by how many stages it can fill per interval. Generally I'd eyeball the map and flood downhill, with rooms getting to ankle depth before the water spills over to a lower place. Bonus points if you use some fluid other than water - I'm partial to mercury or poison gas.
  • The Archmage is out: every turn roll a d6. Once you cumulatively roll 5 1's, he's come back. The party better skedaddle soon, because he's a 60th-level ubermage able to cast Elric's Flaming Haemerrhoids at will. This works well with archmages' towers, elder dragons' dens, demons' lairs, and generally anywhere you can stock a big nasty that the party knows would squish them flat in an outright fight. A variant has the bad guy already there, but temporarily neutralized - asleep, behind a failing barrier, whatever. Season dice and intervals to taste.
  • The dungeon is unstable: maybe it's situated in the caldera of a live volcano, or in the rift between the astral and ethereal planes. Or maybe the entrance is an old mine shaft that's under serious stress. This has much the same mechanics as the archmage one above, but after a certain accumulation of rolls the entrance will be closed, or the dungeon will collapse, or whatever. A variant on this is the 'clockwork dungeon' - where the map changes every so often, making navigation difficult or impossible. Maybe the dungeon is a wizard's toy, or it's slipping through time, and staying too long will mean you have to deal with dinosaurs or barbarians where you expected your village to be.

The Timed Treasure

 Whereas above the dungeon itself was becoming undelvable over time, in these scenarios it's just becoming undesirable to do so, due to disappearing reward.
  • Kingdom of the Sidhe: After a certain time passes, all the loot in or from the dungeon will lose all value. The adventurers had better retrieve and spend it beforehand! Keep a timer keyed to turns or hours or whatever. Whenever enough time passes, increment it by one. Don't forget to make sure the players know they need not only to acquire the loot, but get rid of it too! An elven favorite is turning leaves into gold, but fresh basilisk blood or psionic crystals that must be preserved by the local alchemist after being chiseled from the walls are also good ones.
  • Explosive treasure: Do you really want to muck around when you have a backpack full of white phosphorous in kerosene? Make the treasure valuable but volatile. It doesn't have to be explosive; it might be an acid, or a powerful djinni bottled in a jar and yearning to get out, or carefully preserved bottles of essence of green slime. Every time the characters do something dangerous, it has a chance of backfiring.
  • There goes the neighborhood: The denizens of the dungeon have decided for whatever reason to pack up and leave, bringing their stuff with them. Much like the coming of the archmage in reverse. Roll a d6. After 3 or so 1's, randomly or by fiat pick a faction; they exit the dungeon with all their treasure. To complicate matters, the PCs might be between them and the exit.
  • Competition: The old standby; have another party racing the PCs through the dungeon. This takes a care and finesse which is outside my scope. I'd think at the very least you'd have structured tables and a general idea of how the NPCs will progress through the dungeon, but coming up with specifics for running this scenario is left as an exercise for the reader. An exercise he'll hopefully then publish on a blog, so I can steal his ideas.
All of these methods only work if the party knows what's going on. I can't stress that enough. Often this can be handled narratively either in the moment ("The dungeon appears to be flooding with a silvery liquid. Judging by its rate of flow, you'd expect this place to fill up fairly quickly - unless there are hidden depths you don't know about.") or beforehand. ("The old man insists that he heard strange rumblings over the last week and the Crypt of Sasura is on the verge of collapse after all these centuries, so you'd better hurry.") Still, that may not always be the case, and the players should always have at least a rough idea of how their time limits are being decided. If that's too 'gamist' or something for you, don't use these methods.


  1. While there is nothing wrong with using time pressure of some kind as an RPG device, I have always used, and primarily seen WMS being used, as a canonical excuse for the GM to break up digressions/tedious tangents/etc. with the fantasy equivalent of "Five men burst through the door with guns, what do you do?"

    Sure, it's often a kind of time pressure, but it's a time pressure enforced by *immediate action*. And just as often, it's NOT time pressure, it's just a quick jostle of the elbow. (After the PCs slay the All-Goblin Amway Sales Team, they've been distracted from their fifteen minute argument about whether it is worthwhile to pry up every flagstone in the room to check for secreted pretties.)

    Not that there isn't merit in other forms of time pressure, nor did you claim that time pressure is the only function of WMs, it's just the IME experience, the primary purpose of WMs is jostling, and time pressure is more direct if it is needed.

    Other uncorrelated thoughts:
    Time pressure can backfire, when the players resent it or handle it poorly.

    One fun alternative to time pressure is toll pressure, where there is a steep "cover fee" for the dungeon, encouraging longer expeditions instead of shorter raids.

    Conversely, you can do pure time pressure with dosimitry, where you get a pure X amount of "badness" (taint, rads, years of aging, whatever) per Y time spent in the dungeon. This encourages lightning raids.

    A lot of old school random encounter tables for wilderness areas included stuff that would TPK any party of the level the module was for. I always assumed this was to remind the players that their PCs were in a larger world where everything bad could not necessarily be killed (by them) and encourage the odd sneak/negotiate/plead style interaction that are so hard to get players to do in the dungeon.

    1. You're right, of course; there are many other functions to a wandering monster than just time pressure. But let me be clear about the sort of interaction I mean: The players are discussing whether or not they want to search for secret doors down the whole corridor. The GM says, "Okay, to search for secret doors is a turn for each 10' section you search; I'll roll a random encounter check every turn." The players decide maybe that's not such a good idea.

      This still works with breaking up too much player discussion about extraneous or related-but-time-consuming things: the threat of a possible monster is almost as effective as the threat of an actual monster. You just have to communicate why and when you're rolling.

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