Encounters Design: One Approach to Road Encounters

Like with all projects, this one seems to be taking over my brain, so let’s take a look at some ways we can potentially structure these encounters to not only be functional, but fun, on both sides of the screen.

Let’s take a road encounter. Instead of a social engagement, it’s more of an interruption. Groups are PCs often travel from town to town, site to site, often great distances with time to kill. We as GMs and DMs often fill that time with the possibility of a random encounter such as bandits or monsters, and sometimes even have planned interludes to introduce new threads with NPCs escaping oppressive overlords or natural disasters. Sometimes it’s even a positive event where they may encounter a traveling band of artists, a pilgrimage from some distant temple, merchants, or even another group of adventurers passing the other way.

Immediately we have a wide variety of experiences we can pull from. And we can even randomize it a bit.

Encounter Qualities

RoadWith a coin flip or roll of the die we can determine if the encounter is a positive one or a negative one. Heads or even, it’s good. Tails or odd, it’s bad.

We still don’t know what “good” or “bad” means in this context, so let’s add another table to determine the disposition of the group the PCs are encountering. Like the initial “good” or “bad” flip or roll, we’ll stick with heads/even for positive vibes towards the party or tails/odd for a negative vibe. That gives us a bit more context.

With another quick roll, we can determine if the encounter is going the same way the PCs are, the opposite way, or is perhaps camped. So with a d6, 1-2 = Same direction. 3-4 = Opposite direction. 5-6 = Stationary.

Now we get into the good stuff. What exactly is the party walking into?

What about the size of the group encountered? Another quick d8 might indicate the number in the group with 1-7 being exactly the number and 6 indicating an exploding die. Roll a 8 and roll another d8. Roll another 8, keep rolling until you get something else. You could end up with anything from a solitary traveler to an army.

And then we need to know who they’re running into. We could devise a simple list of 10 types of folks to start with…

  1. Bandits/Thieves
  2. Messengers
  3. Merchants
  4. Transport
  5. Military
  6. Performers
  7. Refugees
  8. Survivors
  9. Religious Procession
  10. Adventurers

If you want to get even more interesting you could add motive to the equation with a quick d6 table:

  1. Political
  2. Natural
  3. Unnatural
  4. Fiscal (Selling/Buying)
  5. Missionary
  6. Exploration

Let’s stop there, though we could definitely add further tables to determine other qualities.

Designing One encounter…

So if we take this approach and roll some dice, I might end up with this combination of “settings” for a particular encounter: Good, Negative, Opposite Direction, 2, Adventurers, Unnatural. Very interesting. So it’s a positive encounter for the PCs, but the group they’re encountering has a negative vibe towards them initially. It’s a pair of adventurers with some sort of an unnatural motive for their journey.

I might end up with:

Ahead on the road, you notice a pair of riders on horseback heading straight for you at speed. Even at this distance, you can tell they have seen rough times during their travels with dust-covered, dirty clothes and road-weary, grim expressions. As they get closer, you can tell one of them has an arm bound in a sling and both have seen combat recently.

The one without the sling sees you and slows his companion, raising one arm in greeting.

If you ride around them without a second thought… You hear them mutter in exasperation and wish you good luck with whatever they left behind and you are rushing towards.

If you stop to converse, you discover that they are the survivors of a party sent to scout a small ruin rumored to have some sort of unnatural occupants these days. What they discovered they cannot describe except in terms of “teeth” and “claws” and “impossible hunger”. They strongly suggest you turn back before you encounter the fell creature(s). They themselves are heading back to report to their masters what they found and have the local temple say a few words to speed their dead on their way to whatever afterlife they were seeking…

This approach works really well with my sandbox style of adventure design, leaving threads and possibilities open to discover together as part of the shared storytelling experience I prefer. Already I have a few ideas for how to use this encounter as a transition. Does it lead to the next adventure? Is it a side-quest? Will the PCs slay these fell beasts? That is for them to decide.

Designing Another Encounter

If I roll again through the sequence, I end up with: Bad, Positive, Stationary, 6, Performers, Political. Unsettling. This time it’s a small group of performers camping near the road with a political agenda who may have bad intentions for their own trip, but positive vibes for the PCs.

This might become:

As you approach a well-known camp site along the road, you discover it to already be occupied. A couple of wagons, a few horses, and a group of people are moving erratically around a fire. They may be setting up camp or have some other nefarious purpose, but you can’t tell from here.

Depending on your own intentions and how you approach, one of the campers will hail you and invite you to share their fire. They’re a band of performers heading towards the capital with a new show for the King and they would love to perform for you to practice their presentation or even just compare stories from the road if you are too exhausted from your travels.

If you watch their performance, you see a tale of desire unfold as a fair maiden is abducted by a vicious warlord to be his bride and must be rescued by her love, the prince. Though the tale may not be new, their performance is full of passion and by the end the warlord is slain, the lovers are reunited, and all is well with the world. But if you watch carefully, you notice that the warlord has some passing resemblance to the King they are aiming to perform for and their weapons are not stage tools but are in fact sharp and ready for battle.

If you compare stories from your travels, you will come to find that they are from a neighboring kingdom seeking news of a princess abducted months ago from their homeland. The way they describe the abduction brings to mind certain men of power you have come across in your own journeys. And the princess they describe might be a sad, fair-haired maiden you encountered on another adventure…

Already I have thoughts on how this could become the glue between adventures, hinting that maybe everything wasn’t as it seemed in earlier stories and perhaps something is rotten in the kingdom they themselves called home…

Yes, I see this approach being quite useful in future adventures. I wonder where the road may lead my unsuspecting party of adventurers…

What do you think?

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