Sunday, March 27, 2016

Random Encounter Tables: Total Deconstruction

Was it really random, or was it fate?
So almost a week ago,  I attempted to distill a template to base random encounter tables on from the example in Mirror of the Fire Demon. I came up with something that was literally a thing, but I don't think it was all that useful, helpful, or instructive. Today, I'm attempting to form something from nothing that feels a little tighter, more reusable, and actually, requires less planning and number crunching.


Somewhat the inspiration
for these thoughts.
I really like using CER, so a lot of my thoughts on this are based on that system, which is found in Pyramid #3/77 in the feature It's a Threat!. CER is a mechanic for rating the power level of individual players, the team, individual opponents, and the mob as a whole. There are edge cases here and there where numbers belie a stronger or weaker encounter, so it can't be used blindly, but it does give a fairly accurate barometer in that I feel it is accurate to within +/-10 points in terms of banding strong ene
mies, and (I'm not sure of the appropriate word) I feel like it has a sensitivity of +/-5 points, that is to say, something with a CER of 20-30 often feels about on the same tier, and 30-40 feels noticeably stronger.
The metric Dungeon Fantasy party has 4 characters with 160 CER. Some characters have much more or much less than 40 CER, but I figure with a good mix of logistic characters and warrior characters, 40 seems about right.
During prep for an adventure, using this method, you probably want to pre-calculate the party CER, and the N-Value thresholds for the party as described on p.33 of It's a Threat! You then want a list of your favorite monsters for that environment, and their CER values. That is it. You do not need to come up with a full blown Random Encounter Table.

Do We Even Have an Encounter?

The source of
It's A Threat
First we need to determine if an encounter is even on the table, a big piece of the puzzle. On page 20 of Dungeon Fantasy 2, we have a blueprint for this concept listed under Wandering Monsters. We use mechanics similar to Self Control or Appearance to see if a monster pops up in any given location, with some places having more or less opportunity for random encounters. This I feel is a good first step in the workflow.

Encounter Level

So the next thing is setting the banding of the encounter level. Dungeon Fantasy 2 describes Fodder, Worthy, and Boss level monsters (Balancing Encounters, pp. 27,28), which describes some rules for how enemies of a particular tier might behave to make some fights even easier or more difficult. This is again repeated in Dungeon Fantasy 3 on p.42 with some suggestions for rewards based on banding. It's a Threat, adds two additional tiers at the end caps, Nuisance is even weaker than Fodder, and Epic is even greater than Boss. To minimize dice rolling, I'd like to roll this into the previous encounter roll to see if we have an encounter. The size of the entire encounter is thus based on the margins of success on the encounter roll performed in the first step. A Margin of 0-1 is a Nuisance, 1-2 is Fodder, 3-4 is Worthy, 5-8 is a Boss, and 9+ is Epic. Repeated in a table for easier consumption:
Margin Of Success
Threat Class
N Rating
There is no encounter
Margin 9+

N Rating is discussed in It's A Threat under Threat Class on p.32, and is only repeated here to prevent page flipping.

What Monsters?

This is the biggest piece of the deconstruction. Generally, a random encounter table is simply a "roll and see what you fight" kinda thing. Take it or leave it, but I think choosing what the party fights is actually the most interesting part. So here I take a different approach that gives the GM a bit more agency.
"But Random Encounter Tables are about taking the thinking away!" Someone might think. I have a different thought. The problem with random encounter tables to me is that:
  1. I get analysis paralysis deciding how much better or worse something is than another encounter so organizing 6 groups of enemies from best to worse (or 11 for 2 dice, or 16 for 3 dice) is a harrowing experience.
  2. After exerting tons of creative energy coming up with 6 (or 11 or 16) interesting encounters of 6 (or 11 or 16) unique difficulty tiers, and game time arrives, that effort is thrown away when I roll the same encounter 3 times in a row which despite efforts to make a unique experience, a bland repeat after repeat masks all the efforts taken, and all those other interesting encounters have gone to waste. It's on par with writing a full blown character sheet for the shoe cobbler in the corner of the bar your players stop in for five minutes. The fact that he had a Games (Backgammon) -12 skill will never see the light of day, so unless your kind of fun is coming up with insane amounts of detail (It might be! More power to you!) this is probably a waste of time.
Good book overall, explains
threat class mechanics
So, instead of intricately designing 6 (or 11 or 16) encounters ahead of time, make a list of all the monsters that are appropriate for a given environment with their CER values as well. It's a Threat! has a pretty good one, I've written a few, and a lot on the GURPS wikidot have CER as well. As described earlier during prepping, you should know what the N rating thresholds are, and you should know what the size/difficulty of the encounter by rolling the dice. If you rolled up a Fodder result, for example, and you have that 160 CER metric party, you know that you have a fight on your hands with an enemy that has a CER of 16 to 53. Pick the enemies that match your environment from your list of favorite buddies and put it between those values. Done!

Other Thoughts and Closing

Battles are only one small piece of the random encounter universe, so I want to write more on the other aspects. I mean, besides a fight, a party could encounter: an unusual boon like a treasure or healing fountain; a puzzle; a parkour sequence; natural disasters; etc. 
I tried to make Boss and Epic encounters difficult to randomly obtain, Epic might almost be impossible, feel free to jiggle the numbers about if you like this idea at all. I just chose values that felt right, starting with the idea that each band should be about twice as wide as the band before it.
Mostly optional for the sake of
this post, but it has reward
mechanics for threat classes.
I think this method only slows down play a teeny bit versus having entire groups plotted out before hand, but I think it has tremendous benefits besides when you think of the amount of time saved in planning and the flexibility during playing. For me, the analysis paralysis of setting up a fight is more along the lines of 1) choosing fair fights while 2) mixing it up enough, so that there are a few easy fights and a few challenging fights as well.
Fun isn't a statistics problem (but that doesn't mean you can't have fun working out probabilities if that is what you like) so there is no system of equations one can run to optimize the amount of fun a party can have. Any tool that might make decision making easier is always just a tool. It doesn't have a heart and feelings, it doesn't know your feelings, it can't read the mood of the game table. If you think a super powerful monster is what would make the game fun right now, and not "two puffins, osteoporosis Total CER: 2" you are probably right, because you are smarter than any flowchart or algorithm, and you have more friends than any lookup table, so go ahead and do it.

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