(Apologies for the blog title, dear readers, I just really wanted to use that pun. – Brent)
Love them or hate them, random encounter tables have been a part of the hobby since the very beginning. Back when I started playing the DM rolling on a random encounter table could be a bit of a butt-clencher, especially if we were deep in the dungeon, several encounters in, far from support and healing. As TTRPGs have become more narratively focused, the use of random encounter tables has fallen by the wayside quite a bit. More and more I hear the opinion that nothing in your campaign should be random, that it should all be a cohesive story.
But that isn’t how the world works, and I think removing random encounters from my campaign would rob it of flavour. I agree that using a generic RET from a published product can fall flat. I think your game is better served by random encounters which fit your campaign world. My current campaign world has a strong Fey and Aberration presence, for instance, so I immediately modify any RET I find to include those if they are lacking them, or weight the chart toward those if they are present. This is a quick and easy way to get a RET that better suits your game for a fraction of the work of building one from scratch.
Besides monster encounters, I also use a RET to introduce GM Characters (GMCs) and little side quest hooks to the players. A little backstory: I’m one of those folk who scribbles in notebooks almost constantly. If I don’t have a notebook I write on some piece of scrap paper and stick it in a pocket or in my bookbag. I do this to capture all the little encounter ideas I have, but don’t or can’t flesh out in my head right at that moment. I always intend to come back and do that, but more often than not those ideas languished, trapped in paper and never seeing the table.
Until, that is, I started using them to create RETs for my games. I would grab ten little ideas from various scraps and pages and plop them on a chart. Each entry was a couple of lines describing the GMC, their motivation, and maybe a few physical descriptors. When I needed an interesting DM character encounter I would either pick one that caught my eye or roll a d10. This chart is also useful for those times a character goes into a random shop or stops to talk to someone on the street, giving you a GMC who has a bit of their own story going on instead of a video game NPC who seems to just stand there, waiting for PC interaction.
Using my old DMC snippets has a number of benefits. First, it lets me pull them from all the random notebooks and paper scraps and organize them, so I don’t lose track of them. Second, as I mentioned, it gives the players the impression that my GMCs have lives that have nothing to do with their characters. While that doesn’t matter so much in a one-shot, in my campaign games it helps immerse the players in my world. Third, and probably the biggest benefit to me and to any time-strapped GM, it saves me from developing GMCs and side-quests that don’t interest my players. We’ve all seen it: you create a fun and quirky GMC, give them a personality, backstory, and interesting problem for the characters to solve…and they brush right past them because they’re infatuated with that bar patron you mentioned in passing. Not only does my RET allow me to quickly give that GMC a bit of their own story now that they are in the spotlight, but it saves me from developing GMCs that I don’t have to. I can use one of the encounters on my table, and if the party isn’t interested in them I haven’t wasted time prepping something that won’t see the table. Conversely, if I see that there is interest, I can set aside time to flesh that GMC and their story out, making them ready for future encounters.
So if you are an idea scribbler like me, I encourage you to go back through your notes and collect some of those ideas on to a Random Encounter Table for your campaign. Not only does it help you organize some of those ideas so you can find them better later, but you will find it gives your campaign world a lived-in feel it might have been lacking, as your players discover that GMCs have lives and needs of their own, and aren’t just waiting in the dark for a PC to arrive.
As an example, and to give you a starting point if you aren’t an idea scribbler, here’s the RET currently in my campaign binder. Feel free to use it however you like, even if it’s just a spur to make a better one. And if you do come up with a chart of your own I hope you’ll stop back and share it, I’d love to see them!
|1||A friendly but oddly dressed gnome who wishes to travel with the party and chat for a while. Actually a time traveller from the campaign’s distant past or future, they have just arrived and are trying to get their bearings.|
|2||A travelling merchant specializing in insects (live and preserved) and insect accessories. Very proud of their buttons with “clever” sayings (“I don’t mean to bug you but are you my ant-y?”) and their line of insect plushies.|
|3||A dog (actually a wild shaped druid) picks one party member and begins following them around as if they are their new owner. The druid has been tasked with finding adventurers to help with a problem, and wants to see how the party treats a dog before deciding to approach them later.|
|4||A small child (actually a disguised halfling) approaches one of the characters and tries to sell them a hamster. They have a bundle of small cages hanging from a pole, each containing a hungry-looking hamster. If a character buys one, well, now they have a hamster.|
|5||As the characters talk with this GMC they will notice them scratching a specific spot on their body regularly. If asked about it, the GMC admits that a strange mark appeared there last night. It itches, and they’re going to see a healer as soon as they can. If a character tries to heal it, they stop the itching but the mark remains.|
|6||A rough looking person is handing out poorly composed pamphlets for something called “The Cabbage Farmer’s Collective”, calling for an end to the oppression of cabbage farmers everywhere. If a character shows even accidental interest, they are in for hours of facts about cabbages and cabbage farmers and their systemic oppression by other farmers.|
|7||A perfectly normal GMC encounter, except this person is being viciously pranked by the Fey right now. That may spill over onto the PCs, but right now mostly manifests as the GMC’s hair/skin/eye colour changing randomly, or their voice changing pitch oddly, or other strange and sudden afflictions. They seem resigned to it, and can’t give a reason for the attention.|
|8||A GMC hires the party to escort them to a nearby valley and protect them while they are there. The spot is peaceful and idyllic. Once there, the GMC unpacks a picnic blanket and a free-standing hammock, and proceeds to relax, eat, read, and maybe nap. However, periodically monsters arrive to attack the GMC and the party must fight them off. The GMC ignores this activity, and at the end of the day thanks the party, pays them a bonus once they are ready to depart.|
|9||At some point, a character notices a GMC seemingly paying for all their purchases with small lizards in various colours. No one seems to have a problem with this, even (or perhaps especially) the lizards.|
|10||This GMC is a perfectly pleasant person. Once a PC meets them, however, they will notice them at least once a day whenever they are in any sort of settlement, regardless of how far they have travelled or how much time has past. The GMC always seems pleasantly surprised to see the PC, but otherwise doesn’t seem bothered.|