August 18, 2021

Random Encounter Tables

As I look into the future of tabletop gaming I see more and more random tables being produced. Is this a shift in play style back to the old ways or is this something new and cutting edge?

set of colorful dices on desk with pencils and toysset of colorful dices on desk with pencils and toys

Photo by Will Wright on

The vein of books, that derive full adventures from random tables, is not new to the hobby of table top gaming. We can look back to the days of B/X with B1 In Search of the Unknown, who’s main design feature was a dungeon that each room entered was rolled for it’s contents. Each room description had a spot to write in your own encounter and treasure. This first release has not been remembered or idolized nearly as much as the highly popularized B2 Keep on the Borderlands, which employed many of the same table rolling for encounters, the caves of chaos were exactly a chaotic mess of encounters that had roaming bands of kobolds, orcs or other mythical beasts ready to leap out of seemingly nowhere, at least no where that made any sense.This leads us to have to look at dungeon ecology.

Dungeon ecology deals with what exactly is there, lets say that the little old lady down the road is having rat problems in her basement, you would not want a random encounter table to add a dragon upon entering the room.

This leads to a point that a random table should not be all encompassing and kitchen sinkish. Here is where the new school of dungeon design really shines. Most adventures in the modern RPG scene that include random tables, will theme the tables to the adventure…

Wait they did this in old school too?

Turns out that this is not so much of a brand new idea, one can look as far back as say the Against the Giants campaign from AD&D 1E. The tables provided allowed a referee to roll and see if there way anything that would pop up and the tables were themed to the module it was contained in, so lots of Giants and things that were relatable to the dungeon at hand.

The idea of a targeted experience based on the module or adventure being run has not necessarily changed since the dawn of RPGs. New school games like A Packet of Particular Peaks have really taken that base idea and extended it however, with modern design features, to a new realm that shows a much cleaner layout design, but that is a movement all of its own design. (See what I did there?)

So whether it is planning out a world to play in or you are just looking for a cohesive one shot to run your players through, keep random tables in mind for that next adventure, but please be mindful of what you include on that list. No one needs a Dragon appearing in the basement where your party is supposed to be fight rats, unless the old lady was lying and she was really hiding the dragon from the town because she is building up its power to destroy the world… wait maybe thats an idea for another time.

Derek Bizier, the Halfling Master


P.S. As I await the official announcement for the remaster of the Gardens of Ynn, I look at games like Maze Rats, The Stygian Library and To Elfland and Back. These books all keep dungeon ecology in mind while allowing for a new play experience every time you delve into their worlds. I do not make any money off of these links as I do not currently have an affiliate account with any of these sites, so please feel free to visit and give your patronage to each and every one of these great creators.

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