Sunday, August 14, 2016

God's Workbench Part 3: Designing a New Encounter System (1 of 2).

I needed a good method to generate random encounters. I am have been putting a lot of energy into this fantastic world, let's get it right. I tried to recall how it was done in D&D1e. I vaguely remember rolling a d6 a twice a day. If it was a 1, go to the appropriate terrain/monster table.  Here's what the DMG really says:

Use the upper unnamed table determine the level of civilization you're in. Next, consult the “Frequency Of Encounter Chance Time Checks” by cross indexing the time of day with the type of terrain you're in. (What’s the difference between plain and scrub?  What about forest and hills together?) If there's an X in the column you need to make a roll to see if there is an encounter. To make the actual check either roll a d20, d12 or d10 based on the level of civilization (from the unnamed table above). A result of “1” indicates there is an encounter. I will never stop loving my DMG for its unparalleled ability to be f***ing byzantine as possible (“FBAP”). Based on the scant space given for random outdoor encounters, they must have been considered ancillary to the game. (Interestingly however, while exploring underground in a dungeon, there are no rules on how to check for wandering monsters - no time interval or chance given of occurrence. I checked the player's handbook and the monster manual. Nothing. Pretty odd, given that there are pages and pages of tables in the DMG to generate random monster encounters based on the level underground.)

I have just burned up 45 minutes looking for information on 5E’s outdoor random encounter system. All I found were these 2 pages of number bashing that will supposedly help the DM to create balanced encounters. Really? Honestly, no one, except paid authors writing modules for D&D are going to use this. I bet they will even fudge the results. More searching only got me I people’s questions on forums about outdoor encounters and some clunky home brew systems...but nothing else. If you can’t find a popular game system’s core mechanic...that’s a problem. Enough D&D.

The focus of Crypts-N-Creepies is crypt bashing. Time spent traveling back and forth to the various enclaves of doom was seen as time wasted.  As belaboured in the rule book, “the main play of the game is opening crypts for inspection and removing swag product for economic reinsertion”. Traveling overland and having random encounters was purposely truncated to keep the “Proverbial Evening Of Gaming” from getting bogged down fighting randomly generated creepazoids. I opted for simplicity and created an abbreviated overland travel system which was intended to recreate the flavor of traveling. Well...things change and I have decided to take a step back, in order to go two steps forward. Movement rates overland are intertwined with encounters, so might as well rethink this as well.  Deep breath.

Here are two abstract theories of encounter systems.  Let’s call this first type the “Set Up” model.  It wants to be a close simulation of the real world.  Monster populations are located on the map beforehand.  As players explore and get closer to these fixed locations, the more likely they will encounter the monsters that live there.  So if the #1 on the map is a ruin where four Urk's are holed up, when you go there, bingo!  #8 is an abandoned temple complex and home to 53 Blue Boldies.  And so on. 

There are several big issues with this approach.  The biggest is that you, as creator, will never have enough energy to fill it.  Or the space to record it.  Or find what you need when you need it. It’s a lot of damn work, no getting around it.  Second, design it and I promise the players will avoid it.  Consciously or unconsciously.  Never fail.  The model represents a snapshot in time and doesn't take into account that creatures will be moving around visiting their aunts and so on.  Well, you could make tables for this…. But again more unnecessary complexity.

I call this second model the “On Demand” system. Areas of the map are defined with boundaries and within them random encounters are generated from a table. The table is made in such a way as to offer up typical encounters for that area. The areas size may range from hundreds of square miles to a single small hill. So, if a random encounter is called for in the Red Forest, the table for this zone is used to generate the random encounter. This model defines the world in broad strokes.  

The huge advantage with the “On Demand” model is the Crypt Lord can come up with generalizations to define areas, thus liberating him/her from having to design everything in excruciating detail. There is a level of abstraction with this, as things magically appear as you need them.  This flies in the face of realism that some players prefer, but it’s important to remember that RPG games are narrative based.  Besides, who needs more work to do?  One flaw of this model is that the encounters, because they must come from a generalised matrix can seem a little cookie cutter after a while.

A third issue, is both of these systems handle essentially only one facet of encounters, namely, how often to check, the chance of occurrence and what the monster is.  Neither of these models (or existing RPG encounter systems) help you with much anything else. What is the actual terrain?  What are the relative distances between you and the other parties?  Can one see other first and hide before being seen?  What if your group is super stealthy?  Or obnoxiously loud?  What about generating an encounter that is part of the game narrative?  Or an encounter type that is outside what is “typical” for the aera?  The game systems I have seen pretty much leave this up to you.  I don’t know about you, but I would like a little more structure to bounce off of. Here’s my wish list for the new encounter system design:

An encounter matrix with results that ranges from typical to special.

Status of the encountered creature, such as what it’s doing, mood, etc.

Take into effect what players are doing, how stealthy, loud and their speed traveling.

Provide some details of the physical setting of the encounter.

How encounter can be rolled into the current narrative.

Be easy to use (this one’s a killer).

It’s starting to take form.  Let’s refer to the players while traveling as a “Troupe”.  I find having an odd term like this helps in keeping things clear.  When you use the word “troupe” (unlike party, or level for that matter) everyone knows we are talking about a group of crypt openers moving overland.   So let’s go back to the overland travel rates.  I’ll need to make a table showing traveling speed based on a number of variables.  Notice that a troupe must choose to travel at one of three speeds, cautious, normal or hustling.  This is not an a new idea, but I was reminded of it because I’m playing Blucher (a hot new Napoleonics game).  In it units can move at different speeds (having different effects during play).  Lastly, I searched the web and found a good discussion on movement rates to use as a guide.  You can find it here:  

Here is the first component of the new random encounter system, the overland movement table.  I know it looks a little complex.  It’s not bad and you only need it once.  Basically the troupe will move the speed of its slowest member.  The races are on the left.  Let’s say we have a troupe of 3 Humes and a Welf.  Welfs are faster, but the Humes will slow him/her down.  Looking at Humes we have three speed choices, slow, normal and hustling.  In general, moving slow means you are searching or encumbered, normal is what usually takes place, and hustling is at a fast trot which will sacrifice noticing things and so on.  These speeds will factor into how the encounters work, later on.  It also gives the players some control over how thier encounters can turn out.  There is a second part to this table, astute readers will have noticed that movement rates mounted and employing veyances are not shown.  I’ll finish up random encounters in the next part.

BTW, this will be incorporated into the newest edition of the popular Crypts-N-Creepies rule book. 

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