Dozens and Dragons

random encounters

how to do a random encounter



What is a random encounter

It’s pretty much what it sounds like.

Most often used in exploration or dungeoneering procedures, random encounters occur with the passing of time, or as the adventurers mess with stuff.

They provide a way for the environment to interact right back with the adventurers, usually with more and more severe consequences.

My favorite way to think of random encounters is as the environment or dungeon awakening and becoming increasingly aware of the adventurers and reacting to them.

This article will list a couple of ways to manage random encounters.

Dungeons And Boredom

Because my gaming career began with D&D 5e, we’ll begin by looking at how the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests running random encounters.

They’re pretty fast and loose with how often to check for encounters, ranging from a couple times a day to once every 4 hours. But the instructions are clear on how to check: roll 1d20. 18 or higher = random encounter.

It was also pretty lenient with how one should organize their random encounters, but the only working example they gave was a 1d12 + 1d8 table, which gives a pretty nice bell curve with common encounters grouped in the middle, and with encounters at either end being more rare.

In practice, an 18 or higher is only a 15% chance of something happened, which means that 85% of the time, nothing happens. Which is boring and uninteresting.

Nothing Never Happens

Next, there is the idea of the “overloaded” encounter die.

It usually looks like a d4 or a d6 worth of things that can happen.

Whenever it is time to roll for an encounter (e.g. descend a level, discover a new area, make lots of noise, etc.) you roll on your encounter table and something always happens. Nothing never happens. (Don’t gloss over the very important fact that we got rid of the encounter roll. When it makes sense in the story for something to happen, something happens. We just roll to see what.)

For example:

  1. Encounter: roll on your encounter tables
  2. Omen/Sign: roll on your encounter tables, but you only find a sign of the encounter. Foreshadowing!
  3. Local Effect: some kind of contextual effect or event
  4. Fatigue: party must rest or take exhaustion
  5. Resource Depletion: a torch goes out, or rations go bad
  6. Discovery/Treasure: find something neat.

There are plenty of variations on this theme.

Some of the most clever inject a reactive amount of pressure into the system.

For example, consider the following encounter table:

  1. Encounter I
  2. Treasure I
  3. Nothing
  4. Omen I
  5. Encounter II
  6. Treasure II
  7. Omen II
  8. Exhaustion

Suppose the players start off with a 1d4 encounter die. Until they increase the size of their die by spending more time messing around in the dungeon, it’s not possible for them to encounter any “Level II” tables.

The trade off is of course having to prep more tables.

Read more:

Encounter Ladder

This is a dead simple way of creating scaling, responsive encounters. That is, having more simple encounters at the beginning of the dungeon, and more complex or dangerous ones as you progress.

Create a table of 12 - 20 encounters. As many as you like, really. And then start rolling 1d6 on it whenever an encounter should happen. As each encounter is resolved, check it off your list, skipping over it on subsequent rolls.

This table should reward (or punish?) players they longer they engage with the area, so you can pack the end of the table with high risk / high reward encounters.

You can also scale this up and down. I usually roll 1d6 on a table of 12 - 20, but you could start with 1d4 and a shorter list.

You can also at your discretion enhance the roll (e.g. now rolls are 1d6 + 3) if the adventurers are entering a harder area or nearing the end of the scenario.

The Devils Own Table

This method, “the devil’s table” takes its name from its 3d6 mechanic = 666.

Best when combined with the encounter ladder mentioned above, you will create a 3 column table with one row per encounter.


Roll Encounter Objective Complication
1 goblin selling wares haunted gear
2 wolf hunting food sick child
3 skeleton rest lost item
4 giraffe wants best leaves neck too short

You just fill out each row with something obvious and apparent. And then when you roll on it three times, once for each column, then the real joy of it comes from mixing and matching encounters, objectives, and complications in surprising ways. Sometimes silly, always interesting, often memorable: your encounters suddenly have compelling narrative.

Read more:


That’s a couple of ways to do random encounters.

Try it out.

If you make a scaling encounter ladder out of a devil’s table and combine it with an overloaded encounter die, then you’ve really got something cooking.

« older | 2022-03-15 | newer »