In recent months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Red Dead Redemption 2. I started before the holidays, and the slow pace of the early game tripped me up. It took some cognitive adjustment (and a few tutorial articles) to get my bearings in this new version of the Old West. The game is beautiful, and gives players a vast canvas to devote countless hours to do – well, just about anything.
From hunting wildlife to donating to beggars to playing poker to bonding with a horse to furthering women’s rights to shooting up a “the whole damn town” with a frenemy, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players a trainload of options for how to spend their time while controlling Arthur Morgan. In addition to tens of hours of primary plot lines to follow, which I’m still nowhere near completing yet, the game has various tiers of what I’ll label Random Encounters. It is these encounters – and how they could relate to a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons – that have been on my mind in recent days.
I wrote years ago how I learned to structure D&D sessions like the original Red Dead Redemption. At the time, I was running a 4th Edition campaign setting that I was making up on the fly. I needed to build a foundation in my mind so I didn’t get lost in my own world. Enter my experience with games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption:
In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.
Back then, I channeled my preparation time into creating prominent NPCs that players could interact with during sessions, knowing the general areas and missions those NPCs would trigger. It was a formula that worked well with my group, and helped me prepare for each session. Clearly, adventure books and modules accomplish this same goal; those texts provide details on important NPCs, and the DM steers the players in the direction of those NPCs to advance the plot.
Where Red Dead Redemption 2 is intriguing is that some tiers of the Random Encounters do not serve a purpose in the classic sense of game design. Completing the encounters does not increase skills, earn your character money, or unlock new items. The encounters are simply there; they exist to be experienced by the player. It’s rather strange because many other areas of the game drive you to complete specific actions to craft an item, earn more money, or improve your character or equipment in some way.
An example of these “seemingly purposeless” Random Encounters is when a stranger appears on the map and asks for a ride or escort to town. Offering assistance takes the player away from their current destination (if they had one) and offers a new conversation with the stranger as you escort him or her to an area on the map. Sometimes a person is under arrest, bitten by a snake, caught in a bear trap, or afflicted with some other form of peril and will call out for help, and it’s up to the player if they want to invest the time and energy to get involved. There is often no immediate reward for helping, though the player can be surprised (many) hours later when that same stranger offers them a free purchase at a store or some other kindness.
Other Random Encounters are more elaborate and scripted, such as keeping a photographer alive while he clumsily documents wildlife, helping an eccentric artist remain alive through a gauntlet of shenanigans, assisting with the creation of the first electric chair, locating the wondrous animals of a traveling circus, or roaming the forest to track down a freak show’s magician. The rewards for engaging in these missions are often minimal, quite delayed, or otherwise insignificant.
They are still quite enjoyable to experience!
They make the game world feel more alive and varied. Some of the missions are incredibly weird and off-color, and have nothing to do with the primary plot of the game. These types of experiences seem like a useful wrinkle to add into a role-playing game session. Before exploring some options of how to mix these into tabletop RPG sessions, let’s examine some of the possible ways these encounters could fall flat with a gaming group.
Barriers to Random Encounters
While we might think about tabletop role-playing games as the ultimate sandbox where players can “do anything,” there are confines that are generally accepted even if they remain unstated. First, it is my perception that players (including the DM) expect their time to be well spent; everyone taking the time to gather for two or more hours to play a game like D&D should result in some movement in the game’s world. Players expect the plot to move forward, villains to be encountered, combat to be resolved, and treasures to be earned. I put this theory to an unscientific test on Twitter several weeks ago, and was surprised by the results.
It is a small and self-selecting sample, so take these findings with a heavy grain of salt, though it does appear a clear majority of players are willing to spend some time at the table engaging in missions that do not enhance classic areas of progression in D&D. I remain skeptical of this result as it’s one thing to agree to being open to these encounters, and yet another to drive across town after arranging a busy schedule to play a session of D&D to find a fair amount of time during the session is devoted to something that is not getting the party – or the player’s character – closer to their stated goals. Hold this thought; I’ll return to it below!
Second, a potential barrier (that could also be a benefit) is players will attempt to link any Random Encounter you describe during a session to established plots in the campaign. Imagine something as simple as introducing a NPC along a road asking for help to get to the next town. Players are trained to be suspicious of this NPC, and will likely try to link the NPC to any number of plot threads that are dangling in the campaign. While this could be enjoyable for the DM because the ideas generated while the players speculate about the NPC could lead to splendid outcomes, the routine could get tiresome for everyone at the table when any Random Encounter introduced by the DM results in rampant attempts by the players to connect it to current plot threads.
Using Random Encounters Effectively
Like anything, the right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy. Know the players at the table and how willing they are to venture off on something unrelated to their primary objectives in the campaign. Start off by experimenting with a brief Random Encounter that is not intended to add anything substantial to the plot threads in the game. Watch how the players react; at the very least, the encounter will give you more information about the player’s motivations and allow the players to demonstrate traits of his or her character in a new situation.
Offer the players a minimal reward for engaging in the Random Encounter. Some of the encounters in Red Dead Redemption 2 have you helping a poor individual who will attempt to give you a meager reward such as a small amount of money or cheap jewelry. Introducing a clearly destitute NPC that offers the party a monetary reward presents a choice point for the players – do they take the reward or decline? The reward could also be a useful piece of information, such as a tip about where to eat or shop in the next town, “Don’t let Buchar’s demeanor fool you, he’s a pussycat if you haggle with him a bit.” Or it could be a small token such as a crude bracelet or decorative scarf. Also, depending on how you track and award experience points, be willing to give players some XP for engaging in a Random Encounter. Let them know you find this use of time during a session meaningful.
Consider how readily the players will attempt to link the Random Encounter to established plot threads in the campaign, and use this to your advantage. Are the players passive and inclined to “go along with the DM” or do they constantly go off on tangents depending on who they meet during a session? If the Random Encounter is quite generic, then the players will have an easier time filling in the blanks to link it to something that is already going on in the campaign. On the other hand, if the Random Encounter is quite specific and seemingly unrelated to anything in the campaign, then it will likely be more difficult for the players to link it to an established plot thread. Players continuously surprise us, so while we cannot completely predict their behavior, being thoughtful about the type of Random Encounter introduced can assist in making it a successful experiment.
Brief Random Encounter Examples for D&D
Since I created 20 Cleric Quest Ideas last week, 20 seemed like a good number for Random Encounter examples. Consider adding one of these to an upcoming gaming session with players, and feel free to modify the setting, race, sex, and characteristics of the NPCs described.
- While the PCs are traveling between towns, introduce a half-elf that requests an escort to the PC’s destination. The half-elf may offer some information about the next town (or not), and simply wants a ride.
- While in a town, a child requests help to find a lost pet. The child has been frantically searching for hours without success. The child could offer a small token to show gratitude or offer to do a favor for the party.
- While traveling, the party is approached by a lone hunter. She means no harm and asks for help flushing out a notorious wolf for her trophy collection. She could offer a small amount of coins in reward or offer to craft a decorative piece of clothing out of the fur.
- While in a tavern the party is likely to return to in the future, a man hesitantly approaches a member of the party. He explains that his son is enamored with thoughts of glory and treasure, and requests that you help convince his son that those dreams of adventure and riches are unrealistic and dangerous. The player(s) can choose to ignore the request or provide persuasion to the father or son. This may not lead to an immediate reward, though the father and/or son could show up later in a campaign through any number of possible scenarios.
- While traveling, a wagon passes by with three armed guards. The tiefling woman inside is pleading with the guards about her innocence. As the wagon passes the party, she attempts to get their attention and begs for her life, “Please, you must save me. There’s been a terrible mistake. They captured the wrong person. They’re going to kill me. Please get me out of here!” The players could ignore the request, or try to speak with the guards for more information. This could turn into a brief skirmish, or result in the players attempting to bribe the guards. The woman could be innocent or guilty; consider what would be the most enjoyable for your group and see where it goes.
- While traveling or in a settlement, an archer (or whatever type of ranged weapon is suitable to entice a member of the party) offers to compete at target practice for a small wager. The interaction can be handled quickly through some die rolls and the reward would be the wager agreed upon. Depending on the outcome, the archer could offer, “Double or nothing?” This could continue until the players or archer lose interest in the activity – or something else interrupts them.
- While in a settlement, a beggar is along a road and asking for assistance. The players can ignore the request for help or give the beggar some coins. The beggar could offer thanks to the players as a reward, or possibility provide a useful piece of information about the town – or even something connected to open plot lines in the campaign.
- While traveling in the wilderness, a lone woman is seen setting up a campsite near dusk. She asks the party to join her for dinner as she has not conversed with others in some time. She speaks of being a writer and hiking far and wide to find inspiration for a new book. She has no ulterior motives and requests the players to leave when it is time to go to bed. She may offer a handwritten poem as a reward to the player she connects with the most during the encounter.
- While in a city, the players are interrupted by a grim-looking man running right past them, followed several seconds later by a member of the city guard shouting from behind, “Stop that man! He’s a criminal! He’s getting away!” The players can chase the man to help the city guard or ignore the request. A reward for helping would be getting in the good grace’s of the city guard officials.
- While in a town, one or more of the players notice a pickpocket at work. The players can choose to intervene or ignore the behavior. A reward might be the pickpocket bribing the players or citizens offering their thanks when their stolen items are returned.
- While in town, an elderly man is seen calling out for help. He is asking for help to find a lost friend. The players can provide assistance or ignore the request. The old man can offer a meager sum or coins as a reward, which the players can accept or decline.
- In a city, the players encounter two men attempting to hide while looking through a window. Any level of investigation results in the players learning that the men are peeping young ladies through the window. The players can intervene or ignore the behavior.
- While traveling, a woman is seen on the side of the road asking for help. She stated she was out looking for a medicinal herb to help cure her daughter’s illness. She explains that she cannot afford the medicine in town so set out to find the herb herself. The players can assist by helping the woman track down the herb or taking her back to town to buy the medicine. She has no reward to offer other than thanks.
- While traveling, a man comes out of the woods screaming about a snake bite. He requests an antidote or some form of medicine to save his life. The party can provide assistance or allow the man to die. (Probably a good idea to check first to learn if the party has some type of medicine or ability that would allow them to save the man; introducing a no-win situation likely is not fun!)
- While outside of a tavern, the party witness two men in a verbal argument that escalates into a fight. The argument could be over a shared love interest, gambling, or some other source of ire. The party can choose to get involved or allow the fight to play out.
- While near a graveyard around town or by a grave in the wilderness, the party sees an individual digging up a grave. The party can investigate the matter or ignore. The individual digging the grave could be a thief or a bereaved loved one trying to find an item mistakenly buried with the body.
- While traveling, the party is ambushed by low-level thieves. It should be clear early in the encounter that the thieves underestimated the party and got into more than they bargained for. The thieves will quickly attempt to flee or surrender; the party can decide how the deal with the thieves from this point.
- While exploring a dungeon, a gnome turns a corner and is spotted by the party. He is holding a variety of packs with tools dangling from loops on his clothing. He asks for help unlocking a door up ahead, which seems to be locked with magic. He knows the room beyond has useful materials for his experiments. He offers a reward to the party for their assistance, including a bit of gold and useful information regarding their current quest.
- While at an inn, an artist requests your assistance with protecting her artwork from possible vandals during a show tomorrow. Unbeknownst to the players, the artwork is rather controversial and lewd, which causes a commotion with some citizens during the show. The artist offers to pay a small price for the players to assist her and gifts one of them a piece of her artwork. (Use your imagine on what the artwork depicts; you know your players better than I!)
- While at a tavern, a dwarven woman challenges a member of the party (pick the one with the biggest mouth for maximum effect) to a drinking contest. A crowd gathers to watch the contest. (So this is from Raiders of the Lost Ark, not RDR2!)
With any of the Random Encounters above, aim for introducing the encounter quickly and approach it with the mindset that it should not take up more than a few minutes of time at the table. Some of the encounters above may lead to a longer segment of gameplay; play close attention to the players and determine who is engaged and why.
At the very least, encounters like this bring the world to life. Red Dead Redemption 2 feels so immersive because at any given moment someone could pop up asking for help. Consider the world the players are inhabiting. If they are a bunch of adventuring heroes, then they would likely draw the attention of “random” people looking for help or trying to take advantage of them. These encounters do not need to define a campaign or even a session, though they can provide a new wrinkle to the bag of tricks we all use to entertain players at the table.
Ride forth with them!
Final note, I’ll be appearing on Wizard of the Coast’s Dragon Talk this Friday, February 8th at 1PM PST. Come by and watch the show!