Discussion – Random Encounters

‘You begin your arduous trek up into the Craggtop Mountains. Winter cloaks drawn close, you push on through the snowy climbs past dead trees and frozen pools.’

*DM rolls behind screen*

‘After several hours of hard slog, you begin to see something in the distance. Pick their way over a craggy ridge to your east are several orc scouts mounted on worgs. As you watch, one of the beasts catches a whiff of something on the wind and turns to snarl in your direction. Let’s roll initiative!’

This tends to be how I manage travel in my games. The adventurers say where they want to go. If they would know, I tell them how long it will take to get there and the kind of terrain they’ll be facing. The party might gather some supplies, maybe even hire a guide if the location is particularly tricky. Then they set off.
Typically I try to describe the ecology of the area each day, I’ll roll (or make up) weather and describe the sort of food they can find etc. I’ll then roll for a random encounter. I’ve always been obsessed with random encounter (RE) tables, even since I saw the example in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg.87). I made one for literally every single ecosystems in every campaign I was running.
Using them so often, I noticed a bit of a problem. They way they are outlined in the DMG makes sense, encounters are weighted by probability, but in reality it can become quite boring. If the players encounter orcs on worgs every day for the next ten-day then obviously they’ll get sick of it. The first few times aren’t so bad, maybe the orcs are already fighting something; local rangers, an ogre they’ve hunted down, an angered manticore etc. but inevitably I’ll run out of ways to reskin.

Then came Out of the Abyss and yet again, my RE obsession flared. I truly think that OotA has nailed random encounters. Roll a d20 once when travelling, once when camping. It could be terrain, monsters or both. Instantly, encounters are more interesting, with ~20 terrain types and 20+ possible monsters duplicates are incredibly rare. So I began again, remaking and restyling all of my previous RE tables. I think it was successful.

This is where my problem arises though. I’ve made all these RE tables, but now only one group I DM is still in the 1st tier (levels 1-4). After this it seems to me that REs often slow the game down. Fighting a pack of dire wolves is dangerous and exciting at level 2, but at levle 5 it’s pretty easy to cook them with a fireball…
So do we keep using REs, or maybe work on some ‘prescripted’ little side quests to fill travel? Should travel at higher levels be done as a montage, to help move the plot along? I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

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