Monday, July 29, 2019

Encounter Stew

I've tried to overhaul the random encounter system before.  So have others, sometimes with very interesting results.  Here's one more log for the fire.

You make a encounter check every 20 minutes (every 2 exploration turns).  An exploration turn is the time it takes to investigate an average room.

Your stew pot is a bowl in the center of the table with dice in it.  Whenever you make an encounter check, you roll all of the dice at the same time.

You get Light Dice based on the size of your torch.  Brighter light leads to fewer encounters.
You get Scout Dice by being quiet and observant.  They give you clues and help you get more ambushes.
You get Alert Dice once you piss off the dungeon.

Light Dice

The brightness of your torch affects the frequency of your random encounters.

Your torch starts off as a d12.  With each subsequent check, it shrinks in size, eventually sputtering out.  The size of the torch also affects how far it sheds light.  If there are multiple torches, the strongest torch increases size for each weaker torch.  The die size cannot increase above a d12.

d12 - 30' range - first encounter check
d10 - 25' range - has burned for 20 min
d8 - 20' range - has burned for 40 min
d6 - 15' range - has burned for 60 min
d4 - 10' range - has burned for 80 min
d2 - 5' range - has burned for 100 min and is about to go out.
d0 - Roll a black d20 on the Exultations of the Underworld table instead (below).

Whenever you roll a 1, a random encounter occurs.  By default, neither party is surprised.

A flask of oil has 30 measures of oil. You can choose how much oil you want to burn in your lamp: anything between 4 and 12.  Treat it as the same-sized torch.  (So if you want to burn 12 units of oil, you treat your lamp as if it were a d12 torch.)

This has the added benefit of making the characters and the DM more aware of the passage of time, since the mechanism is literally in the center of the table.  It also makes light sources more important, since there is now some strategy about when you should switch out your torch.

No goblins bothered you while you were lighting up a fresh torch.
Sidebar: Shouldn't More Light Lead to More Encounters?

I can see the logic in that line of reasoning.

However, I'm not approaching this from a simulationist angle.  The Underworld is a mythic place.  It is a nest of dreams and darkness, and even the smallest basement is an extension of its will.  Light is a speartip that holds the Darkness at bay.

And this reinforces the type of tension that I want to create.  I want players to have to choose between safety now VS conservation for the future.  Will low HP force them to burn through all of their torches in a hurry?  Will low torches force them to creep around in the thickening gloom?

If you follow the philosophy of less light = fewer encounters, then you're encouraging your players to wriggle through your dungeons with the tiniest candles.  (This seems less fun, since you'll have to describe rooms through a narrow straw.)  And at the extremes, you may force players to choose between using a tiny candle and travelling in pure darkness, which doesn't seem like a dilemma I want to encourage either. 

Darkness is evil.  Shun it.

Sidebar: Shouldn't This Just Lead to Backpacks Stuffed with Torches?

I'm okay with that.  Players can't carry to much unnecessary stuff if you track inventory.  (GLOG: Inventory holds Str + 2 items if you've got a good backpack.)

They can bring a hireling along to carry a sack of torches for them, but that just means that the DM has one more person who can fall into a chasm, get eaten by ooze, or flee screaming into the abyss.  A torch monkey removes some risk, but it opens up the door to new, interesting modes of failure.

Scout Dice 

By default, the party has a single green d6.  This is the scout die.

Whenever the scout die shows a 1, you find some trace of an encounter.  You might find enormous clawed tracks (traces of a basilisk) or a crawling, shattered skeletal hand (traces of undead).

If the party has encumbered people, they lose their Scout Die.

For every ranger in the party, they gain +1 Scout Die.  If the party gets a pair of 1s on the Scout Dice, they find traces that they are able to track back to the creature's lair.  This gives the party a chance to ambush the creature while it's sleeping (50% default) or explore its lair unmolested.  Either way, they'll have an opportunity to scoop up the beast's loot.

If both the Light Die and at least 1 Scout Die show a 1, then you detect the enemy before you encounter it.  The party has the choice to either avoid the encounter or ambush them.

You heard some goblins coming before they saw you.

Sidebar: Surprising the Party

You may have noticed that there is no default way for enemies to surprise the party.  This is intentional.

Instead I prefer surprise to be a feature of specific monsters.  For example, I run panthers as ambush predators.  The players will always be alerted "hey, a panther is stalking you" and then the panther attacks at some point in the next 8 hours, whenever the party is most vulnerable. 

I've found this gives the party a fair chance to react, while still allowing for the circumstances to evolve in interesting directions.  (Sometimes things happen in the next 8 hours that make for more interesting panther attack scenarios.)

Alert Dice

By default, there aren't any Alert Dice in the stew.  You gain alert dice when the dungeon begins reacting to you.  (The most common example of this would be the goblins mobilizing search-and-destroy groups after the party has killed their shaman.)

Alert Dice work as enhancers.  They make certain encounters worse.

If you roll a 1 on an Alert Die, you encounter an enemy patrol.  (By default, this is just the regular goblin group from your regular encounter table, just alert and pissed off.) 

If you roll a 1 on the Light Die, you encounter a regular encounter.

If you roll a 1 on both the Light Die and the Alert Die, the party faces an enhanced encounter.  Either double the size of the encounter, or add 1-2 elites.  If you have multiple Alert Dice, treat each 1 as a similar, stacking enhancement.

Alert Dice can also be used to modulate the horror in a dungeon.  Perhaps once the second floor is unlocked, the catacombs flood the first floor with undead.  Enhanced encounters would be with undead versions of the previous encounters.

Alternatively, Alert Dice can be used to modulate the weirdness in a dungeon.  The Prism Castle begins to shift back to its home dimension once the Pope is rescued from the Infinite Carousel.  Patrol dice are added to the stew, but each Patrol is actually a random hallucinations/insanities that affects the party.  The enhanced encounters are a regular encounter where all the enemies are the ones affected by the madness.

You ran into a patrol while your torch was burning low.
Exultations of the Underworld (d20)

Without the light of the sun, the Throne of the Authority, the souls begin to loosen in their sockets.  Where the Underworld grasps, Hell will soon follow, and those fires have always held a certain attraction for souls.

1 Abduction.  A random player goes missing.  Their companions heard nothing, saw nothing.  If they were restrained by ropes, the ropes are now cut.  They were snatched away by troglodytic paws, or perhaps tumbled down a rocky embankment.  Their cries were muted by the dark.  (This may require two alternative timelines, now converging.)

Now they are held captive on some other part of this floor, or perhaps one floor deeper.  If they are not rescued within 24 hours, they will never leave this place.

2 Panic.  The Underworld speaks, and the soul trembles.  Everyone must make a save vs Fear.  Failure means that they will run in a random direction, ignoring each other and ignoring all threats.  If they are restrained by ropes, they will cut the ropes.  Everyone who is affected can make a new save each round to end the Fear.

3 Rapture.  The Underworld commands, and the soul obeys.  Everyone must make a save vs Charm.  Failure means that they will attempt to murder themselves in the quickest possible way.  They will hurl themselves from cliffs and drink poison.  If they possess a bomb, they will detonate it.  Everyone who is affected can make a new save each round to end the Charm.

4 Dispersion.  If you are crossing an underworld hex-crawl, the party is moved 1 hex in a random direction.  If you are in a dungeon, you are moved 1d4 rooms in a random direction.  This occurs even if the intervening movement would be impossible, e.g. through solid rock or locked doors.

5 Unburdening.  Every character must make an Int check.  If a character fails, a random item of theirs goes missing.  They may find it again, with light.  It is somewhere on this floor, or perhaps the next.

6-10 Trauma.  Everyone gains 1 Trauma.

11-15 Encounter.  A regular random encounter.

16-20 Surprise.  A random encounter, with the enemies getting a surprise round.


  1. Got any more exultations of the underworld? I could seriously use a full d20 list of those any time

    1. Other ideas: fucked up versions of random encounters, changing the map while the party is in the dark, trading character sheets while the party is in the dark, spells escape and become hostile, magic items turn against you, another adventuring party and you're both convinced that the others are demons, new NPC joins the party and no one can tell who the new NPC is compared to the old one (shuffle names, none are familiar).

  2. I like how adaptable this system is - it's easy to make dice for any and all mechanics you want to throw into the pot: light, noise, factional shenanigans, monster agitation, time, etc.

    I think I'd also relish the reactions I'd get from noisily dropping a loud clinking die into a bowl after, say, the party makes a big noise.

    1. It *is* more of a spectacle than the encounter roll usually is.

  3. Speaking as someone nine months into running a hexcrawl in a surreal landscape, I'm furious i didn't have the idea for a Weird Die in addition the the Encounter Die.

  4. This is really interesting, as someone who wants their players to track torches and stuff. It feels like Darkest Dungeon's light stat, but more fleshed out and expanded in interesting ways.

  5. ran these rules with my friday group last session and MAN are they good. i changed a few things around - i had encumbrance expand the monster encounter range, and gave them an extra scout die for going into the dungeon well-researched.

    but the decision making while they were exploring felt great, and adding an alert die to the stew right before they stopped for a much-needed hour's rest injected a TON of tension. great stuff here, i'm sure i'll be using it for years to come!