How to use random encounters in your D&D games

Art by Dungeon Doodles

Art by Dungeon Doodles

You never know what dangers you might find out in the world.

When you’re playing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, you’re bound to run into some unexpected things.

That’s where random encounters come in. In January’s Dungeon Crate, you received a copy of Epic Encounters, a collection of 20 original random encounters for characters from level one to three. (Stay tuned… We’re making more in the series.)

In older editions, random encounters kind of fell out of favor. Combat took a ton of time, so bogging down your game with a bit of roadside combat wasn’t the best. But in 5th edition, combat can be quicker (you don’t even need to play on a map if you don’t want to) and can really add some flavor to your game.

Random encounters can enhance your campaign world. They can create a sense of danger, show the nature of various areas and introduce important NPCs, themes and plot points.

How should you use them? We have some ideas.

Drop one when the players are getting distracted. Sometimes players get distracted either by something in the game or by their phones or dice or doodles or whatever. Re-focus their attention back to the task at hand with an encounter. All the better if you can flavor the encounter with something related to your campaign.

Introduce an important character or artifact. Finding someone or something during your travels can spark a new adventure thread or lead your players to something you need them to find next. And it doesn’t have to be an old wizard with a broken wagon. They can find an NPC captured by an enemy, amid combat or perhaps even waiting to ambush them (only to find they share the same goals).

Reinforce the themes of your campaign. If you’re playing in a horror-themed campaign, roving packs of werewolves or herds of clambering skeletons would be appropriate. If you run a high magic campaign, maybe they find a spell book sitting on the side of the road. If the local orc tribes are warring against each other, they may run into a squad or two, perhaps even battling each other.

Make your campaign world feel dangerous. You can wear down players’ resources, and their hit points, too, when you throw monsters at them. It’ll make whatever lies at the end of the road even more difficult if they’ve already had a tough time on the road.

It doesn’t have to be combat. Combat encounters are fine, but sometimes they might find an important person, the entrance to an abandoned temple, a shrine to a god, the ruins of a castle, a magic sword stuck in a tree or a bridge they had meant to cross that happens to be on fire.

Don’t make them tiresome. Random encounters are supposed to add some fun and excitement to your games. If the players are tired of fighting road-side bands of bandits, maybe skip the next random. If they’re in a race against time to get a healing potion to a dying king, it might kill the excitement for them to run into a pack of 1d4 wolves.

You can make them hard. Adventurers don’t always have to face level-appropriate enemies and traps. Sometimes they stumble into situations that are way more difficult than they’re prepared for. Feel free to make them sweat a little.