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Encounters

Clark Timmins
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So stop your cheap comment, 'cause we know what we feel...
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My sticky paws were into making straws out of big fat slurpy treats - incredible eight-foot heap / Now the funny glare to pay a gleaming tare in a staring under heat involved an under usual feat
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An encounter. An unexpected or casual meeting with someone or something. The "encounter" is an integral part of roleplaying games, and has been from the very start, being the principle topic of TSR2002 Monsters & Treasure, one of the three volumes of Dungeons & Dragons (Original Edition). In this earliest game, an encounter was assumed to be with a monster "hostile [or] benign". The encounter consisted of a monster type (virtually all encounters were assumed to be with cohesive groups of like monsters), a number appearing (this was noted as being potentially dependent on indoor/outdoor location), and a chance of the encounter being in the critters' lair. The primary function of being "in lair" was whether or not the monsters encountered would be bearing treasure. In those first days, it was always better to encounter things in their lairs, because that way you got paid for defeating things. The whole rest of the volume was devoted to monster stats and treasure tables.

Fast forward four decades and an encounter, to most roleplayers, is still pretty much the same thing. Oh sure, we've become more nuanced in our approach. "Wandering monsters" have given away to set encounters; monster groups have different types of critters and/or specialties (one of the strongest aspects of Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition)). Encounters have morale, surprise, and maybe even (gasp) motivation. But at heart, you're bumping your character into a beastie. The beastie wants to kill/eat/loot and the character wants to kill/loot (for PCs, eat usually applies only in extremis).

The encounter process was substantively buffed up (and complicated) in Dungeon Masters Guide (AD&D 1e). Presented in "Appendix C: Random Monster Encounters", a plethora of tables and details were presented. What all this process did was introduce a lot of variability into the situation surrounding the encounter. Instead of encountering "30-300 orcs in lair", you could suddenly encounter a humongous diversity of things at various distances, under various conditions, and in all sorts of different terrain. Significantly for teenage gamers, a bare-breasted mermaid encounter also was illustrated. But guess what? You were still bumping your character into a beastie (hopefully a bare-breasted one). Complications, complications.

There also were some strange encounters noted. Encounters that broke the system, so to speak. Let's say you're using the "Temperate and Sub-Tropical Conditions: Uninhabited/Wilderness Areas" table (pp. 184-185). Arguably one of the most-used tables. Depending on the "Predominant Terrain" you could encounter things like: Bull/Cattle, wild; Dog, wild; Herd Animal; Horse, wild; Porcupine; or Stag. Presumably, none of these "monsters" are going to attack. They don't have treasure. They don't yield meaningful experience. They might be eaten. So... they're an encounter, but you don't really "encounter" them in the original sense. Even more problematic - you could encounter a Pseudo-dragon. Turning to pp. 78-80 in Monster Manual (AD&D 1e) we read "Pseudo-dragons have a chameleon-like power, so they can blend into any typical background and become 80% undetectable..." So the players are bumbling along through the Sub-Tropical Uninhabited Wilderness and the Dungeon Master starts furiously rolling dice and consulting books and then announces "you don't encounter anything". What the...? This is not a game players want to play! It's even worse then encountering (and surviving) "30-300 orcs" and realizing they are not in lair! The party then spends the remainder of game night searching every nook, cranny, root, and twig in the forest for whatever it is that they are not encountering.

And it got even worse with the City/Town Encounters Matrix (p. 191). You're walking through the city. You have an encounter! It's a... merchant. You're in a city and you "encounter" a merchant. Are you kidding me? You walk further down the street and have another encounter! It's a... Nycadaemon. What's that? It's not even in the rules? What's going on in this crazy city?

You could, of course, argue that the encounter tables were poorly edited. This could be corrected. But that's not the real problem. It just illustrates the real problem - it drives right down to the heart of the encounter situation in roleplaying games. If you have an encounter, you expect it to be significant. And that's the real problem, right there. Because when you do have an encounter, you treat it as significant. There is no way the game master is going to spend the time to run you through an encounter with a "Person, Nondescript/Uninteresting/Insignificant". So the GM doesn't know the NPCs name or appearance? Ha! That's a ruse to fool you into turning your back. The GM tells you flat out "it's just a random farmer plowing a random field." Ha! Obviously that farmer must be tortured for information and that field must be excavated completely. Still nothing? Even more proof we're not looking hard enough!

In "real life", we have countless encounters every day. The streets are full of people. The shops are full of people. We may even interact with them. The store clerks, the person we sit next to on the train, the other people at school, the visitor at church, the kids on the sidewalk - all encounters. None (more or less) significant. In fact, if a "game-terms-significant" encountered happened in "real life", it'd probably be on the evening news. But there's no real way to simulate this in tabletop roleplaying. In computer roleplaying games - at least the newer ones - this can be simulated. There are all kinds of people or benign critters walking around in many of the newer CRPGs. Many of them even say pithy or curious things and have unique appearances. But they're still not significant encounters. But there's just no useful way to simulate that on the tabletop. Unless the GM wants to spend an awful lot of time running "pointless" encounters, the clear expectation is going to be that an encounter is intended to be significant.

In gaming, space and time function at a sort of "maxi" level for most events. Eight hours can pass with "we sleep"; a whole week or month can pass with "we wait in town". An interstellar voyage can pass with "we fly to Sector 7". But then the game will drop into a sort of "micro" level for significant events - like encounters. All encounters. Most games have something analogous to a "strategic" time/distance scale and a "tactical" time/distance scale. In AD&D First Edition (1e) Compatible Products there were "turns" and "rounds"; there was "overland movement" and "combat movement". Some games that focus more on tactical complexity (like e.g. Phoenix Command) have three different "levels" of space-time - and actually Phoenix Command has two wholly different "scales" (infantry vs. armor) to yield six possible "levels" of focus with corresponding nonsense reality. The reason for this is quite obvious - nobody wants to "roleplay" hundreds of hours of riding horses to the keep on the borderlands. Nobody wants to roleplay eight hours of sleep. We want all that to simply pass by. What we want to roleplay are the exciting bits that happen in between the long, dry spells. Thus, the dual space/time scales used allow us to play fun games. But, alas, the perverse consequence is that any (and every) time the game drops into the "micro" space/time scale, the event is deemed significant. Whether it is or not.
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