Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Powerful Tool for the Referee - The Random Encounter

I have been told that wandering monsters in D&D are there to keep the PCs from resting/healing after every encounter and slowing the in-game pace down by doing so. It is difficult to return to full HP if there are owlbears around every corner, waiting to eat you. Of course, there is not always a lot of explanation for the presence of all those owlbears, their presence is all game mechanics, as illustrated here:
Not Cool, DM. Not Cool.
Despite the descriptive ‘random’, encounters in Traveller should serve more purpose than that. An encounter that seems random to the players can be a powerful tool for the referee to craft short adventures, put color into the setting, and create pathways to new adventures.

Since Traveller likes to do things by sixes, here are six things the Referee should know about every Random Encounter

The Basics: the RE table will indicate the number of NPC’s and gives a general designation, along with a few notes about their gear. Maybe the group has a name, and a least give the group leader a name and UPP. If this group is going to become involved in a larger adventure, assign a few skills as well; use the gear notes and group type as guides.  Beggars are unlikely to have hand computers and a protest mob will not be carrying full electronics tool kits. 

The Goal: Every group will have a purpose for being together in the place where the PCs meet them. The group type should explain that to the referee, but do not identify them to the PCs by group type immediately, let them figure out who these people are and what they are doing.

Travel, transport, escape, pursuit, discovery; all of these and more can be easily stated group goals. Whatever it is, the group or at least the leader should have a plan for how the group will achieve that goal. With a goal and a plan, the NPCs will not just suddenly vanish out of the world once they have served their purpose in the encounter. Good world-building makes the world active around the PCs and their plans. See also Continuity below.

The Reaction: the reaction table (separate post) returns either negative, neutral or positive response to the PCs. When setting up an encounter, the referee should have an idea what all three reactions will look like, so that the NPCs can respond appropriately to what the PCs do or say. The referee can pre-determine that this group will be hostile or friendly, if that reaction is a plot point in the established adventure, but most of the time the players should have the chance to make a positive or negative impression. This is prime role-playing territory, let the players interact!  The PC with liaison-4 will appreciate the bragging rights for talking the group of bandits into assisting the PCs instead of fighting them.

By planning ahead for what good & bad reactions will mean, the referee can easily integrate the encounter’s outcome into the larger story line, whether the PCs do something unexpectedly brilliant or unbelievably stupid. 

The Information: Random encounters are excellent vehicles for conveying important information to the PCs. Few players will attend to or remember a meta-game exposition dump by the referee, but if the same info comes from the mouth of an NPC that the group has persuaded to assist them in their grand plots, the information will stick. At the same time, the players should still have to work to get the information from the NPCs; just because this random Noble or Merchant or Soldier knows valuable information they may have reasons for not sharing it with the PCs.

Again, these encounters are where the role-playing happens. The players have to think of the right questions to ask, and the right way to ask them. If one encounter does not produce the info they want or need, then maybe another encounter will have to be added to the adventure. Once the players realize that random encounters can be information sources, they will want to talk more and fight less; it’s hard to question the dead ones. 

The actual information can be anything the referee wants the players to know; it could be the location of a person/place/thing the PCs are seeking, it could be a different point of view on the motivation of the PC’s patron. The information could even be unrelated to the current adventure but hold out the possibility of a future adventure. Wouldn’t the PCs be interested in stories of crashed treasure ships or lost colonies?

The Conflict:  Related to The Goal above, the referee can build challenges and obstacles into the adventure with random encounters. NPC group goals can be irrelevant to the PC’s goals, or be complimentary to them, or conflict with them. The Reaction (above) will point to which is the case; the more negative the reaction the more likely that the two groups’ goals are in conflict.

If the table comes up with Adventurers as an encounter, what if these NPCs are pursuing the same goal as the PCs, and don’t like the idea of competition? Law Enforcement might view the PC's activities as illegal and seek to take them into custody. Bandits' and outlaws' main goal is to take the PC's stuff. Your players won't have any problem with that will they?

The Continuity: Are the PCs ever going to see these NPCs again?  Maybe they won't, and the encounter will quickly fade in their memories. But what if they run into this group again, somewhere else? The first time they met they were strangers, but now the groups know each other. Are they adversaries?  Are they allies?  What has changed for the NPC group?

Any NPC once encountered can be used again to further the plot of the current adventure, or to lead into a new adventure. Groups that came away from the PCs with a positive reaction can refer patrons to the PCs or become the next patron. Recurring adversaries that the PCs can neither defeat nor escape can be the basis for an entire campaign. For good or for ill, a random encounter is now part of the setting, so don't let that slip away. 

In Summary:

With some planning, what started out as a table entry can bring detail, movement and interest to your Traveller universe. You'll know you've done it right when your players come to you and say "what ever happened to those guys we met that time in that place?" Do you know what that means?  It means that it's time for those NPCs to make a re-appearance; or to send the PCs on a quest to find them. After all, one of the PCs lent them some holo-vids, and he wants them back . . .

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