Personally, I love random encounter tables. RPGs are games of mitigated chance. Characters make dice rolls to hit monsters, negotiate deals, and fly spaceships. Why not have the GM make them to see what’s around the corner? The element of randomness gives both the players and GM something to play with, as the unexpected happens.
Here’s the thing, though. Why do random encounter tables have to be just things to kill? Too often, they look like “2d6 morg morgs,” or “1d8 snakes with lazer eyes.” Murdering random things is cool and all, but we can do a lot more here. Encounters aren’t just monsters and bandits. Let’s add a little pizazz and mystery to it, huh?
To keep the spirit of a random encounter table, the event listed should be open ended, or at least open to interpretation. It should give a bit of mystery or drama. One of my favorite non-combat wilderness encounters entails finding another camp in the woods. When the players see a fire in the distance, they’ll almost always try to sneak up on it. What do they find? When it’s not a horde of rampaging monsters burning down a town, they’re usually pretty surprised.
What it’s missing, however, is plot. Let’s go back to the “snakes with lazer eyes” example. When they find those snakes, battle ensues. That’s the plot, as uncomplicated as it is. A fight for survival ensues. Everyone wins. What’s the plot in our camp scenario, however?
Let’s say three NPCs sit around the fire. One accuses the other of stealing their favorite knife. In reality, they lost it when they were peeing in the woods. This adds tension and something for the PCs to contend with. What happens if they don’t intervene? What happens if they do? Their presence in this matters now.
Or maybe the NPCs are pilgrims traveling to the next town. Will the players share their fire? Will they let the players accompany them? That’s three more bodies to protect in combat. The pilgrims are willing to share their meager stores, however. This gives them something to figure out. There is some amount of story to it.
When you make the table, just add a little heading to remind you of the encounter. “Stolen knife in the woods,” or “Pilgrim Camp.” You can add a note after the table if you need more information. Try to keep the entry to a paragraph at best. If it’s longer than that, you’re now writing important plot points you’ll be eager to use and might risk trying to fit in despite the roll. You can likely better use that time elsewhere.
Every point on the table doesn’t have to be a strange encounter, however. It’s almost better if it’s not. I know I just dissed monster encounters, but they are the bread and butter of a random encounter table. I usually shoot for the table to be 3/4 combat oriented and 1/4 event oriented. On a 1d10, it’s about a 7/3 split, or 15/5 on a 1d20. This is enough to make the events rare and special. You don’t want the players to lose their paranoia that every dice roll you make means monsters are coming to kill them, right?
A little flavor goes a long way. It’s a fun exercise for the GM making the tables and fun for the players who come across your little scenes. It’s also a lot of fun for you to fill in the holes as you go! Those NPC pilgrims traveling to the next town? Maybe there is something that happened in the game recently you can tie that into to give the world that alive feeling. The encounters get to be as random for you as they are for the players and that’s just a lot of fun.