Riffing off yesterday’s post, I was thinking more deeply about the value of random tables in relation to roleplaying game prep. It occurred to me that I might only be scratching the surface with the use of random tables to counteract decision fatigue.
When I played a short campaign set in Dolmenwood, oh, way back before the pandemic, I found a combination of factors made prepping that game really easy. At the time, I thought that the very detailed hex-by-hex descriptions of Dolmenwood then available via the issues of Wormskin were the reason. When there wasn’t an entry for a hex, I would get all worked up and stressed because I had to make something up.
The real reason prep was easier wasn’t just because of the hex key. Reflecting on it, I came to realise that using so-called random encounter tables made the process easy and fun too. That’s why when I prepped for my one-shot OSE game set in Hiraeth, just the other week, I rolled on the random encounter tables again.
The reason to utilise random tables is because it helps overcome decision fatigue. This rears its head in a number of ways but the basics include the fact that after a full day of work (or whatever), you will have less mental energy available to make decisions. On top of that, choosing between more than 7 things on a list (plus or minus 2, for a range of 5-9) is well-established to be much harder for most people.
Rolling Is Easy
If I am prepping for a fantasy roleplaying game and I look at the list of monsters available, the list is probably longer than seven. In OSE, which has a much-reduced list of monsters in the core rules, there are 140 choices. What’s useful, however, is that the Dungeon Encounter tables break that list down into selections 20 entries long – still a bit much for optimal choosing, but an improvement. Even better, the Wilderness Encounter tables break the monsters into lists of 12 entries. There’s a nice 1d8 roll to pick a table, then you roll 1d12.
Choosing from the lists is possible and not overly onerous. Rolling, however, is easier. When you are wrestling with decision fatigue a 1d20, or a 1d8 and 1d12 dice roll is very doable.
For example, in my recent prep, I rolled in advance of the game to see how many encounters there might be; then I rolled up the encounters. I left figuring out how they would show up in the game to when I was playing. It took less than 5 minutes and I was prepped for the wilderness journey.
It occurs to me that investing time when we have lots of mental energy – say on a weekend or during holiday periods – to create useful random tables is a great way to mitigate the fatigue that comes from working full-time, having a family, and generally being busy.
Choosing Is Better
In truth, as the Angry GM points out, the real value of a random encounter table isn’t the ability to roll on it. Instead, I am coming to see random encounter tables for what they are: curated lists.
Curation is the act of selecting something to go on to a list or into a collection. When we design a random encounter table we are selecting what goes on the list… and also choosing what’s not on the list. This has value because it limits our choices and creates specific effects in the context of a roleplaying game. For example, if I add a dragon to my encounter list then I am saying that dragons not only might be encountered but implying that there’s a lair knocking around somewhere close too.
When I make my list easy to choose from then, while I can make a roll, I can also simply choose. This is powerful because it allows me to select an encounter from a list which best fits the needs of the adventure at the point I chose it.
Pushing it further by taking Tim Short’s advice (as well as Angry’s) then I would also add specific details about what the creature is doing when it’s encountered and what its motives might be.
Let’s extend the example. Adding a dragon to the adventure is cool. What about a dragon who is seeking its lost mate? That makes it more interesting. What if we decide the dragon is furious at having been separated from its mate? How might those details affect the encounter? What if the dragon is encountered when it is exhausted from flying for several days? That’s so much richer… but I didn’t get there until I at least chose to add the dragon to my possible encounters list. Adding the motive and activity details allowed me to build on the basic choice.
I am moving towards encounter tables that, yes, have a dice roll on them – and I prefer a nice 2d6 table because it has a bell-curve that makes some results more likely but also adds up to no more than 11 entries. By curating my list to have nine or fewer entries, I can also purpose it for quick choices. When I add multiple columns with options for the creature, what the creature is doing, and why it’s doing it… wow, then I have an encounter generator. If I am super-tired, I roll. But if I choose then I get to weave together cool ideas and come up with a richer encounter.
What other lists could we curate to make prep easier? What else could be a random table but with a little design intention could also be a powerful easy-to-choose from list? The possibilities just might be endless.