Monday, November 26, 2018

House Rule - Signs & Encounters

Recently, I decided I want to start doing something new when write encounter tables. I want to divide my tables into signs and encounters. These are paired, so that each sign is connected to a specific encounter. Signs have odd numbers, encounters have evens.
(So sign 1 is paired with encounter 2, sign 3 is connected to encounter 4, etc.)
Encounters are typically monsters or environmental hazards. They're things that are dangerous, that could damage or kill a character. Other kinds of encounters might be possible, but this is where my process is right now. Signs are meant to create a sense of foreboding. They might be fairly direct clues about the connected encounter, or they might be ominous, ambiguous portents of forthcoming danger.
(If the encounter is the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, the sign might be all the lights flickering on and off. If the encounter is an Agent from The Matrix, the sign might be a black cat that keeps crossing your path.)
A sign ...
The first time I roll on the encounter table, I'm not going to distinguish between signs and encounters, I'm only looking to see which connected pair I got. The first roll always produces the sign, and the characters experience whatever warning they're going to get.
The second time I roll on the table, I'm not going to distinguish between pairs. I'm only looking to see whether I got sign or encounter. If I got sign, then the character experience the same sign as before. This can happen as many times as I keep rolling sign. Hopefully, he repetition increases the suspense and foreboding. You know something's coming. If I got encounter, then the characters meet whichever monster is associated with the initial sign.
After the characters finally experience an encounter, I start over, so the next roll always produces another sign.
(You could also be less forgiving than I've described here, and let the first roll give you a surprise encounter. I think that's fair. The dungeon is a mythic underworld; the wilderness howls. Sometimes the only warning of impending danger you get is the knowledge that you've entered a dangerous place. My hope though, is that the procedure I've described might produce more narrative satisfaction, by always foreshadowing encounters before they occur.)
... leads to an encounter.
I'm hoping that this approach will help create a world with an active environment, full of strange sights and noises and portents. It has already forced me to focus my encounter tables. Instead of just listing 20 vaguely-related monsters, I find myself narrowing down to 4 or 6 that really help define the feel of the region.
Something like this approach could also work with an overloaded encounter die. These dice typically have two entries for lights going out and magical effects ending, which are typically treated as representing torches and lanterns. You could treat the first such roll as producing a warning - torches flicker or dim, magical effects start glitching and fading. The next time the overloaded encounter die comes back to that pair, you have a 50% chance of another warning (just as the procedure I suggested gives a 50% chance of a repeated sign), and a 50% chance that the lights go out and the magic stops. Just as with my procedure, the goal would be to create narrative tension and satisfaction. The thing is foreshadowed, later the thing happens. In between those times, the thing follows you, stalks you, haunts you. When it happens, it's not a surprise, it's a grim certainty. Or anyway, that's what I'm hoping for.


  1. Well this is pretty brilliant, and I'm shocked it never came to me. I'm a fan of flat tables and have been using multidimensional tables (e.g. d2+d6) for this exact thing. Putting it all on one table and alternating even/odd is genius.

    I think simply using the even/odd result on successive rolls is a good idea, but it does feel like there should be some space for multiple signs/encounters layered on top of each other.

    1. I'm glad you like the even/odd thing.

      I guess what I'm reacting against here is the idea that you might roll a sign for one thing and never encounter it, then get attacked by three other things you never saw signs for.

      I don't know if that's actually a problem, but it's a thought that's made me reluctant to use signs. So this is my solution. Hopefully, even if using sign/encounter tables truly randomly isn't a "problem" this procedure is at least sometimes fun to use.

    2. Just spitballing, but an alternate method to specify this that popped into my head is:

      1 => 1-3: sign of thing / 4-6: encounter thing
      2 => 1-3: sign of thing / 4-6: encounter thing
      3 => 1-3: sign of thing / 4-6: encounter thing
      4 => 1-3: sign of thing / 4-6: encounter thing
      5 => 1-4: sign of thing / 5-6: encounter thing
      6 => 1-5: sign of thing / 6: encounter thing

      Roll d6 each time you need an encounter, but it "sticks" to the subtable until you get the encounter. Note that I varied the last two items just to illustrate

    3. If I understand correctly, this setup would mean that some signs were relatively likely to recur, with the encounter being relatively rare, while other signs would almost always be followed immediately by the encounter.

      So some signs are ominous but unlikely to lead to real danger. And other signs mean "find the first alcove and start throwing down caltrops and bracing your polearms against a charge!"

    4. I basically do what Aaron mentions above. If I roll on a random monster table and get a big bad, or I am planning on a big set piece encounter I will have the party always encounter at least 3 signs over the course of time giving them a chance to prepare. They generally don't catch on that this is what I am doing. It also makes the world feel more realistic. I will also do this for the first encounter of the night in order to get the feel and world reset. I also think that "monster manuals" should come with these sort of tables built in. For example a Mountain Lion should have various signs that the Judge can add to their game. Sign 1 = The players come across the dung of a large cat. It seems as if it has recently been eating a large animals. 2 = The players come across the carcass of a white tail deer that has had its neck broken and mauled by a large animal with claws. 3 = The players come across a collection of tawney, tan and brown fur that appears to be all that is left from a large cat that got into a fight with a Moose and lost. 4 = The players come across a small cave where it is clear a couple of baby mountain lions have holed up. There mother is probably near by. 5 = The players come accross the tracks of a large cat walking along the banks of a pond and stream.
      The tracks disappear onto the rocks. 6 = The players come to a tree that has large cat scratch marks on it where it is using the pine tree as a scratching post. 7 = The players hear a loud howl in the middle of the night that can only be two mountain lions fighting. 8 = The players see the silhouette of a large cat on the next rise. The cat turns to them, looks them in the eyes and casually walks off into the trees. Then when you roll Mountain Lion you can have all these close signs / close calls at the ready because you got them from the "Monster Manual". But alas, most monster manuals don't have them, and most adventure modules that have set pieces also don't have such things.

  2. Signs are so good for hammering home the fact that you are dealing with magical creatures, not just the local angry wildlife.

    1. For sure. Weirdly, it's the CW-DC shows that got me thinking about just how magical signs could look.

      When the Reverse Flash is around, liquids float out of their containers. When Black Lightning shows up, all the lights start flickering and dancing.

      Ideally you're going to find something more interesting than "There's some poop on the trail, could be deer poop, IDK might be deer up ahead."

      I also kind of want more cool cosmetic effects like this for DCC's mercurial magic.

  3. I use a version of this that allows equal chances of a sign and an encounter. You roll 1d6 and if you get a 1 it’s an encounter 2 it’s a sign for whatever monster you roll the. Subsequently roll on the encounter table. Then the next encounter check a 1-2 is an encounter for the thing for which you rolled the sign. It’s a little more random than the procedure you’re describing, but it definitely works.

    1. Actually it sounds like you're doing something very similar, just like, reversed?

      So instead of always getting a sign and then having a 50% chance to get sign or encounter, you're saying you start with a 50% chance to get a sign or encounter, then if there's a sign, you always get an encounter next.

      But the main thing is, you're saying you also use pairing, so if you get a sign, the next encounter will be for THAT sign.

      The real alternative, that it looks like both of us are reacting against, is just getting random signs that might not foreshadow anything, and then getting random encounters that might have never been foreshadowed.

      I'm not sure if it's better to do like you do and have the encounter dice determine sign or encounter, and then consult a table that lists both as a normal part of each entry - or do what I'm suggesting an have them as separate entries. I want to try it this way for awhile, but it's possible that using this in play will convince me to do something different.

  4. This is a useful way of expanding the scope of random encounters and ratcheting up tension. Recently, Through Ultan's Door has done something similar; you can encounter traces of a monster's presence, or the monsters themselves (Ben L. has elaborated on this above).

    From a more simulation-oriented perspective, but also narrative purposes, there might be a need for a "cooldown" mechanic to kick in occasionally. Sometimes it is a false alarm after all - in horror movie terms, "it was just the cat". On a d20, treating 19-20 as a reset could do the trick; on a d100, 90-00 could have the same purpose - the trail goes cold; the gods were with the party this day.

  5. A potential flaw has been brought up elsewhere: the inescapability of an encounter. However, if you divide the dungeon level into multiple areas (say, 4-7 rooms/corridors each), you can assign the pair rolled to such an area so that signs only become portents of inescapable encounters for a smaller space and not the whole dungeon or dungeon level. The cost would be some extra bookkeeping, though.

  6. Having a sign for each encounter is a valuable addition to any table, or at the very least some implied sign within the entry text. Perfect for horror as you've outlined here: NPCs can warn of the sign, but know little of the monster, for example.

    I have a "roll until doubles" dice mechanic that I'm constantly trying to force into things but it looks like it might actually work here:

    Roll on the table for your sign/encounter combo. Then, roll a d6 each time the encounter looms closer, keeping a tally of all numbers rolled (I'd roll a new die each time and put them in a line on the table).

    As soon as you roll doubles, i.e the number rolled matches any previous numbers in the tally, the encounter happens. If the roll doesn't produce any doubles, it's another sign.

    The first roll is a single die so can't produce doubles, but with each further roll the player's odds dwindle as the threat looms closer. I'd even roll these out in the open, let the players be as wary as their characters should be.

  7. Melan, Ynas Midgard, DG Chapman, I appreciate the input!

    I think you all have ideas for how to occasionally decouple the sign and the encounter, so that sometimes you get a false alarm (or at least, sometimes you manage to escape unscathed).

    I need to think about this. I appreciate you offering three different mechanical approaches for deciding when the sign is false.

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