|All illustrations by Russ Nicholson, Rest In Peace.
I just read this interesting post from Goblin Punch about changing the random encounter roll.
The core design goals are:
1. To provide time pressure.
2. To create suspense.
The Underclock achieves these goals but I have an alternate proposal: Let's take a page from Dread.
Whenever the party takes a meaningful action in the dungeon, they must pull 1 block from a Jenga tower.
A meaningful action is:
- Entering a new room (exploring it and seeing what's there at a basic level)
- Completing a full search of a room with the entire party (finding all secrets, traps and treasure)
- Completing 1 normal combat
- Doing something that makes a lot of noise (eg kicking down a door)
- Completing a short rest
- Moving through 3 rooms that have already been explored
- Anything that takes around ten minutes
Whenever the tower wobbles, tilts, or almost falls over, give the players an Omen. They hear the beast in the distance. They see it's footprints. They smell the bitter iron tang of it in the air. Foreshadow the incoming danger to push up the suspense.
When the tower collapses, the beast descends. The party has a Dread Encounter.
Beauty and Terror
A dread encounter should be monstrous. A major twist that's much, much more terrible and damaging than a normal random encounter. Some examples could be:
- The evil forces accomplish a critical part of their plans. The lovecraftian entity is summoned. The hostages are killed. The ancient relic is lost forever. The rival party got to the treasure first and stole it.
- This is a good default option. Think about what your factions want and have them achieve a major part of it when the tower falls.
- A terrifying monster ambushes the party.
- This is a great option for situations like the giant in Deep Carbon Observatory or the giant in The Waking of Willowby Hall. It should not be just a normal monster encounter, but an unstoppable beast that's way above their level.
- The dungeon undergoes a horrific metamorphosis. The environment changes and shifts in a fundamental and awful way. The earth shakes, rocks fall and damage you, your path to the exit is blocked off, mouths form in the rock. The Underworld is hungry.
- A great example of when to use this would be the Tower of Soot from The Estate. The players are climbing up a chimney. When the tower falls, the fireplace is lit and the whole dungeon catches fire.
- Morale fails. Your hirelings riot or turn on you and attack. Try using this table for hireling freakouts if you need inspiration.
- Your body fails. The corrupting magic energies of this place distort your mind and body. A carnivorous hunger falls upon you and you need to eat someone now. One of you is possessed by an ancient spirit.
Remember that on average this will happen after 30 pulls, so this should be a major twist and change in the situation, not just a normal random encounter. In Dread, it just kills a player instantly, so don't pull your punches! Just make sure you give the players lots of foreshadowing so that it feels fair.
Taking a short rest in the dungeon means 1 block pull (ten minutes). A long rest takes 6 block pulls (1 per hour). Either way, you need to mark off a ration to rest.
If you are in a completely safe location, you can rest without making any block pulls. For example, you're in a secret room or something totally locked off from the rest of the dungeon.
Leaving the dungeon
When you leave the dungeon and head back to town, the GM decides.
A: If this is a perilous and urgent situation then the players must pull 2 blocks to leave the dungeon. The Jenga tower then stays as it is for the next delve.
This represents the forces of the dungeon marshalling their strength while the players stay away. Use this option if the players have left the dungeon without accomplishing any real goals - for example, they've just peeked in the dungeon and scouted around a bit.
B: If the players have bought some time, they can use their hands to shift and stabilise the tower when they're about to leave the dungeon. They can put up to 2 blocks from the top back in the tower if they choose.
This is the option to choose if they have accomplished a minor goal like finding some treasure or delaying the evil plot. If the tower falls while they're doing this, they still get the dread encounter.
C: If time is on the player's side then the players can completely rebuild the tower, resetting it back to its starting position.
This is the option to use once the players have accomplished a major goal and escaped the dungeon. Defeating a boss, rescuing a key NPC or piece of treasure, etc.
If you want resource attrition, take a black marker and mark half the jenga blocks.
Whenever you pull a marked block, your resources deplete. Mark off a torch (or suffer other wear and tear on your equipment and resources, at the GM's discretion). If you cannot, suffer a negative condition.
If your system doesn't have negative conditions, try: Frightened (disadvantage on Intelligence and Wisdom Checks), Hungry (Disadvantage on Strength and Constitution Checks), or Exhausted (Disadvantage on Dexterity and Charisma checks).
Players will naturally avoid the marked blocks. So they'll start off fine with no attrition, and then their supplies will start running out rapidly as they run out of blank blocks to pull. I like this sense of escalation.
This system is designed for longer dungeons that the players are expected to make multiple delves into. If you're planning on a one-shot or a shorter dungeon, give the tower a gentle twist so that it spirals from top to bottom.
Thoughts on Random Encounters in general
I agree with Arnold that Random Encounters don't achieve the design goal of Suspense and Time Pressure. In my opinion, the core problem isn't just the encounter roll itself... it's that an encounter isn't a punishment. Encounters are fun!
After all, in a classic OSR game we should be using a reaction roll. That means the random encounter only has a 2.6% chance of attacking immediately. It's much more likely that we can negotiate with it, sneak around it, run away from it, give it some food to stop it from attacking us, etc. An encounter should be a chance to roleplay, find out more information about the dungeon, make new allies or bargain for supplies. It's more like a reward than a resource attrition timer.
(This was very noticeable in my recent Mausritter campaign, where encounters are things like: "d6 Sugar cultists, carrying buckets of honey". This isn't a punishment for taking too long! It's a charming surprise and a prime opportunity for roleplaying and negotiation. )
When we start trying to make an encounter into a punishment... it naturally stops being fun. The true resource attrition timer encounters are things like:
"8 orcs appear, they immediately see you and attack, you cannot hide, they cannot be reasoned with, roll for initiative."
Sure, it does work a bit better as time pressure, but it's also seriously dull. Especially when it starts happening all the time as the result of a random encounter table. The ability to bargain or negotiate or find ways around problems other than straight combat is a critical part of what makes OSR play interesting.
So, while I totally agree with Arnold about the issues with suspense and time pressure, I don't think changing the random encounter roll will do enough to fix that on it's own. Normal random encounters create surprising, fun moments, but they aren't effective time pressure punishments. The consequences themselves need to be dire and have more build up, and I think the dread system could be a good start in that direction.