Heroes aren’t born, they’re cornered.

Note: I borked one of the tables below, there are supposed to be more entries but I cant seem to scale tables once they are in wordpress… awesome, so theres only 6 entries.

Yay, more of me babbling about sandbox game bits!

In the talk about overland travel and exploration I mentioned an Encounter chat, and this be that. I’ve broken the sections down into discrete parts that I took into consideration when building the different regional random encounter tables for my game.

As always none of this is me saying “do it this way because it’s right!!” It’s me saying “this is what I’ve done and how it’s working so far.” Once again I’m sure a lot of this has been said elsewhere on the net, but I enjoy jabbering about gaming stuff and the whole sandbox thing has been an interesting design exercise and change of DM style for me, as well as (hopefully) a good experience for my players. On top of that this is what I do for work, so design stuff is always bouncing around in my head, If I don’t get it out somewhere I’ll asplode.

Also I have noticed that a lot of gaming blogs just present solutions in the form of house rules or other things but very few explain the crunch and reasoning behind what they implemented.

We just finished up our 9th session and so far have only had one player death. I suspect that will change though, since due to some people moving out of town, the group will now be running without a cleric/healer of any kind for the foreseeable future. (Insert evil laugh here)

For the purposes of the information below let me define a few terms, partly for my sanity, partly for yours.

  • Region – Big area of the Sandbox, usually determined by terrain type ie; Swamp, Forest etc… This could be broken down further to specific regions like Haunted Forest, Stabbing Woods and so on.
  • Area – A much smaller local section of any region that the party is traveling through. For my game this is one hex on the map.

Probability of Encounters

The first thing I wanted to tackle was the frequency of the random encounters. I had several discussions with friends back home about this and came to the conclusion that two main things should affect encounter probability, Location and Time. There are definitely more factors that can be applied, but I went with these two partly for simplicity’s sake and partly because they are fairly standard for what I was trying to do. No sense reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to.

Location Determines frequency – Terrain and Time

I wanted the various regions of my world to actually feel different. Part of that meant increasing or decreasing the number of times per day I checked for an encounter based on the type of terrain the party was traveling through. Right now it’s simply changed by terrain type, but as my game goes on, I suspect I may modify the frequency charts on a more discrete level, eg: The area around The Old Wayhouse only has a chance of spawning encounters at night, or other such location and point of interest specific modifications, possibly even a whole new set of encounter tables. Right now, terrain type seems to be working fine. My players have noticed that they are seeing more encounters in the woods and are careful not to attract attention to themselves when traveling through (more on that later).

The table below shows when I am checking for an encounter based on terrain type. It is lifted pretty much straight out of the AD&D DMG. I may have made some minor changes, but I don’t rightly remember. I guess I could check, but I’m lazy right now.

Terrain Morning Noon Evening Night Midnight Pre-Dawn


































Location Determines frequency – Level of Civilization

Once again, straight from the DMG for this roll. There are several levels of civilization listed from ‘Patrolled which I believe is a 1 in 20 chance of an encounter at each interval to “Wilderness” (or whatever the term is) which is a 1 in 10 chance of an encounter per interval.

For my game I chose a very black and white solution. Anywhere within 1 day of travel of The Fort (home base) there is a 0 percent chance of an encounter, ever. I assume the powers that be at Fort Kilstead are able to project the force of their guards out from the Fort that far. Anywhere beyond that it’s a 1 in 10 chance before modifiers, so 10%. (see below for more on modifiers).

This means that in one day of travel from morning to night on the Plains/Grasslands the party has a flat 10% chance of encountering something twice, then one more 10% chance again at midnight.

You could easily expand this out to a percentile roll and make the modifiers much more granular. I chose not to because it’s just simpler and quicker for me to just roll a d10.

Take a look at the Forest and Marsh on the chart above, both of them have 6 different encounter times, making them potentially twice as encounter-ey (yes that’s a word) and thus deadly as say the Plains, or Hills. Something I noticed is that my players have picked up on this and thus far have tended to stay on the one road through the forest unless they absolutely have to leave it. They are not excited with the possibility of getting lost in the forest. This is good, the wilderness should be scary. The road doesn’t actually have a lower encounter percentage btw, they just seem to feel more comfortable knowing which direction to run.

Party Behavior Modifies Frequency

As I mentioned before in the exploration blog, if the party is simply moving through the area generally they will only have a flat 10% (1 on a d10) chance of an encounter per interval from the chart above. There are several things that I have been using as cumulative modifiers based on what players do that will affect the chances of an encounter happening. Most of these I tried to keep to a very common sense level as I didn’t want players to worry about things like smoke from a fire on the open plains or group sneak rolls while in the forest and so on. If a situation arises that feels like it needs a modifier, I apply it. Some of the things that I have used regularly in my own game lately.

  • Staying in one area (hex) for multiple days
    • +10% (+1 on a d10) per day spent in that area
  • Making lots of noise
    • +10% (+1 on a d10) based on what they are doing. I have one player whose character has an unhealthy obsession with his bagpipes and no, he’s not a Bard.
  • Sleeping with a campfire (night time only)
    • +10% (+1 on a d10) I have been allowing Rangers to make a survival roll to hide the campfire to negate this modifier.

I have considered other situational modifiers like heavily wounded party members, party size, pack animals etc, but right now the simple method is working reasonably well. I’m sure there are tons and tons of things creative folks could come up with that are tailored to their specific games.

Balancing Encounters

In my Sandbox each region has a number of areas in it. The areas then all have a difficulty level associated with them. I have gone with a straight Hit Dice value for encounters to scale the difficulty levels. I also assume that a party will always be 5 characters and use that as my baseline for the HD values for encounters. Most of the time the encounters will match up with the assumed HD of a 5 player party of the corresponding level.

So for example in a level 1 area, encounters will be between 1-5 HD worth of monsters to play with for any given encounter. Yes, this means that normally most encounters of “equal” level to the party level will be average to easy-ish difficulty. I did this because I wanted to make sure the parties weren’t getting curb stomped every single encounter. From the player perspective, occasionally it’s nice to be the one handing out the beating.

I used a range, capped with “equal” HD to the players because even fights all the time will kill characters, a lot. It seemed more reasonable to use the even fight as the high end for a level appropriate encounter. That said if the level 1 party manages to wander off into a level 6 hex… well, they better run.

Usually this value is a hard value, it won’t change based on player actions, level, henchmen, my mood etc… I’m sure there are some things that could change the difficulty level for an area but the vast majority of the time they don’t change.








Enc. HD







HD Ranges by Difficulty

As I’m sure some of you have noticed, once you get around difficulty 5 or 6 the HD pools for encounters start to become fairly absurd. Usually this can be resolved by simply adding monsters to the encounter or obviously bigger monsters. Then there is always the continued solution of “more bigger” monsters… I haven’t had any of my groups stray into an area with a difficulty higher than 2 or 3 yet, so I’m still working on theory with the higher end of the difficulty spectrum. Most encounters will hover around the max available HD for that difficulty level, sometimes going slightly over just due to the way the math works out.

Any Points of Interest in a given area will conform to this difficulty level. As a general rule each region also has an overall difficulty range, for example the Bloodstone Grasslands region doesn’t have any hexes in it higher than level 3. There will be exceptions to this but it’s a bit of a dick move to sneak in something that doesn’t scale properly without giving the players lots of in-game warning and context.

Encounter Tables – stocking the pond

When creating the encounter tables I generally tried to keep a running theme throughout, my forest region for example starts off very humanoid heavy, with goblins, bandits and “wildlife” type creatures, progressing on to an insect theme with giant wasps, the various beetles and moving into Wild Elves and all of their various and sundry minions and pets.

As a guideline for this I went through the Castles and Crusades Monsters and Treasure as well as Gods and Monsters. In addition to these I used the AD&D Monster Manuals 1 and 2 and the Fiend Folio to generate my master list of monsters.

From there I sorted the list by HD, Rarity (based on the AD&D books) and environment. Now whenever I need to populate the difficulty levels in a region I can simply sort the master critter table (in Excel) by whichever fields I want then start filling out the actual encounter table. In practice it’s a bit more fiddly then it sounds, as some monsters have weird HD values or environments that don’t translate well. I think it took me 2-3 hours of steady work to populate my standard forest area for encounter levels 1-6.

Creature Rarity

Using the old AD&D frequencies for monsters I generated my tables for each area. The frequencies available are Common, Uncommon, Rare, Very Rare, and Unique; I dropped the ‘Unique’ from my tables because logic would seem to dictate something that is “Unique” probably shouldn’t appear on a RANDOM encounter table. If I use those creatures at all they either get moved to the Very Rare category and the number appearing is dropped to 1 or I simply use them in Points of Interest as I see fit.

Monsters across a region will sometimes appear across multiple encounter tables, usually decreasing in rarity and becoming more numerous as the difficulty and encounter HD pool increases. For example in my forest region, wolves start at level 1 (encounter, not player level) as a rare spawn, but by level 3 they are common with the number appearing increasing from 1d3 to 1d6+2.

Using the old AD&D dice model of [1d8+1d12] for a table you get a reasonably even curve to play with. You get 19 entries instead of 20, but that’s fine since it allows for different percentage chances and thus rarity depending on how you populate the encounter table.

I use this website as a resource for the die roll on the encounter tables. As I look at it now I might modify the roll a bit to get a smaller group and thus steeper curve, but for now what I have seems to work ok.


Unique Wildlife

This is pretty straightforward to be honest. Anything I think should be truly unique or one of a kind will get placed into one of the Point of Interest encounters. The word “Unique” pretty much precludes it from being included in a “random” encounter table!.

Points of Interest

Points of interest will generally override the encounter table for a given area. If the players camp at The Haunted Wayhouse, the encounters there will be driven by the setup for that POI. Nearly all of my unique locations have their own rules regarding camping, random encounters and such. That said there really isn’t any reason aside from narrative that a unique location couldn’t just abide by the encounter tables already set up.

So, there you have it. My long winded way of explaining how I torture my players with random encounters. Your mileage may vary but hopefully someone comes away from reading that post with something useful. I think the next thing I’ll jabber on about is some of the Point of Interest encounters I’ve worked up. Mostly because the Sandbox game has mostly stalled and I’d like the stuff I’ve written to see the light of day at some point. There’s a thread over at the Troll Lord Games site for posting encounters so that will likely go up there as well.

Thanks for reading, and remember. Heroes aren’t born, they’re cornered.

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