I hate random encounters. I see their main purpose, to add an element of random danger to cross country travel or dungeon delving, and it has merit. But they're nothing more than a time sink. Completely pointless. Yes, you can have random encounters have meaning by adding special encounters to them, like when you roll a 12 on the random encounter chart and end up stumbling across the Wanderer or the Hound and that having an unexpected effect on future sessions. Those can be interesting. Most random encounters are just randomly running into 12 goblins in the dungeon or stumbling across a shambling mound on its cross country shamble.
Ok, first of all, as the GM, you should fucking know how many goblins/soldiers/whatever are in your dungeon, and you should know their patrol routes, assuming they have patrol routes and patrolling regularly fits with the monster type. Ok? If you don't, you're being lazy. These are things that should not be randomly generated on the spot. Unless of course you're playing a sort of randomized sandbox campaign. There are either thirty goblins in the dungeon or there are not. They either patrol or they do not. They either respond to the loud sounds of battle that echo through the dungeon, or they do not. One of the things I despise is reinforcements appearing from nowhere, like they're miraculously summoned by magic, rather than coming from another part of the dungeon where they could reasonably hear the yells of their allies that are currently engaging the PCs.
Anyway. Random and non-essential encounter resolution. That's what we're here to discuss, right?
Non-essential fights are those fights designed purely to drain resources. These are the fights from scenarios where you're just trying to pad the run time or following the guidelines in a DMG for X amount of encounters. They serve no real narrative purposes and aren't terribly memorable because of mechanics, environment, or foes. Or they're fights that you hadn't planned on that the players pick with faceless NPCs like when the players walk down an alley or something and a gang of thugs greets them and the players botch their Charisma (Intimidation) check and are unwilling to pay the 5 gp toll. They're boring and don't feature compelling mechanics or environments or their only purpose is to drain resources so the PCs are unable to leverage their full power and abilities against the end boss or whatever.
Additionally, random and non-essential encounters both chew up an excessive amount of time, because combat eats up the most time in a gaming session and it's not because of rolling initiative or indecision on the part of players. It's because combat is time consuming because it involves everybody doing something. Fine, you can shave off seconds by being prepared and pre-rolling your initiative and attacks and not getting distracted, but four or more players and a GM that likely controls a similar amount of NPCs (if not more) each have to take actions and that eats up time.
I don't include random encounters in my scenarios and I only include non-essential encounters if I have to. If a particular bandit keep has sixty bandits as members of the bandit group and the players wander in when all sixty are relaxing at the keep, I'm going to make the PCs slog through sixty fucking bandits. It will take time and be boring and they will hate it, but if there are sixty bandits in a bandit keep, they are going to have to deal with all of them whether it be via murder, intimidation, or just avoiding them. I do this because to me, even though they're non-essential encounters, they need to be there for the sake of continuity and perhaps a bit of realism. If a bandit group has sixty bandits, yes, the players are going to have to resolve dealing with all of those bandits because that's how many bandits there are. If they only deal with sixteen bandits out of sixty, what was the point? Ok, the lead bandit is deposed, dead, or brought to justice or whatever. There are still forty-four bandits out there and one of them is bound to be interested in leading the rest to raid local merchants and villages. What was the point? Nothing has changed. Why should the players consider it a success or the villagers consider the reward earned?
Ok, so random encounters are dumb and non-essential encounters waste time. So how do we expedite them if the GM feels the need to use them? This idea is going to be written for 5th Edition, but the general gist of it can apply to more than that. Since the goal here is to imply difficulty or complication or randomness, and not to kill the players, my thought is to resolve random and non-essential encounters as a skill check of sorts.
There are a few ways you can do this. You can treat it as a skill challenge and have every player participate. You could treat it as a pure skill check where a player rolls based on his skills for the group to resolve an encounter vs. a DC or relevant opposed roll from the adversaries, but that's an inelegant one and kind of steps on talky characters making talking skill checks to avoid encounters and steps on stealthy characters making stealthy skill checks to avoid encounter. Or you could just treat it as a group check with modifiers based on the advantages each side possesses. Blah blah blah blah.
The purpose is to negate the pointless slog of random and non-essential combat encounters, to resolve them quickly in a satisfying way for the players and the GM. I say this method is for combat encounters because if you're taking the route of non-combat to resolve another type of encounter, you're going to typically be using pre-existing mechanics to resolve that (dialogue and stealth skills and such).
My thought is to have the players make a d20 roll as a group with their proficiency bonus (for the sake of this discussion, assume that all players are the same level and that sort of thing and no one ever has to worry about varying proficiency levels between members) and give them advantage or disadvantage based on how they compare to the foe and how they want to resolve the encounter. The purpose is to resolve it quickly without getting into nitty gritty details, so it is abstract. If the players outnumber the foes, advantage. If the players are outnumbered by the foes, disadvantage. Maybe the Wizard says he'll use a third level spell slot to cast fireball against the enemies (make sure you deduct that from their character sheet) and that gets them advantage. Maybe the Fighter agrees to use action surge and that gets them advantage. Use the normal rules for advantage and disadvantage nullifying each other and only applying once to a roll. Once you figure out whether the PCs have advantage, disadvantage, or neither on the roll, make the d20 + proficiency bonus roll.
Since the goal is to resolve the encounter quickly and abstractly, rather than kill the players, the result is never that they lose the combat and die. The d20 roll is meant to represent the randomness of combat, obviously. Sometimes players get unlucky and have to use more of their resources to combat a not terribly tough foe. Sometimes foes get lucky and critical hit the Wizard in round one and drop them. So the way you resolve it is based on the success of the group's roll. Maybe on a natural 20 they wade through the combat like golden fucking gods untouchable by man or fell beast. Maybe on a natural one they all take 1d8 damage and one of the players is dropped to 0 hit points and must make a death save once. Then you vary the results, with high results being less costly and lower results using up more of their resources like hit dice and class abilities and that sort of thing.
My thought is to break it up into a range of results as follow:
- 20+ : Amazing success, player's succeed at no cost to themselves.
- 11 - 19 : One player loses 1 hit die. Determine who loses the hit die randomly. Players may opt to expend one ability that is restored on a short rest instead of a losing a hit die.
- 2 - 10 : Players lose a total of 1d4 hit dice. Determine who loses a hit die randomly. Players may opt to expend one ability that is restored on a short rest instead of a losing a hit die.
- 1 : Each player loses one hit die and one player, randomly determined, must make a death save. Players may opt to expend one ability that is restored on a short rest instead of losing a hit die. If the character that makes the death saving throw fails, he is not at 0 hit points, it is merely noted that he has failed a death saving throw that day.
So that is kind of what I'm thinking. I think it does what I want, but I'm not sure it's perfect. I like it more than randomly assigning damage or something. It burns player resources, just like actually going through a fight would, and that's the main purpose here. So that's a success. By opting to use hit dice instead of dealing hit point damage or something, and giving the players the option of expending short rest abilities, it kind of cuts down on the 15 minute adventuring day as well. I think. Maybe. Who the fuck knows? I do think resolving non-essential combat encounters this way will result in keeping the players fresher for longer in the adventure, which will allow a DM to keep the actual plot-related combats more interesting and dangerous.
Regardless, I think it does what I want. A quick discussion about advantage vs. disadvantage when fighting a group of mooks and making a die roll is way fucking quicker than actually going through three or four rounds of relatively pointless combat. This is actually similar to something I'd occasionally do in 4th Edition where after a certain point everyone expended their encounter powers, but foes were still standing and I'd just call the fight and charge everyone a healing surge instead of going through an hour of everyone spamming their at will attacks for round after round. I think that was a popular way of resolving 4th Edition's long fights back then.