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Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games