Classic random encounters don’t work very well in 4e. With average combat length so long (60 minutes per the core rules), it’s usually not worth the time to include them. Why focus an entire hour of a session in a pointless fight that does not advance the adventure, the player’s quests or their motivations at all?
Previous editions of D&D included many opportunities for random encounters, both in the dungeon and the wild. However, average combat length was significantly shorter, allowing for, if not encouraging a smattering of random encounters in every D&D session and adventure.
4e’s combat system is rich, with a level of tactics and teamwork like no edition before it, making it quite enjoyable from this perspective. This encourages more set-piece and “always significant” sorts of encounters that advance the adventure. The downside? Over-long combats mean less time during your sessions for multiple encounters, combat or otherwise – never mind the simple and mindless fun of an occasional random encounter. Said simply, adventure pacing can often be destroyed by just one or two long tactical fights.
However, if you’re still looking for ways to include the essence of a quick random encounter in 4e, try the following:
- Minions Only. Thrilling scenes of heroes defeating hordes of monsters. Cinematic. Fast. Easy to manage. Low time cost.
- Don’t Make it So Random. Include an event, item or personality along the lines of a “minor quest” or easter egg tied to a character’s backstory or motivations.
- Future’s Treasure. Include treasure that will specifically help in the upcoming “main” adventure, perhaps the ultimate encounter, or in the next adventure.
- It Only Looks Like a Fight. Have what looks like a fight quickly turn into something else by round 2 - a negotation or parlay, a trap, a diversion, etc.
- Environmental Challenges. Weather and travel matter sometimes and can include a quick skill challenge. Surviving a savage freezing rainstorm, for example.
For my games, in the rare event I use random encounters, the classic “mindless hack and slash” random encounter approach is the one I use and enjoy most, whether I’m playing or DMing – not just more, but all minions! Most D&D playgroups appreciate the occasional simple and visceral fun of a quick, bloody battle where you just “slay some orcs.”
Do you use random encounters in your D&D 4e game? How long do yours take? Do you enjoy them as a DM or as players? Do you think they’re worth the time? Do your sessions include enough encounters?
Some additional sources of inspiration for faster, engaging and cinematic encounters in 4e – random, minions-only or otherwise:
- Designing 30 Minute Skirmishes in 4e
- Critical Hits Podcast #27: The Out
- Cinematic Combat
- Wilderlands and Dragons
- Daily Encounter
- Dungeon Master’s Guide 2