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Blue Crabs As A Metaphor For Emergent Narrative
- Nik Vinter
There has been some talk about Gygaxian Naturalism ad about how fixed encounter tables make the world feel more alive, but I think there is much more to that. Random encounter tables nowadays feel like an old relic from the past, something that never bothers using anymore and is treated like a nuisance more than a tool, but I feel like this change is intrinsicly correlated with the shift in the game design of the later editions of D&D and I'd love to explore this problem a bit more.
P.S. I just noticed that I'm not actually using crabs as a metaphor but I like the title so it's staying
The party of adventurers is traveling next to a coast. They stop for the night, prepare the campfire, set up turns for the guard duty and tell each other stories until it's time to go to sleep. Then, a Blue Crab encounter gets rolled. People roll their eyes and get annoyed, they don't like you still doing that "JRPG shit", they just want to play the game without fighting random crabs. Are they all wrong? Wel... Yes and no. The core factor at play here is the removal of two important things from the rulebook, the Reaction Roll and the Dungeon Adventuring procedure, which makes situations like this much less enaging.
People fell that random encounters are just a matter of slogging trough boring combat and losing hp and well, they're right. In newer editions it boils down to just that: you roll blue crabs, 1d4 of them, then you fight and you either die or lose (probably the former if you're in 5e). Nothing interesting comes out of that and who am I to blame people that don't like similar situations. What is missing there is depth.
First of all the Reaction Roll: it's used to determine what's the reaction of a creature towards you. If the creature is openly hostile you can skip that, but usually most of the results on the table go from "kinda hostile" to "kinda curious" and only the lower extreme means "Combat". This introduces one very important dynamic into the game: not all random encounters are fights. And one could argue that this was possible before as well; the point is that now there is a rule that forces you to do that and while rulings not rules etc. etc. having a fixed resolution mechanic for situatons like that helps a lot.
Then we have the Dungeon Adventuring Procedures. I'll assume you're familiar with it so I'll just focus on the main point: time passes. What does that mean and why are random encounters such a core mechanic? Well, opening a lock takes 1 Turn (10 minutes), investigating a room takes 1 Turn, demolishing a wall takes 1 Turn and... you get it. Whatever you do is an investment, you can't simply stand there rolling dice until you have a success. Every 10 or 20 minutes the DM rolls for a random encounter check and if a 1 comes up (roughly 1 encounter every hour) you have to face whatever creature is lurking in the shadow. Ok it might not be a combat encounter, but the risk is still there! This lays the foundation for a very engaging and almost puzzle-like dungeon crawling experience.
And combined with the Gygaxian Naturalism (Gosh, I feel like a poser just for saying that) and the Reaction rolls you're getting the perfect mix for emergent narrative. People improvise, people do stuff, remember to roll in the open and don't worry about having balanced encounters. Your players won't slack knowing that a 5HD creature might come during the night, they might not die if they encounter it, he might be friendly, but no one knows until the dice is rolled. And by getting random monsters that are neutral to the players there is also the possibility of expanding the world, making it more believable and alive.
The creatures are not there for the players, not always at least. Sometimes that blue crab is just passing by.