So far I’ve been talking about encounters, both dungeon delves and overland travel, strictly as mechanics. One of my constant goals in creating mechanics is to make them challenging, full of choices, and fit the narrative.
While in a dungeon full of monsters, evil priests, hungry flesh-dissolving pockets of slime, or programmed zombies there should be pressure to keep rests short, to move fast, and find ways to end encounters quickly. The dungeon is a complex; it should at time act complexly. The wanderers mechanic allows a DM to create that illusion of complexity with regular cues, and using a small set of encounters or events to draw from. I think all that is really missing is good abstract sneaking and evasion rules and a dungeon really starts to feel like it did in 1984.
When I start thinking about overland travel, the land itself becomes a monster, and tireless, relentless monster that the characters can overcome briefly but never tame or kill. The events table makes traveling less of a given. It allows you to challenge the characters on the road…not all the time, but enough times to make it interesting.
More importantly, both also respond to the player’s actions, especially at two important extremes.
I’ve watched a lot of players over the years, and there are two very general extremes of play. On one end is the cautious and on the other end is the reckless. My friend Rob is poster child for the latter. He’ll jump into just about every encounter feet first, and no reward is ever enough for the chances he takes. He also happens to be extremely lucky, so his foolish gambles usually pay off. On the other end is Jeremy. He is unlucky, the leader in the party and while capable of sacrifice and heroism, his play is almost always very cautious. It was important to create mechanics that rewarded and challenged both (including the challenge of getting the group to decide which tactics to use). Rob would have a tendency to jump in, while Jeremy would want to carefully plod. Rob pulls encounters, and afterword Jeremy struggles to get Rob into the program, at least long enough for them to heal.
But unlike some randomly generated or computer controlled system, each model more fluid, has the ability to be more narrative, because the DM can adjust when it makes sense to. With encounters and events, it is better to pull from a pool rather than to go with entirely random generation. An event happens, look in your pool of events, and see which one makes the most sense, seems more fun, or is just particularly nasty. For instance, here is my pool of easy hazards for an upcoming game.
The Priest Wash is watershed south and east of Keir Geata and flush on the realm of the Mist Mage. It is a land avoided as it is haunted by malicious fey, but has become a sanctuary for Eilthir’s giant elk due to a fomorian king’s decree. Many canyons hide danger. One area in particular—Black Canyon—is home to a large tribe of cyclops.
Hunting Party Signs: The characters find the fresh tracks of a band of cyclops (Nature DC 20 identifies) near a kill site (Nature DC 14 determines the kill was giant Elk). Avoiding the tracks takes the characters into a bog, briars, or other form of dangerous terrain (make a group Endurance check DC 14; each character takes 1d3 healing surge damage on a failure). If the characters follow the trail, they catch up with the group (use Cyclops Hunter encounter, add 2 cyclops ramblers)
Giant Elk: The characters run afoul a large heard of Giant Elk. The males treat the characters as a threat and surge forward. Have the characters make a DC 14 group check with Athletics, Nature, or Insight. Success avoids direct contact with the males. On a failure the characters each take 1d3 healing surge damage, but gains elk meat (if the characters kill a giant elk). Elk meat can feed the characters for 5 days. An elk felled by any but royalty and cyclops is a crime in the eyes of King Utzugor.
Sticky Marsh: The characters get bogged down in a sticky marsh. They can either lose time (3 hours) or each character takes 1d3 healing surge damage.
Mount Problem: An accident results in the death of a mount. Have the characters make a DC 14 group check with Athletics, Endurance, and Heal. On a failure the characters each take 1d3 healing surge damage.
Treefall: Without warning an ancient tree, rotted on the inside, falls on the characters. Have the characters make a DC 14 group check with Athletics, Endurance, or Acrobatics. On a failure the characters each take 1d3 healing surge damage.
Wrong Turn: The characters take a wrong turn and or each character takes 1d3 healing surge damage.
Fey Weather: A strange bit of fey weather, usually in the form of brief and violent hailstorm, the characters make a DC 14 group Endurance check or each character takes 1d3 healing surge damage.
There are, of course, fewer difficult hazards, and those look more like small skill challenges, but you get the idea. Grab a couple that tie in with an areas story or encounters. Let a few seem general and more random. Pick what you need. I may start off with a wrong turn (and reuse wrong turn) more often that I would in other places because this spot in my world is fey touched. Then again I may start off with the signs of the hunting party to get them into the action. Often I’ll decide based on the level of engagement around the table. If engagement is high, I can go with random. If engagement is lacking, let’s fire up some combat. Hell, if I’m feeling random, I’ll just roll a d6.
This is why people like random encounter tables. Anything could happen. And the problem with random encounter tables? That’s right, anything could happen. Players want the danger of getting in over their head, but they want it to happen in response to their characters. This system allows for both, and for a greater fine-tuning by the DM.
Oh, but I forgot, I was going to talk about watches. Here is a simple solution, each time they make camp, have them make a simple Perception group check. Characters trained in the knowledge skill appropriate for the terrain (Nature in the world, Dungeoneering in the Underdark, Arcana or Religion in places beyond) or the History skill can make the check with one of those skills instead. On a failure, every 3 hours of rest (round down) roll on the events chart. As always you will want to choose events and encounters that seem plausible.
That’s the basic rules anyhow.