Posted On: 2022-04-04
A "random encounter" is a common design element in many (digital) turn-based role-playing games. Though the specifics of the implementation may vary, it generally involves forcing the player into a new game-state (ie. fighting monsters) according to an unpredictable schedule (ie. after walking a random number of steps). It's not a particularly popular design element, and its detractors can be pretty loud, so designers have long been incentivized to use it less, or not at all. In today's post, I'd like to unpack some of the arguments against random encounters, and see if there aren't ways to solve them without completely abandoning the design.
One common complaint about random encounters is that they are "annoying" or "tedious". My understanding is that this emotional reaction is coming from a fairly simple (and common) scenario: the player has some goal (to travel to the next town) and, while trying to achieve that goal, the random encounter occurs and delays achieving that goal. What's important about this way of framing the problem is that it shows that the random encounter is being viewed through the lens of the original goal, but does not directly engage with that goal. The more the player cares about their goal, the more frustrating random encounters will be - a frustrating paradox for designers.
To combat this, the random encounter really needs to be important enough to justify the interruption. In a storytelling sense, one could think of a random encounter as a moment of "No, and...": not only did the character fail to reach their destination, some new event transpired. If that event is boring or forgettable, it's ruining the dramatic tension/momentum of the journey. If, however, the encounter's importance eclipses the importance of the original goal, then you have heightened tension and increased audience/player engagement.
Another common complaint about random encounters is that they are not fun. This is usually a complaint about the activity performed as a result of the randomness, but it significantly impacts how players perceive random encounters as a whole. Generally speaking, this complaint seems to come from a disconnect between why the player is playing, and what kind of experience the random encounter provides. If the player wants a dramatic story, and the encounter is a one-off battle with no impact to the story, the player will chafe at being forced into it. Unfortunately, it can be particularly difficult to create encounters that both satisfy the main reason a player comes to the game, while also fitting nicely into the unpredictable/potentially repeating structure intrinsic to random encounters.
The complaint that is most commonly addressed by designers is that many random encounters just happen to the player - there's no way for players to react or work around them. In those situations, the game-state change is usually quite large - such as entering into an instanced combat encounter. A common workaround to this is to soften the state change, for example, by making the "random encounter" instead create an obstacle that the player can dodge to avoid* getting into combat.
Another way to unpack this problem is to consider it through the lens of "input" randomness versus "output" randomness. To summarize, input randomness happens before player choice (ie. drawing cards into your hand), while output randomness happens after a player choice (ie. some % chance for an attack to miss). Generally speaking, players are pretty vocal about output randomness, as it creates a disconnect between what the player intends and what actually happens. In many cases, random encounters are implemented as a kind of output randomness: whether or not an encounter happens occurs after player movement so the only "choice" a player gets is how much/little they move*. By switching this to be framed as input randomness instead, random encounters may become more appealing (ie. every step of the journey has some kind of randomly selected encounter on it, but you can pick which step you take.)
One game that addresses these issues and does an excellent job with its random encounters is the sea-faring, narrative survival-horror game Sunless Sea. The main draw of the game is its exceptional writing, and as such its core loop is usually made up of: read something, go somewhere, read more, repeat. Since traveling is "that thing you do between fun parts", it runs the risk of being tedious or boring. In a clever twist, however, the designers use random encounters to inject tension into travel, keeping it engaging and interesting. Random encounters often come with high stakes and difficult decisions*, making a sudden plot twist at sea into a tense dramatic moment. The encounters are often delivered through evocative prose as well, so the player will feel a mix of dread and delight every time they see a new one. Even the absence of an encounter occurring heightens tension: the unpredictability makes it so every moment could be dangerous, allowing tension to persist even through long stretches without events.
I hope you've enjoyed this exploration of some of the shortcomings of random encounters, and how attentive design can overcome them. This one-off topic may be a bit of a divergence from my project's current focus, but I hope it was interesting nonetheless. On the topic of my main focus: next week will be another one-off before the finale of my ongoing series about autonomous agent movement. I hope you'll stick around to see what's in store.