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Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s unpack that, shall we?
The following comes from the DM section of How To Play Good: Tips On Being A Better Player & DM.
Whether it’s a combat or social encounter is immaterial. Treat each of your encounters as scenes. As scenes, it’s easier to judge them with a fiction author’s eye.
There are very few hard-and-fast rules about story creation, but there are three you really, really, really want to observe, because breaking them is fraught with peril:
- Everything your heroes do has to happen for a reason.
- Do not let things just happen to your heroes.
- Everything that happens must move the plot forward.
Let’s take them each in turn.
Everything has to happen for a reason because coincidence does nothing to advance the plot, and everything that happens in the story must advance the plot.
Do not let things just happen to the heroes because it’s not heroic if things just happen to them. Action is only heroic if it derives from the heroes’ choices. If the heroes lack agency, they’re reacting, never acting.
For the last, as James Gunn notes in The Science of Science Fiction Writing, “[O]mit everything that doesn’t advance the plot. That doesn’t mean description or essential exposition, but it does include unnecessary scenes […] Everything must work; everything must contribute.”
In adventure design, this means you have to ask yourself if what you’re thinking about adding advances the plot. If it doesn’t, cut it. That goes for your supposedly “random” encounters, too; they at least must have the potential to advance the main plot or introduce, advance, or resolve subplot(s).
If your “random” encounters truly are random, your players will smell it. When the adventure wraps up, someone will ask, “Hey, what was the deal with those centaurs we encountered on the way to the dungeon?”
We’ve been subconsciously trained for decades with good story. In film and on TV as well as in books, we’ve come to experience no extraneous bullshit in our stories. It feels, well, off when we encounter extraneous bullshit. Even if we can’t identify why we feel off, we do.
So keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to put a random-encounter table in your adventure, whether it’s for publication or just your home table. It’s bad practice, even if it is “traditional.”