I woke up super early this morning and wrote a lot in my journal, musing on the nature of various tropes that exist in computer roleplaying games, and did a lot of ranting. Here, I hope to discuss one of the tropes that came up, albeit with a bit less ranting.

Random encounters are not a gameplay feature. They’re a stopgap. Filler. They’re a patch to cover a conspicuous lack of scenario planning.

A roleplaying game, properly planned and implemented, has a story and characters, and any combat that takes place ought to be set up as a series of encounters that help tell the story along with the rest of the mechanics.

Older games are given a bit of leeway here, it’s understandable that creating every encounter to be different and unique as part of the storytelling process is difficult to impossible. And yet, random encounters continue to be a large and glaringly false trope that exist in computer roleplaying games.

Earlier this month, I shared a PDF with thirty stat blocks for use in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The main reason for this were so I would be able to quickly and easily access the file anywhere I had Internet access, but there’s a reason why the stat blocks work for me when they don’t include things like powers.

The creature statistics don’t actually matter, apart from creating challenges for the players to overcome through the strategic use of math and luck.

It isn’t just that each player is focused on their own character, though that particular phenomenon plays a role. Each encounter needs to make a kind of sense. When you’re running the game, it is simply detrimental to include encounters that don’t advance the story for the characters.

Sometimes you need to take a break, sometimes the players need to let off some steam – and it could be argued that random encounters can help with that. But those aren’t random encounters either. They’re encounters chosen to fulfill a specific purpose – to enable the players to blow off steam.

Random encounters in a game like Gauntlet or Final Fantasy create an additional problem of explaining where the monsters come from – it isn’t just implausible, it’s wildly improbable that so many monsters exist so densely throughout the world. Either everyone should be long dead – or a ridiculously high-level adventurer.