Tabletop RPG Review: The Game Master’s Book of Random Encounters

The first thing I’ll say about this book is that it really wasn’t what I was expecting.  From the title and from the vague description I’d read, I expected a book of toolkits & charts for creating “random” encounters.  I have a few similar books now, but this was cheap and they can be very handy when you’re not feeling as creative and need a bit of a boost.  What this actually is, is eight adventures, plus a bunch of supplemental material that will help you randomize certain parts of those adventures, and that can also be used to plug into other scenarios you might be working on.  And then in the back of the book, there are a few of the tool kits, like I had expected.  And while it’s clearly written with Dungeons & Dragons in mind, it won’t take a GM much effort to transfer it over to whatever game they prefer.

The first scenario, Presto Change-O put me in mind of playing Deadlands, for some reason.  The whole huckster selling weird potions thing, I guess.  Funny enough, it also reminds me of a Numenera game I played some time ago.  It’s intended for lower level or lesser experienced characters.

Mother Knows Best seems like it would be fairly short, with a bit of a fetch-quest element.  The titular Mother will tie into one of the PCs, so if you enjoy messing with character backstory and such, this one could be fun.  It’s intended for slightly higher level characters, but depending on the system, might not be too hard.

Special Delivery has several moving parts, but looks like it would be a lot of fun to throw at a party.  It involves a thieves’ guild, which is always fun in any kind of urban adventure.  It’s intended for characters of close to mid-level or somewhat powerful.  There are some deadly encounters.

An Actor’s Life seems very complicated.  There are a lot of moving pieces, many NPCs, misdirections, misunderstandings, and mistaken identity.  If you’re into mystery and lots of role-playing (though also some combat), this one might be a good fit.  It’s intended for characters on the lower end of the level spectrum, but might be somewhat demanding for the Game Master.

If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional, there’s The Tomb of the Forgotten Paladin.  Though this does have some fun twists, not the least of which is a talking sword.  I like that part of the randomness in this one is the sword itself.  You might run a game where the sword is upbeat and ready to “attack the day,” or you might run a game where the sword is “timid and shy, hiding a furious temper.”  Things like that could change the whole spirit of the adventure.  It’s intended for lower level characters and might make a good introduction.

Nature VS. Nurture, oddly enough, I think might be able to be plugged into one of the Phandalin adventures for D&D if you were so inclined.  It has an interesting story, a bit of a twist on an environmental message.  It’s intended for somewhat lower level characters, but there’s definitely potential for difficult combats.  Problem solving and investigation might serve the PCs better, though.

One Last Job might be my favorite scenario, but also might be the one I’d most want to rework.  It has the PCs sifting through the wreckage of an old adventuring party, a band of thieves, who used to be really great, but have fallen on hard times.  Trying to figure out what happened, to whom, how, and why is a difficult nut to crack, but the PCs will need to if they want a chance at a big pay day.  And there are some moral questions that pop up that could really throw the group for a loop, depending on what kinds of people they are.  It’s intended for mid-level characters.  If you were running a long-term urban-set campaign, I think this could be a cool one to work in, especially if you drop a few hints earlier on, like whispered references to the Octagon Gang and the like.

The Portal Prison is very much not my cup of tea, but I can see why folks might like it.  It feels almost like it’s bordering on the old “fun house” dungeon style, though there’s more logic to it than many of those.  This is intended for high level characters, and there’s a lot of really nutty stuff in it.  I’m going to be honest, though, I don’t like the basic set-up of the adventure.  Like how and why the PCs get wrapped up in it.  That might have tainted my general opinion.

So, that was the first hundred pages of the book.  After that, there are location-keyed maps.  A chapter of Taverns and shops and such, one on the wilderness, one that’s filled with homes and lairs, and finally some rooftops, alleys and such.  Most of these are one or two page spreads.  Sometimes they bleed onto a third.  They each have ways to randomize elements and change up how they work or what might be found there.

Finally there are the random charts I thought the book would be full of.  An NPC generator where you can do a handful of die rolls and come up with a generally useful, named character to throw at your players, including a brief description, what they’re carrying, and even their wants and needs.

Though I generally like this book, I do have a couple complaints.  My biggest issue is the maps.  It’s sort of a question of “who are these for?”  The book is done in a mix of grayscale and reds.  The maps are fairly detailed illustrations.  That means they end up being very dark.  They’re too small to be used as-is for a game session and too dark to photocopy.  The detailed illustrations make them look player-focused, but I can’t imagine leaving the book open, with all the info on the page, for the players to study.  And as a GM, I find them way, way too busy and hard to see and use.  If they were available as virtual tabletops they might make sense or if you could download them as printable PDFs, with one version for GMs and one version for players.  But if they are, I didn’t find any reference to it in the book.  I would have much preferred simplified, line-drawn maps in black & white, so that they’re easy to read and potentially photocopy, or even copy by hand onto graph paper or something.  The book is filled with maps.  However, I can’t imagine anyone but GMs ever getting a chance to see them.  Also, the greyscale and red graphic design became sort of oppressive over the course of reading the book.  If you just pick it up off the shelf and look at it, it’s a nice looking book.  But if you spend a lot of time with the book, it starts to weigh on you. I’d have rather the whole thing be in simple black and white, with maybe greyscale and red art plates for chapters, or something like that. But page after page of it? No thanks.

Would I recommend this book for game masters?  Yes.  It’s a nice, inexpensive hardcover with a lot of useful stuff.  I could see several of the adventures becoming perennial favorites, and there are enough bits you can mix and match that they should stay fresh for years to come.

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