An integral part of enjoying any roleplaying game is encountering other beings. Since the Adventurers will all be together, every single encounter will be with a non-player character.
This entire blog post is dedicated to the Games Master. There are no secrets to be kept from the Players - but if you want to learn the Games Master's art, you can listen in and learn.
The Art of The Encounter
Encounters are what Games Masters do. And like everything else, it is an art form which Games Masters need to learn to get good at.
Mere repetition is not enough. You can get just as bored by yet another orc raiding party, whether they are equipped with orcish falchions or spears, nets or flails. If all you know of encounters is their numbers, their stats, their weapons, and battle till their Hit Points reach zero, then you are missing out on what is possibly one of the most spectacular Games Master arts.
Old Skool Encounters
Initially, encounter tables were random lists of wandering monsters. They turn up, the characters slaughter them, the adventure moves on to the next encounter. However, hack'n'slash is not really the default in roleplaying games any more. Games Masters can now create far richer kinds of encounters - ones which are part of the story, or part of the characters' growth and development, or which somehow showcase the setting.
Here are some considerations for the encounters you can set up.
Most encounters are going to be with people, rather than combat with some random mindless, slavering monsters. Once the characters are out on the road, they will be meeting other people - other adventurers, their own Rivals or Allies, patrols, pilgrims ... there is a variety of these different kinds of parties. The nature of these groups typically determines the likeliest thing they are going to do when the characters heave into view of them.
This is generally asking what these wanderers want - their motive. And whether or not it involves the characers in any way. A band of pilgrims might want to stop at the characters' campfire and share food and talk about their pilgrimage, and a hunting party might show off their catches. Traders might sell or exchange, or provide information about the road they have just come down, and so on. It depends on what they want - whether it is to just go home, or to warn the characters of a hazard. Or indeed to ambush the characters, leading to a combat. Yes, there is always that possibility - but it is not the only outcome any more.
Sometimes, what refers to animal encounters. Traveller excelled at animal encounters, presenting a broad list of animal encounter types such as Pouncers (such as big cats, which strike at their targets with a leap), Trackers (such as wolves, which pursue their prey by scent) or Gatherers (omnivores like humans, who forage for food). The kinds of animals encountered can determine what kind of encounter it will be, whether it is fending off hungry wolves or sitting on top of a rocky outcrop to wait out the vast herd of migratory aurochs which is cutting across the road.
The location fo the encounter is important, as in the local terrain. Are the characters encountering a hazard such as an encroaching landslide? If they are, what is the terrain behind them like? Are the directions of movement restricted? In the case of a landslide, they might only be able to go forwards or backwards, and the option to go forwards might only be time sensitive until the rocks or the avalanche cuts off the way ahead.
What time the encounter takes place is hugely important. A party which encounters wanderers coming up to their campfire in the middle of the night is bound to be a lot more wary than two groups of wanderers running into one another in the road at midday.
How an encounter happens can be as simple a matter as how much warning the characters have to prepare for it. A stealthy predatory animal stalking the characters will try to ambush them and take them by surprise. In contrast, a band of pilgrims might give away their position half an hour before they turn up, announcing their presence with loud hymnals and music as they approach.
This is probably the most important question. Why these people, here, now? Why have they targeted the characters? Why is this more significant than a "ships passing in the night" encounter where the adventurers just breeze past the beings encountered on the road, without interaction?
Some example reasons follow below.
Abduction - the beings encountered abduct travellers and take them elsewhere for some unknown purpose
Ambush - the beings have set up a roadblock or ambush for some reason, which might not necessarily mean robbery.
Challenge - a puzzle, riddle, or test: the characters are being tested for worthiness by an agent of the person they are seeking, or perhaps an Avatar of a deity testing the party member who believes in that deity and follows their religion.
Connections - the encountered beings are known to the characters, either as Allies, Contacts, Rivals, Enemies, family, and so on.
Event - something unexpected and interesting happens along the way.
Guardian - a sentinel is placed in the characters' way, not to test them but to halt their progress.
Hazard - some environmental hazard, whether it is terrain, wildlife, or weather.
Hunt - the beings encountered are after someone or something that is not the characters. They are either on an actual hunt (tracking some beast for its flesh or pelt), or they are a posse sent after a miscreant.
Labourers - the encountered beings are workers from a local settlement, on their way to or from work.
Location - the characters stumble upon a notable location or terrain feature.
Lost - the beings have become separaed from their unit. They could be young Nomads, or a child from a nearby settlement. See Rescue.
Nomads - the beings are a wandering, self-sufficient group of people, and they are following their traditional route.
Patrol - the encountered beings are patrolling the periphery of a nearby settlement. They have the right to challenge strangers, acting as they are in defence of the settlement.
Pilgrimage - the beings are on some sort of quest or pilgrimage, either to some destination to confirm their faith, or on a journey to test their faith.
Rescue - the beings are tracking someone who has gone missing: a search or rescue party. The missing person should be nearby.
Road Gang - the beings are prisoners being escorted by guards, or on site labour maintaining the road under supervision of the guards.
Runaways - the beings are running from someone or something - or they are running to someone or something.
Settlement - the characters stumble across a settlement of some beings. They are just people, trying to live their lives; or they could be hostile in some way.
Shadow - the beings could be being shadowed by an elusive being or group of beings, who are following the characters for some unknown purpose.
Trade - the beings could be traders en route to a market. They can share food, exchange gossip and information, and so on. They could also be robbers, who might choose the characters as their next victims.
We have not come to the end of the discussion of encounters. There will be more next time, including suggestions for tables you can use in a game.
Edited by Alex Greene