Building Random Encounter Tables for Hex Crawls

Over the last couple weeks on this blog I dove deep into my campaign setting, Exploration Age. First I wrote about the design principles behind the setting and then I gave you my hex crawl tips, since Exploration Age was built for that sort of adventure. Now it’s time to blog about building random encounter tables to give your hex crawls some extra awesome.

I find hex crawls call for huge varied encounter tables. The more variety you can inject into a table, the more interesting your game play will be. A lot of different encounters will keep your hex crawl from becoming a predictable grind. Pages 85 – 87 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide have some great advice for building your own random encounter tables, so I won’t rehash what’s already been written.

Check for Encounters

When my players embark on a big hex crawl, I create three different tables – a hostile encounters table, a exploration encounters table, and a story encounters table. In general I check from random encounters twice per day during a hex crawl. Once during the travel day and once when the PCs stop to take a long rest. If they take any short rests, make a lot of noise, try to take a short cut, or do anything else that might attract attention (or if I just feel like it), I’ll check more than the usual twice. Use your discretion and roll whenever you feel it is necessary. Sometimes you may just want to make a particular type of encounter happen, in that case just skip the “check for encounters” step, roll on the appropriate table, and get going.

I check for a random encounter by rolling a d20. On a roll of 1-16, no encounter occurs. On a roll of 17-18, a hostile encounter occurs, on a roll of 19 an exploration encounter occurs, and on a 20 a story encounter occurs.

If I feel too much of a particular type of encounter has occurred, I’ll change the numbers to give a new kind of encounter a greater chance of occurring. Heck, if there’s a particular encounter I really want to occur, I’ll just make it happen and won’t even roll. The point is, you can easily adjust the numbers if your group prefers a particular type of encounter over the others. I have a better chance of hostile encounters occurring more than story or exploration because those are what my group likes. Combat encounters make hex crawling dangerous fun. You can do whatever you like and change midstream to fit your game!

One of my groups is currently crawling through the blank area of The Sprawling Jungle in Verda, so I’ll be using jungle encounters as examples.

World Map of Canus
World Map of Canus

Hostile Encounter Table

For a combat encounters table, I follow the advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I make every encounter on the table a hostile encounter. It’s that simple.

The big question you have to answer… will you build your random encounter table so that each encounter falls within the easy – hard encounter difficulty rating for your party (as the Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests) or will you build a random encounter table that includes encounters difficulty ratings well above and below what the party can handle?

I know many old school gamers may prefer the latter. After all, why would The Sprawling Jungle care what level the PCs are? They might even call it realistic. If that’s what you want to do, by all means, go ahead. Just make sure your players know what they’re in for. This is not my preferred method, but if it works for your group, game on.

In my experience having a single random encounter with a challenge rating well above the party’s level end in a party wipe just stinks. I want my players to feel like the heroes of the story. How crappy would The Lord of the Rings be if the Fellowship got entirely wiped out by a group of 1d6+4 owlbears at the start of the journey? I understand it may not seem realistic, but neither do dragons, magic, or mind flayers, so I’m good with it.

Here’s an example of a hostile encounter table below for The Sprawling Jungle in Exploration Age. The encounters are tailored for a group for four level 11 PCs. Remember that a hostile encounter doesn’t have to be resolved by combat. Let the PCs tackle the encounter with diplomacy or attempt to avoid it, especially if they see the enemy before the enemy sees them.

d12 + d8 Encounter
2 1 behir
3 1d2 Tyrannosaurus rex
4 1 hydra
5 1d6+3 saber-toothed tiger
6 1d2+1 shambling mounds
7 1d2+1 trolls
8 1 orc war cheif, 2 orogs, and 1d6 orcs
9 1d2 giant apes
10 1 lizard king/queen, 1 lizardfolk shaman, and 2d6 lizardfolk
11 1d4+4 swarms of poisonous snakes
12 1 gnoll fang of Yeenoghu, 1 gnoll pack lord, and 2d6 gnolls
13 1d6+2 giant scorpions
14 1d10+6 giant spiders
15 1d6+3 mystuak-inhanbited berserkers
16 1d3 cyclopes
17 1d2+1 green hags
18 1 yuan-ti abomination, 1 yuan-ti malison, and 1d4 yuan-ti purebloods
19 1d2 morchia
20 1 adult green dragon

Exploration Encounter Table

My exploration encounters include interactions with non-hostile NPCs and locations the PCs may meet along the way. These encounters could lead to side quests, provide challenges or rewards, or give flavor to the world. As each encounter occurs, I cross it off the list. In general it isn’t very fun for a specific of exploration encounter to occur more than once. I usually keep these tables smaller since these encounters take a lot more prep than a random encounter. I add new exploration encounters between sessions to fill-in the ones I’ve crossed off the list. Checkout my example for The Sprawling Jungle below.

d6 Encounter
1 A wagon surrounded by decomposing humanoid corpses wearing rainbow colored cloaks. The wagon contains a hidden compartment (DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) to notice) which holds 4d6 x 100 doses of orange spice inside.
2 Hidden mud pit 20 feet deep with a 10-foot-square opening. DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) to notice. A creature which enters the mud pit must succeed on a DC 15 Strength saving throw or be submerged 5 feet in the mud, restrained, and continue to sink at the end of its turn at a rate of 5 feet per round. Once the mud covers the creature’s head it is blinded and it begins suffocating if it requires air to live. A submerged creature can make a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check as an action to climb 5 feet out of the pit and also not sink at the end of its turn. A nonsubmerged creature can aid a submerged creature by lending it a hand or long object (such as a branch), which gives the submerged creature advantage on its Strength (Athletics) check.
3 A grove of casgrove fruit. The fruit is worth 500 gp. Harvesting the fruit takes 2 hours. There is a 50% 3d6 mystauk with no host inhabit the grove as well.
4 A band of adventurers from the Explorers’ Guild (50%) or the Society of Seekers (50%) looking for a nearby aberrant ruin. They will pay the adventurers 50 gp for any information which could aid them in their search.
5 An aberrant ruin. Use Shuzal or roll on the aberrant ruin table.
6 The nomadic panther tribe comes through. Their chief, Bergonthal the Brave, has contracted slug snot after exploring a a cave which leads to the Underdark. If the PCs heal the cheif, the tribe’s shaman, Ferix the Wolf, reward the PCs with a charm of victorious armor.

Story Encounters Table

Story encounters are more abstract. They inject PC backstories and past campaign events into the game. A story encounter should help introduce new story elements into your campaign or move a particular story forward. When a result on the table calls for a particular PC you can randomly choose one character by rolling a die or by picking whichever PC’s story makes the most sense at the moment given the time and location of the encounter. You could also simply pick a PC who hasn’t been in the spotlight for a time.

Some of the results on the table call for a NPC to ask the players for help. If you’re stuck on what the NPC should ask for, roll on your hostile encounters table and have the NPC ask players for help defeating that enemy which is chasing the NPC, has stolen something which belongs to the NPC, or raiding a nearby settlement.

A NPC offering aid could offer their own services as an adventurer, healing spells, food, or equipment. A few potions never hurt anyone (and a few cursed potions really make the game interesting).

d6 Encounter
1 A hostile creature from a PC’s background
2 A hostile creature that got away from the PCs or has returned from the dead after they killed it
3 A friendly creature from the PC’s background asking for help with something or offering aid
4 A henchmen or assassin hired by a villain the PCs are working against come to kill the PCs or infiltrate them as a spy
5 A NPC the entire party has met before asking for help with something or offering aid
6 A NPC who knows someone the PCs know or has heard of them who needs help or is asking for aid

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