Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Revised Wilderness Exploration System Part 2 – Random Encounters

Regardless of whether an adventuring party is headed in the right direction or not, any wilderness travel in D&D is frought with danger, opportunities to explore bizarre sites, and the chance to meet up with other travelers and monsters.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide presents a simple, unified system for Random Encounter checks (p. 86) that covers both dungeon and wilderness environments. While streamlined, it requires significant custom work to create tables with “just the right frequency” of encounters, or “just so distribution” to set the right pacing for the campaign and provide a wide variety of possible encounters.

In editions past, however, there were often unified tables for the frequency of encounters, and tables that covered the monsters from whatever current Monster Manual was published…someting of an issue when future monster collections came out.

Straddling the line between these two situations, the system outlined here provides a set of encounter frequencies by wilderness terrain type that pretty closely reflects those from early editions of D&D (specifically BECMI or AD&D). This allows them to be placed on the same table as that used for determining whether the party gets lost (see Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Revised Wilderness Exploration System Part 1 – Getting Lost), allowing a single reference that can be used for the most important dice rolls that occur every day of wilderness travel: navigation, getting lost, and random encounters. The customization side of this is reflected in the specific Random Encounter tables that the DM builds for their campaign, but with additional guidance beyond what the Dungeon Master’s Guide provides.

Random Encounters

We’re gonna need a couple more Meteor Swarm scrolls for this one!

Random Encounter Check

At the start of every day of travel, the party has already decided on their direction and pace, and make a Navigation check that determines whether or not they are lost (DMG p. 111-12). If they are lost, the direction has also been determined per the Getting Lost article. All of this to say that the DM knows precisely where the party is traveling at the start of the adventuring day, once the results of these checks are in. Based on the terrain the party will travel through, the DM can easily determine if there are random encounters.

Consult the Wilderness Encounter and Lost Chance by Terrain table (below) after rolling 1d6 for daytime encounters and 1d6 for nighttime encounters. An encounter occurs if they die comes up with the noted number (or higher).

A set of modifiers is noted in the Encounter Chance Modifiers table, though these can (and should) be altered by the DM based on their campaign world.

If an encounter occurs at either or both times of day, roll on the corresponding Random Encounter Table based on where the party is and have them occur at an interesting time of day or night.

Example: The DM checks for encounters while the party is traveling through the White Sands Desert. He rolls a 5 for daytime and a 2 for nighttime. This means that an encounter occurs during the day (5+), but not at night (3+). If, however, they are in a Barren area (+1 modifier) at night, then they would face a random encounter.

Wilderness encounters necessarily leave a lot up to the DM: they are supposed to be feel random, after all. A daytime encounter could happen before the party even finishes rolling up their campsite, or at any point before the sun sets. There may not even be sunlight, if the weather is bad!

So long as the encounters occur at an interesting time and do what they are designed to do (as the Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 85), that’s what truly matters.

On the table below, note that Difficulty, Lost Chance, and Lost Direction refer to wilderness travel rules, and do not have anything to do with the Random Encounter Rules presented in this article.

Table 1: Wilderness Encounter and Lost Chance by Terrain

Terrain navigation DC Lost Chance (1d6) Lost Direction Day (1d6) Night (1d6)
Desert 10 3+ 60 L/R 5+ 3+
Flying (any) 5 6+ Any 3+ 5+
Forest 15 5+ Any 3+ 5+
Grassland 5 6+ 60 L/R 6+ 6+
Hills 10 5+ 60 L/R 3+ 5+
Jungle 15 4+ Any 3+ 4+
Mountains 15 5+ 120 L/R 2+ 4+
Ocean 10 (15 if overcast) 6+ Any 3+ 5+
River 5 5+ 60 L/R 3+ 5+
Swamp 15 4+ Any 2+ 4+

Table 2: Encounter Chance Modifiers

The following are suggested modifiers for the Day and Night columns of the table above, essentially based on relative “encounter density.” Please alter these to create a unique “feel” for your campaign setting. These do not really taken into account the disposition or type of encounters.

  • City +1
  • Civilized -1
  • Wilderness 0
  • Barren +1
  • Dark Lands +1*

*On a 6+, the encounter is automatically hostile, even if it is normally an allied or neutral party.

Random Encounter Tables

It’s not enough to check for encounters; the DM needs to have encounters ready to spring on the characters. To that end, the DM will need several Random Encounter Tables at the ready. This is where the customization comes in.

There are two methods of creating them:

Simple Random Encounter Table(s). Pressed for time? Several published scenarios feature random encounter tables in various types of terrain or various regions of a published campaign setting, such as the Forgotten Realms. Additionally, many books like the Monster Manual, other monster books, various indices compiling monsters by terrain type or Challenge Rating, and so on act as fantastic compilations and lists of monsters. An enterprising DM can simply take one of these as-is, or simply choose a handful of the most interesting looking monsters from one or several of these sources and tie them to a small, hand-written list.

Make sure to make the final list include a number of encounters equal to the roll of a single die (usually a d6 is fine), with perhaps one of the numbers on the die signalling “no encounter” or some kind of non-combat encounter (like a natural hazard, a change in weather, etc.) to spice things up. Not everything needs to be a fight.

The rest of this article details the second option, but various tips and tricks can be applied even when pulling a random encounter table from another source.

Custom Random Encounter Table(s). We’ll cover these throughout the rest of the article, but for the sake of explanation, this is a fully customized table that the DM creates ahead of time, focusing on a single region and/or terrain type, and covering enough encounters to be varied and interesting, while representing the thematic look and feel of the region in question.

Creating a Custom Random Encounter Table

There is little science to creating thematic, regional encounter tables, but the art isn’t very hard to apply in order for the “feel” to come out just right. The DM simply must consider the following information in order to build their encounter tables:

  • The encounter regions of your map, whether it be divided up simply by terrain type or having different terrain types grouped together by some more thematic means. For example, hexes near the Caves of Chaos could be one region, regardless of terrain type, as are hexes that include and immediately surround the Miasmal Swamps.
  • Frequency of encounters, based in part on the “population density” of monsters, hazards, NPCs, and other noteworthy encounter possibilities.
  • The types of encounters that might occur, such as monsters, NPCs (friendly, neutral, or hostile), natural hazards that actually have a chance at challenging a party of adventurers (this can often be level-dependent), appropriate changes in weather that can provide interesting potential (whether as a threat like hazards are or as a simple storytelling device to set a specific mood), and minor adventure sites that can serve as fun side-treks.
  • The final number of encounters and their distribution, keeping in mind whether or not time of day matters (such as some encounters not occurring during daytime or nighttime), and whether or not to allow for possible re-rolls (such as an instance of rolling an 8 on 1d8 and having that mean “roll for two encounters that occur simultaneously, ignoring any further 8’s that come up on these rolls”).

Step 1. Determine Encounter Regions

The DM already has a map (remember Step 0 under Getting Lost?) depicting a region or regions, depending on the scale, terrain types present, and other factors of the campaign or adventure setting. It is a simple matter of subdividing this map up further into encounter regions, and for each one, create a short table of thematically appropriate encounters that can be rolled up at a moment’s notice, as soon as a random encounter is rolled for. Determining the number and size of encounter regions is largely dependent on your campaign setting, but it should also take into account two very important time factors:

  1. how much prep time do you have, and
  2. how long the party is likely to be wandering around in each region.

The DM should only be preparing the minimum number of random encounter tables, and that means dividing the wilderness map into the least number of useful chunks. Often, this might be largely dictacted by terrain type — it’s very easy, after all, to place monsters by their favored terrain type — but it can just as easily determined by total area, or political and “lair” boundaries determined by fixed encounters that are already planned, such as a settlement that already appears on the map, or a dragon’s lair that is a major focus of the campaign.

The length of time the party could potentially be wandering in the region should play a major part in how big the random encounter table is. If the party simply needs to pass through the 10 or so hexes that make up the Swamp of Unholy Blights to get to their destination, then chances are that they’ll maybe be in there for a day or two (maybe three or four if they get really lost). There’s simply no need to create a table of more than 4 or 6 encounters for this region…unless the party is going to be visting and revisiting this area time and again throughout the campaign, in which case a couple more encounters couldn’t hurt (or, after several levels, you can simply create a new, more level-appropriate table of encounters). (Note that you could bundle the Swamp of Unholy Blights in with the much bigger Forest of Darkened Mists and create a region that the party could be in for the better part of week, and thus a table of 6 or 8 entries is more worthwhile.)

Example: I am running a campaign in Daggerdale, a region of the Forgotten Realms that’s relatively small (I use 1-mile hexes for the map), because the campaign is focused on the players being involved in the ongoing civil war between the Zhentarim that have invaded and taken over the capital city and a few towns, and the freedom fighters led by the rightful heir to Daggerdale’s throne, Randal Morn.

Despite the small area, I have the combined features of “this is a very active area” and “the characters will spend almost the entire campaign adventuring within these borders,” I don’t mind building a handful of regions, each with tables ranging from roughly 8 to 20 encounters each. This setup will give each region a unique feel, and while it sounds like a lot of encounters to plan, there are some that can appear on multiple tables (it’s such a small area, so some overlap is okay), and some of the encounters will be very simple abandoned sites or minor hazards (it’s a low-level campaign, sure to end by levels 6 or 8), and therefore the tables themselves don’t require much work at all.

Encounter Regions in Daggerdale

Encounter Regions in Daggerdale

Step 2. Choose Your Encounters

For each potential region, develop a list of encounter ideas. At this stage, it’s enough to simply write a minimum of words to brainstorm ideas, such as:

  • Adult green dragon
  • Animated plants
  • Sealed cave, filled with zombies
  • Orc war band
  • Quicksand
  • Fey

Keeping in mind your prep time and the projected size of the tables (and the number of tables, for considerations of varying encounters as much as possible), stick to that particular regions strengths and you should be able to come up with several monster encounters, some NPC encounters, naturally occurring or manufactured hazards designed to sap resources from the party, weather or other events designed to provide a certain thematic feel (fog to represent dread, rain for tedium or sorrow, etc.), and so on.

A mix of likely combat and non-combat encounters helps to ensure that not every roll brings up a fight, a life-or-death occurrence, and so on. Characters with exploration- and interaction-based abilities should have plenty of time to shine, and several of your encounters should tell the players something about the world they adventure in, as opposed to simply attacking them.

Step 3. Encounter Distribution

At this stage, the DM determines which of the potential encounters sound like the most fun and fit the region best, and organize them into tables. The number of encounters for a given region determines the die size used for the table, and the projected challenge level of the encounter and/or monster rarity should help inform the distribution of those encounters on that die type. The DM should also consider the daytime/nighttime split, and whether that matters in the creation of the table.

Example: a simple table might use 1d4, and have three possible encounters. One of those encounters occupies two slots, because it’s very likely to occur in the context of the campaign, which happens to be about a warband of orcs invading the forest. Random Encounter Table 1. Fey 2. Quicksand 3-4. Orc scout party

If the orcs only moved around at night, you could make one of two types of more complicated tables: Daytime/Nighttime tables and Altered Distribution tables.

Daytime and Nighttime Encounter Tables

Turn the region into two different tables, one for daytime encounters (not including the orcs, or encountering the orcs only at their encampment) and one for nighttime (when the orcs are on the prowl and at the ready).

Example: splitting the table into two might look like this. Forest Daytime Encounters (1d4) 1-2. Fey 3. Quicksand 4. Orc scout party currently making camp (only 1 or 2 orcs might be on watch) Forest Nighttime Encounters (1d4) 1. Fey 2. Quicksand 3-4. Orc scout party

Altered Distribution Encounter Tables

Keep the region on a single table, but change the distribution such that nighttime encounters occur on higher numbers, and nighttime encounter rolls receive a bonus modifier, naturally skewing the results to these higher numbers when an encounter is going to occur at night.

Example: the DM wants the chance to encounter the orcs at camp during the day, and either camping or on the move at night, since they are pretty lazy and not really roaming the area very much. This table suggests that the Fey are only active during the day (and can’t be encountered at nighttime, perhaps disappearing into a hidden lair), and the orcs are camping most of the time, but at least potentially on the move, roaming the area at night. Forest Encounters (1d4; at nighttime, add +1 to the roll) 1. Fey 2. Quicksand 3-4. Orc scout party currently making camp (only 1 or 2 orcs might be on watch) 5. Orc scout party

Playing with the distribution and daytime/nighttime split can really change the feel of how encounters play out, and either case allows for as much repetition as the DM wants on the tables.

Having certain slots taken up by options such as “Re-roll to get two simultaneous encounters” will also add an additional element of randomness on the DM’s side of things, which can be avoided easily, or used often for DMs that don’t mind the added improv and complications that could come up in combining different encounter types.

Remember to be mindful of your personal preferences (lots of prep before gamenight vs. lots of improv at the table) and your time (simple tables vs. more complex tables) and building encounter tables gets very easy with a minimum of practice.

Step 4. Fleshing Out the Encounters

Now that you have your tables outlined, it’s time to flesh out the encounters. This last piece of the puzzle can really occur throughout the process, as ideas for encounters are gathered and lists made, and need not be as complex as developing an entire set-piece encounter, with named characters, battlemaps, and so on. Often, it’s as simple as noting the creature, NPC, or hazard and a very general situation. That said, these can be as detailed as the DM has time to prep for, and based on their preferences with regard to running encounters. Some DMs simply need the kernel of an idea and a monster or NPC name, while others might prefer to have a battlemap with positions and a general sense of the encounter’s circumstances (lighting, cover, terrain).

If the encounter list doesn’t appear to have a lot of variety, now is a good time to add it in. For example, if you have 5 potentially hostile monster encounters, a friendly NPC encounter, and two natural hazards, it’s time now to consider how those 5 monster encounters really feel different. It may be as simple as the types of monsters featured, but you may also want to consider things like…

  • Give simple goals to sentient monsters, so it opens up the possibility of negotiation, intimidation, bribing, or other social interaction, even if the monster is hostile.
  • Make a normally hostile monster potentially friendly under certain circumstances.
  • Have a normally friendly monster or NPC (based on alignment, perhaps) antagonistic, duplicitous, or likely to flee under certain circumstances (a wild goose chase never hurt…).
  • Start off especially powerful monsters or NPCs wounded or otherwise placed in a weakened state or precarious position.
  • Make some hazards unavoidable if encountered (but not ones that are overtly deadly!), forcing the players to make a hard choice (like having to choose between losing their supplies or their mounts) if they fail a series of skill checks or even a Group check.
  • Consider how two encounters might be tied together somehow, such as having one group hunting or fleeing another, or perhaps similar groups can be part of a simple, nearby settlement.

Finally, it pays to run the encounter math on possible combat encounters or encounter locations that might feature rewards like hidden treasure. Calculate the challenge level or power of various rewards, and determine how to make them balanced. If they aren’t balanced by challenge or reward level, that’s not necessarily a red flag not to use the encounter. Instead, use it as impetus to change the circumstances of the encounter. If a region for level 3 characters features a Pit Fiend and Succubus encounter, it is very important to frame this encounter in a way that the players can engage with it but avoid combat, immediate enslavement, or similar — likewise foregone — conclusions.

Example Encounter Tables

Below are two regional encounter tables used for the map above. The encounters are almost entirely derived from the adventures Doom of Daggerdale (by Wolfgang Baur), Sword of the Dales, Secret of the Spiderhaunt, and The Return of Randal Morn (these three by Jim Butler). Many of the encounters are directly converted, while others have been updated for balance in 5E, or to provide additional NPC and monster names.

These tables are not meant to be a challenge to the authors who originally created them; all props to them!

Shadowdale Vicinity

This table is mostly for wilderness travel through the forest surrounding Shadowdale, beneath the eaves closest to Daggerdale. This area is meant to be especially dangerous to keep low-level characters from venturing too far out of Daggerdale during the campaign.

At some point, however, Shadowdale will likely become a big player in the civil war, so there’s plenty of reason for the party to come to this area time and time again for delivering messages, asking for assistance, and so on. Thus, I’ve decided to use 1d20 for the encounter table. Appropriate for low- to mid-levels (3-8).

1d20 Encounter
1 1d6 Ankhegs assault any passersby, starving for food.
2 A single Ettin Farg Thunderbloat — is washing up in a small pond.
3 Wolf pack. 1d6+1 Wolves.
4 4d6 Goblins from the Clan of the Broken Bones, led by their Goblin Boss, Stez. These goblins are extremely primitive, relying on clubs and bone/stone spears. They have an irrational fear of both fire and water, drinking only fermented berry juice. As such, they are regularly quite drunk, and filthy besides.
5 1d6+1 Centaurs, out looking for the Broken Bones goblins. The leader, Feerond, can provide a single casting of Legend Lore if they make a particularly good impression on him.
6 Lost! Regardless of the party’s ability to navigate the wilderness, the forest and hills seem to twist and turn their path, causing them to lose several hours.
7 1d4 Goblins from the Clan of the Broken Bones are lost, split up from their group (see #3). Probably more from being drunk than anything else.
8 Ranger. Holly Huldane, LG female human Scout with her Blood Hawk companion Skymark. She knows of Emerash (#8), the Werewolf (#17), and the Goblins (#3).
9 Emerash, LE Green Dragon Wyrmling; he’s currently building an underground lair deep down a cavernous hole in the forest floor. He’s impetuous and foolhardy, speaking and acting quickly and without much thought. That said, he’s not particularly violent; he’d rather build up an army then commit himself to danger.
10 3 Cultists led by a Cult Fanatic (Saerahd Shadowmourn), all initiates of the Cult of the Dragon, in service to the dracolich Derimos the Grim and in search of Emerash.
11 Lost! Regardless of the party’s ability to navigate the wilderness, the forest and hills seem to twist and turn their path, causing them to lose several hours.
12 1d3 Brown Bears raid a nest of bees to get some honey. The bees may swarm (treat as a Swarm of Insects) and attack, causing the bears to become enraged from pain.
13 2 Owlbears prowl the wilderness. They are unlikely to attack a large group, instead stalking them and hoping for someone to wander off alone. If attacked or if the party remains together, the Owlbears break off after an hour or two.
14 8 Skeletons rise out of the woods as night falls and begin trekking aimlessly northward. They only engage if attacked, and come daylight, they crumble into lifeless piles again until nightfall. This routine seemingly has no end.
15 1d20 Giant Wolf Spiders lair nearby, and send out a party to attack trespassers.
16 Pilgrims. A band of pilgrims travels on foot, seeking a new home after their home in Cormyr, near the Stonelands, was attacked by Orcs. This group includes 1d12 Commoners, and 1d4 Bandits. They beg for alms.
17 Wolfman. A lone Werewolf stalks the party, waiting for nightfall to sneak up on a party member or their mounts and attempt to drag them off.
18 Orc Raiders. 1d4+2 Orcs led by an Orc Eye of Gruumsh named Bogakh scour the area. They are part of a larger force of 2d12 Orcs and an Orc War Chief lairing in a ruined dwarven lookout tower.
19 1d4 Giant Wolf Spiders and a single Giant Spider, ravenous, burst forth from the trees to attack the party.
20 1d4 dead adventurers hang suspended in the trees, cocooned in spider webs. Roll again twice, combining the encounters as creatures are drawn to the scent of fresh blood (or the scene of a fight, perhaps via having found discarded or dropped equipment).

Northride Encounters

This deadly region stands between Daggerdale and the Moonsea region. It is sparsely populated and poorly patrolled, and thus it is especially deadly at nighttime. Appropriate for low levels (2-5).

1D6 (+4 at nighttime) Encounter
1 Shadowdale Patrol. Captain of the Patrol Rethan the Black (NG human Veteran), leads 3d4 Guards and a single Griffon.
2 Caravan. 3d4 Guards accompany a single, horse-drawn wagon (Draft Horses) filled with weapons headed to the Moonsea region. The drover is Resker (a Commoner) and the merchant is the Elf Starhaven (a Noble).
3 2d4 Bandits, their Bandit Captain Aglavia Soulrim, and their pet Blink Dog Asher are looking to liberate some money from passersby.
4 Shadowdale Patrol. Captain of the Patrol Arlborn Stormcloak (LG human Knight), leads 3d4 Guards on horseback (Warhorses).
5 The Wandering Priestess. Lady Priestess Antonia Goodchance (CG human female Priest of Tymora) is traveling the land, inspiring people to take risks in pursuing their dreams, and rely on boldness to gain the favor of The Smiling Lady. Those who are bold can gain her favor as well, in one of the following ways (per party):

  1. Healing of up to 1d4 individuals of 2d4+2 hit points or the removal of one condition each.
  2. A gift of 1d4 healing potions

Casting of Tymora’s Favor upon a single individual, conferring a bonus to saving throws that lasts until expended, being a +4 bonus on the first save, +3 on the second, +2 on the third, and +1 on the fourth save, at which point the spell’s power is exhausted.

6 Adventurers. Six adventurers travel the land, looking for monsters to slay and treasures to liberate.

  • Felthaeran, a mandolin-playing Bandit Captain (CN human female).
  • Haelgatha, a Berserker (CN half-orc female).
  • Indarn, an Acolyte, and Felthaeran’s androgynous lover (NE half-elf male).

Glaemtree, Glower, and Eldrake, Bandits (CN female, male, and male).

7 1d4 Skeletons rise up and attack. Another 2 Skeletons rise up every round until eight total have risen.
8 The Giant and His Dog. An ogre (Poolar) and his pet giant hyena (Bluetooth) comes down from the Desertsmouth Mountains to the Tesh River valley.
9 Weather Change. The looming clouds begin to rain down heavy hailstones, damaging everyone for 1d6 bludgeoning damage. Unless cover is sought immediately, another 1d6 bludgeoning is dealt every hour in the severe hail storm. It lasts for four hours.
10 Razed Farmstead. A farmstead stands abandoned and largely burnt, ruined. It appears as if Orcs or Goblins attacked. No bodies nor survivors are found, though there might (20% chance) be a hidden cache of treasure among the ruins, containing some valuable gems and a few low-level wizard spell scrolls.

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One comment on “Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Revised Wilderness Exploration System Part 2 – Random Encounters
  1. neuronphaser says:

    For those of you following along, this served as a first draft for what became a completely rewritten and revised system that is now a Pay What You Want Product at Dungeon Masters Guild! Check it out here:


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