A few hours into their journey, as they passed through a clearing in the forest, the party heard a loud 'thoomp thoomp thoomp' sound in the distance, emanating from the treeline beyond their line of sight . . .
* * *
As I began to design my campaign world for Labyrinth Lord, I drew large scale maps and painted out a history and cultures and jotted down all manner of ideas for adventure. I focused in on the maps, drawing more detail and went more in-depth about the cultures and lands.
Then I abruptly stopped.
For thirty years I have reveled in world creation, from top to bottom, bottom to top, side to side - what have you. World creation is a love. But something happened in my brain. Re-reading the classic rules, devouring old school blogs, and listening deep in my heart - I couldn't do it. I had to stop. I began to hunger for something that only happened occasionally - something that was never planned - the excitement of what happens when the players go off the map.
At those points, I got to improvise. I got to fly by the seat of my pants. I got to pull crazy shit out of my ass. During those times, I was much more willing to let the players come up with crazy ass shit that had deep impact, not only on the game, but in the campaign universe itself.
I realized, suddenly, that it was there all along - in the rules. Random tables all over the place. Monsters, dungeons, treasure, even harlots. Crazy stuff to keep the DM on his or her toes just as much as the players.
I'm going to rag on 4e now. To feel like I was 'doing it right,' I had to prep 4e, and prep it hard. Every adventure, I had to set up encounters that were balanced. I had to understand in detail the intricacies of the fighting abilities of each monster and how they would act as a unit. I could usually only offer the players a hand full of path options during a night as getting off track screwed up all of the planning and balance. Sure, you can run 4e loosey-goosey - but it never felt right. I never could pull it off.
But oooh boy, it's not like that in the old school.
NO PREP. I don't have to think of a single thing before hand. I can randomize just about every part of the game, and it flows smooth like butter. Of course, It's hard not to think about things, come up with horrific trap ideas, fearsome beasts, and bizarre NPCs - but I can slap all of that into tables and surprise myself with the combination, no matter how off balance they are.
As the party travelled, I rolled that a wilderness encounter would happen. I flipped to page 105 in Labyrinth Lord and looked on the Forest/Wooded Column under the Wilderness Monster Encounter Table. Dan says right there above it, 'The Labyrinth Lord will have to adjust encounters to fit the particular environment and level of the PCs. Further, this table should only be considered an example."
No . . . I like those tables for this section of my wilderness. They are all over the place. Scripting an encounter and carefully measuring it and balancing it is something I'm quite sick of. Dan has wonderful tables. Don't let him talk you out of using them.
I rolled a d20. It came up as a 7. Green dragon.
* * *
"A green dragon whooshes over your heads. It's neck cranes, pointing it's beady little eyes back at your party and with a flick of it's wings, it cartwheels in the sky, lining up for an attack run."
The three players stared at me.
"So how young is it? Juvenile? A hatchling?" one player asked, used to the age ranks of dragons in 4e.
I shrugged. "It's a dragon - the first one you've ever seen. Set down the die. There is no skill check. You have no idea how old it is, but it's big - about 30 feet long.
I saw numbers flash by in the player's eyes as they determined what the mini of the beast would look like. Worry set in quickly.
"I run." they all said. They scattered in different directions towards the trees.
It was glorious. Some back story is needed here. In two years of playing 4e - these guys never ran from a fight. Sure, once they ran after a fight, just in case. They trusted me to play fair and run things in the spirit of 4e. In most games, they were on an offensive adventure path and had time to reconnoiter - but even when surprised, they trusted the magic of the balance.
Not this time.
The entire game session dealt with the dragon attack and the aftermath. Everyone had a good time, even the poor guy who got killed and had to roll up another character. It was one of the most intense and visceral sessions I've played in a while.
All because I rolled a seven on one of Daniel Proctor's Encounter tables.