Patreon Article: Encounters on Deck

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Wandering monster and random encounter tables are a staple of many old school games, and many games include them by default somewhere between the covers. Some of these lists are organized by level, by environment, or by locale where the creatures encountered are to be found.  Specific adventures and campaigns often include custom tables for use, but often there’s nothing for the home-brewed campaign to use apart from generic tables that often don’t fit well and need a little tweaking, or come up with a new set of tables for use, which can take some time.

What follows is a simple way to use a single standard deck of cards and short quickly-created lists to create custom tables of encounters for every unique area in your campaign. You’ll be able to use this to create unique encounters for settlements (including specific districts), wilderness encounters, sea encounters, and many others ahead of time (or as needed), quickly drawing up random encounters more aligned with your own campaign flavor than what you would simply using the default random tables that appear in game books.

This approach uses the full standard deck of cards, Jokers included, to help generate encounters randomly as well as to set the initial reaction condition.  You’ll need to initially work out ten different types of creatures or groups that can be encountered in the type of area the players will be travelling for each table, although if you have more than ten types that will can encountered, simply make multiple tables and switch between the two as you want to.  You can easily make tables by writing down the first ten cards in the card deck (Aces to Tens) vertically on a sheet of paper, or use a pre-made table template that you populate, and writing the different encounters next to the appropriate card.

Really, that’s the hardest part about creating the encounters – making a list of ten things players can encounter. Now comes the fun part of drawing cards and finding out who they meet!


When you actually get to drawing cards from the card deck, make sure to include the Joker cards into it and give it a good shuffle. Once shuffled, put the deck face down, and start drawing cards when you need to create encounters.

The rules to remember when you start drawing cards are:

  • All encounters should start at the same approximate average level as the party. (Or not – it’s up to you!)
  • The first card drawn (except for Jokers) for an encounter indicates whether the encounter will start friendly or unfriendly. Black suite cards are friendly, while red suite cards are not.
  • The Ace through Tens cards are allocated to standard creatures or groups that may be encountered in this area. These are all pre-selected and written into encounter tables. Once one of these cards is selected, the actual encounter begins.
  • Drawing a Jack increases the level/challenge of the encounter by either increasing the level by +1 or doubling the number encountered. Draw another card to see what group is encountered.
  • Drawing a Queen increases the level/challenge of the encounter by either increasing the level by +2, tripling the number encountered, or including a “boss” at about +3 levels higher. Draw another card.
  • Drawing a King increases the level/challenge of the encounter by either increasing the level by +3, quadrupling the number encountered, or including a “boss” at about +5 levels higher. Draw another card.
  • It’s possible to draw a series of face cards in order, raising the encounter level, increasing the number encountered, and even having a multiple “bosses”, or some mix thereof. Be creative if this happens. Make things challenging.
  • Drawing a Joker card creates a special event that happens during the encounter. If the Joker drawn is black, then it is a boon to the players. If it red, then something really bad is going to happen to the players. Draw another card. This is where you get to have some fun being creative.
  • If you wish to, you can use another card draw to determine the number encountered, rather than having to specify a random number of initial creatures in your lists.

Once the cards have been drawn, a little enhancement of the results is all that’s needed to customize things, just like in the following examples:


THREEBlack Ochre
FOURGiant Rats
FIVESkeleton Archers
SEVENYellow Mold
EIGHTAnother Adventuring Party
NINEThieves Guild

Card draws: 2 of Hearts, 6 of Clubs
Encounter: 6 unfriendly Orcs who attack immediately, as they’re hunting for an evil cultist who has been stealing their teeth for use in rituals, and aren’t stopping to make friends.


FOURDwarf Prospectors
SIXGiant Eagles
TENShale Lord

Card draws: Ace of Spades
Encounter: The party encounters a friendly dragon in the mountains, who is having trouble with a local Shale Lord. If the party deals with it, the dragon will reward them handsomely.


ACEDrunk Sailors
TWOCity Guards
FIVEThieves Guild
SIXNavy Sailors
SEVENDock Workers
NINEAngry Mob
TENCity Official

Card draws: Jack of Spades, Seven of Hearts
Encounter: Friendly dockworkers who are raucous and singing sea shanties. They’re quite busy loading and off-loading a ship, but the players do need to get by them, which is challenging to do. Picture a scene from a musical.


ACEWilderness Patrol
TWOBlink Dogs
EIGHTRoving Warband
NINEElven Rangers

Card draws: Red Joker, Nine of Diamonds
Encounter: Special event. Unfriendly Elven Rangers are encountered by the party and blamed for the recent massacre of a nearby village. The Rangers have been charmed by a nearby Giantess who has placed them under her control with a magical elk antler that makes them believe that she is of Elven nobility. The Giantess is responsible for the village’s destruction (she ate the villagers). If combat breaks out, the Giantess appears during it and engages. The glamor stays intact while she lives, but when she dies, it breaks.

This article is © 2016 Jason Paul McCartan.
Published under license by InfiniBadger Press. 

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