These days, I’m rediscovering the magic of the random encounter table. This old-fashioned game tool is nothing if not time-tested and (mostly) campaign-approved by several decades’ worth of gamers.
But the aspect that’s most appealing to me is that it removes the GM from the position of lobbing threats toward the players. Instead, it’s the game world itself that offers the threat — and the story! I’ve been fine-tuning Autumn Frontiers with random tables in an effort to create clear distinctions between the mildy dangerous areas of the map and the truly deadly regions. I’d like to implement “danger gradients” to the wilderness, which Ben Robbins describes as logical threat progressions, intended to give the world a sense of order and make it feel like more than just a map full of encounters strung together. Mountain hobgoblins generally won’t come along when the players are campaigning through the swamp, but there’s a good chance these same protagonists might patrol the foothills of their chosen mountain range.
This is somewhat more difficult to implement in Savage Worlds, which doesn’t use encounter levels or rank monsters according to how appropriate they are for characters of a given level. But in a way, it’s even more exciting, because I can stock the map with an eye toward Gygaxian naturalism and let the players figure things out.
But I like that no one really knows what’s going to come along when the dice are cast. Random encounters add a level of danger and mystery to the game that’s made all the more real when the players understand that even the GM can’t see everything coming. That’s not to say the GM should treat every random result as gospel; it’s important to keep things appropriate to the particular setting (merfolk raiders coming along when the party is adventuring in the high plains? Maybe not.). But respecting the random encounter keeps everyone on their toes, which in turn leads to that all-important byproduct of roleplaying: adventure!