A 4e DM Question–Random Encounters and the XP Budget

In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t really DM’d that much.  I’ve been playing some kind of D&D since 1984 (27 yrs? wow.)  I used to only play.  I tried DM’ing in 2nd Edition and I didn’t feel that I was that good at it and felt pressure from fear that I would mess up or no one would have any fun.  Fast forward the equivalent of a lifetime for some of the people who are playing today and things changed for me – I only DM.  I took over as DM at our local game store a couple of years ago and DM’d solid for over a year and a half.  I ran all of seasons 3 & 4 of D&D Encounters, some of Season 5, and most of Season 6.  That’s about a year of preparing and running a game every Wednesday to an ever shifting group of people with varying degrees of interest in the game.  I really enjoyed it on the whole.  Politics and drama and other things eventually made me take a step away from the table.  That and fatigue. 

Okay, that started out being just an intro to my DM history and turned into some kind of reflection on recent events.  That wasn’t my intent.  Let me ditch that and get on to my question.

How do you 4e DM’s deal with Random Encounters and still keep your XP Budget in check?  Let me elaborate.

One of the standbys in 2e and probably 3e was the idea of Random Encounters. When you were travelling thru the woods or camping for the night, if you didn’t keep watch (and even if you did) you might get stumbled upon by or intentionally jumped by some monsters or other wandering badguys.

In 4e, because of the XP budget, anytime you fight something, your players expect to get some XP for the encounter.

But because of these two facts, your characters could get enough XP to level out of your adventure.

So I was never clear on how you could handle this to make the game feel like other stuff is going on besides the encounters the DM has planned but also keep it so they’re fun little diversions but won’t have a ripple effect thru your campaign.

I guess part of my philosophy on the 4e debate is I don’t want to fight with the Pathfinder people or the people who just have decided to start hating on 4e, I want to make my game just be as fun for the player as possible. One thing I really liked as a player back in the day was that we just adventured and fought whatever came along the way while doing our quest. In 4e today it seems to be 3 Encounters and a Skill Challenge – Game Over.

Did you ever have to deal with this? What did you do?

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3 Responses to A 4e DM Question–Random Encounters and the XP Budget

  1. Random encounters? What are those? Every encounter I write is part of the master plan of my campaign. There is no “downtime” in which the party gets attacked in the woods by monsters except that that encounter progresses the story.

    Even when I’m improvising, and the encounter seems disjoined from the current goings on, the players need to have a sense that it is all related. I’ll alter the outline of my story afterwards to take this encounter into account and give it meaning. Otherwise it’s just crappy story writing. Take the monsters in the wood example above. Those monsters weren’t random. They were sent/unleashed/bribed by a villain or someone the party made angry.

    I dislike the idea of random encounters because it detracts the players from what’s really going on. Namely my story. It also encourages players to look in the wrong places and pick unnecessary fights in order to gain XP. This really kills the immersion of roleplaying and the overall feel of the campaign. When I first starting playing D&D, our group had a running joke that between quests we should go hunting wild boar in the mountains for the XP. I could tell our DM got fed up with it really quickly. Now that I’m in the DM seat, I do what I can to keep things from getting out of hand.

    As far as breaking out of the ‘three encounters and a skill challenge’ paradigm, I also award a level appropriate, end-of-a-minor-quest XP bonus (p.122, DMG) for encounters that are roleplaying only.

  2. Adam says:

    I puzzled over this question when I started DMing 4e. What has worked excellently for me has been to tie levelling up to passing chapters in the story. So I don’t use XP or even XP budgets for encounters. Some encounters are harder, some are easier, and some are somewhat unrelated to the storyline, more just a way for me to express significant aspects of the environment or situation. If you tear rifts to the Shadowfell then you’re going to have random encounters with undead until you fix that. If you’re in a dangerous jungle full of huge or interesting predators, you’ll stumble into a few even if I, the DM, wasn’t planning on it.

    In my last session, the players did just that. I thought they were headed further through the underdark, but the changed routes and hopped through a portal (to escape a difficult encounter they couldn’t handle) and ended up in the Feywild, colossal wild predators and all.

    It might be due to experience DMing, or it might be due to knowing the level 16 PCs can usually bounce back from dangerous situations with uncanny skill, but I’m not afraid of unbalancing encounters anymore. I dropped a lot of my fatigue when I got to that point. Now I barely spend 15 minutes prepping anything before a game. The world and the plot have momentum of their own at this point, and the players have ambitions and desires that take them on routes for which I would never have planned, and don’t really need to. I’m all about dropping that DM fatigue and it’s been significantly more fun ever since. I really enjoy talking about the topic of easing DM-burden and maximizing player freedom, so hit me up if you want to go into it further.

    A couple months ago, I wrote about my 0-prep DM Toolkit these days, along with other tips for answering this kind of question. Feel free to check it out. Maybe there’s something there that’s helpful: http://atminn.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/improv-essentials-my-0-prep-4e-dnd-toolkit/

  3. As Adam said, throwing out XP-based leveling is one way to address this issue. Another might be to factor the XP for random encounters into the adventure. Every time a random encounter check “fails,” add a bonus to the next check to make a random encounter more likely.

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