Good or Bad: Random Encounters in RPGs

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Okay, it isn’t a secret that I like RPGs. I had previously written articles on the many moving parts of this genre of game. (You can read them here: The Anatomy of RPGs, Part 1: Stats, The Anatomy of RPGs, Part 2: Battle, The Anatomy of RPGs, Part 3: Customization, and The Anatomy of RPG’s, Part 4: Interaction) However, I have come to the realization that I hadn’t covered the infamous feature frequently found in RPGs, the random encounter. I have heard that some players have a hard time getting into RPGs due to random encounters. While my own feelings are neutral towards this feature, I may be biased due to the large number of RPGs I have played. I would like to delve into what random encounters are, the alternatives to the feature, and whether they are an outdated feature.

So let’s get started on defining random encounters. Random encounters occur when exploring certain parts of the world of an RPG. As the name implies, when they trigger and the monster, (or, rarely, other event) you find are decided at random. Simply moving around in an area long enough will trigger the battle. Certain encounters occur only in certain parts of the game world, and there are some safe areas, such as towns, where these encounters won’t occur at all.

OPtownTAG
This town in the Game Octopath Traveler is one example of an area safe from random encounters.

It should be noted that in an RPG, exploration and fighting occur separately from each other. You won’t be fighting while shopping, or resting at an inn. (Although, in some games, or certain parts of games, resting will trigger the next story based fight, such as in an early portion of Final Fantasy IV.) One of the main reasons that RPGs have these is to emulate their predecessor, Dungeons and Dragons, the table top role-playing game (or RPG, which is where the genre gets its name).

In Dungeons and Dragons, there is an optional rule where the dungeon master can roll a few dice to determine the type of monster the players will encounter. I once had a session where one player ended up triggering a fight with a powerful black dragon. Without going into too great detail about that encounter, it was one of the few times we had an unscripted fight, and it could have ended badly. The point is, in early RPG video games, the best way to make a random foe appear, without having to design when the player fights every enemy, as well as to offer limitless battles, was to use the random encounter feature as described above. There were some technical limitations that lead to this feature’s creation, as well as a need to finish making the game on time, but there were some things that were achieved by using this feature.

As avid RPG players know, the characters you play as in an RPG gather experience points and gold by defeating enemies. The experience points gradually make characters stronger, while gold can be used to buy things to either make the character stronger, or to buy items to use to help the characters survive a fight. As such, random encounters are an easy way to give the player limitless experience or gold for these purposes. There’s even the bonus of having varying monsters to fight in the process, for variety and surprise factor purposes.

There are, however, some design issues to consider when creating a system of random encounters (or when using an alternative). First up is how frequently should they occur? If it feels like there’s an encounter almost every step on the map, it is definitely too frequent. This will get tedious for most players a little too quickly. The player may even become so strong that boss fights will be a breeze, making the game boring for being too easy.

The next issue is if the player is getting enough experience and gold while fighting the encounters they do get. If they are not strong enough to defeat common enemies when entering a new area, or if they can’t buy the must have items in the latest town, they are either not encountering enough foes, or they aren’t getting enough experience or gold per fight. This is actually two issues in one, plus the designers have the issue of how the randomized element of random encounters may skew these numbers in rare occasions. They no doubt have to base difficulty curves and rewards for fights on how most players play through the game.

Then there is whether or not the player can run from these fights. It is pretty obvious that running should be an option, in case the player revisits areas with easy enemies. However, if running always works, or lacks some penalty, such as dropping gold, a player won’t get strong enough to complete the major milestones in the game. They will have to fight more enemies later on, not knowing how much stronger they need to be to catch up on lost time, something that shouldn’t happen in most games.

So that is what a random encounter is in RPG video games, but what are the alternatives? Designers could go with scripted events. This may involve an enemy that appears at a particular location on the map, and if the enemy sees the player, or if the player touches the enemy, the fight is triggered. While tougher enemies like sub bosses and bosses do this even in games with random encounters, (plus they are only fought until defeated, then won’t appear again) common enemies will reappear when reentering an area. This can be used to supply more experience points for the player, if needed. The game Chrono Trigger is an early example of this.

The next option is having enemies appear on the world map and then wander around till they touch the player. This sounds similar to the above option, but the enemy type and location is actually random. They also constantly appear in these areas, and aren’t scripted to appear in specific locations. To ensure that players get enough experience points and gold, some enemies will have to be hard to avoid. A favorite game of mine, Earthbound, uses this system.

I would like to mention how Pokémon handles encountering battles in this discussion. Pokémon is one of those games that uses a combination of these features, and in some ways that some games do not. In Pokémon, there is “tall grass” the player can wander into. As long as the player is moving in this grassy area, they may encounter a Pokémon at random. This game sets this up in a neat way, where you know where you don’t want to travel if you want to avoid a fight, but some areas are designed in such a way that you have to risk an encounter in order to progress.

LetsGoWildTAG
In Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Pokemon Let’s Go Eevee, the Pokemon you can encounter visibly wander the map.

Additionally, the game Pokémon has trainers, who you fight only once. These characters are visible on the map, and are facing in a specific direction, may be moving about, or could be looking around. If they see you, a trainer battle will occur. The player can’t run from these fights, and the game is set up in such a way that some trainers can be avoided, while others cannot. Some recent Pokémon games (such as Let’s Go Pikachu or Eevee, and apparently, to a lesser extent, the upcoming Sword and Shield versions) have wild Pokémon appear on the map too, making finding the one you want easier. Pokémon Sword and Shield also features the usual random encounters in grass, so this game does an all of the above approach with deciding how fights are triggered.

Conclusion:

So, what are my findings on the quality of the random encounter feature? Here are a few:

  • The random encounter feature isn’t the most popular feature, though some players are bothered by it more than others.
  • Those who don’t like RPGs definitely don’t like random encounters. This feature may be one of the reasons these players don’t like the genre.
  • Those who do like RPGs might not be bothered by the feature, unless the encounter rate is frequent, or the battle system isn’t fun.
  • In general, players prefer to have choices when it comes to initiating a battle.
  • When monsters appear on the world map, the game feels more alive and real to all players.
  • Random encounters and alternative features are still ingredients that game designers can choose to put in their game. Whether or not they are used may be due to what purposes are needed for the game, as well as what the budget, time, or technological restraints for the project are. Technological restraints are becoming fewer these days, so random encounters may become less common in the near future.

All in all, while I may not be personally bothered by the random encounter feature, I do like the alternatives more. I can’t really find a redeeming quality of the random encounter feature, other than a surprise factor, which can be an element of fun. Obviously, the feature is no good in a bad game, and at best, gets the job done in good older games with technical limitations. This feature may be on the way out, and may only remain due to some old traditions that RPGs hold. Chances are, the feature won’t last forever.


So that was what I thought of the random encounter feature frequently found in RPG video games. But what about you, what do you make of the feature? Do you like it for a reason not stated here? Was there a reason not to like it that I missed? Can you think of other alternatives to the feature I didn’t catch? Let me know in the comments below! If you liked this article, be sure to click that like button. To keep up with That’s All Games, you can also subscribe via email! Until next time, have fun gaming!

 

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