Whenever a player character meets an NPC (nonplayer character), fights a monster, or even discovers a mysterious fountain in the woods, he is having an encounter. An encounter is any significant thing a character meets, sees, or interacts with during the course of a game. When a player character discovers a fountain of blue flame in the midst of the forest, its very strangeness forces the character to react and the player to think. Why is it here? Does it have a purpose? Is it beneficial or dangerous? Few characters are going to pass this by as just another flaming fountain in the forest.
Encounters are vital to the AD&D game, for without them nothing can really happen to the player character. An adventure without encounters is like sitting in a room all day with no one to talk to and little to look at. It certainly wouldn't be very exciting. And who wants to play an unexciting role-playing game? Encounters provide danger, risk, mystery, information, intrigue, suspense, humor, and more.
For an encounter to provide excitement, it must also have an element of danger. A good deal of this comes from the fact that player characters don't know how the encountered beings will react to them. Your DM is not going to say, “You meet a group of peasants and they are friendly.” (If he does say this, you ought to be suspicious.) Instead, he will say something like, “As you ride around the bend, you come upon an oxcart lumbering down the road. A young man in rough clothes is leading the cart. Peering over the sides are a woman and several dirty children. When the man sees you he nods, smiles, and says, “Hail, strangers. Have you news of Thornhampton-on-the-Hill?” You can probably guess they are peasants and they seem friendly, but your DM didn't come out and say so. Not knowing for sure is what keeps you on your toes. They could be anything!
When your character travels or explores a dungeon, your DM will have prepared two general types of encounters. The first are specific (planned) encounters. These are meetings, events, or things the DM has chosen to place in the adventure to build on the story of the adventure.
For example, upon sneaking into the bugbear stronghold, your characters find a squalid cell filled with humans and elves. Your DM has placed them here for your character to rescue. Of course, he could also be playing a trick and the prisoners could actually be evil dopplegangers (creatures able to change their appearances at will).
Later, while in the hallway, your group bumps into a bugbear patrol. This is the second type of encounter, a random encounter, also called a wandering encounter. In this case, your DM has made die rolls to see if you come upon something and, if so, just what that something is.
Specific encounters generally have more choices of action—your DM may want you to discover some important information or set up a particularly difficult battle. Specific encounters usually yield greater treasures and more magical items. Creatures may be placed by the DM to guard the armory or prevent the characters from reaching the throne room.
Random encounters normally involve simple choices—run away, fight, or ignore. Sometimes characters can talk to creatures in random encounters and learn valuable information, but not often. Random encounters also tend to have little or no treasure. A patrol of city guardsmen does not carry as many valuable items on its rounds as it would have in its barracks. Random encounters are most often used to weaken PCs, raise an unexpected alarm, hurry them along, or just make their lives difficult.
Sometimes encounters are not with people or monsters but with things. The fountain in the forest is an encounter, but your characters cannot fight it or talk to it (well, maybe not). So what are you supposed to do? In these cases, the encounter is more of a puzzle. You have to figure out why this fountain is here, what it can do, and if it is important to your adventure. It may be a red herring—something placed there just to confuse you; it may be a set up for a future adventure—later on your characters may learn that the flaming fountain they saw is important to their latest mission. It may be a deadly trap. To find out, though, you will have to deal with the thing in some way. You could throw stones into the pool, drink the glowing water, try to walk through the flames, or use spells to learn more. By doing these things, you may get more information from your DM. Of course, you may not like the answer! ("You drank the water? Oh, dear. Tsk, tsk, tsk.")
The Surprise Roll
Sometimes an encounter, either random or planned by the DM, catches one of the two groups involved totally off guard. This is called surprise and is determined by rolling 1d10 for each side (or only one side if the DM has decided that one of the sides cannot be surprised, for some reason). If the die roll is a 1, 2, or 3, that group or character is surprised (for effects, see the “Effects of Surprise” section). Naturally, surprise does not happen all the time. There are many easy and intelligent ways it can be prevented. The most obvious is if the player characters can see those they are about to encounter well before getting close.
For example, the characters may see the dust of a group of horsemen coming their way, or notice the lanterns of a group of peasants coming through the woods, or hear the grunting barks of a gnoll war party closing through the trees. In these cases there is no way the characters are going to be surprised by the encounter. But if a leopard leaped upon one of the group while he was intently watching the approaching riders, or if a group of goblins suddenly sprang from the darkness, then the characters would have to roll to see if they were surprised. They were unprepared for these threats and so could be taken off guard.
The DM decides when a check for surprise must be made. He can require that one roll be made for the entire party, that a separate check be made for each character, or that only specific characters check. This depends entirely upon the situation.
For example, the entire party is intently watching the band of approaching riders. Then a leopard leaps from the branches of a tree overhead. The DM knows that no one in the group was particularly paying attention to the treetops, so he has one person in the group roll the surprise die for the entire party. The roll is a 2, the PCs are surprised, the leopard gets a free round of attacks, and there is mass confusion as the clawing, biting creature lands in their midst! If two of the characters had been on a general watch, the DM could have had these characters roll for surprise instead of the entire group. If both were surprised, the entire group would have been unprepared for the leopard's attack. Otherwise, one or both of the guards might have noticed the creature before it pounced. Experienced player characters quickly learn the value of having someone on watch at all times.
The surprise roll can also be modified by Dexterity, race, class, cleverness, and situation. The DM has the listing of modifiers that apply to given situations. Modifiers can affect either your character's chance of being surprised or his chance of surprising others. A plus to your die roll reduces the odds that you are surprised; a minus increases those odds. Likewise, a minus to the enemy's die roll means that the modifier is in your favor, while a plus means that things are going his way. High Dexterity characters are virtually unsurpriseable, caught off guard only in unusual situations.
It is important to bear in mind that surprise and ambush are two different things. Surprise works as explained above. An ambush is prepared by one group to make an unexpected attack on another group and works only if the DM decides the other group cannot detect the ambush. A properly set ambush gives the attackers the opportunity to use spells and normal attacks before the other side reacts. If the ambush succeeds, the ambushing group gets its initial attack and the other group must roll for surprise in the next round, so the ambushing group may get two rounds of attacks before the other group can reply.
Effects of Surprise
Characters and monsters that are surprised all suffer the same penalty. They are caught off guard and thus cannot react quickly. The surprising group receives one round of attacks with melee, missile, or magical items. They cannot use these moments of surprise to cast spells.
A ranger on the unsurprised side could fire his long bow twice (two attacks per round) before his opponents could even hope to react. A fighter able to attack twice per round could attempt both hits before any initiative dice are rolled. A wizard could unleash a bolt from his wand of lightning before the enemy knew he was there. Of course, what applies to player characters also applies to monsters, so that the leopard in the earlier example could claw and bite before the characters even knew what was happening.
The second effect of surprise is that the surprised characters lose all AC bonuses for high Dexterity during that instant of surprise. The surprised characters are dumbfounded by the attack. Instead of ducking and countering, they're just standing there rather flat-footed (maybe even with dumb expressions on their faces). Since they don't grasp the situation, they cannot avoid the hazards and dangers very well.
Surprise can also be used to avoid an encounter. Unsurprised characters can attempt to flee from a surprised group before the other group reacts. Of course, this is not always successful, since escape is greatly dependent upon the movement rates of the different creatures.
If both groups manage to surprise each other, the effects of surprise are cancelled. For example, Rath runs around the corner straight into some lounging guardsmen. Taken by surprise, he stops suddenly and frantically looks for someplace else to run. The guardsmen in turn look up rather stupidly, trying to figure out why this dwarf just raced around the corner. The surprise passes. Rath spots another alley and the guards decide that since he's running, Rath must be a criminal. Initiative rolls are now made to see who acts first.
Once your character or party has an encounter and it has been determined whether or not anyone was surprised, your DM will tell you the range of the encounter—the distance separating you from the other group. Many factors affect encounter distance. These include the openness of the terrain, the weather conditions, whether surprise occurred, and the time of day, to name a few. Although you do not know the exact distance until your DM tells you, surprise, darkness, or close terrain (woods, city streets, or narrow dungeons) usually results in shorter encounter distances, while open ground (deserts, plains, or moors), good light, or advance warning results in greater encounter distances (see Chapter 13: Vision and Light).
Once an encounter occurs, there is no set sequence for what happens next. It all depends on just what your characters have encountered and what they choose to do. That's the excitement of a role-playing game—once you meet something, almost anything could happen. There are some fairly common results of encounters, however.
Evasion: Sometimes all you want is for your characters to avoid, escape, or otherwise get away from whatever it is you've met. Usually this is because you realize your group is seriously outmatched. Perhaps returning badly hurt from an adventure, your group spots a red dragon soaring overhead. You know it can turn your party to toast if it wants. Rather than take that risk, your group hides, waiting for it to pass. Or, topping a ridge, you see the army of Frazznargth the Impious, a noted warlord. There are 5,000 of them and six of you. Retreat seems like the better part of valor, so you turn your horses and ride.
Sometimes you want to avoid an encounter simply because it will take too much time. While riding with an urgent message for his lord, your character rides into a group of wandering pilgrims. Paying them no mind, he lashes his horse and gallops past.
Evading or avoiding an encounter is not always successful. Some monsters pursue; others do not. In the examples above, Frazznargth the Impious (being a prudent commander) orders a mounted patrol to chase the characters and bring them in for questioning. The pilgrims, on the other hand, shout a few oaths as your galloping horse splashes mud on them and then continue on their way. Your character's success at evading capture will depend on movement rates, determination of pursuit, terrain, and just a little luck. Sometimes when he really should be caught, your character gets lucky. At other times, well, he just has to stand his ground.
Talk: Your character doesn't run from encounters all the time, and attacking everything you meet eventually leads to problems. Sometimes the best thing to do is talk, whether it's casual conversation, hardball negotiation, jovial rumor-swapping, or intimidating threats. In fact, talking is often better than fighting. To solve the problems your DM has created for your character, you need information. Asking the right questions, developing contacts, and putting out the word are all useful ways to use an encounter. Not everything you meet, human or otherwise, is out to kill your character. Help often appears in the most surprising forms. Thus it often pays to take the time to talk to creatures.
Fight: Of course, there are times when you don't want to or can't run away. (Running all the time is not that heroic.) And there are times when you know talking is not a good idea. Sooner or later, your character will have to fight. The real trick is knowing when to fight and when to talk or run. If you attack every creature you meet, the first thing that will happen is that nobody will want to meet with your character. Your character will also manage to kill or chase off everyone who might want to help him. Finally, sooner or later your DM is going to get tired of this and send an incredibly powerful group of monsters after your character. Given the fact that you've been killing everything in sight, he's justified in doing this.
So it is important always to know who you are attacking and why. As with the best police in the world today, the trick is to figure out who are the bad guys and who are the good guys. Make mistakes and you pay. You may kill an NPC who has a vital clue, or unintentionally anger a baron far more powerful than yourself. NPCs will be reluctant to associate with your character, and the law will find fewer and fewer reasons to protect him. It is always best to look on combat as a last resort.
Wait: Sometimes when you encounter another group, you don't know what you should do. You don't want to attack them in case they are friendly, but you don't want to say anything to provoke them. What you can do is wait and see how they react. Waiting is a perfectly sensible option. However, there is the risk that in waiting, you lose the advantage should the other side suddenly decide to attack. Waiting for a reaction so that you can decide what to do causes a +1 penalty to the first initiative roll for your group, if the other side attacks.
Of course, in any given encounter, there may be many other options open to your character. The only limit is your imagination (and common sense). Charging a band of orcs to break through their lines and flee may work. Talking them down with an elaborate bluff about the army coming up behind you might scare them off. Clever use of spells could end the encounter in sudden and unexpected ways. The point is, this is a role-playing game and the options are as varied as you wish to make them.