As 2020 drew to a close, and as my plans for Christmas scaled back, I found myself with a lot more spare time than usual. At first, I didn't know what to do with it all. But I did eventually find a use for myself. It was time to write a small homebrew Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
For the uninitiated, a homebrew campaign is simply one written by the Dungeon Master rather than an officially published adventure. If I've lost you... don't worry, I'm sure you aren't alone. I've previously written a primer on Dungeons & Dragons, and how my experience with the table-top RPG (TtRPG) influences my approach to commercial storytelling. You can find that piece here.
As I progressed through this small personal project, the major elements of the game and story started to easily fall into place. Locations, check. Characters, check. Key story beats, check. Loot and rewards, check. All in all, it only took a few short hours to design an island and narrative that would keep my players hooked for multiple sessions. But as I reviewed the designs and notes, one part just didn't quite fit. And it was the most common offender - the random encounters. So I did the only natural thing - agonised over an unnecessarily complex explanation of the offence, polished the encounters to within an inch of their life and happened across a surprisingly apt marketing analogy.
The Problem with Random Encounters
In most TtRPG systems, there is a central plot that pervades the game. The plot is affected by player action (or inaction); either marching to its own beat or shaped by choice & dice rolls. However, despite its importance in driving the story forward - not every interaction that a player takes intersects with it. There's a few reasons for this, but the most common are:
Events take place in different locations which players must travel to
Downtime between plot events creates peaks and troughs in the narrative
Players choose not to interact with plot critical events
The world is larger than a single story
In all of these cases, players will either spend the time between plot events in one of two ways. The first is pursuing the actions they want their characters to take (perhaps seeking an important person from their past, chasing rumours of valuable treasure or crafting new inventions). The second is in situations that the hand of fate deals them. These are the random encounters.
Let's take the example of a three-day journey between towns. Around the campfire at night, players may wish to bond with their companions or attune to magical objects. But during the day they are simply traveling. There's not much gameplay to be found in that. This is where random encounters fit. Broadly, they serve three key purposes:
To provide a sense that this world is 'real' and lived-in
To provide an element of gameplay between events or locations
To provide opportunities for players to make choices and develop their characters
So what's the problem with random encounters? Well, it's with that word random. By definition, these are events dealt by the hand of fate. They have no connection to the other events happening within the game, and usually boil down to a table of variations on: find a magical object, cross paths with wild animals or encounter a band of aggressive enemies. The issue with all of this is that players aren't invested in the encounter. Rather than achieving their intended purposes, random encounters are more often than not are considered a barrier impeding progress to be overcome.
As barriers to progress, these encounters become the times when players are least invested in the game and least fun is had.
Designing Better Encounters
After more time and experimentation than I care to admit, I eventually concluded that the two-fold solution to this problem is fairly simple. The first step is to simply care. As I'm sure many others have, my first instinct on populating random encounters was to simply download a pre-prepared, ready-to-use table.
The second step is to provide each encounter with a unique reason for existing that is tied to the story or setting. What this meant was rather than simply writing the encounter, each had to be designed a step further - and lose some of their randomness. While the chance of an encounter occurring was still random; my encounters were no longer random in their contents. They had purpose.
Here's a few examples of standard random encounters, compared to those written with purpose.
The party finds the tracks of wolves going across the path.
The party meets an old priest who offers them a blessing.
A pitfall trap has been laid across the road to ensnare all who don't spot it.
The trees cackle with electricity as the party realise they have stumbled into a den of shock lizards. These lizards are normally found much further East, but the eastern lands have been engulfed in civil war recently.
The party pass a rugged dwarf leading a small party of poachers. Whilst passing, the party hear the poachers mention a few of the creatures that the party on currently pursuing.
A middle-aged human approaches the party. He explains he has been lost for the past week and needs help finding his way back to the town. The party may recognise his name as the owner of the town's apothecary - which was closed when they visited.
In each of these more purposeful examples, the basic structure of the random encounters remains the same - however a simple rule has been applied. There must be a reason for the encounter to exist. In the first example, players can learn about the impact the war is having (a part of their 'critical story path'). In the second example, the players can learn more about the quarry they are tracking on their critical story path. And in the final example, success opens up access to a new resource in a key location.
As for results - I was pleasantly surprised. During the first session of the campaign that I ran, my players were more engaged, took a more active interest in random encounters and generally expressed that they felt more in the world.
How Brands Can Design Their 'Random Encounters'
Ok. At the start of this article, I promised a relevant analogy for marketers. Well, here it is. Every brand can split consumer interactions into one of two categories: (1) critical path, or (2) random.
A critical path encounter is one that is consciously designed, forming a part of the intended consumer experience. It encompasses advertising and marketing activities, packaging, product design, service delivery, customer care etc. Everything that conscious decisions are made about.
Random encounters are those we don't consciously design. They involve our brand, but where something else is the central focus. What constitutes a random encounter will vary greatly for individual companies. However, here's a few common examples:
These are all small and arguably inconsequential elements that contribute to brand perception. But, crucially, they still do contribute to brand perceptions. Just as designing random encounters enabled me to improve how players perceived a campaign in its totality, designing these incidental contributions to a consumer experience offers an opportunity to nudge brand perceptions in a time when every advantage matters.
Practical Steps to Improving 'Incidental Experiences'
It might sound like a daunting task to take ownership of these experiences, in addition to everything on your brand's critical path. But thorough and meticulous attention to detail is a key advantage that can help elevate your brand above a sea of competitors. And getting started doesn't need to be tough. In fact, I'd recommend just a four step approach:
#1 - Identify incidental experiences. This can be more challenging than it sounds. It's difficult to understand how consumers interact with products, services or brands outside of an intended critical path. My recommendation for this step is to conduct ethnographic research. It is by far the most effective at uncovering 'unexpected' results. Depending on your budget, the options range from hiring an agency to support this step to conducting a detailed self-ethnography.
#2 - Narrow a focus. This step involves recognising the practical limitations of incidental experience design. Ultimately, investment in this area is unlikely to yield the same ROI as investment in the critical path. It's vital to make informed decisions about which incidental experiences will form the focus of the following steps. Factors to consider include: similarity/ grouping opportunities, relative weight of positive vs negative experiences, cost of design implementation.
#3 - Research and design. It's slightly unfair to group these activities as a single stage. But they are inseparable. At this point, your focus should be on understanding both the present and potential futures. What exactly happens during your chosen incidental experience? How many consumers experience it? How do they feel, and what impact does it have on their brand perceptions? That's your benchmark. Then consider, with research input, potential improvements and compare the potential futures if each were implemented with the benchmark.
#4 - Implementation. Yep, the final stage simply boils down to... improve it. Whether you're starting small, or have discovered a significant incidental experience - the final step is best described as caring about it and making it adjacent to your critical path.
I firmly believe that the 'random encounters' or incidental experiences consumers have with can provide huge opportunity to make positive changes that help firms stand head and shoulders above the competition. Because, in the words of Yogi Berra - doing the little things can make a big difference.