Put Trash Mobs Where They Belong:
In the Garbage
Why you need to rethink your boring random encounters.
Let’s say you’re the Dungeon Master of an ongoing campaign, and your players are traveling to their next exciting adventuring location. As they chat and reminisce about what a weirdo their bard is for trying to charm a black dragon during their last adventure, you roll on the random encounter table and get “2d4 goblins.”
And so, a pack of wailing goblins jump out from the trees and ambush them! The party rolls for initiative and starts taking them down, one by one.
But you look up from the table, and most of the players have just… tuned out. They’re attacking a Goblin on their turn, and then checking their phone, or just shooting the shit the rest of the time, totally uninterested.
What’s happened here? Well, my friend, you just had them encounter a “trash mob.”
A Brief History of Random Encounters
“But Gaurav,” you ask, “what exactly is a trash mob?”
Well, Webster’s dictionary defines “trash mob” as, “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again using the search bar above.”
Okay, so I guess Webster’s hasn’t caught up to the modern world just yet, but a “trash mob” is essentially a throwaway combat encounter that’s used not to challenge the players, but to eat up their precious time. They were (and still are) used in massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft, mostly in dungeons, to pad out the amount of time it takes to complete them.
Trash Mobs and Tabletop RPGs
Trash mobs were also a good way to check if your party was capable of working together to defeat easier enemies, in preparation for the boss. Also, if the dungeon was just an empty narrow hallway to a big boss fight, it’d be pretty silly.
The trash mobs help fill out the dungeon and give it some life and flavor. They definitely serve a purpose, but only for so long. Eventually, you can do them in auto-pilot, even having the tank pull multiples at the same time and just wiping the floor with them.
Hell, I’ve definitely been surfing my phone or watching TV while clearing dungeons up to the boss encounter. And while that’s all fine and well in an MMORPG, it’s just not in a tabletop RPG.
In a tabletop RPG, you want an experience that you just can’t get anywhere else. Using random encounters without connection to the characters or to the surrounding world is just a fight with trash mobs.
What Completely Random Encounters Lack
Now, most random encounters by themselves are just not that interesting. They need that little extra love behind the scenes to make them really mean something to the players.
Also, remember that not every random encounter has to be combat-focused. I’d argue that 90% of the time, they’re better off being non-combat focused. Let’s go back to that goblin ambush from before.
Making a Meaningful Random Encounter
Insert shameless Skinny Mini plug here.
Random goblins attacking you in the middle of the road is pretty cliche, so why not tie their aggression to one or all of the party?
Maybe the leader of the ambushers accuses one of the party members of stealing a treasured artifact before they started venturing with the current group.
Or perhaps the goblins are angry because a roving band of marauders attacked their camp and stole their children to use as slaves.
Or the goblins could be trying to ask for help to fend off a troll that’s taken up residence in their cave.
Try to make this encounter a social confrontation of sorts, instead of direct combat. That way, it can lead to a roleplaying encounter OR a combat encounter, or maybe even something in between.
This will put the choice in the hands of the players, which is always better than a meaningless encounter that plays out essentially as “kill five goblins to proceed.”