I do not think that random encounters reduce the player agency. Hence they are not to be compared to the Quantum Ogre.
The trouble with the Quantum Ogre is not that the GM decided to make it a Quantum Ogre and not a Quantum Leprechaun. It’s that no matter what the players do before meeting the Ogre, they will still bump into that particular situation. Because the GM decided beforehand that there will be a Quantum X she has to force the fiction toward the Quantum Moment in one way or another. That is where the reduction of player agency comes from. Put differently: Its not that the “Ogre” in “Quantum Ogre” was decided by the GM that is the problem, its the “Quantum” part.
If the “Ogre” was the problem, then only the players would be allowed to decide on what is waiting behind the next bend, since both a GM and the dice would be an infringement on their agency. Archipelago all over again!
When you put together a random encounter list for an area, all you say is that some things that you think might be interesting are likely to happen. You as the GM are allowed to make decisions as well (not just the players) and somebody has to do it at some point. By design, you have no means to steer toward one encounter or the other and hence you have no reason to infringe on player agency.
The important part is to make the encounters in such a way that they add interesting options for the player and not each be a Mini Quantum Moment. So “3d4 Orcs attack the party in a night raid” is infringing, “You encounter 4d6+4 Orcs playing rugby with a severed troll head” is not.
Also note that agency is not nonnegotiable. As a player I am absolutely in favor of being forced into situations by the GM, as long as they are interesting and fit the character of the fiction at that particular moment. Last Monday you had the Judge point the finger at my Midwife. I got arrested because of that, a clear infringement of my agency. But I liked that because it made the story more interesting and while my options were reduced it was instantly clear that deciding and carrying out my remaining options got so much more important. So if agency = sum (importance of each option) then you reduced the number of options but raised the importance of the remaining ones. A fair deal!
– lior 2011-09-09 13:16 UTC
Honestly, I don’t think region-based random encounters are that much better than the single list. I see that you can influence what types of encounters you might face, and thus avoid certain ones, but it seems like you still get stuck fighting random bags of hit points. I think the big thing that would differentiate random encounters from the quantum ogre is that the players have ways of affecting random encounter frequency. Are there things that they can choose to do that can decrease (or increase) the likelihood of a random encounter, or better yet, certain types of random encounters?
– Adrian 2011-09-09 14:59 UTC
I think I agree. If the creatures encountered will always fight, then there is not much choice involved except whether to run or not to run. Being able to avoid encounters, being able to talk your way through encounters, being able to learn from them – these are ways to empower players. More choices.
As to reducing the encounter frequency, I think we need to make sure that the “ways of affecting random encounter frequency” players have involve meaningful choice. I’d propose asking “what’s the trade-off?” If there is no trade-off, then reducing the frequency is always the better choice. Two examples off the top of my head: In a D&D 3 or D&D 4 game, you could say “I made the choice of investing in Survival skills and therefore I should be able to reduce the encounter frequency”. In a classic D&D game you could argue that traveling at half speed is an appropriate trade-off. Either option would work for me, but I have the nagging suspicion that these choices are not too interesting. I’d rather have more encounters, more talking, more fighting, more running, more learning.
I like doing things to affect the types of random encounters. Usually my random encounter tables have different entries for night and day. The example I provided in my GM Style Manual looks as follows:
In the following example, merchants and soldiers are only encountered during the day. At night, add +2 to your roll. Thus, kuo-to a and slaadi are only encountered during the night.
d6 Encounter ░ 1 ░ merchants (1d6) ░ 2 ░ soldiers (1d6+3) ▒ 3 ▒ gnomes (1d6+2) ▒ 4 ▒ giant frogs (1d4) ▒ 5 ▒ froglings (2d6) ▒ 6 ▒ roll twice: fight! ▓ 7 ▓ kuo-toa (2d6) ▓ 8 ▓ slaadi (1d4)
Now that I think about it, I’ve been doing it wrong all this time: I’d roll for day and night encounters all the time irrespective of whether the party was traveling by night or day since travel from hex to hex takes a day and most hexes are wilderness. Thus, there is never a “safe” place to sleep and therefore I thought that I should roll for both day and night encounters. This adds a little bit of simulation, but it also makes player choice irrelevant! I think from now on I will only roll for wilderness encounters if the party actually travels. Thus traveling by day results in different encounters than traveling by night. Staying put results in no encounters.
– AlexSchroeder 2011-09-09 16:15 UTC
I was imagining choices like this (using your night encounter example):
Let me give another example:
I agree there needs to be a trade-off. Perhaps moving more slowly reduces the chance of a random encounter, or the chance of certain kinds of random encounters (maybe with the less alert creatures on your list), but because you move more slowly you are just out in the wilderness longer, and thus roll on the table more times. Or you use more supplies (but maybe you do not care about that type of book keeping).
Maybe this is making your random encounter system too complicated. And, maybe, if the players do not realize that these adjustments are happening in some way, they will not see their choice is making a difference. Would you at least tell them some of the details of what they gain or give up taking a certain action?
– Adrian 2011-09-10 14:25 UTC
The only thing I ever did was the following:
In a classic D&D campaign without Survival skill, this is harder to implement. Then again, there’s no need to “reward” players for their choices made during character creation.
The examples you provided make sense, but they are complicated. I fear I’d have to look them up during the session. “Ok, one day later – let me check my house rule – uhm… <roll> <roll> …” And I fear you’re right in that depending on the numbers chosen, players have very little ability to influence their chances. Making the roll and public and announcing the modifiers – or having one of the players roll – would be a good way to inform players and to keep them engaged.
I might try the following, though.
– AlexSchroeder 2011-09-10 22:15 UTC
I read a blog post where the author tried to refute the quantum ogre argument.
(I tried to post this comment over there but apparently it triggered some anti-spam measures.) It seems to me that the author’s refutation of the quantum ogre argument rests on the assumption that palette shifting is only recognizable as such when it is observed. Thus, if it cannot be observed, a fun encounter with an ogre happens without players feeling robbed of their agency.
This is true. But when I read the Hack & Slash post, I felt there was an additional point to be made: I’d have more fun learning something about the surrounding area and the whereabouts of ogres and then deciding for myself whether I wanted to engage it or not – even if the encounter with the ogre itself is very entertaining. That, I feel, is empowering. That, I feel, makes me aware of the fact that I'm not being railroaded. My choice matters.
Railroading happens when players can only choose to go forward and meet the ogre. This can be very entertaining none the less because the encounter with the ogre has the potential of great fun being had by all.
Being able to make a random choice without information to base it on and then meeting the ogre anyway is just as good. Players have the illusion of choice and encounter the ogre. The encounter with the ogre has the potential of great fun being had by all. But as a player, I can’t tell whether I’ve been railroaded. I made some choice and somehow I ended up in an encounter with an ogre. I don’t know how to feel about that.
Awesome player agency happens if players learn that ogres are in one direction and no ogres are in the other direction. Then they can choose to encounter the ogre, or they can choose to go the other way. Even though the encounter with the ogre has the potential of great fun being had by all, offering the choice promises an independent and different kind of joy to some players (like me).
– AlexSchroeder 2011-09-14 00:17 UTC
Minor Idea while (re)reading this. Instead of a random encounter table, use this:
“what’s happening here?”-table (d20)
1: Some orc hunters gutting the giant centipede they killed.
2: Wounded elven messenger caught in a bear trap since 1d4 days
3: A pack of gray wolves resting by a river, some dozing, some playing with their cubs
11: a ghoul just heading out from or returning to his lair under a nearby rock formation.
12: scared and lost kobold boy with a slightly less scared but equally lost kobold girl, hiding under some tree roots.
13: the camp of a band of young orc warriors out on a mission of revenge: guards, fires, tents, half-dead captives.
“who walks there”-table (d20)
1: A fugitive Kobold clan on the move with all their pathetic property strapped on their wiry backs
2: A orcish war band, in silent march, ever watchful for enemies
11: A pack of gray wolves out hunting, constantly sniffing for fresh scents
12: Tula, a beautiful ranger from the nearby enclave of Gheeve (yes, its just half an hour from here if you know how to find it..), looking for something very valuable and very secret she hid just about here somewhere a fortnight ago…
13: Ogmoazz, a young black dragon, flying overhead on his quest to find a suitable dwelling
14: Harr, Mhf and Ugh, three trolls, out marauding in the area with a vague hope to finally find and plunder the enclave of Gheeve
When the PCs are moving, roll both tables. When the PCs are camped, roll only “who walks there”. At evening and dawn, roll +5, at night roll +10.
When you get a result from one or both of the tables…
Two new things here (to me at least): That its two tables instead of one and that its “in the vicinity” events not concrete encounters. The tone I stole from Monday’s next game, the style of the content is stole from Vornheim.
– lior 2011-09-14 15:25 UTC
I like the list, Lior.
Over at the post that started it all, Trey replied to my list of options to increase agency (no choice, single random encounter list, various regional lists, lairs on a map). He noticed that the first two points don’t seem all that different even though they feel different to me:
I would disagree that the random table gives the player’s anymore agency specifically. 
I finally found a good way to answer on page 3 of the Judging the Game blog post by Alexander Macris:
The inherent contradiction between omniscience and free will has plagued religion for thousands of years, and it plagues RPGs, too. For instance, imagine if tabletop RPG combat went like this:
- “I attack the dragon.”
- “Based on your attack bonus and the dragon’s armor class, if you attack, you are certain to miss.”
- “Uh… well I don’t attack, then.”
It’s hard to imagine that game being much fun because the result of the player’s choices is determined before he’s made them. (This is the same reason that Tic-Tac-Toe isn’t fun.) Agency, then, requires that we be able to predict the consequences of our choices, but not with certainty. D&D creates agency with its Core Mechanic: “To determine if your character success at a task, you roll a d20, add any relevant modifiers and compare the result to a target number. If the result equals or exceeds the target number, your character succeeds. If the result is lower, you fail.” The relevant modifiers and the target number provide causality. The d20 provides uncertainty. Both are essential.
I like this description very much. Using the regional lists I suggested or providing the “things that they can choose to do that can decrease (or increase) the likelihood of a random encounter” Adrian suggested seem to be appropriate solutions.
– AlexSchroeder 2011-09-14 15:37 UTC
Addition: “campsite”-table (d6):
(this style is heavily influenced by next Monday’s surprise game). Wilderness Vornheim is starting to take shape…
– lior 2011-09-14 15:51 UTC
I am looking forward to it!
– AlexSchroeder 2011-09-14 16:13 UTC
Here’s me trying to understand that argument against random encounters and the importance of information:
Sheesh, I can finally put that discussion behind me! Sorry for spilling all this theory jabber on your blog… ignore at will.
– lior 2011-09-14 19:47 UTC
I think your last point essentially sums up this discussion quite well. Though admittedly I’m never willing to categorize any discussion complete and as a result I would amend the “Right to Dream” side of the argument in that random is allowable but must have a seed of reality (whatever that might mean in the game dream-space) in order to make it believable per se.
– Kevin 2011-09-14 21:31 UTC