How To Make Random Encounters Good

So you're wandering around the map, minding your own business, just trying to get to the next town. You know, the place with the mystical coconut which you can bring to the king who will build you an airship that you can fly across the Dusty Mountains of Lon'dor-thak in order to rescue the mermaid queen and bring peace to the half-eagles of Narnia. Or whatever.

Then there's a noise. The screen goes all fuzzy. Your gut lurches -- ugh, not again! -- and you find yourself in a random battle with two orc warriors who want nothing more than to rip out your throat (but only after waiting their turn to attack). You've gotta fight, or escape, or find some other way of dealing with them so you can keep moving along. At least until the next one.

This is called a random encounter, and it's the bane of RPG fans everywhere. We also kind of love it.

An RPG's random encounters -- not to be confused with sporadic coffee shop romances or the column you're reading -- come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Originally introduced by old RPGs like Wizardry and Dragon Quest, random encounters started off as invisible enemy ambushes. You'd be walking around a hostile environment when suddenly the music would change, the screen would shift, and you'd find yourself locking menus with a gang of marauding rabbits or slimes. To proceed, you'd have to take them out or run away.

Over the next few decades, JRPG combat systems would grow to evolve and experiment in all sorts of interesting ways. In some games, like Saga Frontier and Earthbound, enemies would actually appear on the field or dungeon instead of just popping up out of the ether. Other games, like Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade, eliminated screen-shifting in favour of a seamless transition: you'd run up to an enemy and immediately start fighting him right on the field. Some RPGs, like The Last Story and Final Fantasy Tactics, prefer to throw scripted encounters at you. Nothing random there.

There are a lot of different types of RPGs, and there are a lot of different types of combat. But random encounters are too much of a genre standby to disappear. They'll always be appropriate for certain types of games, and despite the flack they often get, they're not universally reviled. Some people love them.

I have mixed feelings about this RPG-specific phenomenon. At times they drive me crazy: while playing Final Fantasy Dimensions, for example, the sheer frequency of random battles made me want to hurl my iPad off an airship. But I also sometimes love the rhythm of fighting in games like Dragon Quest IX and many others.

I spent some time thinking about what makes random encounters work, and what makes them not work, and I've drawn up a list of suggestions. Ways to make random encounters work well. They're not new ideas, but they're good general guidelines for any RPG designer to follow as he or she thinks about how to implement this sort of mechanic.

They Can't Be Too Frequent

This one is pretty obvious, yet the same group of folks at Square Enix just can't seem to figure it out. First they screwed up the formula with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, a terrible game that ramped up the random encounter rate to absurd proportions. When that same crew developed Final Fantasy Dimensions, which is a much better game, they forgot to tweak the numbers. You actually get into a new fight every 4-5 seconds. It's not pleasant.

I don't think there's any definitive right frequency for random battles, but I've never heard anyone complain that random encounters don't happen enough. So it's best to err on the conservative side.

They Can't Come In Batches

Whatever the algorithm for determining when and where these random battles happen, it has to be balanced enough that you won't get something like five fights in 20 steps, then zero fights in 30. This is the sort of problem that occurs when random battles are actually random. They shouldn't be. The percentage of times you'll run into a battle should simply reset to 0 every time you enter a room or fight a battle, then escalate every time you take a step. So if you haven't fought in a while, chances are your next step will be a random encounter.

Or just put enemies on the screen. Much easier that way.

They Need To Feel Meaningful

I touched upon this while reviewing Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Mario's latest RPG cuts out levels and experience points, but keeps the turn-based battles of older Paper Mario games. Baddies drop coins and stickers, which you can get elsewhere. There are very few reasons not to skip battles whenever you can. There is no sense of progression, no feeling that you're earning or accomplishing anything as you fight goombas and snifits and giant turtles.

For random encounters to feel necessary and essential to a game, you need to have something to fight for.

They Need Awesome Music

Because nothing gets your heart pumping like some smooth jazz. Or a badass violin. Or a thumping 8-bit synthesizer. Or a grand string symphony. Or a crunchy electric guitar. Or BABYBABYBABYBABYBABY.

And really, if a video game's combat is all about rhythm, there's nothing more important than the music behind it.

Auto-Battle Can't Hurt

The aforementioned Final Fantasy Dimensions comes with a high-octane auto-battle mode that speeds up the pace and makes all of your characters attack at once. Persona 4 Golden, which I've also been playing recently, comes with the same sort of feature. Keep it coming.

They Have To Switch Things Up

Here's the big one.

We are used to a certain level of monotony in our video games. We are used to following patterns. We understand that sometimes shooting through a game's level or hacking through enemies can be a repetitive activity, and part of the fun is learning how to master that gameplay loop.

But a good video game knows how to shake up its own formula. For random encounters, that could mean something as simple as changing up the music, or making sure that enemy types shift every so often. It could mean different dungeons coming with different battle frequencies. It could mean different types of surprise attacks. It could mean suddenly changing the entire game into a text adventure, ala Nier, or subverting your expectations by playing around with the standard dungeon-town-dungeon-town formula in some crazy ways. What's important is that things feel different.

For random encounters to work, they need to seem not like a chore, but like an obstacle. Even when they're not engaging on their own, they should be rewarding enough that we can't help but want to plow through them. If they aren't, why even bother?

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    I liked Last Remnants approach to this.

      Nest of Eagles.

    I always quite liked the approach that Ar Tonelico took on this. There's a meter that slowly changes color to show you how likely you are to hit an encounter. The more red it gets, the more likely. Once you have a battle, it'd reduce it back to unlikely, plus also reduce the size of the meter, and once it hit 0 (around 10-12 battles) you wouldn't get any more encounters for the rest of the area.

      This is exactly what The Legend of Dragoon did too :)

    I'm not a fan of random encounters, but I'd say the original Pokemon games hit the nail on the head. Both avoidable and unavoidable trainer battles, story battles and then random long grass battles. It gave players a flexible way of turning the encounter rate up or down based on what they were trying to do without really having to do anything. You want less battles? Avoid the long grass and don't stand in front of anybody. You want more battles? Go run around in circles in long grass.

      Caves :(

      Did the originals have Repels? It's been so long since I've played the original Gen so I don't remember but Repels are easy enough to come by in later Gens and they sort out the problem of random encounters every couple of steps inside a cave.

      Bloody Zubats!

        Yeah I'm pretty sure they do, I remember a girl in pewter city saying something about repels in pokemon red.

        Yeah. The caves were always a pain, but they felt like more of an honest attempt to make high danger/intensity zones and I think that worked. When Red and Blue did have zone wide random encounters they were part of the plot or overall structure of the game. You're in a haunted house? Ghost Pokemon are going to be there. You're in a cave? Prepare for Zubats.
        Mechanically it wasn't an always on 'stopping to fight every ten steps is just part of the game' thing. It was part of the level design. Like getting to a part in a Mega Man game with spikes and vanishing blocks.

        I never really used them since at the time random encounters were just par for the RPG course and I had all the time in the world, but Repels were in the original Pokemon games.

          To be fair, it was usually zubats + geodudes.

        Used to load up on repels for the final push through victory road.

    Although I've never really minded random encounters, I think its one of those mechanics that we don't need in game design anymore. There's nothing fun about forcing a player to fight every X + rand() * 50 steps, especially while they're trying to do something else.

    Also I want to add another thing to your list of good encounter requirements.


      Nothing worse than being tired, midway through a puzzle, fighting a slime then forgetting where you were up to. I know I'll sound like a sook but even just tone down the difficulty when the player has to explore a little to advance.
      One of the first times I truly started to hate random encounters was when I was trying to find my way through a mansion to get to a boss room and kept getting interrupted by fights. The game had those long intros and outros to combat so the simple act of going down stairs, looking in the rooms, then going up stairs and looking in the rooms dragged on and on (and the enemies weren't weak so I had to pay attention to beat them).

    I don't get the hate. I LOVE random encounters. It allows a full blooded combat system inside any presentation the developers wish. It's no coincidence that the downfall of final fantasy has come at the same time that the ditched prerendered artfully framed backdrops with interesting combat systems for 3D real time everything plays itself combat.

      To me it sounds like you're mistaking random encounters for the opposite of an action adventure game? You can still have separated combat systems like those in FF without random encounters, like how it was done in FFXIII/FFXIII-2 and many others (Blue Dragon I think is another?).

    The best way I've ever experienced 'random encounters' was The World Ends With You. You're not forced into random battles, you actively search for them.

    what about fallout 3s random encounters their weird usually not dangerous ocurances that can happen almost any where at any time

    Don't forget Chrono Trigger did away with Random encounters and was all the better for it.

    FF: Tactics actually did have random encounters as you moved across certain map points. It was a good way to level up jobs.

    Random encounters are a double edged sword. If you want to grind or farm, they're the best thing as long as you can get a good encounter rate. If you actually want to progress, they're the most horrid thing ever. I like Record of Agarest: Generations of War's approach in that most battles were manually selected from the map, with certain points being a farming/grinding zone with random encounters. Also, Hyperdimension Neptunia had a good idea of giving you the option to fight several encounters at once, allowing you a fairly decent amount of time afterwards in which you were guaranteed to have no encounters.

    Some games actually give you items to ward off encounters entirely, which is also great if you want to decide between progression or farming/grinding. To be honest though, random encounters always tend to get annoying because after a while they are trivial and just slow you down.

    I think really, instead of working out how to make random encounters better, you should be asking, "Do I really need to have 'random' encounters." Playing games like Chrono Trigger, Magna Carta II and FFXII were a lot more enjoyable for the fact that I could choose my encounters.

    Lost odyssey had great random encounters. I can't really explain why but it is one of the few games I felt random encounters were not annoying at all.

    Fallout 1 and 2 for random encounters, even Fallout Tactics, and hell Fallout 3 and New Vegas

    Just Fallout, because war, war never changes

    And neither should the Random Encounters

    If you want good random battles, look at Suikoden.

    Random battles are dealt with in 2 turns tops, with auto attack, having the party of 6 attack in unison, not back and forth between each one. Fast. Friendly. Amazing.

    I remember I stopped playing Skies of Arcadia on Gamecube because the random battles were too frequent and took too bloody long to finish. Made exploration a form of sadistic torture. A shame because I really wanted to finish that game. My favourite implementation is still to this day Chrono Trigger. I also loved how enemy placement during the battle mattered when it came to attack choice.

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