I read a post today about random encounters in role-playing video games, and I agree that they can be pretty annoying. It actually works both ways, too. Not only do enemies tend to randomly show up at the least opportune moments, but they DON’T appear when you need to fight them for experience and/or money. Or you run into monsters, but the reward for beating them isn’t worth the fight. It’s pretty standard in the genre, however, as little sense as it might make. And maybe it does make a certain amount of sense when you’re in a forest or something, and probably wouldn’t be able to see much. Then again, you can usually see the other side of the forest easily enough, unless it’s one of those forests that switches you over to town/dungeon view. I’m certainly not arguing for a first-person view in RPGs, but still. Some of the stealthier monsters are probably going to be able to spring an ambush, but I wouldn’t expect that of, say, a troll. I’m not that knowledgeable about tabletop RPGs, but it looks like the idea of monsters suddenly showing up even when you should have seen them coming was a product of such games, and the sudden appearances resulted from an attempt to bring that idea into video games. There were some early attempts to change the model of monsters appearing literally out of nowhere. Zelda II, which mixed RPG elements with action ones, let you see monsters coming. When you ran into one on the map screen, it switched you to a side-scrolling view.
I don’t think it really worked that well, but it was an interesting experiment. As mentioned in the article I linked to, Chrono Trigger lets you see the monsters when you’re walking through an area that has them. So does Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, but in that one they don’t move around. In fact, the monsters are always in the same place, so the encounters really aren’t random at all. The 7th Saga has a view that represents monsters in the immediate area with dots, so you can’t actually see them, but you can tell when you’re about to bump into one. The Mario RPGs let you get in a preemptive strike if you jump on an enemy or hit it with your hammer before entering battle mode.
I think Dragon Quest IX is the first in that series that lets you see monsters prior to battle. Interestingly, when you can see the enemies, they can generally move around and initiate battle with you. In games where the monsters materialize magically, you’re typically safe if you stand still. Also, you can rarely tell exactly what you’ll be fighting before you enter battle mode; when you can see approaching monsters, one creature will actually represent an entire group.
While games with random encounters usually give the option to run from battle, it can take a while to figure out whether it’s really a viable option. Some games make it so difficult that making the attempt is basically just letting the monsters get in some free hits. Others will let you run, but have a penalty for doing so, like losing money in Final Fantasy IV. When I first played the original Final Fantasy, I ran away quite a lot, but I’ve found that it usually pays to stand and fight unless you’re trying to get to a safe place. Mind you, since a battle screen often has your characters and the enemies standing on opposite sides of the field, it really seems like it would be easy to escape, but I guess you save to use your imagination when you find out you’re surrounded.
How this works when there’s only one monster, I couldn’t say.