Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Praise of Wandering Monsters

Wandering monsters have been a fixture of D&D since the beginning. I can't even begin to explain how or why Gary included them. Did his players have a tendency to dither outside dungeon chambers? Was he bored and looking for an excuse to throw a gelatinous cube at the party? Who can say?

(Well, I'm sure someone can say, and if they want to roll in here and say it, fire away!)

My old gaming groups never used wandering monsters. There was enough adventure in the rooms of our dungeons, and enough of our adventurers took place in urban settings, that we never saw the need for them. The resource model for earlier D&D editions was such that, from a strictly mechanical perspective, each wandering monster meant one fewer monster the group could handle before heading home.

Wandering monsters do add the element of the unexpected for both players and the DM, and there's always the chance that something cool and memorable happens when you add situation A, condition B, and wandering monster roll C.

The interesting thing to me is that, of all the versions of D&D, 4e is perhaps best suited to make the most of wandering monsters. The characters lean heavily on their ability to take short rests. Wandering monsters are a spanner in that works. To wit:

When the characters take a short rest, roll 1d20. On an 19+, a wandering monster stumbles across them at some point during their rest.

(Insert a table of wandering monsters here, based on your adventure.)

Voila! Each time the PCs rest, there's a chance they fail to regain their precious encounter abilities and hit points. Instead, they're looking at a mob of angry critters. Even if the party is safely holed up in a room, and the monsters pass them by after a few tense Stealth and Perception checks, you've added a compelling element of uncertainty, danger, and chaos to the adventure.

If you want to get fancy (and who doesn't want to get fancy?), you can tie your wandering monster checks to a skill challenge. Let's say the check starts at 15+. Each success in the challenge bumps that threshold up by 1, each failure drops it by 1. You could use Perception, Stealth, Streetwise, and so on, along with judging the PCs' actions in the dungeon, to manage the challenge.

So, time to dust off those old wandering monster tables. They're more useful now than ever.


Anonymous said...

Good point! I'd not thought of it like that.

Except now, instead of a Wandering Monster Table, we could have a "Wandering Pre-prepared Encounter Table", chock full of ready to run critters all set to go. Goodbye 1d4 Kobolds, hello 2 kobold slingers, 8 kobold minions and 1 stormclaw scoprion :D

Yep, I like that idea, a lot.

Good one, Mike.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and welcome to the RPG Bloggers network!

ChattyDM said...

Yeah, always happy to meet new bloggers... although your name does sound familiar... =)

I don't think I'll point you to my 'how to be a RPGblogger' series...

While I'm not a fan of random encounters (and fight with no meanings) I like to have them when the monsters rolled on the table actually come from somewhere in the dungeon.

I have seen in Gygax's last adventure (Castle Maure) the use of random monsters as a way of faking a dynamic dungeon. This is exactly what I want Wandering monsters to be.

And I totally agree that 4e is a system ripe to exploit this at it's best.

MikeLemmer said...

That's a wonderful idea. What level, compared to the PCs, should the random encounter be to have easy/moderate/hard difficulty? On a similar note, what level should 2 encounters without a rest between them be, compared to a single encounter of the party level?

Mike Mearls said...

Jeff -

I think it depends on the effect you're shooting for. Castle Maure, as Chatty pointed out, is one model, where wandering critters add some motion to the monsters in the dungeon.

For a standard dungeon, I'd suggest shooting for wandering monster encounters that are a level or two below the average encounter on that dungeon level.

However, you can do a lot to vary the effect. For instance, I believe that the adventure Lost City of Barakus had a very powerful green dragon wandering around on the first dungeon level (I might be completely scrambling that, but the example still stands).

The interesting thing with that is the PCs know that a very, very tough creature, one that could kill them, is a wandering monster in the dungeon. Suddenly, smart players are setting up escape routes, paranoid about keeping quiet during fights, covering their tracks, and spending as little time outside of closed chambers as possible.

Things can get even more interesting if the monsters use such a wandering critter to their advantage. The kobolds blow horns, beat drums, and shriek to attract the dragon, diving into hidden passage as the wyrm draws near.

When you think of wandering monsters as the dynamic element in a dungeon, then things really start to kick into place.

Donny_the_DM said...

Random encounters have always been a mixed bag for me. I have had several campaigns TPK due to a random encounter at a bad time.

Instead, I use "not-so-random" encounters. Scripted, somewhat level appropriate encounters that offer RP in addition to hack and slash.

Dungeon magazine is a good source of these. As it is, I have a fat 3X5 card box full of little somethings I have compiled over the years.

Works well for one-shot side treks too.

ChattyDM said...

I'd probably try an Abandoned Ruin adventure with just random encounters of various near-equal strength. Each comes from one of the factions running around the dungeon and never settling down because of

a) Fear of getting ganked by other factions (of which PCs could be one)

b) Fear of endlessly resetting encounter traps

c) all factions are looking for the same treasure

Anonymous said...

I used to use wandering monsters heavily way back in the day of THAC0, for the exact reasoning you just gave.

To speed up in game resting, I used to let my PCs recover in a four hour period, so while it wasn't exactly like 4e, it was along the same line of thought.

That and they never wanted to spend their hard earned gold on inns, so I used late night ambushes to convince them to go to town where my friggin' plot hooks were waiting.

Elliot Wilen said...

1. Mike, is this your new RPG-only blog? Or are you a different Mike Mearls from this guy.

2. From the little I know about 4e, this is a great idea. It could also be rejiggered into The Fantasy Trip and other games that basically give mages back all their "oomph" simply by resting for a while.

3. That said, the ingredient you've been missing all these years is that in old-school D&D, fighting monsters wasn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, if you wanted to level up, gathering loot was a much more rewarding path in by-the-book play. So to really complete the loop, you'd want to make sure you de-emphasize the importance of fighting per se, and increase the importance of acquisition of loot and/or more abstract "overcoming obstacles". That way, wandering monsters really are a penalty.

Result: parties are discouraged from dithering, over-planning, searching every single space, etc.

Ravyn said...

I'm inclined to disagree, but I began the week by ranting about combat for combat's own sake, so feel free to take my words with a pinch of salt.

Dynamic element wandering monsters, that shape things: nifty, definitely. I approve. I can get behind using them to discourage the 15-minute adventure day. But your "compelling element of uncertainty, danger and chaos" is some people's time-waster obstacle between them and figuring out where the game was going.

Plotter said...

Random encounters are great. Except for the randomness part. Dice, despite all our dependence on them are the root of all evil. I say good riddance to random treasure tables, and the random encounter tables can join em.

Maybe I'm too much of a control freak, but I just can't leave the appearance of monsters up to a die roll.

"Random" encounter *tables* are fine though. I'm perfectly okay at having a brief think about the PC's current location, whether they have a fire, how much noise they're making, and if they're cooking how delicious does it smell and if I'm feeling particulary generous how worn out are they by the last encounter.

Then I can look at the "random" encounter table and *decide* to spring an encounter on the party. One that's devious, fun, not too deadly and hopefully appropriate to the situation.

Anonymous said...

Knowing the influence of old school D&D on the design of 4e, I've been pondering whether (and how) to use random encounters.

This has pushed me to thinking that they're a good idea.

Thanks Mike :)

Geek Gazette said...

I like the random encounters and have always used them in my games. Heck a lot of the time my last minute games are nothing but random encounters.

Geek's Dream Girl said...

Feel free to slap Chatty about that "how to be an RPG Blogger" comment.

Unknown said...

I've always disliked "Random" Monster tables, both for the reason you explained, as well as the extra work the DM (usually me) has to take. Chatty made a couple of good points relating to this

What I've done recently is make encounter tables that have flavor elements, including dungeon dressing of which I include monsters.

Currently I'm running the Savage Tide AP, and on the Isle of Dread, I used the Encounter Tables to provide a sense of a living, dangerous island. I'm also using this for the Abyss and cities.

The response from my players has been great. As Mearls indicated, my players are paranoid, so they've been planning escapes, tactics, and avoiding fights (for deadly encounters), roleplaying events that happen (old man in the street, dream, blood on the walls when they wake up), and generally feeling they have some form of control of how they work their way through the adventure.

helium3 said...

I've recently heard a dirty rumor about how really really old school (ancient school?) D&D games used to work.

Apparently you got far more XP from the treasure you liberated than you did from killing the (really scary) monsters that guarded said treasure.

This created an incentive to do everything you could to get the treasure from the monsters without actually engaging the monsters.

Assuming this is all true, I imagine that Random Monsters grew out of a need to put the smack down on parties that were too smart for their own good.

With the current way D&D games are played, random monster tables just kinda suck. They were the bane of my last 3.X campaign.

Anonymous said...

Inspired me to write about how to generate Random Encounters using the Monster Manual page numbers: http://blog.microlite20.net/2008/08/17/by-the-numbers/