Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wandering Monster Wrangling

I mentioned last time how so many things in the older versions of D&D just aren't explained. One of these that sometimes causes people angst and frustration is wandering monsters. First off, at their most basic level, wandering monsters are a strategic spoiler. They prevent the PCs from just holing up in the dungeon or the wilderness for as long as they need to heal up, rememorize spells, or whatever. They're a spur to prevent too much caution, since the longer you spend in the dungeon or the wilderness, the more wandering monsters you're likely to find. In the older versions of the game where you get most of your experience points from treasure, and wandering monsters rarely have any, wandering monsters are an annoyance rather than a prize.

That's only half the story. For the DM, wandering monsters are like the props they hand out at improv. As Chgowiz shows, they are spurs for your imagination, the seeds of new angles on the plot and fresh adventures. Most importantly, when the players zig when you expected them to zag, wandering monsters give you something to fill in the blanks. What's in that unmapped hex? The dice say: bandits. Are they a wandering band that infiltrates pilgrim caravans like the Thuggee Cult of India? Or are they unemployed mercenaries who have turned brigand? Maybe they're a military force from a neighboring kingdom come to infiltrate in preparation for... what? Invasion? Assassination? Cattle raiding? Or are they terrorizing simple peasant farmers like in “The Seven Samurai”?

The lists in the rulebooks are fine starting points, but you're probably going to want to make your own. If you do, don't feel constrained by the formats you've seen, especially if the whole improv idea leaves you cold. There's no reason you can't put more detail in your wandering monster charts. A group of six orcs might be the hapless minions of the evil sorcerer, busy screwing up yet another simple task given to them, or they might be a hunting party returning with fresh game for the stewpot, or gamblers looking for a quiet place to roll the bones and win or lose a few coin. In the wandering monster tables from D3: Vault of the Drow, Gygax tells us:

  • the bugbears are “going about the businesses of one of the merchant clans, and they will bear a distinctive broach”

  • pack lizards are docile grazers of edible fungus, if left alone

  • trolls are “employed by the Drow to maintain discipline amongst their other servants”

  • the edible fungus “ripens rapidly, and crews of workers must harvest the stuff for food (the tough outer skin being used for many other purposes)”.

If you need to define just why those orcs are wandering through when they bump into the PCs, go ahead. If you're fine with just jotting down “some sorta monster with 3 HD that flies”, that's cool too. These are your charts for you to use when you're playing, so do whatever's most helpful for you.

It's probably a good idea to weight your tables towards certain encounters. You can do this either by spreading single sort of encounter across multiple numbers (the orc hunters are encountered on a roll of 2,3, or 4 on a d8) or by using probability curves (the orc hunters are encountered on a roll of 10 or 11 on 3d6). That way your wandering monsters are more likely to express the makeup of your dungeon, and your players can use that information to guess something about the sorts of creatures they're likely to encounter.

Photo credit: bobster855.


Natalie said...

That's another thing that always got me into trouble. The 3.5 DMG example charts all use d% on their tables, and that's way more trouble than its worth to set up properly. Yeah, it lets you get fancy with the probabilities, but there's no need to get fancier than a bell curve in most situations.

I've been working on wandering monsters for a while, ever since I found out that they were a strategic problem rather than obnoxious cruft from an era of poor design. Using them in the megadungeon a bit has helped, but watching the way you use the tables has really gotten a lot of things I sort of knew but hadn't fully processed to click in my mind. Like how they don't all have to be fights. And you can use them to give players information about the world. The improv thing has been the most important idea, though. I was getting there, but having it laid out is kind of a light bulb moment all the same.

Sham aka Dave said...

A group of six orcs might be the hapless minions of the evil sorcerer, busy screwing up yet another simple task given to them.

This one is pure gold. I'd probably favor Goblins, but it all depends on how you view (or play) the various bad guys in your setting. Perfect for a comedic interlude, or possibly as the intro to a large adventure.

Your take on Wandering Monsters is valid as well. Traps and Wandering Monsters are normally both best avoided, BUT like the pit with the secret door at the bottom, you never know.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Yay Thuggee! Love'm! Learned about them looking up origins of modern word 'thug'. Hey, kids. Etymological dictionaries are fun!

As you allude to there are fundamental differences between wandering monsters to impose time pressure in the dungeon and random encounters/charts for exploration.

The time pressure doesn't require random tables at all. And it could take many forms. Environmental "Limited air to breath", "Old Flame Peak about to erupt". Encounterish "regular patrols", "random table", "list of monsters/events that get encountered in order whenever an encounter is called for". Competition "other PCs/NPCs looting same dungeon at same time", "bad guys are clearing out and taking their loot with them".

Exploration charts are required to be random. Are to help DM improvise, spur creativity, portray a complete vibrant world without having to prebuild that entire world on 1to1 scale.

The two can be mixed together but its good to know they are separate concepts or for instance you get misled into thinking all random encounters are monsters.

> Like how they don't all have to be fights.

One "rule" I keep in mind to help me sandbox DM instead of storypath DM is:

"Whether an encounter is a combat one is entirely up to the players."

In other words, DM knows the participants of an encounter but doesn't know what will happen until after the players act.

It's hard for me to let go of the mindset "There should be 2 traps, 3 easy encounters, 1 hard, and one TPK if they don't run one. Oh and been awhile so should throw a puzzle in there this session"

Weighted tables. I'm losing my belief in them. After seeing many 1d20 tables esp my Jeff Rients I'm beginning to look at weighting as DM interference and more work than it's worth. Sure you don't want the super rare event twice in a row. But, a bell curve doesn't prevent that, just makes it unlikely. There's always a need for "DM to ignore/interpret results". I'm leaning towards saying that is all that is needed. Down with curves!

The primary dice mechanics d6/d20 of the game are not bell curves. Is that merely an accident? Besides with a bell curve you're less likely to roll the fun stuff :)

trollsmyth said...

Norman:Weighted tables work well if you're going to roll on them a lot. For instance, my campaign currently takes place on a jungle-covered island. I'm going to be making lots of rolls for wandering critters as the PCs explore the island and travel between the civilized parts and the dungeons.

If you're only going to roll three times on a table, there's little point in weighting it. Curves only work if you use a table a lot.

Another weighting tactic I've gotten good use out of is adding a countdown element, sort of like what you talk about with time pressures. This reinforces the time pressure by adding +1 to the wandering monster rolls at regular intervals, such as every hour or every day. Then you can add things beyond the range of the dice to represent the impending doom the PCs are racing against.

As an example, as the portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire opens wider, you add +1 to your d8 roll for wandering monsters. Scoring a 9 might be a pack of hellhounds, 10 would be a troop of azer, 11 would an elemental, and 12 would be an efreeti warlord and his raiding party of magmen.

As the modifier marches up, the critters on the low end of the scale fall off, and the probabilities of encountering the special monsters increase.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...


ok, that makes sense.

And I really like the incremental table tactic. Thanks for the hint.

AndreasDavour said...

I also had a problem with wandering monsters. My first time as a D&D DM was using 3rd ed, and that was "interesting" to say the least!

Strangely enough it took me a while to understand why my player's characters were gaining levels so quick!

The fact that I mainly uses WM as a way to show that the world goes on without the players, it acted differently than intended.

I had colour encounters happening as "bangs" and boy were those like handling the players a printing press for money (i.e. XP)!

After halving the XP for WM things worked a lot better!

Know what you use your tools for! :)