Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract

In 1980, Dungeons & Dragons players at my high school traded stories that confirmed Tomb of Horrors as the HARDEST DUNGEON EVER. Then someone told me how to beat it. Just hire a bunch of guys with shovels to excavate the tomb from the skull-faced hilltop down. A laborer worked for as little as 1 gp per month. The excavation takes months in the game world, but only a moment in the real world. Digging out the tomb avoids most of its perils. Most. I don’t think the job site’s days-without-an-accident sign will often count past 0.

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear.

In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. At the end of every 10-minute turn, the dungeon master checked for wandering monsters. On a d6 roll of 6, monsters appeared and probably attacked. These fights punished delay by forcing adventurers to risk death fighting for pocket change—if that. Most monsters lack pockets.

When a dungeon lacks wandering monsters, players can slow the game by taking meticulous care, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. If characters have ample time, many dungeon obstacles disappear. Locked doors fall to axes; walls fall to picks. The Tomb of Horrors stands no chance against a bunch of guys with time and shovels.

Wandering monsters made dungeons work

The threat of random attacks forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to dig around obstacles, characters have to keep moving.

In 1974, wandering monsters did little to diminish D&D’s fun. Even the most routine fights still seemed fresh and exciting.

The original rules made timekeeping easy. Combat aside, most actions in a dungeon took a 10-minute turn and every turn brought a chance of an encounter.

Exploring dungeons did take characters a surprising amount of time. In a 10-minute turn, a typical party could explore just 60 feet of tunnel. “Mapping and casually examining” a 20×20 foot room took 10 minutes, then a search took another 10. For every hour in the dungeon and after every battle, characters required a 10-minute rest. By the rules, searching and mapping took much longer than anyone but Gary Gygax figured.

All the while, wandering monsters kept coming, depleting precious spells and hit points.

Keeping time

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules challenged DMs to do more timekeeping. “It is essential that on accurate time record be kept so that the DM can determine when to check for wandering monsters and in order to keep a strict check on the duration of some spells,” Gary explained in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. “Keep a side record of time on a separate sheet of paper, marking off the turns as they pass.”

While timekeeping and wandering monsters kept dungeon crawls moving, players came to dislike the bookkeeping and the interruptions.

Timekeeping created a chore with little payoff. Besides, figuring the passage of time in the game world seemed like guesswork.

Wandering monsters work better when they remain only a threat

The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but the actual monsters just stall the narrative. As D&D players began focusing on stories, wandering monsters seemed like a distraction. Nobody wanted to pause their quest to battle 1d4 random basilisks.

Even Gary seemed to lose interest in wandering monsters. His introduction to the Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed DMs to skip them to maintain excitement. “The rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating—if not deadly—but the appearance of such can actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition.” Gary made wandering monsters easy to skip. In the AD&D rules, he forgot to explain when or how to roll for wandering monsters. Nobody noticed.

By fourth edition, D&D eliminated wandering monsters. DMs built encounters according to a precise recipe that required planning, and not the whim of the dice. And because each encounter took an hour or more to play, the game could hardly spare time for random delays that fail to advance the narrative.

The fifth-edition designers returned random encounters to the game, but without much enthusiasm. The Dungeon Master’s Guide warns, “You don’t want to spend time distracted by random encounters that add nothing to the adventure narrative or that interfere with the overall pace you’re trying to set.”

Even though wandering monsters fell from favor, few players saw a sudden rise in tedium.

Action and D&D’s social contract

To keep a brisk pace, many D&D games just rely on the game’s social contract. Players recklessly advance their characters through the dungeon because stopping would bore everyone. Even Gary recommended using social pressure to discourage plodding. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, he advises DMs to mock “over-cautious behavior as near cowardice.”

Tomb of Horrors has no wandering monsters and no time pressure, but when Gary ran it at home, his players finished quickly. Rob Kuntz finished in 4 hours.

Characters can hire crews with shovels, but nobody wants to play that way.

Tomb of Horrors heads a long list of published D&D adventures that lack time pressure. Even when adventures press characters to finish in days, the pressure never trickles down into the dungeon. If the characters fight a long campaign against evil, a few extra days spent in a dungeon hardly matter.

Thanks to the social contact, these dungeons still work, but real time pressure improves adventures.

Too often, players realize that they can rest and resupply after every 5-minute adventuring day. Suddenly they must choose whether (a) to press recklessly ahead for no good reason or (b) to follow a safe and tiresome strategy. No game—no adventure—thrives by forcing players to choose between fun and an optimal strategy.

Next: What could be better than wandering monsters?

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6 Responses to Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract

  1. Mario says:

    Great article, David. I agree and wish that wandering monsters were still part of the game and

  2. Mike says:

    Nice article! I agree that wandering monsters are a pretty clumsy way of putting time pressure on a party. We want there to be a cost to moving slowly, but when enforcing that cost leads to a 30 minute battle that doesn’t advance the story, we need to find a better way. I’m looking forward to reading your further thoughts on this topic.

    I wonder if you’ll touch upon the other type of time pressure? I’m thinking of real-world time pressure on the players (e.g. they have 45 minutes to accomplish x). This can work in a convention setting during an Epic or the D&D Open, but I’m interested in your thoughts about using it in other settings.

  3. ripx187 says:

    I never had any idea of how to track time in the dungeon, always assuming that one session=one day. I avoid random monsters, but I do create random encounter lists that are more specific.

    Every 10 minutes? That sounds excessive, but that may be what I do regardless. I check them with a d10, and alter the chances by feel. I actually like the method of keeping time that you describe! It would make tracking spells more efficient, typically I’ll just set a timer if I have to.

    Thanks for teaching this old dog new tricks!

  4. Möller says:

    @Mike there’s a Swedish game called Null State that has instructions for live time. Works well at conventions.

    @everyone I like the abstract turns of Torchbearer. It sounds tedious to note time in 10 minute increments. Torchbearer lets a turn pass every time something happens – say a skill check or a combat. And every turn, you get a bit fatigue and your light sources burns out a bit. Haven’t had the possibility to try it live, though.

  5. Low Fantasy Gaming RPG uses a inherent “doom clock” if you like: the diminishing luck attribute, that refreshes muuuch slower than the rest of a PC’s resources. Combined with random encounters, and 5 min short rests, and the Party Retreat rule, player are incentivized to push on the adventure, not look for a place to camp and full refresh.

  6. Claus says:

    I am loving this series of revisiting old school tropes. That said:

    “Characters can hire crews with shovels, but nobody wants to play that way.”

    Speak for yourself 🙂 I have fond memories of playing in university with a group of engineering and CS students, and half the fun was exactly looking for these kinds of ways to “break the dungeon”. I will readily admit that it is not the “intended spirit” of the game, but just as readily defend the fun of out-of-the-box problem solving in D&D.

    Cheers!

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