Monthly Archives: October 2013

My brief history of wandering monsters in Dungeons & Dragons

Wandering monsters and random encounters have been part of Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning. On page 10 of volume 3, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Gary Gygax writes, “At the end of every turn [in the dungeon] the referee will roll a six-sided die to see if a ‘wandering monster’ has been encountered. A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared.”

In the early days, every dungeon master played with the rules that suited and ignored the rest. I ignored wandering monsters.

In the sort of a mega-dungeon that dominated the early game, why would monsters wander room to room, risking traps and provoking fights with other dungeon dwellers? How could the dungeon’s population survive?

When I created a dungeon, I was one of those pedants adding toilets and food sources. I came up with reasons for the underground architecture, and then I filled every room with something unique and challenging. My dungeons offered no place for 1-4 wandering basilisks.

Wandering monsters make more sense than I supposed when I started playing. Gary’s Greyhawk dungeon included three or more empty rooms for each occupied room, giving monsters room to move. With empty space to roam, I think wandering monsters make at least as much sense as the dungeon itself. When mega-dungeons gave way to strongholds such as in the Giant series adventures, you would expect the lairs’ residents to move about and stumble upon intruders. Overland, random encounters always make sense.

In my game, I wanted to involve my players in stories—stories free of distracting fights that stalled the narrative. If players stumbled across a “wandering” group of monsters, the meeting came because I planned it.

Page 96 of the second-edition Dungeon Masters Guide echoed my disdain. “Some argue that random encounters are foolish and should not be used. These people maintain that everything should be under the control of the DM, the there should be no surprises for him while playing the game.”

The 2E guide offers two, weak reasons for including wandering monsters.

  • Variety: Random encounters introduce variety that the player characters didn’t expect.” But the player characters should not expect the planned encounters either, unless they peeked.

  • DM Challenge: Random encounters make the game more exciting for the DM.” But I rely on the players’ decisions to make the game surprising and challenging. Players never cease to surprise me.

Seeing these shaky arguments, I suspect author Dave “Zeb” Cook felt duty-bound to defend D&D tradition, but failed to find any convincing reasons.

The third edition Dungeon Masters Guide shows a better grasp of the role of wandering monsters in the game. “Use wandering monster rolls to add an add an unpredictable element to a dungeon delve, to encourage characters to keep moving, and to put a price on being noisy.” (See p. 97) This explanation mentions one of the three good reasons for rolling wandering monsters. My next post will explore the three good reasons.

Wandering monsters do encourage characters to keep moving, but the fourth-edition game moved anyway. Fourth edition engineered exploration—and any potential inaction—out of the game in favor of a string of encounters and skill challenges.


Faced with irrelevance, 4E shriekers changed from wandering-monster beacons into a sort of sonic-damage-dealing creature with a move speed.

With 4E, the game eliminated wandering monsters and came to my original way of thinking. Fourth edition’s design made every encounter into a carefully-balanced set-piece. Dungeon masters built these encounters according to a precise recipe that required planning, and not the whim of the dice. And because each encounter took and hour or more to play, the game could hardly spare time for random delays that fail to advance the narrative.

Wandering monsters lost their place in the game. 

As D&D Next takes D&D closer to its roots, the next iteration’s quicker fights make wandering monsters viable again. Among the game’s rules for dungeon exploration, next includes rules for random encounters. But do wandering monsters deserve a place in the game? Way back when I began playing, I failed to see how wandering monsters can benefit D&D; now I begin to see.

Next: Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.

Photo guide to dungeon master’s tools

Update: Read my bigger, updated New photo guide to dungeon master’s tools.

As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper.  I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your  case.

On the game table

On the game table

Compartment case

Most of my essential gear fits into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room. When I travel light, I only need this case and a battlemap for a game.

Deep compartment case

Deep compartment case

Dungeon master’s screen

I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.

I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.

You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my fourth-edition inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Behind the dungeon master’s screen


I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.

Battle map under plexiglas

Battle map under Lexan

When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

Shelf lines keep tiles in place


Removable mounting putty

Removable mounting putty

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”

I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.

Rolling in a box

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. To keep my dice corralled, I roll into a clear, plastic box purchased from a craft store. The box packs easily, takes little space on the table, and never hides the outcome of a roll.

Status markers

Alea tools magnetic markers in case

Alea Tools magnetic markers in case

Plenty of folks use cheap or free methods for tracking status effects on the battlemap. When I started with fourth edition, I twisted pipe cleaners into rings and tried using the rings as markers, but this approach fell short. At best, only I knew what status corresponded to a particular color. By the time everyone else adds their bottle-cap rings, tiny rubber bands, and other refuse to the battle, the miniatures look like Christmas trees and no one knows what’s going on. Ultimately I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as tokens.

Numbered alea markers

Numbered and labeled Alea markers

When Dungeons & Dragons Next supplants fourth edition and eliminates much of the need for markers, I will miss them. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield.

Plastic markers

Colored marking dots

Colored marking dots

Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic counters online.

Sometimes, I use these dots to resolve area-effect attacks that target a large number of figures. I lay a colored disk by each figure, then roll attack dice in colors matching the disks.

Colored dice and marker dots

Colored dice and marker dots

The colors link the attack rolls to the figures, so I can roll a handful of dice once to resolve all the attacks.

This method works best when I’m playing, because I can set my disks without interrupting other business at the table. As a judge, I typically just ask a player to point out targets for individual rolls.

Marking zones and areas of effect

To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:

  • 3×3 colored transparencies.  I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. Whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.

    Area of effect markers

    Blue transparency and yellow boundary markers

  • Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.
  • Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendents like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.

    Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

    Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

For more, see “Marking Zones and Areas in Fourth Edition D&D.”

Line-of-sight indicator

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.

Initiative tents

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Pens, clips, and scissors

Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.

Poker chips

Poker chips

Poker chips

I give players poker chips to represent action points. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.


As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.

My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:

  • Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

  • Animal companions. Fourth edition made various types of animal companions more playable than any previous edition. In my experience, pets resonate for some players, and they collect as many the rules allow. However, players of pets rarely bring figures for their entourage, so I bring an assortment to lend. Now if only some vendor would create a medium-sized figure for the runaway most popular animal companion—the displacer beast.

    Animal companion miniatures

    Animal companion miniatures

For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”

To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

Flight stands

Miniature flight platform

Miniature flight platform

The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.


Potion vial prop

Potion vial prop

I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.

Dungeon decor

While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.

Dungeon decor

Dungeon decor

Looking back at Grimtooth’s Traps

Grimtooth’s TrapsStarting in 1981, Flying Buffalo Games published a series of Grimtooth’s Traps books. They featured diagrams of traps that showed heroes on the verge of being folded, spindled, and mutilated. For instance, one sample shows a covered pit trap where the swinging cover severs a rope that drops a stone slab into the pit.

Dungeon Master: “As you advance down the tunnel, a trap door opens at your feet, dropping your rogue, Jasper the 8th, into a pit.”

Player: “Ha! Ring of feather fall!”

DM: “Ha! A two-ton stone slab drops on you, pushing you down the pit and crushing you to jelly! Do you have another character?”

Player: “Sigh. Say hello to Jasper the 9th.”

All the traps were ingenious; all were unusable in play.

Adding an extra mechanism—no matter how clever—to increase the lethality of a trap doesn’t add to the fun. It sends the players looking for a new dungeon master.

Swing across chasmIn another example, a rope seems to offer an easy way to swing across a chasm, but at the end of the swing, the rope unspools several feet, flinging the victim into the wall, which is rigged to fire a volley of crossbow bolts into the victim’s body, before he drops into the underground river below, which I assume is full of sharks—presumably, the flying, exploding air sharks from Arduin.

What paranoid adventurer would dare use a rope suspiciously ready for swinging across a chasm? And all adventurers in the world of Grimtooth will grow paranoid in a hurry. In practice, this trap gets bypassed without a second thought.

In most cases, even players who survive the traps will never notice the inventive mechanisms that make them function and that make them interesting. The traps could work in a sort of Toon/Dungeons & Dragons collision, where Wile-E-Coyote-like characters blunder into in outrageous traps, only to reappear, without explanation, for the next scene.

By the fourth volume, Grimtooth’s Traps Ate, the series authors had abandoned any pretense that these traps might see play. Now the traps include dungeon basketball courts with mechanical arms that slam duck characters, and deadly Christmas-themed rooms that kill adventurers wearing Santa suits. (Why is volume 4 Traps Ate? The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7 lack homonyms, so they were skipped.)

As long as you do not dare using any of Grimtooth’s traps in play, you can enjoy the collections by chuckling over their wicked engineering. Here the Addams Family meets Rube Goldberg.

Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try

At last week’s game, the characters searched a room. After the first searcher rolled low, another decided to redo the search. The searching and the low rolls continued until someone rolled high enough to prove that there was nothing to find. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes at the obvious metagaming. If the scene had mattered, I might have told them that the characters lacked any reason to repeat the search. When players make perception, insight, and knowledge checks, players routinely glean information from the number on the die. This bothers me.

The obvious solution to this problem is for the dungeon master to roll informational checks for the players. Players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the DM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bystander watching the game rather than participating. Also, players enjoy having the unearned information from the number on the die.

So I tolerate the metagaming and I let the players roll. Besides, it may not be entirely unfair for the number on the die to give the players hints, because when you attempt something, you often have a feel for how well you did. Of course, in life, your sense may be wrong, while if you see the die roll, you know. (In life, the worse you are at something, the more likely you are to overrate your efforts.)

In the early days of the hobby, I learned a technique that I like better than rolling for the players.

When players make stealth, perception, insight, and knowledge checks, let them roll as usual, but also roll a d6 and keep the result secret. If you roll anything but a 6, treat the player’s die roll normally. If you roll a 6, flip their die roll so 1 becomes 20, 20 becomes a 1, and so on. Tell them the outcome of their action based on the inverted result. Now the player who rolled a 19 can feel fairly confident that there is nothing to find, but not certain. Now the player who rolled a 2, but feels a hunch that the informant is deceptive just might be right.

I’ve never used the method in play, because I know players will object to losing the unearned certainty that comes from knowing the die roll. Perhaps I’m not a mean enough DM.

Are you mean enough? If you plan to use this method, tell your players. They should know that the hunches they base on their rolls may be inaccurate. If you’re quick with arithmetic, you can flip a d20 roll by subtracting 21 and throwing out the negative. Otherwise, just create a table by writing the numbers from 1 to 20 alongside the numbers from 20 to 1 at the edge of your DM screen.

How do you feel about rolling for the players or otherwise adding uncertainty to perception, insight, and knowledge checks?

Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads

Way back in “The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I confessed that whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. The characters inevitably sidle around the statue, expecting it to animate and attack. This trick never fails to amuse me. Does this make me a mean dungeon master?

When players metagame, they use information from outside the game world to make choices for their characters in the game, even though the characters would lack this information.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for three reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If players know that every figure on the battlemap will have a role in the fight, no statue is safe a preemptive strike. But if you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that defy the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
  • I’m a mean dungeon master.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

Most commonly, I toy with three metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption  Countermeasure 
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. This helps set the scene, and the players become jumpy, expecting a fight. I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If an NPC or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. The recent Murder in Balur’s Gate launch adventure called for a ton of bystanders. More to the point, bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s bones lines.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. The fourth-edition design turns this into a bigger problem than with earlier editions, because players have more resources to save for the final showdown. Metagaming and fourth-edition design leads to the sort of trouble I described in “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master? Vary your adventures from the expected route to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start. Dan Anderson stands out as an author of Living Forgotten Realms adventures that defy expectations. For instance, in CALI3-3 Agony of Almraiven, the tough fight comes as an ambush in the middle of the adventure.
Everyone has access to the same information. In most sessions, the whole game proceeds with every player at the same table hearing everything the DM has to say. In the game world, not every character knows what the others know. When a character becomes privy to sensitive information, you can take the player aside to share it. If your players cooperate and everyone always reports back, private asides take more time that they merit. On the other hand, if someone enjoys playing the furtive, scheming type, keeping some things secret adds intrigue. If you only take the assassin’s player aside to ask, “Seen any good movies lately?” everyone else will think the assassin hides something. I think inter-party strife poisons too many of the games that allow it, so be careful with this suggestion.

Next: Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try.