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.

shriekers

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.

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