Tag Archives: random encounters

D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter

If you want your D&D game to tell a story, why bother with the dice? Why bother with a random element capable of foiling our plans?

The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook calls Dungeons & Dragons a game about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. If D&D players only wanted to collaborate on stories, we could join a writers’ room and pitch dialog, beats, and character arcs just like in Hollywood, but without the paychecks.

Instead, we add dice.

The oldest known d20 comes from Egypt dates from somewhere between 304 and 30 B.C.. The die may have rolled in a game, but oracles may have cast it in divination rituals. Blogger James Maliszewski writes, “There’s something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal.” Like an oracle’s die, our dice lead our characters into an unknowable future. The dice make us surrender some control, because they add the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. We embrace that.

Surprise

After countless stories, we all start to see patterns repeated. We still enjoy them for many reasons, but even the best can seem like a familiar dance performed well. So when a tale breaks the pattern, the unexpected becomes riveting.

Stories from D&D games can follow patterns of their own. Two combat encounters plus a roleplaying interaction take us to the big bad, and then to dividing treasure. We dungeon masters have an extra incentive to follow the expected track that we prepared, so the dice help us let go. They nudge us off course and remind us to welcome uncertainty. Writing about dice and random encounter tables, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains, “Such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn’t one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.”

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford likes how rolling in the open forces him to honor the outcome of a roll even when his own inertia might sway him to override it. “As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised. I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”

Creativity

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Forget dice for a moment and think of the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity.

Poet William S. Burroughs coined a cut-up method of writing where he scrambled words on scraps of paper and then assembled the jumble into new poems. If poetry seems too high-minded to connect with a game rooted in pulp fantasy, then consider this: Rock musicians like Curt Cobain, Thom York, and David Bowie used the technique. Burroughs asserted, “Cuts ups are for everyone.”

David Bowie explains his use of the process, “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black uses a program to make random lists of titles, plots, and other idea seeds. He explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.”

Creation doesn’t stop during writing and preparation. It extends into the game session when the dice inject that random element.

Fairness

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the dungeon master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the DM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the DM wants the dice to take the blame.

Random rolls reduce the DM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite DM and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

D&D historian Jon Peterson writes, “Die rolls impart to players a sense of fairness, they also give the referee a way to decide events impartially when they can’t trust themselves. Back when referees were adjudicating between competing parties (and in early D&D, they still were, sometimes). Referees needed a way not to show favor, even unconsciously, to one competing party over another. Dice play an important part in hedging against the risk of unintended bias.”

In modern D&D we tend to associate dice with the attacks, checks, and saves at the core of the game, but the games’ founders used dice to impartially settle questions about the game world. Many DMs still roll to direct a monster’s attack, but otherwise the technique seems faded. Now we seldom roll to learn a shopkeeper’s disposition, or the guards’ morale, or for the weather. To settle these and other questions in the game, we seldom think to just ask the dice.

D&D adventure designer Will Doyle knows the technique’s power. “I use ‘lucky rolls’ literally all the time. For example, player is sneaking down a corridor, I call for them to make a lucky roll to see what happens. On a 10 or above, it’s probably clear. Roll lower than that, and guards come whistling along.”

Preference

Ultimately, how much your rely on luck depends on your taste for a game that can feels as surprising and as messy as life. James Maliszewski associates a big dose of random chance with old-school gaming and writes, “Much like life, old-school gaming is often ‘just a bunch of stuff that happens’ and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only ‘meaning’ that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.”

How much of the future do you and your players want to force, and how much do you want to keep unexpected?

“What do dice represent?” D&D video creator Matt Colville asks. “They represent the future and the fact that the future is ultimately unknowable,” “You know we may know the odds of the different horses in a race and who’s likely to win and there may be a horse that is very heavily favored to win, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to win. No. Because the future is uncertain. That’s what the dice represent.”

What Could be Better than Wandering Monsters?

In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear. Players gain time for painstaking caution. After every 5-minute adventuring day, characters can recuperate. As locked doors fall to axes and walls fall to picks, dungeon obstacles disappear.

Every adventure needs a source of time pressure. In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. But wandering monsters suffer drawbacks. The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but a random fight against 1d4 basilisks just stalls the narrative. See Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract.

As D&D matured, characters found bigger goals than “loot the dungeon.” Dungeon masters gained another source of time pressure: A race against time or against enemies. Escape the Hidden Shrine before poison gas chokes you. Retrieve the Rod of Seven Parts before rivals. Chase a crazed Derro through tunnels. Slay a giant lord before reinforcements arrive.

In the best adventures, whenever players consider whether they can rest, they must weigh the cost of stopping. But when a goal takes days or weeks to achieve, little of that urgency drives the characters in the dungeon. When characters face months campaigning against evil, a little extra time in the dungeon hardly matters.

How can a dungeon master make dungeon adventures feel tense and active? In this post, I share 4 classic techniques. Then I tell a secret: the lazy way to make stopping in a dungeon feel like a risk.

Make random encounters better

Not every dungeon brings the urgency of poison gas or a midnight summoning. Sometimes players just need to feel that every moment they delay brings a risk of attack.

For random encounters to shape behavior, the players need to understand the danger of standing still. In You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (And So Do I), I recommend explaining the risk of random encounters, and then making the rolls in plain sight. If you track time, keep the tally in view too. Check off the hours, 10 minutes at a time, on the squares of your battle mat. Seeing the time advance will inspire players to keep a steady advance.

Wandering monsters in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Gary Gygax’s first adventure in print, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978) hints at some other ways to improve wandering monsters.

  • Reduce the frequency. In original D&D, monsters had a 1 in 6 chance of appearing every 10 minutes, but Gary’s published adventured kept lowering the frequency. The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests rolling every hour and starting an encounter on a d20 roll of 18 or higher.
  • Make the monsters fit the location. Bigger dungeons tend to feature areas ruled by factions and areas that fit a theme. Random encounters should fit the neighborhood.
  • Give monsters a reason to wander. Gary said that good modules should have a reason for everything. When monsters have a purpose, you can imagine how they react, what they carry, and other things that make them more interesting than 4d4 orcs. Most importantly, the dungeon stops feeling random and starts feeling like a place where things happen even when no adventurers see.

Prepare random encounters in advance

Random encounters work better when you prepare them in advance because you gain time to embellish them. At the table, roll to see whether an encounter occurs, but then use a prepared encounter.

When you run a published adventure with encounter tables, you can roll in advance or just pick your favorite to prepare. Then decide why the monsters wander and think what they carry and how they will act. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want. Consider taking treasure, a clue, or a story element from another part of the dungeon and assigning it to the wanderer.

If you create your own adventure, skip random encounter tables. Prepare one wandering encounter per area. If your hourly roll prompts a random encounter, use the one you prepared.

Real time pressure

In 1975, GaryGygax brought Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention to serve as a tournament adventure. Teams of 15 players (!) competed to thwart Acererak’s deathtrap. Despite the tomb’s lack of wandering monsters, a 4-hour time slot turned the adventure into a race against time. Since then, real time limits provide the most exciting source of time pressure. Players need to do more than press ahead; they must play quickly. Real time pressure makes the D&D Open so thrilling. Real time limits fuel the best multi-table Epic adventures. I love these games, but they feature players racing for high scores or for glory against other tables. Can a real time limit work when a table plays alone? Today’s players would expect their DM to adjust an adventure to fit the time. I doubt one table could match the urgency of a competition.

Beyond wandering monsters

DMs tend to run dungeons as static places where nothing happens until the characters reach a keyed location. I’m as guilty as anyone. The players deserve most of our attention, leaving little thought for the monsters lurking in other rooms.

Despite our tendencies, dungeons play best when players feel at risk even when they stand still. Not every dungeon relies on wandering monsters to create this feeling.

Organized resistance

Some dungeons feature organized resistance. When adventurers arrive, factions of monsters can sound an alert and organize a defense. Parties that stand still come under siege.

While exciting, such dungeons challenge DMs. To manage the resistance, we must remember the monsters in a faction, their locations, and figure their responses to the players. I run these adventures by marking the monsters and locations on the dungeon map. Without such a reference, my evil pets wouldn’t stand a chance.

Scheduled movements

Map showing my notes for an organized resistance to a party entering from 1

In dungeons like the Sacred Stone Monastery in Princes of the Apocalypse, the monks eat meals, perform training, and so on according to a daily schedule described in the key. In theory, a DM should somehow account for the time of day and the denizens’ movements. (All creatures in dungeons are denizens. Only Gary knew why.) I admire the ambition of such dungeons, but never bother paying much attention to the schedule. In practice, the monks could gather in the shrine at dusk, or they could just happen to be in the shrine when characters arrive. No player will notice the difference.

The lazy way to pressure dungeon explorers

Let me share a secret: Even if your dungeon lacks organized resistance, and you skip wandering monsters, and you never track scheduled movements, you can still make stopping feel perilous.

To make players feel at risk even when they stop, attack them sometimes when they stop.

Players grow accustomed to dungeons where nothing happens until characters enter a new location. An occasional attack that breaks this pattern makes players realize the dungeon isn’t a safe place to linger. Plus the dungeon and it’s denizens will seem active—a place where things happen beyond the characters’ current location. These sorts of encounters contribute to immersion.

When you devise a dungeon, plan an unkeyed encounter or two that fits the theme.

Sometime as the characters stop to search, investigate, or collect treasure, start the encounter. Have monsters enter from a direction that fits the logic of the place. Perhaps the monsters sneak in for a surprise attack. Perhaps the monsters stumble on the characters.

I find the notion of monsters busting in on the heroes for a change appealing. With the characters scattered around the room, such reversals create unusual, and fun, tactical situations.

In published adventures, you can create similar encounters by just pulling the monsters from a location until after the characters arrive. Pick a room with monsters and some interesting features that might occupy the players’ time. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with the fountain or the bookcase, the monsters return.

Suddenly nothing in the dungeon feels safe. That’s how I like my underground deathtraps.

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?

You roll for random encounters wrong (and so do I)

Original Dungeons & Dragons made rolling for wandering monsters more a core part of play than rolling a d20 to hit—d20 rolls were in the optional combat system that everyone used. Over the years, as D&D evolved, random encounters fell from favor until they neared extinction. In second edition, DMs emphasized story and saw random events as an unwelcome distraction. By fourth edition, battles consumed so much time that one random encounter could devour a session.

Random monster

Random monster

The designers of fifth edition recognized the value or random encounters: The threat of wandering monsters gives players a reason to hurry and to avoid the 5-minute adventuring day. Random encounters make distance and travel meaningful. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Traditionally, dungeon masters roll for random encounters during a session, behind the screen.

With players accustomed to this secretive approach, a DM can ignore die rolls and script every wandering monster in advance. Their players will never know.

I have a confession. Sometimes I roll random encounters before a game session so I can grab the monster miniatures that I need. By rolling in advance, am I diminishing the game? What if I just skip the rolls entirely and choose “random” encounters that suit me?

I my last post, I considered the advantages of using random rolls to shape your game. One benefit is that die rolls separate the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. This benefit only comes if you make die rolls in the open and if players have a sense of what the rolls mean.

Few rolls swing the course of the game more than those for random encounters, so making these rolls in plain sight makes sense. But unless the players know what a roll means, the DM may as well pretend to read tea leaves. The chance of an encounter qualifies as secret information for the DM, so rolling for random encounters conflicts with the benefit of open rolls.

Nonetheless, a DM can reveal enough to make open encounter rolls meaningful without spoiling secrets.

Player characters exploring a dungeon or wilderness probably have a sense of what inhabitants they could encounter. Underground, investigators notice either dust and cobwebs or signs of traffic. In the light, rangers and druids know an idyllic path from monster infested wilds. Some PCs bring backgrounds or skills that give more insights. PCs may know a place by reputation. As a DM, you can rely on all these factors—and possibly on some checks—to gauge what to reveal about potential random encounters.

In the past, I would relay such information purely in terms of the game world. “As you travel the Stranglewood, you see signs that confirm its reputation for monstrous predators.” Now, I might add some game mechanics to the flavor. “For each day of travel, you could encounter wandering monsters twice. I will roll on a D20. Higher rolls lead to encounters.” These details help players decide strategy, and players enjoy strategy over guesswork. Plus, players endangered by wandering monsters will  act with urgency.

Some dungeon masters worry that revealing the mechanics of these rolls spoil too many secrets, or that it foils the players’ sense of immersion. I used to agree, but a Living Forgotten Realms adventure changed my opinion. In Agony of Almraiven, players face the challenge of freeing a brass dragon from a net as Thri-kreen harass the beast. The encounter combines a skill challenge with a combat encounter. Before I played this encounter, I disliked it. I hated the mechanical artifice of skill challenges, and this one came with a handout that let players check off their successes. Still, I dutifully handed out the sheet and let the players tackle the skill challenge as a game within a game.

Players loved it.

I ran Agony of Almraiven six times, and every time the players relished this challenge. The experience did little to improve my opinion of skill challenges, but it reversed my opinion of occasionally letting players glimpse the nuts and bolts of an adventure. Players enjoy immersion, but they also enjoy playing the game as a game. For example, players can immerse themselves in combat encounters even though they know all the rules behind them.

The original D&D game exposed the mechanics of wandering monsters without making play less compelling.

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Don’t show your encounter tables, but do explain that an hour delay leads to another roll, and that if you roll a 20, they will probably meet something nasty. Then roll in the open.

Have I dropped my practice of pre-planning random encounters? Not entirely. I strive for some transparency, rolling in view to see if an encounter occurs. As for the specifics, I might roll and prepare a few options in advance. During the session, I let the dice choose among those I prepared.

Note: The random encounters in an upcoming Adventurers League Expedition inspired this post and the last one. Will this adventure benefit from its randomness? I don’t know. In a convention setting, time and pace pose the biggest challenge, and random encounters make pacing harder. On the other hand, I always learn something when I run something new, and I’ll be running the final version of that Expedition a few times at the Winter Fantasy convention. As always, I hope to see some friends of the blog at my table.

3 benefits of letting die rolls shape your game world’s reality

The other day, I read a playtest version of a Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Excursion. Instead of the usual linear series of encounters, this adventure introduced an unprecedented element of chance. From the start, random encounters lead players onto different courses. The final showdown can occur in a randomly-determined location. Much of the combat comes from random confrontations with 1d4 of this or 1d6+1 of that.

dice_oldThis unusual element of chance led me to consider the benefits of giving the dice control over much of a role-playing game characters’ fate.

Random chance increases replay value. From the seeded worlds in Minecraft to the random dungeons in Diablo, replay value concerns video games more than tabletop games. In D&D, only the most devoted organized-play participants replay adventures. For those folks, letting the dice shape the game yields variety from a single adventure.

Random chance creates surprises for the game master. The dice can add unexpected ingredients to the game master’s plan for a session. This can add to the fun. Plus, adding the unexpected—or just working to make sense of it—leads GMs to inspiration. For example, during a session where my players traveled by boat, the random combination of a waterfall and drowned ghouls forged a memorable encounter.

Nonetheless, when I serve as game master, my players’ choices create enough surprises for me. If your players never surprise you, then you probably haven’t given them enough freedom.

In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from weighing choices. Before you let a die roll plot an adventure, ask whether the players’ decisions could provide the same spin. For example, rather than having the players randomly meet a faction in the dungeon, let them uncover enough clues to choose which faction to pursue. Or on a small scale, if a charging demon faces many ripe targets, ask if anyone wants to taunt the creature. Arrange choices so that even you cannot imagine which the players will select. Practice by splitting slices of cake to share, and then giving your kid brother first pick.

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the GM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the game master wants the dice to take the blame. To assure my players that I don’t meddle with their characters’ fortunes, I roll dice in plain sight. A good GM acts as a facilitator and impartial referee, not as a Fate who controls destiny.

As a game master, do you ever roll a die to check which player character a monster will target? Years ago, as I plotted my monster’s tactics, I left the players to figure out the creatures’ motivations. If I rolled a die to choose a target, I did it secretly.

My secret approach led players to complain that I singled out their characters for attack. Apparently, all the players felt singled out, and they were especially singled out when they rushed into a crowd of monsters. (I never single out players. Unless they boast that they never take damage. Then maybe a little.) So I switched my approach. Now I help players understand why they get targeted. Sometimes the clues come in character. The monsters say, “You hurt Grog, so now you die,” or “Slay that accursed priest first, so he cannot heal the others.” This peek into the monsters’ choices gradually improved the players’ tactics.

When monsters lacked an obvious target, I started rolling in plain sight to decide. The die roll may cost a bit of immersion, but players cannot accuse the die of playing favorites.

To impartially settle questions about the game world, many GMs use die rolls. For instance, when the player of a drow asked whether burning wreckage on the battlefield made enough smoke to shroud his PC from the sun. I rolled. “On a 1 to 3, then yes.”

Random rolls reduce the GM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite game master and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

Next: Random encounters

Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play

In my last post, I reviewed the history of wandering monsters and random encounters in Dungeons & Dragons and discussed how the game changed to meet my own negative views of wandering monsters. However, I failed to see how wandering monsters can benefit D&D; now I begin to see.

Wandering monsters can enhance Dungeons & Dragons play in three ways:

Wandering monsters speed play

On page 97 of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax recommends “frequent checking for wandering monsters” as one method to speed play. He suggests saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” Without wandering monsters, players can slow the game with meticulous play, searching everything, checking everything, accomplishing nothing. “Now we check the trap for traps.”

Unlike most dungeon crawls, The Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. The Tomb rewards painstaking caution, so the lack of random encounters accounts for some of the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, the caution amounts to pure tedium. Outside of Gary’s home group, the first players to explore the Tome of Horrors worked under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

Without random encounters, adventures must inject time pressure from other sources. This explains all the lair assaults where players must stop a ritual’s completion, or the poison gas rising through the The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.

Wandering monsters discourage the 5-minute work day

Ever since D&D expanded beyond mega-dungeons filled with wandering monsters, the game’s designers and dungeon masters have struggled to penalize the five-minute work day—the players’ ability to tackle one short encounter and then replenish their resources by sleeping before moving on. In the game’s early days, wandering monsters eliminated the players’ ability to retreat from the dungeon without risk, because new monsters would wander in to occupy the players’ way out. Players could spike shut the doors of a room, keep watch, and hope for the best, but that strategy brought danger too. Without wandering monsters, 4E attempted to discourage the 5-minute work day by creating renewable encounter powers, and by granting action points to encourage players to advance. Ultimately, a source of in-game time pressure stands as the best remedy for the 5-minute work day.

Wandering monsters make travel times and distances meaningful

From the Odyssey to Tolkien to now, tales of great journeys dominate fantasy fiction. But in our games, players routinely cut across great distances, traveling by map, or with a quick synopsis from the DM. Random encounters turn distances into a challenge that cannot be dismissed.

I credit this insight to the Radiating Gnome’s terrific post, “Random Encounters: Friend or Foe?” The Gnome writes, “Our characters were faced with a journey from one city to another. We looked at the hand-drawn map and I realized I was counting out the days we would have to travel, and thinking about how many encounters we would have to face along the way. A strange bit of alchemy had taken place—random encounters had made the distance between the two locations real. We had to talk seriously about what sort of supplies we might need to take, and think about the sort of encounters we might run into based on the routes we selected.”

To make the most of this benefit, players must understand that travel brings a risk of unplanned encounters. Also, I recommend emulating the wandering monster tables of the old days, where players could meet rare threats too dangerous to fight.

I have served as a dungeon master on and off for decades, and up to now, I don’t think I have ever rolled a random encounter. With the arrival of D&D Next, I suspect that will change. (Rolls dice.) “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU—so far.”

Update: When I wrote this post, I knew this topic had already inspired some insightful writing. The Radiating Gnome’s terrific post, “Random Encounters: Friend or Foe?” nearly convinced me to find another topic. Soon after I posted, James Wyatt weighed in with a Wandering Monsters post on wandering monsters. Today I discovered Steve Winter’s case for wandering monsters, plus he convinced me to replace wandering monsters with random encounters. Steve’s posts are so good that I wish I had written them.

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.