Tag Archives: wandering monsters

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?

Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

In his notes to the dungeon master, author Gary Gygax promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.”

tomb-of-horrors-4e-coverTo back his claim, Gary starts the Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a 19-line poem that promises to lead through the dungeon to the tomb of Acererak, the demilich. In a bit of wishful thinking, players tend to hope that Acererak plays fair and that his clue will help them. They hope that Gary gives thoughtful players a sporting chance to evade all the death traps.

The promise of the adventure seems appealing, but do not feel tempted to play Tomb of Horrors. The adventure defies much of what we consider fun now.

Acererak’s poem tests the player’s puzzle solving ability less than promised. Gary’s son Luke Gygax calls the poem as much a trap as a clue. It tempts players deeper, but contains so many ambiguities that some lines remain unclear even to students of the dungeon’s text.

Rather than testing puzzle-solving skill, the tomb tests other skills: painstaking caution and a psychopathic disdain for hirelings’ lives. It works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverGary did not design a tomb that let a clever group destroy the villain and survive intact. He devised the tomb so an ingenious group could win a battle of attrition and escape richer.

When Gary first introduced the tomb to his own group of players, they relied on masses of disposable hirelings to shield their player characters. “Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th-level (evil) lord [Robilar] went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time. He took 14 orcs and a couple of the low-level flunkies with him. He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich’s tomb and escaped with the goodies.

In those days, adventuring parties included many more characters than now. When Gary used the Tomb for a D&D tournament in 1975, each party of 15 played with the same characters, ranging from a level 12 magic user to a level 4 fighter.

tomb-of-horrors-2e-coverOne of the tournament’s players, Mark Swanson, wrote a first-hand account of the event for the September 1975 issue of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Mark’s war of attrition began when two of his party’s fighters died before they even found the true entrance. Thanks for playing.

Divination spells represented another resource to manage. Many of the traps in the tomb seem capricious. The poem invites players to seek “night’s good color,” probably black. So how could players know that jumping into the black maw of the green devil face leads to annihilation, while stepping through nearby arch teleports them deeper into the dungeon? These challenges tested players ability to use spells wisely. For instance, after one henchman gets sucked into the maw of the green devil face, a wizard might cast Locate Object to determine if his employee’s red shirt remains near. Players in that 1975 tournament could gain help from spells like Find the Path, Locate Object, Divination, Find Traps, Clairvoyance, and Commune. By the time the adventure reached print, many more spells offered aid.

Even with unlimited spells and henchmen, the tomb demands a lot of painstaking investigation to see the end. Locating Acererak demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Mid-way through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of the story seems unthinkable.)

When Gary wrote Tomb of Horrors, nobody thought of D&D as a way to make stories. Players aimed to beat the dungeon and they kept score in gold. The tomb defies our newfangled expectations of story.

The adventure makes destroying the arch-villain Acererak nearly impossible. (See “Player skill without player frustration.”) When Ernie Gygax’s PC Tenser reached Acererak, he scooped all the treasure he could bag and he ran. That qualified as good play.

Mark Swanson lamented the effort his party wasted preparing spells for wandering monsters that never appear. Unlike most dungeon crawls, Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. Potentially, Players can use their unlimited time to counter the tomb’s traps with painstaking caution. This winning strategy accounts for the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, such caution amounts to pure tedium.

Gary never battled slow play. Players in his home group honored a social contract to keep the brisk pace that let Rob Kuntz finish in 4 hours. Later, players explored under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

In Mark Swanson’s account, he draws a sharp contrast between the emerging play style evolving in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and the play style shown in the Gygax’s tournament. “Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A&E if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with chance-met characters, and a more exciting game.

tomb-of-horrors-book-coverEven though I consider Tomb of Horrors unplayable by today’s standards, I still love it. I am not alone. The tomb’s popularity led to official third- and fourth-edition updates, the boxed sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a hardcover sequel that shares the original’s name. The tomb appears in my DMDavid banner.

While I don’t want to play the tomb, I love the dungeon. I love the atmosphere. I love the inspiration it provided. Gary admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations.

The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

Long before I ever read the adventure, I knew the tomb by its reputation and by those illustrations.

Tomb of Horrors features the best villain in Dungeons & Dragons. The villain isn’t Acererak’s jeweled skull. The villain is the tomb.

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

This villain issues a challenge that reaches the real world. Even in the late 70s, a legend for killing characters surrounded the tomb. Among my circle of players, no one dared risk a character to it.

The tomb greets intruders as the skull face on the hilltop, then appears in the guise of the great green devil face. The tomb flaunts a menace and cunning that matches any other villain in the game. When the tomb offers help, it taunts and teases. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this [poem] whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what.” The poem is more trap than clue; this villain deceives. The soul-stealing skull is only the end of the players’ battle.

Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.

Is it found? How to handle a search

Speed through the obvious by summarizing simple search efforts

Game masters often speed past the uninteresting parts of the game—the parts with few decisions or obvious decisions—with a simple summary of activity. Most game masters will use a summary to skip past a search of a place containing nothing of interest, but the technique also works during the players’ first examination of a cluttered laboratory or dusty crypt.

When you conduct the routine parts of a search, summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This summary from the game master brings two advantages:

  • You, as the game master, and the characters in the game world have a clearer picture of the location than the players.
  • You can summarize the results of the most simple, obvious search efforts without slowing play with back-and-forth discussion as the players describe their actions.

In your summary, mention the obvious items in the location and any simple steps required to search around and inside them. You might also mention things the characters don’t do, either because the actions could be risky or time consuming. For example, “As you look, you leave the books on the shelves and the furniture in place.”

Parable of the Hidden Treasure by Rembrandt

Hidden Treasure

Avoid giving the results of this summary, in case the players wish to change some the actions that you outline. For example, “No, none of us go near the dark altar.”

This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.

Once you finish a summary of an initial search, the players can agree to proceed, you can share the outcome, and then the players can describe anything they want to do to take a closer look.

This method only works if you limit your description of the party’s search to obvious efforts. Do not make the players feel usurped by the game master. If the players enter the Garden of a Thousand Stings, where any misstep brings painful death, have them spell out every action. If the players enter Acererak’s throne room, and they prefer to describe every nuance of their search, they can—they should.

Search procedure

When the players ask to search a location, and they have limited time to search, use the following method:

  1. Ask if the characters will touch, move or open things as they search. If traps seem plausible, ask how the characters divide the responsibilities of opening and moving. If the room appears on a battlemap, you can ask the players to place their figures in the region they intend to search. During this step, you establish which characters could possibly trigger any traps or hazards that may exist.
  2. Summarize the obvious actions the party might take to perform a quick, initial search. This description will give the players a more vivid picture of the contents of the room, and will suggest things that deserve further checking.
  3. If the players have no objections, then tell the result of their initial search. The characters might find the keys on the bodies, coins in the sofa, and the monsters under the bed. They will find anything in plain view. If they open and move objects, they will also find anything not carefully hidden.If you feel uncertain whether something hidden would be noticed in this first, quick search, call for a search check from the entire group, but only consider the result from the character searching the area with the hidden object. Many things in the location may still need a closer look or more actions to find.
  4. If the players think some features deserve more thorough investigation, let them describe closer checks. For example, “I want to check that empty chest for hidden catches or compartments.”“I wonder what’s behind the bookcase. Is it built into the wall?”
“In most cases, you need to tell the DM where you are looking in order for him or her to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Intelligence (Search) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.” – Dungeons &Dragons Next playtest

In step 4, the characters’ specific search actions may call for search checks, or they may yield discoveries without a roll. As the characters’ search actions grow more specific, they may make some or all search rolls irrelevant. If the ceiling contains a hidden trap door and someone starts rapping the ceiling with a 10′ pole, just tell about the hollow-sounding spot that reveals the door.

Searching and tedium

This search procedure typically applies when the characters face some time constraints, when they must decide whether to keep searching, or whether to press on before, say, a patrol comes or the dark ritual begins.

When characters can search without time pressure or risk, but you, as the game master, make the players either roll or narrate their search process, you can introduce frustration. The players know if they waste enough real-world time rolling checks or describing how their characters probe, sift, and break down every object, they will eventually find everything that can be found. The search’s success hinges on the players’ patience for drudgery.

In the classic dungeon expedition, the threat of wandering monsters discouraged this sort of grind. In original Dungeons & Dragons, searching a 10 foot section of wall for a secret door required a 10-minute turn. Each turn, the referee checked for wandering monsters, and the players faced a 1 in 6 chance of attack. Players focused their searches on the most promising features, and then moved ahead. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play” for more.

Third edition acknowledged the tension between tedious play and exhaustive searches by introducing the option to take 20. Taking 20 allows players to find everything the characters could possibly find, without testing anyone’s patience.

Searching without game-world time limits

Fourth edition and D&D Next both dropped the rule for taking 20, while old-school games include no rules for checks at all. However, the players don’t need to say, “We take 20,” for you to cut past tedium.

Anytime players can search without time pressure, they will find everything that can be found.

If players search without time constraints, and they’re determined to finding whatever can be found, let them find it. Skip the rolls and skip the rote recitals of how and where they look. Just tell the players everything they’re capable of finding.

Although this guideline lets you provide a search’s outcome in seconds, the guideline applies when the players wish to invest what could be hours of game-world time in an exhaustive search. If the players show no particular interest in a thorough investigation, then just summarize the outcome of a simple search and let them follow up as they choose.

In unusual cases, the characters may not be capable of finding everything. For example, a perfectly concealed door may require a search DC higher than 20 plus the search skill of the party’s best searcher.

Time and search

Most versions of Dungeons & Dragons tend to leave the time demanded by a search to the discretion of the dungeon master. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons offers the best guidelines: “mapping, and casually examining a 20’×20’ area” requires a 10-minute turn, and then thoroughly searching the 20’×20’ area after the initial examination requires another 10 minutes. Actual time varies depending on the amount of stuff in the area. Characters must spend much more time to finish an exhaustive search that finds everything that can be found, and rules out any possibility of missing something.

Newer versions of the game calculate search times with an interest in making searching feasible during combat. Third edition lets you search a 5’×5’ area as a full-round action. Pathfinder lets you search it as a move action. I can’t even find my keys in a 5×5 inch basket that fast. These times only seem applicable to a relatively empty battlefield square, and not a wizard’s junk drawer.

“Time spent searching for anything (secret passages, hidden treasure, etc.), loading treasure, listening, ESPing, hiding, will be adjudged by the referee as to what portion of a turn will be used by the activity.” –Dungeons & Dragons Underworld and Wilderness Adventures p.8

In play, when time matters, keep a rough accounting of the time characters invest in a search, and share the totals with the players. You may need to keep them appraised of the risks of spending more time.

How to run listen.

This one is easy. Everyone forms a line and takes turns putting an ear to the door, and then rolling. Meanwhile, the dungeon master rolls to see who is listening when something awful comes through the door. For instance, Beholders can drift soundlessly and open doors with telekinesis.

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

When the fourth edition designers rethought D&D, they saw traps as posing two core problems:

  • Traps can frustrate players
  • Traps can slow play to tedium

Problem: Traps that challenge player ingenuity can lead to player frustration.

This problem arises when when dungeon masters limit the players to a preconceived menu of potential solutions. This approach riddles the Tomb of Horrors, which includes many predicaments that require curiously-specific recipes of spells or actions to escape.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

  • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
  • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
  • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
  • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
  • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
  • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
  • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
  • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that?

Despite creating these odd recipes, Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow an unexpected solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary writes the following: “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and  that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

In Traps!, fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.” For example, Tomb of Horrors.

I explored this subject in my post, “Player skill without player frustration.”

Problem: Traps can slow play to tedium.

Regarding the problem of slow play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland writes, “The ‘right’ way to play the game was to slowly and laboriously search each 10-foot square of dungeon before you set foot on it, or to use magic that made traps completely pointless. Neither option was much fun.”

Radney-MacFarland never mentions that old-school traps require wandering monsters or some other time pressure to avoid grinding the game to a halt. Of course, if time pressure denied characters the chance to look for the trap that killed them, the hazard seems arbitrary and unfair.

I wrote about this subject in my post, “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Fourth edition gives traps a new design

Radney-MacFarland admits designers thought about “disappearing” traps from the game, but decided to try fixing them first.

The 4E design sought to fix the problem of frustrated players by eliminating traps that only challenge player ingenuity. “We wanted to expand the ways in which you could counter a trap. Much like figuring out that sometimes you wanted other skills to allow a character to recognize a trap’s threat, we made an effort to design traps that could be countered with an interesting skill uses.” Skill checks became the core mechanic for resolving traps. The game invited dungeon masters to allow as many different skills as plausible so everyone could share the fun of making skill checks.

Most players prefer traps that require ingenuity to overcome, because such challenges make the players’ decisions matter in the game world. But not all players favor this play style. Remember that player who insisted that a disable trap roll enables their rogue to easily bypass some elaborate and cunning challenge? He may have grown up to be a 4E designer. Still, the designers recognized that turning traps into a cause for skill checks failed to offer enough fun, so they redesign went farther.

“Most traps work best when they ‘replace’ a monster in a combat encounter, or serve as a hazard equally threatening to both sides.” In 4E, traps become a sort of stationary monster that the characters can disable or attack. Like monsters, traps make attacks, grant experience, and have solo and elite varieties. In this new concept, traps add spice to combat encounters, allow rogues to strut their skills, and target monsters as well as players—a new tactical element.

Radney-MacFarland writes, “Don’t fret, rogue fans. That class and other characters trained in Thievery are still the party’s best hope to shut down traps quickly and well.” But fourth-edition rogues soon learned to approach traps like everyone else, by attacking. Fourth-edition rogues inflict so much damage that a series of thievery checks always took longer than just attacking a battlefield trap.

Justifying battlefield traps

In the game world, the battlefield trap always seemed hard to justify. I pity dungeon builders stupid enough to bother enchanting, say, an automatic-crossbow trap rather than an iron defender or other construct. Unlike constructs, traps (a) cannot move, (b) can be disabled, and (c) will attack your guards as well as intruders. The dungeon builder’s henchmen, hired to fight alongside their master’s indiscriminate death machines, should look for a job at a better class of dungeon.

Faced with justifying battlefield traps, adventure writers opted to make them target player characters, but now they just played like monsters—ineffective, immobile monsters.

The 4E approach to traps never proved as satisfying as hoped. As the edition evolved, we saw a gradual return to classic traps, even with all their problems.

Next: I separate traps into two categories: gotcha traps and puzzle traps.

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.