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.

6 thoughts on “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play

  1. Joseph Skyrim

    That example of map travel is a good one, but in the case of a dungeon setup the DM should probably have a list of all the available monsters lurking within and where they are, and actually keep track of their movements for the wandering ones – that way they are less “random” and more actually participating in the map. A list of what may walk in from the outside is a good idea too. 😛

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Joesph,

      Thanks for your comment and support of this blog!

      Your suggestion represents an ideal amount of preparation for making a monster lair seem like an active place. I never want to see characters crashing from room to room of a stronghold without gaining any notice.

      Your comment reminded me of a bit of dungeon-building advice that I plucked from the Chivalry & Sorcery game. “Guards are somewhat limited in numbers. Some will have fixed stations and protect treasures. Others will have patrol routes and pass through certain areas at set times. The Player-Referee should have these details worked out beforehand and should be able to prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

      Aside from the amount of preparation expected from the ref, that last sentence suggests an adversarial relationship that surprises and amuses me.

    2. multifacetedthinker

      I realise that this article and comments are somewhat dated now (relatively speaking) but i just wanted to add something to this.
      Now, this is a rare case, but solo players, like myself, sometimes want some suprise when we go dungeon crawling. I dont want to handpick the encounters myself.
      So yes, the DM should normally have their own idea of what lurks in the depths. But in some cases randomization can be a god-send.

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