I’m a veteran gamemaster. I recently started using wandering monster rules for the first time. This entry is about why I never used wandering monsters before and what I learned using them several times in the last month or so.
Yes, it may scandalize card-carrying OSR gamers: I never rolled for wandering monsters in 1981, or in ’82, ’83, ’84… I never rolled for wandering monsters ever. I never saw anybody else do so, either. This is one of those “old-school” myths; practices widely varied in the old days and there was no single “old-school” way to play.
It wasn’t just that nobody I knew used wandering monsters. It was mostly that I thought they would disrupt the game with superfluous encounters that distracted players from their goals and were incongruous with the setting in the moment. (More on that below.)
Before I left D&D behind to take up other systems, I had used many D&D published scenarios. I simply ignored wandering monster tables in them (though not every module had them). Later, I had scenarios of my own worked out in something like a flowchart of options, directions, and possibilities. Many of the things I jotted down for the scenario never showed up because players always had options about where to go, and especially options about how to deal with problems. Naturally, player characters did not go to all the places I’d prepared; it was their choice. There were also plenty of haphazard encounters that I had in my pocket to throw at the players if they dawdled or triggered them, or if pacing grew stale, a sort of list of things that might catch up with them or approach them, depending on the context in which they were. Frankly, these things happened according to my instinct for the dramatic timing of events. Also, I ran (and run) settings that interact with the player characters non-randomly but “rationally.” If the characters make noise in a dungeon fifty feet from a monster lair, well, naturally the monsters will either prepare for trouble or come to investigate. No need to roll for the obvious. OSR gamers could file this under “rulings not rules,” if they like, because the idea is similar.
I’ll give a recent example. Earlier this year, running D&D 5e for my family, the characters were exploring a forest abandoned by civilization, now inhabited by brigands and monsters. The players had a map of the region (which I drew, and my daughter colored with colored pencils). The map, however, was about a century out of date in the game. It no longer corresponded to the actual state of the region. Things had become much wilder.
Before the game began, I had charted out the denizens of the forest and the surroundings, but I had no wandering monster tables. After some sessions, and many encounters, the characters ended up at the far western edge of the forest, where the woods wash up into the foothills of mountains. A hungry hill giant lived up there. When they set a campfire that night in the woods below (darkness coming slightly early to those below the eastern side of mountains), the hill giant saw it like a beacon and imagined it was dinner time. I didn’t need a wandering monster table because I knew my scenario. The character on first watch of the night heard very heavy footfalls approaching and trees breaking. Luckily, they doused the fire in time. Each one of them rolled stealth vs the perception of the hill giant. The players were really scared, because this thing seemed (and was) far mightier than they could handle. They never saw it directly, but they could hear it sniffing for them. After they’d had a minute of fear (real time), it trudged away, back to the mountains. The players breathed a sigh of relief and decided to move back into the forest the next day, and not to use a fire the next night!
No need for random anything. I just decided that was how the local giant was operating. He wandered over to them because it made sense to me, required the players to make decisions and take risks, and provided suspense. The placement of a threat too difficult for the characters in these mountains also kept them on the map I’d prepared, so to speak, where the object of their quest was located. It didn’t catch them, but I was prepared to see them smashed by the giant if they were foolish or unlucky.
This method is what Peter D. usefully called activation of monsters already determined to be in the environment (also addressing the variation in effects with a non-D&D system). You can activate monsters randomly, too; I could have rolled to see whether the hill giant noticed the fire or was hungry enough to make the effort, but I just ran it like that because it was exciting and suited the pace of the story.
In the old days, I didn’t keep precise track of time in the dungeon, either, but then again, most of my adventures were not in dungeons. They were in valleys, forests, crags, old forts, cities, castles, mansions, long roads through the wastes, and so on. Just not that many dungeons. We kept track of time in travel, but there were no rolls for events like clockwork. Events took place depending on where they were, when they showed up, and how they acted. If player characters tromped into an unfamiliar village in full armor, weapons jangling, there would be responses from the locals, depending on how they acted. The settings respond to their choices.
I didn’t use wandering monsters because they seemed likely
to disrupt the games I had going. The settings I use have a rationale. Random
stuff can get in the way of the consistency of the settings and undermine that
rationale. This is one of the few issues on which I agree with Gary Gygax,
who discouraged DMs from designing adventures at random and had second thoughts about wandering monsters.
Now, I know that there are today plenty of gamemasters whose ideal is to randomize absolutely everything. I’m not telling you not to do that. I don’t criticize your emergent worlds. But there is such a thing as a deeply rationalized dungeon, where things make relatively more sense than whimsy.
But now I tried it. For the first time, recently, I mandated rolls for wandering monsters.
I give credit to Josie for inspiring me to try it. Josie is a
gamer who replied to one of my earlier entries and mentioned that what really
got them excited about the OSR was dungeon exploration procedures.
I thought, “Procedures? You mean that blah-blah movement and rate stuff from Moldvay’s Basic that I had always ignored as a boy, focusing on narration and communication instead?”
I also saw what bloggers like DM David had to say in praise of the wandering monster.
Was I missing out? The only way to find out would be to try it.
I had bought Gillespie’s Barrowmaze for 5e, originally thinking I could give it to my son who is running a 5e game of his own. (I can’t give it to him for the near future; maybe more on that another time.)
Instead, I decided to re-stat it and modify it for my home rules and run it for my family. And I’d do it with dungeon procedures.
I started by adapting B/X D&D dungeon turns for my game.
I decided to distribute dungeoneering functions to the players, inspired by a brief comment Ynas Midgard wrote. I would use a caller for the first time. My son took the role, deciding on the group’s direction and goals in exploration, and negotiating marching order (because he has a knight character, the one in the group with a Station trait, and also by far the best fighter). My daughter wanted to be mapper (being graphically talented and having an literate character, who is a seer). This left my wife as timekeeper, and it works because she is highly organized in all things. I printed out a bunch of Dyson Logos’ torch and lantern cards on yellow cardstock, cut them out, and gave them to her, one for each torch and flask of lantern oil in the party. These would serve to keep time and track light source use.
Exploration stages in my game are five minutes each, with 60 feet of movement assuming a cautious, hushed, wary pace; double that at a noisy stroll.
The timekeeper has the responsibility of drawing one stroke of an X in a box on one of Dyson Logos’ torch cards every exploration stage, so we would get a complete X in two exploration stages, or ten minutes. Every twelfth stage (one hour) required a stage of rest (five minutes), with characters adjusting armor, checking equipment, lighting a new torch, or eating a meal. Every four stages (20 in-game minutes, two X’s) required the timekeeper to roll 1D6. On a 1, a wandering monster occurred. The idea to make a player roll for this was something I got from DM David. I liked putting the timekeeper in charge of wandering monster rolls. That was my wife, who thinks she has bad luck with dice.
The positive effects
The short answer is that it was fun!
We had two sources of time pressure in the game. One was that I set a three-hour real-time limit to the duration of our sessions so far. (We are busy people and I can’t keep the players all day.) My rationale for the real-world time-limit and the consequences of it is that the steamy fog of the muggy Barrowmoors billows out of the marshes in the afternoon at unpredictable times. It’s evil fog, not realistic fog. Characters who have not gotten out after three hours of real time are engulfed in the foul mists and the horrors they bring. In game terms, if they are not out of there in three hours of real time, they must Test Luck or face a random bad consequence from a chart I drew, such as death or narrow escape on the five-hour hike back to town, returning without equipment. They have not failed to get out in time yet!
The second source of time pressure was the Wandering Monster threat. Every twenty minutes of in-game time, and every time they made loud noise, such as using a sledgehammer to bash down a bricked-up portal or fighting, my wife rolled that 1D6 in plain view. A 1 brought something their way.
So far, they have been lucky with the dice. They’ve had some wandering monsters, but hardly anything has come by, even when they made a racket.
The players said it added an atmosphere of danger and a sense of risk, and it made them more conscious of their environment.
A side benefit of the role of timekeeper was that it kept my wife engaged. She is a good player, but she usually likes to let the kids make the decisions, and that can mean she takes a back seat, sometimes becoming less immersed. Having her track time engaged her. I encourage you to try something like this with your less committed, “observer” or “social” players.
Some neutral aspects
The players reported that wandering monster checks were fun, but made it more like a fantasy board game (like Mice & Mystics, where new monsters show up if you cannot race through challenges) than like the role-playing games we’d played together so far. I’d have to agree.
For my part as Referee, the dungeon procedure structure made my job much easier, so much so that it felt almost like cheating. I’m used to playing an energetic role in pacing that makes me feel more like a conductor of a jazz band, but this made me feel more like a placidly observing umpire.
The negative side
It was fun, but there were problems.
The first difficulty was minor: wandering monsters were designed for issues particular to D&D mechanics, and I'm not using D&D right now. It was work to change the wandering
monster tables for my own game system, but not a big deal. Number scales (like: how
many monsters?) and the difficulty of threats work differently in my non-D&D
system. D&D-only players may not realize how much more lethal combat can be in other game systems, so that a single extra monster, without player choice about approach, can end a game. This observation is in keeping with an old discussion by the Alexandrian, who saw the rationale in wandering monsters as specifically disruptive to the power scale of magic-users in D&D. Likewise, Merric points out how important "short rests" can be in D&D, where in later editions rests allow the recovery of hit points and even spell powers. Disrupting rests with wandering monsters becomes a big deal. In my system, by contrast, resting like this will prevent the loss of Endurance, not heal injury (because I don't use the hit dice ~ hit points abstraction).
The main problem, though, was the very reason I didn’t use wandering
monsters in the old days. The random tables can generate results that don’t
make sense in the moment.
Everybody will be familiar with the admonitions to GMs about “fudging the dice.” The idea is that if you roll it, you have to accept the outcome, even if it ruins the game for everybody. Otherwise, why did you put yourself in the position to make a roll on which everybody’s enjoyment depends?
But there are different kinds of dice-rolls. Some are the ordinary dice that give you answers to dilemmas: hit/miss, yes/no, open/closed, succeed/fail. Some give qualitative answers: how much/how little. But randomly occurring encounters are of a different sort. These dice are not telling me the answer to a dilemma, but are directing the events of the scenario at random, not according to a plan. That makes sense for solo play, but not so much for a game with a gamemaster who has prepared in advance.
I thought, “Let’s give it a shot, anyway. I’ll go with the flow. I’ll release my grip, allow the procedures to provide structure, and see what happens.”
Nonsensical outcomes can include irrational placement. What should I do when a wandering monster is triggered but there’s nowhere it could appear that makes sense, given the layout of the dungeon and the PCs’ position in it? One time, a wandering monster had to come either from an area that the PCs had just cleared or from a corridor that they hadn’t explored. But down that corridor is a hidden pit trap. Do the monsters know where the trap is? How do they know if they never triggered it? How do they get around it? Or how do random monsters of one type get past the threats, like other monsters, that the players have not yet encountered? Sure, I can think fast and make something up, but there were a few times when it just didn’t make sense. You know what I did? I just moved down the chart until I found something that made sense. Fudging the dice? You could say that. I call it preserving the setting.
Another issue was player knowledge of the procedure. The regularly occurring wandering monster checks trained the players to take certain kinds of risks between twenty-minute intervals. They didn’t realize they were doing it, I think. When I noticed it, I simply started to stagger the monster checks out of order at different times, to keep them on their toes, but it made the timekeeper’s job more difficult, because now the dice she had to roll were out of sync with the tally of time on the torch card. Suddenly I had to pay attention and do the timekeeper’s job for her. I had enough to think about, so I just let it go back to twenty-minute intervals.
My thoughts so far
After several sessions, I’m still just beginning to play with wandering monsters, but, so far, I have a few ideas.
The wandering monster practice has several much-vaunted purposes: to keep players on their toes, to reward caution, and to create an environment that seems alive. The first two purposes were met—it felt more dangerous—but I’m not sure that rolling mechanically at time intervals feels alive. That does feel more like a boardgame.
In my game, the established setting features will always
have priority over random events. I’m not going to go the route of saying that the dungeon
is a living entity or that it’s gonzo or it’s just magic, so it doesn’t have to
make sense. To me, this undermines the immersive quality of the setting. The so-called gonzo aesthetic, in my view, distances the player from the character (which is a legitimate preference).
Probably a lot of people do this already, but for me, charts of random events are just fuel for storytelling material. I’ll give you an example. On the first excursion, the characters found a secret door behind which was an unexplained small dungeon room with the corpse of an adventurer in it. He had died back there with some treasure. (This is in the published module.) To search the corpse, the characters entered the secret space (which I decided was a long-disused utility room for the dungeon’s early diggers) and that’s when the wandering monster die came up 1. I rolled and determined it was another group of tomb raiders. The players heard somebody coming and decided to hold the secret hatch door closed, pulling hard continuously on the ring on the inside of the hatch, a feature I had previously described. They made a human chain and held on tightly so that they would not be discovered by another party. I described how the other party was tapping lightly on the walls, searching, and then they tapped on the hatch the PCs were holding shut. the new invaders heard the hollow sound and realized it was a hidden portal. They could hear the murmurs of the other party, excited to find the secret door. They could hear something about “getting the crowbar.” My players were scared of being caught! This was the very first wandering monster in the game. It made no sense for the door to be opened when there was so much force holding it shut, so I decided to use the event to impress on them something about the dungeon. As they held on to that ring to keep the hatch closed, suddenly they heard screaming and sounds of a fight in the room without. After a minute of screams, there was silence. They waited to open the door. When they finally climbed out of the utility space, they found corpses of the other party, clawed and partly chewed. There were smears of blood on the floor where others had been dragged away to be eaten. The players decided to trail the monsters and ambush them. None of this was dictated by the dice. I just GMed the way I normally would, taking a cue from the dice rather than interpreting it literally.
So, the idea is not to take these rolls for events too seriously and definitively.
The other practical idea is that it doesn’t need to be monsters every time. I think that random hazards are more along the lines of what I want. A random hazard in the Barrowmaze can be just a slick puddle requiring an ability test to avoid falling hard and taking a slight injury (and possibly breaking potion bottles or the like), a dangerous falling piece of masonry, a rotten corpse that may induce vomiting to those who come upon it, or a physically harmless but truly terrifying, demoralizing, and confusing specter. The hazards are supposed to make players conscious of time and danger and strain their resources. The encounters need not always be things with hit points.
I doubt that these are new ideas, but they represent my experience.
As for the philosophy of games, wandering monsters and randomly emergent settings are closely related to “Story Game” priorities in that they disempower the gamemaster and put the gamemaster more into the role of audience. Wandering monster practices go against the ethos of “rulings, not rules” that is supposed to be at the heart of “old-school” role-playing. When I GMed in the old days, the dice dictated outcomes, not events. To me, this is just another contradiction within the “OSR playstyle,” but hey, it’s no big deal. If you are enjoying your way of playing, it doesn’t matter what label you put on it.
Trying wandering monsters put me, not unpleasantly, into a
relaxed mode in which the rhythm of the game was not following me and my
interactions with the players, but it did start to feel mechanical. Would I do
it again? Yes. We are not done with the Barrowmaze. And I’m still
experimenting, and looking forward to it.
What works for you?