Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mixed Feelings on Wandering Monsters

First, when I say wandering monsters, what am I talking about? What are wandering monsters, as defined by the games I've played?

"Wandering Monsters
“Wandering monsters”are hostile things that traipse around looking for trouble. They might actively patrol a wilderness area or an underground dungeon. They could even pop in from Hell without rhyme or reason!"

- GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons, p. 20

"Wandering Monster -General term for any encounter not previously keyed by the DM; usually refers to the periodic check for monsters in dungeons."
- AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 230

In other words, either monsters who are just moving around the dungeon or you just didn't plan for.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy
has rules for checks, and I've used them. The rules are fine. In fact, I've even proposed expanding them so you roll whenever you're in a fight with other monsters, planned or unplanned - aka, dogpiling wandering monsters. Like how this card works in Munchkin:

Wandering monsters can be a lot of fun - and monsters moving around helps deal with PCs who don't. Camping PCs, PCs digging through the floor or steadily bashing down the walls, etc. - wandering monsters come by and attack the PCs and it costs them resources for sitting there.

But sometimes, I just find them annoying. Weak, dumb monsters aren't a terribly big threat to an organized group, or one that's being alert. Strong, dumb monsters aren't in such big supply that they can be filling the hallways.

In D&D-ish games, where only AC and initiative can prevent damage, wandering monsters are a threat. They might get the drop on you and get in a round of attacking, hit, and inflict some damage-cost on you. Or they may survive a round of pounding and equally hurt you before they die. In GURPS, this is much less likely in my experience. Unless it's a serious threat to the life of the party, it often feels like it's just a time-waster for everyone involved. And if it's a serious threat level of a monster, I have to wonder why I didn't place it in my dungeon (more on that below.) Nuisance monsters - spiders, jellies, giant rats, minor patrols of humanoids - aren't powerful enough to be real threat and get beaten easily.

So I'm finding they disrupt play more than they extract a cost for lollygagging in the dungeon.

Of course, getting annoyed with having wandering monsters isn't unique to me. This quote should secure my old-school cred if I decide to forgo the rolls when they're in the way of play:

"For example, 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." - AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 9

Even Gary Gygax acknowledged they could do more harm than good, sometimes.

So what to do?

I have a couple of "wandering monster" tables, but I don't always use them. Instead, I will sometimes roll on my table to see what comes by, and other times I'll just have a nearby creature react to the noise (I mentioned this a while back.) That way, it's a combination of "just out wandering" and "unplanned reaction from nearby enemies."

I think this is more of the tactic I need. Make it a "who do you alert in the neighborhood?" kind of situation.

If I was being more systematic about it - and in the future I might - I could roll my d6 but make the entries like this:

1 - (monster)
2 - (monster)
3 - (monster)
4 - (monster)
5,6 - Nearby creature(s) alerted, comes to investigate.

I could even merge it with the wandering monster roll itself, although it'll skew the percentages a bit. If the chances of an encounter are 9 or less, then an 8 or 9 could be "nearby creature investigates."

But I'm not sure about that, yet.

Still another option is to, say, roll a "wandering monster check" for all the nearby monsters. Basically, an activation roll - do they get motivated to react to the disturbance? In a classic dungeon, they might or might not. Living creatures are living because they aren't dumb enough to go out and look into any disturbance, I figure. Only truly badass monsters can take the risk of leaving their stronghold area and going out looking for a fight just because all that iron-spike tapping is disturbing them.*

So rather than roll them up, I could roll to see if they get activated. In this case, the "dogpiling" rule I linked to above isn't necessary - the separate rolls for each will determine who comes.

Another option is to combine both - some areas, especially wilderness, would use a table.

"The desert is swarming with bands of hostile creatures, and adventurers will encounter them from time to time.
- GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 1: Mirror of the Fire Demon

In those cases, there is no outside limitation on what could be around the area.

Others would use a mixed table, like the above - everything from "these guys are wandering far and wide from their base in area #11" to "oops, you woke up the minotaur in the room nearby, and he's coming for a looksee."

But all together, I'm still finding myself making less wandering monster checks and more judgment calls - just eyeballing who is nearby and deciding if they're likely to get involved or not.

I like the idea of wandering monsters, and of a resource/danger tax on lingering in places you don't belong, but I'm finding the effect isn't what I wanted. More "time waster fights" than "real danger of harm." Less fun-for-time for everyone, GM and players included.

So I haven't really made up my mind which way I want to roll things and run things, going forward.

* This is the "once shot a man for snoring too loud" thing. See John Wesley Hardin; also in GURPS Who's Who 2.


  1. I've run into the same issue, though Threshold Magic I've found puts the sting into Wandering Monsters a bit more - the spellcasters, at least, can be depleted for a day or so.

    Still, it's mostly a disruptive annoyance, at least so far, rather than a danger.

    One thing I've been toying with is the idea that wandering monster checks are actually reinforcement rolls, so that there's one more hobgoblin, or the ghouls have cornered a black pudding to use on the characters when they get there, etc., but I'm not exactly sure how to pull that off.

    1. Well, any threat that comes with enough lethal force to require you to expend resources will do it, Threshold Magic is just one example. But minor critters are zero threat to DFs, generally, or so close to zero as to cost nothing but a FP or two if that killing them.

      I like the idea of a reinforcement roll. If you flesh it out and try it, I'd like to know how it works out.

  2. Patrols/foragers from nearby areas can make great wandering encounters. If they retreat to warn the main body instead of engaging, it simultaneously informs the players that there may be a cost to loitering, and adds realism to the environment, without bogging down play with a low-risk fight. Trying to intercept the runners can make a low-risk fight into one that at least has high stakes, or all the party may hear is retreating footsteps.

    If warned, you could reinforce the main body by removing some wanderers from the table and adding them to the main area, or combine all patroller/forager entries into one reconnaissance-in-force.

    1. Very true! Although I'd personally prefer to either do that in a wilderness, or have it scripted - there is an X in Y chance in this area of running into the foragers/patrol.

      In a wilderness, it's big enough that yeah, those 6 goblins should be wandering around and could be part of a larger force. In a dungeon, I need to know where those 6 goblins are from, and be able to eyeball a reasonable path they took to get where they are.

      That's partly why I've got these mixed feelings - I like the idea of them, but if I'm going to have to do the work of deciding where they come from, how they got to where the players are, and so on, I may as well place them. Or place a chance (if the PCs enter this corridor, there is a 9 or less roll that there is a patrol. 12 or less if they've been mildly noisy, 15 or less if they've made a racket) instead of making it purely a "roll to see what comes" kind of situation.

      Again, though, that's a lot of work, and it's effectively a placed encounter with a random setup (do they run into the orcs in the hallway, or in their barracks? I'll let the dice decide when it comes up). Not that this is a bad thing, but it's a bit different than what the old definitions of "wandering monsters" generally made it out to be.

    2. All good points. Sensible patrols are a far cry from the old-style tables where there are 1d6 skeletons or a medusa apparently wandering around the orc caverns.

  3. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun had the monsters (humanoids) in the dungeon come out in waves once they are alerted by the PCs. I thought that was pretty realistic.

    1. That adventure's set - the force roster, the way they react according to a schedule, complete with where they come from - is just top-notch.

  4. You need something to drain the best spells out of your casters before they get to a real fight. A wandering monster sometimes is just a spell/resource drain mechanism

    1. I think that's a key point - in *D&D, the wandering monster is there to keep you moving, booting down doors and entering rooms, rather than standing around in the corridors making plans. It does this by lowering your resources, of hit points, magic, and expendable items.

      GURPS isn't a system that supports gradual attrition of hit points and magic: the way you survive a fight is usually not having lots of hit points to soak up damage, it's not taking the damage at all. And magicians get low-level spell capacity back pretty quickly, and don't have to worry about exhausting their prepared healing slots while other spells are still available.

      This is why, in my pre-DF GURPS dungeon bash game, I eliminated wandering monsters: they're no longer a tax on anything except player fun-time.

    2. That's good feedback Roger, thanks.

  5. Perhaps the wandering monster table is useful in a ruleset like D&D, where a fight can be resolved quickly. But GURPS is different: the monster and the PC had more options and wandering monster can delay the real adventure. System does matter, even when adapted to a genre ;)

    1. My experience isn't that GURPS combats are taking longer than I remember D&D fights going. In fact they tend to be really brief in my game. It's the roll, look up what's nearby or what's on the table, describe the change in the situation, check where all the PCs are, resolve the fight, resolve the looting, get back to what they were doing = a lot of time. The time to roll 3d6 to hit and 3d6 to defend isn't any more than rolling d20 to hit and then looking at the table to see if they beat AC.

      Sure, if I was playing GURPS with all of the combat options on, and it was a potentially dangerous fight, or I didn't do a 3-2-1-next-person pace of decision making, it could take longer. But it doesn't. The issue is the whole process takes up a lot of time for what usually turns out to be a blip on the game session radar.

  6. I like using wandering monsters in my AD&D campaign. There are three main reasons for this: they are a random element, which not even the DM can fully control (and I find this randomness refreshing); if used with some kind of reactions roll they can provide a lot of fun (peaceful goblins? Is that a trick?); they keep the characters moving, effectively preventing them to rest and recover while inside the dungeon.
    Sometimes the real question is: where do they come from (and, linked to this: should I reduce the chance of their coming up when the dungeon level has already been thoroughly explored and freed of monsters)?
    My answers depend on the structure of the dungeon itself, and as long as there are still levels to explore, it is fine for me just to roll for wandering monsters without asking too many questions. I do however reduce the chance of random encounters when the characters have visited and cleansed the dungeon level and the other levels directly connected, but I still make restocking rolls, so the situation can always change.
    If the monsters rolled are too weak to bother the characters, I simply have them observe the party from a distance (trying not to be spotted in return), flee away (maybe leaving signs of their presence) or parley (especially if caught by surprise); I try to avoid a fight which would be just boring and senseless, but if it comes to blows, I let the dice roll as usual.

    1. Thanks, that's helpful - and I do the "weak monsters or smart monsters just watch you and gather information" thing, too.

      One thing stuck out though - "they keep the characters moving, effectively preventing them to rest and recover while inside the dungeon." I hear that kind of thing a lot. But is it true? Should your chances of attracting monsters go up if you aren't moving? Even in old modules like D1-2, you have more chance of encountering monsters moving around than camping quietly somewhere. I would think if you hole up in a room you'd be less likely to run into something than if you move around.

    2. I usually make rolls for random monsters on a time basis (1 on 6 every 20 minutes); I keep rolling even if the characters barricade themselves in a "safe" room, and if a wandering monster shows up, and the reaction roll indicates an ostile attitude, the characters will somehow be disturbed (and their rest possibly ruined) by the monster trying to break in or lure them outside the room.
      Since resting is a long matter (4-8 hours), requiring a lot of wandering monsters rolls, the dice will almost always conjure some noisome creature, effectively making sleep in a dungeon a difficult thing.

    3. I think that the "keep them moving" idea may arise not so much from the characters but from the players. Certainly when we interviewed Mike Mornard for the podcast he suggested that in Gygax's early games if the players were arguing about what to do the party was declared to be doing it too (standing around in the corridor or wherever they were), and would often attract monsters. In that respect it's Skinnerian conditioning: yes, we want to get into fights, but we want to get into fights with things that have treasure, so once we learn that wandering monsters don't we'll try to avoid them.

  7. Off the top of my head, I'd say that wandering monsters make more sense in wilderness, rather than in the dungeon proper. Still, they could be useful if only to reaffirm that it's full of living critters that have more to do with life than sit in a room waiting for adventurers to come kill them (unless they're already dead/undead, of course). But it would seem reasonable to have a chance that some dungeon denizens would be on the move occasionally: e.g. lieutenant going to check up on mooks, slaves and minders bringing food to boss, Thrack the hobgoblin making his way to the restroom or going to dump out a chamber pot (there's a throwing weapon for you...). The goal isn't to provide a challenging fight, but they could make future fights harder (e.g. Thrack sees the party and, if not killed immediately, runs back to his buddies - meaning they're prepared for a fight when the PCs finally encounter them or they come looking for the dirty interlopers). Maybe in a cleared out level, there's the chance of running into a hunting party returning with a kill or a raiding party with loot and slaves, a spy returning from town, or just some curious critter entering the now strangely empty and quiet structures. Things that make sense. I guess that random encounters in a dungeon setting could also include just strange things that might offer some insights into what's ahead, are complete red herrings, or whatnot: graffiti, piles of bones, a poorly hid pouch with some coins in it, crumbs from the last meal of one of the critters in a room ahead, etc.

    Random encounters in the wild really seem to have a lot more potential. They make more sense, but they can also provide plot hooks or ways of introducing core elements of an adventure. For instance, I've been working on an encounter table for a wilderness adventure that includes running into traps (set for animals), abandoned/ruined structures (of various types) that may or may not have some loot in them (but could also act as shelter), hunting parties of humanoids, easy chances at foraging, the occasional predator, cranky herbivores, the remains of dead humanoids, tracks made by humans or reptile men, and a half dozen ways that the party could run into an important NPC. All of which help move the story forward or at least help flesh out the space the party is exploring. Plus, I'm intending on having a couple nuisance encounters that won't eat up any spells or hp, but may part the PCs from some of their smaller pieces of equipment - due to small critters trying to make off with the party's shiny things in the middle of the night (this is inspired by an encounter I had with raccoons on a camping trip a while back).

    At any rate, I like the possibilities have random encounters for adding to an adventure, for making sure that it's not all 100% scripted, etc., but only if said encounters make sense in a particular environment and if they serve some broader purpose, even if it's just to add a bit of local color.

  8. Wandering monsters also force the PCs to always keep tactical. If you've cleared out a section of the dungeon and there are no WMs, you can be much more flexible about positioning etc. in the clear areas.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...