Thursday, December 28, 2017

Wandering Damage on my Wandering Monster Tables

I was reminded about this from an unfortunate incident - someone discovering a bite from some unknown critter. Annoying. Potentially harmful or even lethal, if it's the wrong thing.

Lots of this stuff comes up in real life:

- surprise bug bite!

- where did I get this cut?

- I must have gotten scratched!

- I guess I did touch my eyes after I touched that infected person.

- Oh, that was poison ivy vine? It just looked like a bump on the wood in the dim light.

And so on.

I've usually had entries like these on my Wandering Monster tables. I joke about Wandering Damage but it's a very useful concept. Just divorce it from the joke of "skip the monsters, just apply the damage they'd do." Sometimes, harm just happens.

So I put things on my wandering monster tables like:

3: Infected critter bite! 1 HP damage (ignore armor/clothing DR) plus HT roll vs. disease (-1 to all stats until cured).


5-6: Bug bite for 1d-4 FP.


1: Poisoned! Possibly a bite, a cut from an envenomed thorn, etc. Ignores DR, roll vs. HT - 1d or take 1d toxic damage and -2 DX until all damage is cured.

I've thrown on disease rolls (HT roll), colds (HT roll), unstable ground (DX roll!), traps (Per roll), rainfall (HT-based Survival vs. FP loss, DX-based Cartography to shield the map, etc.), weird smokes or gases (almost anything to roll against, sometimes nothing to roll against), etc. to represent a hostile environment.

Why I like this:

It's unavoidable.

Lots of PCs get pretty blasé about combat. It's something their characters do well by design, often by basic game design (for example, a fighter in D&D-based games or knights in DF.) Unless a monster is tough enough to be a legitimate threat, a combat encounter probably just costs time and may not even cost significant (or any) resources.

Plus, combat is often avoidable. Run from the slow monsters. Hide from the one with poor senses. Talk to the one who doesn't want to die just because it ran into you on the way to the toilet.

But wandering damage of this kind isn't. It just happens unless you took precautions, such as anti-bug lotions, sealed armor, certain spells (-1 to all spells up per incidence of them), etc.

It's realistic.

All the armor in the world won't help you against a curious spider or annoyed ant if it's unsealed. Even if it is, unless you're breathing air through a filter you can still suck in something harmful. "I have plate armor!" shouldn't mean "So I'm immune to anything that causes less damage than I have DR." Sometimes the guy with scratchin' holes in his ratty shirt or who won't wear heavy armor is on to something - in certain places the real threats are the brown recluse who drops down on your neck during break, not the sword blow you fear you won't parry.

And this kind of stuff just happens in normal environments. In hostile ones, during travel, they're bound to happen more. They make the game feel more realistic, too - how come you fight giant ants but no one ever just gets bit by one?

It's funny.

Really, not much to say beyond that. "Your knight was bit by mosquitoes!" is pretty funny. Even dragon-slaying heroes step on the wrong spot and twist an ankle or get bit by a bug.

It's fast.

Resolution is quick. Roll, roll, the PC rolls, you describe, stuff happens, you keep moving. It doesn't take a lot of time to resolve. So you get a good bang-for-your-buck time wise.


  1. Contrarian:
    I don't think unavoidable is a virtue, and realism has its limits.

    Even as much as I consider myself an old school hard ass who runs games with the intent to challenge players, there is no meaningful challenge if there is no way to avoid something. If there was nothing I could do to avoid something, then the effort I'm making to be clever and work with my fellow players is worthless. So why try? Or even, why show up?

    Realism. As many have pointed out, we're playing pretend elf games with magic. I think realism's worth is mostly in guiding expectations: players need to understand at least vaguely how the world works in order to make meaningful and not random decisions in their attempts to overcome the challenges presented.

    But I don't disagree entirely with the concept of Wandering Damage on your encounter table. This is how I would implement something like this:

    1. Make the hazards a known possibility. Maybe they have to ask, or seek out a source of knowledge, but if mosquitoes are that dangerous of a hazard in the Swamp of Bad Badness, then a few drinks at ye old tavern will find someone complaining about them.
    2. Allow a possibility of a way to avoid the Wandering Damage but with a trade off. Maybe Alligator grease will prevent the mosquitoes from biting. But there's a risk to that, because Alligator grease attracts the Bugaboo beast, a different kind of challenge than the otherwise unavoidable mosquito swarm. Now players have a choice: mosquitoes or Bugaboo beast.

    Plenty of other ways for Wandering Damage to be avoided with cost: equipment and therefore encumbrance (warm clothes to avoid cold damage for instance, but the warm clothes are weight that reduces treasure recovery or even impairs maneuvering), resource consumption (lamp fuel, rations, etc), gold (just purchasing a means of avoiding the damage.)

    1. I don't disagree, really.

      I'll note that under unavoidable, I said, "It just happens unless you took precautions" - and gave examples of the same. By default, there is some understanding of precautions existing. People in my games don't always (in fact, infrequently) make efforts to take those precautions, and often depend on last-second wheedling ("I just assumed we all had charcoal, cheese cloth, and string to make filter masks in our generic Group Campaing Gear.")

      I didn't mention foreshadowing the possibilities. I generally telegraph them - I've gone as far as writing up nigh-unavoidable issues (FP loss from encumbrance, disease issues in jungles and swamps, waterlogged dungeons ala White Plume Mountain) in emails ahead of time and sending them to the players so they know how the rules work in this specific instance. Often this comes with very specific tradeoffs. For example, you can be less fatigued by travel if you go more slowly, rest more often, and wear lighter (or no) armor in the jungle. You can avoid the endless days of mosquito swarms by gaining proper Boating skills and learning - instead of defaulting - the right Survival skills. You can stay warm and avoid starting the game down FP and even injured by investing in winter clothes and not just assuming you'll be able to rest up once you get to the dungeon. And so on. I didn't go into this, because I was really just riffing off on the idea of why I put this stuff in my game and on my Wandering Monster tables, not going into depth on how to do it if you do, too.

      Sometimes, though, things are not avoidable, they are a cost of doing business. If you want the treasure in the poison-gas-filled building, you have to either suck up the cost in bad stuff or pay a cost in other resources to "avoid" it. You have a meaningful choice in leaving the treasure behind, of course, but like a lot of other things, some solutions don't get you what your character actually wants.

      Actually and just one further note, not really aimed at you but rather at everyone. I've very careful about my post labels. This one is GURPS, and assumes you're using GURPS rules. A lot of "Wandering Monster" encounters are not purely up to chance, but depend heavily on things like Survival skill rolls, player-decision-dependent modifiers (either positive or negative), PCs stats, and even very specific issues like transport mode (no one falls into pits when using everyone is using Levitation to move) or approach method (how fast are you traveling relative to max speed.) So it's not just "I rolled a 1 on a d12 this turn, then I rolled some damage." I'd implement this a bit differently if I was doing it in, say, 1st edition AD&D or 5th edition D&D, or Star Frontiers, or whatever else.

      So I'm really coming at this from the narrow angle of "why I do this in GURPS."


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