Monday, February 24, 2020

In Which Gygax Gets Disenchanted with Wandering Monsters

Here's the standard rule for wandering monsters in OD&D Vol-3 (1974), p. 10; underlined emphasis by me:

Wandering Monsters: At the end of every turn 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. The direction of appearance is determined by random number generation considering the number of possible entries. Distance and surprise are decided in the usual manner. The kind of monster is determined on the table below... 

Recall that in these rules, one exploratory turn is meant to be 10 minutes. So that's quite a few wandering monsters; we expect one every hour of in-game time at that rate. Now let's fast forward to the AD&D DMG (1979), p. 9, in the first section of "Introduction":

The final word, then, is the game. Read how and why the system is as if is, follow the parameters, and then cut portions as needed to maintain excitement. For example, the rules call for wandering monsters, but these can be not only irritating - if not deadly - but the appearance of such con actually spoil a game by interfering with an orderly expedition You have set up an area full of clever tricks and traps, populated it with well-thought-out creature complexes, given clues about it to pique players’ interest, and the group has worked hard to supply themselves with everything by way of information and equipment they will need to face and overcome the imagined perils. They are gathered together and eager to spend an enjoyable evening playing their favorite game, with the expectation of going to a new, strange area and doing their best to triumph. They are willing to accept the hazards of the dice, be it loss of items, wounding, insanity, disease, death, as long as the process is exciting. But lo!, everytime you throw the "monster die" a wandering nasty is indicated, and the party’s strength is spent trying to fight their way into the area. Spells expended, battered and wounded, the characters trek back to their base. Expectations have been dashed, and probably interest too, by random chance. Rather than spoil such an otherwise enjoyable time, omit the wandering monsters indicated by the die. No, don’t allow the party to kill them easily or escape unnaturally, for that goes contrary to the major precepts of the game. Wandering monsters, however, are included for two reasons, as is explained in the section about them. If a party deserves to have these beasties inflicted upon them, that is another matter, but in the example above it is assumed that they are doing everything possible to travel quickly and quietly to their planned destination. If your work as a DM has been sufficient, the players will have all they can handle upon arrival, so let them get there, give them a chance. The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play.

In summary: an extended a harangue about what a bad idea randomly-generated wandering monsters are. Note the passage references the fact that, "Wandering monsters, however, are included for two reasons, as is explained in the section about them" -- but as far as I can tell, there isn't any section in the book which gives a standard process for checking for wandering monsters (nor any explanation of "two reasons" for them).

This is one of many cases in the transition from OD&D to AD&D in which it's easy to recreate Gary's brain saying, "I'm pretty sure I wrote a rule for that somewhere, right?", with the answer being, "Yes, back in OD&D". Recall the "presumed axiom" understood by Gygax & co., as shared by Frank Mentzer last year:

Presumed Axiom: 1e rules set should expand upon, and not directly contradict, 0e rules.

Anyway, what can we deduce about the rule for AD&D dungeon wandering monsters? Despite the preceding, and without any explicit written rule section in the DMG, looking at a parenthetical aside in the example of play it seems that a change has indeed been made, on p. 98:

(Here, as about 3 turns have elapsed, the DM rolls a d6 to see if a 'wandering monster' appears; the resulting 5 indicates none.)

That is; the checks for wandering monsters have been reduced by a factor of 3. Over the course of a 4-hour adventuring session (say), instead of expecting 4 wandering monsters encounters , now we would only expect around 1. It's a little odd that Gygax didn't call out this change clearly as a rule; perhaps he felt somehow constrained by the "presumed axiom" that it prevented him from doing so.

Interestingly, the earlier Holmes Basic D&D rules (1977) feature the same rule, on p. 10:

At the end of each three turns the Dungeon Master can roll a die to see if a wandering monster has come down the corridor. A roll of 6 means that something has come "strolling" along.

Zenopus Archives informs us that this rule is unchanged between Holmes' initial draft manuscript, and Gygax's later editorial pass. So who initiated this revision? Did Gygax somehow inform Holmes about it, or did Holmes invent it and prompted Gygax to follow suit, or something else?

(Side note: Commentator Chris reminds me that the DMG Random Dungeon Generation has a 1-in-20 chance of a wandering monster per periodic check on Appendix A: Table I. If one roll is made per turn, then that's again roughly equivalent to the 1-in-6 chance every 20/6 ≈ 3 turns.)

Personal opinion: This aspect of Gygax's curating of the rules, as seen in the long DMG p. 9 warning -- "here is the rule, but the rule is bad, so it should be disregarded" -- is probably my least favorite of all gestures that he makes. If we find from experience that a rule is not working satisfactorily, then fix it until it does. Spending time and space making excuses for it, or saying that good DMs can be expected to compensate for it, is not productive. The "presumed axiom" perhaps inculcated too much conservatism in what could have been an opportunity for smart edits in other places from more play experience.

47 comments:

  1. DMG pg 9 is a big piece of why I'm skeptical about taking anything in that book at face value. In the span of one section, Gygax goes from saying following all the rules is critical for uniformity between campaigns to saying ignore rules and fudge dice rolls to suit what you think would be best(*). Future statements (apologizing for the confusion about time rules, expressing regret about making up the ghastly unarmed combat rules at someone else's request) and revelations that some sections were written by others without credit compound my skepticism. It's a good source of tables (aside from certain problematic ones), but I don't look to it for much else these days.

    (*): What I find especially funny about the particular section of pg 9 you quoted is he says the players are "willing to accept the hazards of the dice". Somehow jumping from that to the conclusion that a run of bad dice luck would ruin their experience seems quite a stretch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know, that's a really clear formulation of something I don't think I've ever managed to express so well. Likewise on the same page in the first paragraph under "The Game", one can read both that realism has been attempted and that it hasn't. You've got a great point there with Gygax's philosophical-framework-of-the-game writings.

      Delete
  2. Another reason to prefer B/X over AD&D :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I tend to love the discrepancies and dichotomies found in AD&D, as it provides a lot of fertile ground for imagination. By the same token, I can understand how frustrating it might be!

    I've been digging a bit through the various supplements and even magazines to see if there's any indication of when Gary changed his mind. Interestingly, "Greyhawk" Supp I doesn't note this change, so apparently Gary thought it was just fine.

    Tekumel/EPT published in 1975 had wandering monsters checked every turn. Not that Gary had any editing input in that, but the original idea seems to have stuck, perhaps?

    He also didn't mention it one way or the other in Europa 6-8, his article on how to create campaigns (and dungeons). https://archive.org/details/Europa_6-8-1975-04/page/n19/mode/2up

    Fascinating bit to pick up on!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for checking in those places!

      I waver between wishing that some sticky issues had been ironed out at the outset (namely my top 5 house rules: scale, silver standard, etc.), and thinking that all the ambiguous cracked spots are what has kept people's attention toward finding ways to fill them.

      Delete
  4. There were a lot of hands in assembling, codifying, writing, and editing the DMG content---see TD #22's "Sneak Preview: AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide" for a long discussion about it.

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, Allan -- Maybe you mean some other article? That one in particular is just the combat tables & some magic items from the DMG.

      I do feel like the two sections I quoted above really sound like Gygax's "voice" to me, FWIW.

      Delete
    2. Ooops, it's TD#28's "The Dungeon Master's Guide Developer Notes" article. Mixed 'em up!

      Allan.

      Delete
    3. That's a great article, I've scoured it in the past for quotes and tidbits (and just found a new one, too). I don't suppose you can point to the passage you're thinking of?

      Delete
  5. I've tried playing with one encounter check per turn; and it can absolutely derail an entire session with combat. I've also tried playing without wandering monsters, and it can lead to long slow periods where only one or two people are interacting and interested in the game.

    Given that it's about the flow of the game, I wonder if a real-world time approach would be justified. Like having a timer beep every 10 or 15 minutes to let you know to roll a wandering monster check. That would also provide players with a sense of urgency about their actions and discussions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's almost exactly what I've done for the last 2 years; tracking real 15 minutes visually on my watch, and sometimes announcing that the players have 5 min to the next check or something. (Paul S. tried playing like that with a sandglass timer, but it tends to get thrown off when someone forgets to flip it over or time jumps forward or something like that.)

      Delete
  6. I use the by turn rolling but have one change. I roll an extra d6 1-2 Something odd occurs 3-4 Environmental hazard of some sort 5-6 Monster. So things are going on, sometimes its monsters, sometimes the roof falls on your head, or sometimes you hear ghostly whispers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is also really good for wilderness adventure travel. I've had players fall into a dungeon that I then create on the fly with dungeon dice, or find an empty monster lair and start looting it only for the monsters to randomly return. I've even had players swept downriver a hex at an unexpected flooded stream.

      Delete
    2. Slightly similar: I have real monster on the "6" and tend to have near-miss on a "5" (sound clue in the distance, etc.)

      Delete
  7. As DM, I struggle to keep accurate track of turns when players are exploring. I roll either every 15 minutes of real time or when the group starts dithering around. Or if they do something loud or obnoxious to attract attention to themselves. Works for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Real 15 minutes is also what I've done for a number of years -- easy to visually track on my analog watch. CountingWizard above also suggested that. (Double-checking that I didn't say that in the article.) I agree that feels like a good duration.

      Delete
  8. I use wandering monsters like this: The monsters in a dungeon are listed in the key, in the rooms where they are "intended" to be encountered. If there is a wandering monster indicated, it is a monster wandering from its indicated location in the key, from a nearby room--I admit here (not to my players!) to fudging which one. But monsters killed in the hallway means less monsters in rooms.

    Like Chris, I just sorta do it when the players start losing focus or when I think about it. Or certainly if they start bickering.

    Sometimes, I have mapped out the dungeon's "pattern of life," and the monsters have a routine that they go through. For example, "The Lizard Men at 7 move to the pool at 10 once every day in the am to feed on the abundant cave fish that can be found there." In such cases the monsters aren't "wandering" so much as they're moving according to plan.

    As for Gygax's DMG p.9 "harangue," I am fond of his pronouncements. I find them erudite, humane, and empowering--on the whole encouraging the DM to err on the side of the game. Does that mean to the benefit of an individual player? Certainly not. But to the benefit of the game and the campaign? Yes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's an attractive approach (wandering from nearby room depending on PC location). Downside might be that the DM needs near-total memory of complex room occupants, which in a complicated dungeon I might not have myself. That's Arneson's suggestion for wilderness encounters in FFC, and I've been a bit burned in the last year by how infeasibly complicated that was (need recall of lairs in every hex).

      Delete
    2. The Alexandrian site discusses this approach in depth in e.g. https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/38547/roleplaying-games/the-art-of-the-key-part-4-adversary-rosters

      Delete
    3. Thanks for the link. I've tried using monster rosters in the past (for a few years), but it really didn't go well for me, so I abandoned it.

      The bit about trying to avoid adjacent non-sequential room keys is a good one, I think.

      Delete
  9. With regard to your last paragraph:

    Personally, I think there's an awful lot to be said for at least trying the rules as they stand, to see how they work out in actual play (rather than just on the page).

    But I think that there's absolutely nothing to be said for sticking with a rule that is found to be 'bad' (as defined by the group at the table) rather than taking steps to excise or fix it. Especially at this point decades later, when the notion of one 'golden' set of rules that exists at every table no longer holds.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well.. okay, maybe "absolutely nothing" is too extreme. But not much.

      :)

      Delete
    2. You wound me with the "no golden set" observation, but other than that I fully agree. :-)

      Delete
  10. Jeez. Louise.

    I have so many thoughts on this one. I just don't have time to write them all up in a coherent fashion at the moment.

    Maybe this could be another topic of discussion for the Wandering DMs...?
    ; )

    ReplyDelete
  11. I hear a lot about how wandering monsters can wreck the story, but I think they get a bad rap and are a really useful tool when used properly, and used properly the frequency of checks would depend on the location and the environment conditions, not just a global turn count.
    I've seen a lot of adventures with special wandering monster tables for different areas (or times - think day vs night) and I think this is the way to do it. You can say a forest is more dangerous than a road but its better to have a couple good tables for monster encounters to back that up. I think this is a really good way to give players some choices as long as you telegraph the odds with local legends or warnings on a map. Players might get lucky taking the shortcut through the dangerous swamp, but then again they might not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wandering monsters are great! (though I always preferred calling them "random encounter" since "wandering monster" sounds too much like a CRPG pop-up fight) As you say, varying the frequency/likelihood and encounter lists can back up the talk of how safe/dangerous an area is. People worry too much about them disrupting a planned story instead of using them as an opening to inject a syringe full of story right into the PCs' faces.

      Delete
    2. Absolutely! One of the things that's increased my comfort with them is to look at the OD&D rulebook tables as specific to the Castle Greyhawk dungeon environment. They should absolutely reflect and inform the immediate environment, no doubt.

      Delete
  12. Wandering Monsters are absolutely one of the best elements of original D&D. Yes, wandering monsters can absolutely derail an adventure or campaign. That's only important though if the adventure or campaign is on rails in the first place.

    Whitebox D&D says to roll for a wandering monster encounter once per turn, and the Holmes blue book says once every three turns.

    I have always went with the Wilderness rules though, even in the dungeon, and roll for a random encounter once in the morning, once in the afternoon, once in the evening, and once in the dead of night. With a 1 in 6 chance of having an encounter, this averages out to an extra encounter about once every two days or so.

    Of course there are variables which would up the frequency, if the party is especially noisy, arguing, or fighting for example, that would draw more random monsters. If the party is using lots of lights or is traveling in an area with a large quantity of monsters (Like in an orc tribe cavern and cave complex, for example), then I would up the frequency, and roll for encounters once per turn.

    It all depends on the situation, and how the dungeon is constructed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. GameDaddy, I completely agree. I wish I could remember the article that lauded the narrative power of dice. My campaign has benefitted from it for sure.

      In the game I'm running for my family, they're doing a significant cross wilderness trek. I'm rolling the encounters by the book, and it comes up Green Dragon. But the distance is sufficiently far away and they have two Rangers out front so they can--and wisely do--avoid. A Green Dragon in the open can be a pretty fearsome opponent.

      Later, another wandering monster is indicated by the dice. The dice indicate Pseudo Dragon. The reaction roll is 00. Completely unplanned for--1 in 10 for a wandering monster, 2 in 100 chance for it to be a Pseudo Dragon, and 00 is obviously 1 in 100--a 1 in 50,000 chance.

      Now, I had to say "Uh, this is a good time to take a break" while I figured things out, but because I'm a DM, I put Green Dragon and Pseudo Dragon together and said, "Oh, here's a side quest." It was easy to conclude that this Pseudo Dragon wasn't a fan of this oafish Green Dragon roaming about and saw the characters as a means to improve the neighborhood. And it was great. I had a whole session where the players analyzed the situation and their chances, and coming up with tactics. And it was all born out of dice rolls.

      One thing I love about letting the dice make some decisions is that I as the DM have the fun of not knowing what's going to happen next. I get to laugh as crazy things happen, and describe them to the party, and I also can say to my players that the campaign's not on rails--because anything can happen.

      Delete
    2. Great lessons there. Accepting the surprise from dice is critical. Maybe the best lesson: taking a short break to think things through when something really super weird pops up.

      Delete
  13. ...Oh, and in my dungeons wandering monsters don't just attack the players, they'll need a reaction roll vs. the other denizens of the dungeons as well. I have players often interrupt another fight already in progress as the result of a wandering monster encounter roll.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's nice, too. Fairly recently I committed to checks every 15 min real-time, including during fights, so as to maybe see this happen sometimes.

      Delete
  14. I wonder also if this is a consequence of shifting play styles. We've seen how sparse his early Greyhawk maps were in terms of set encounters - in a game like that, wandering monsters would be essential. But when you start moving to smaller dungeons with more designed encounters, they do become a hindrance.

    ReplyDelete
  15. If you roll wandering monster checks at regular intervals real-time, how do you account for PC speed? Slower PCs ought to get more frequent checks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, that's an interesting question that I suppose I flat-out hadn't considered. I think I'm more interested in having the exploration speed be at the rate of player decision-making (i.e., incentivize quick reaction time). The PC speed is key in encounter/pursuit situations and I guess at the moment that seems sufficient to me. (May need to reflect more on that.)

      Delete
    2. I think if I checked numbers the realistic PC exploration speeds that we've had are always faster than player decision-making to date.

      Delete
    3. Fair enough, I will have to try real-time checks sometime. In the past I have placed wandering monster checkpoints on the map and increased the chance of encounter based on the party's movement rate. Something to consider if you'd like the PCs to really think twice about loading themselves up with more treasure.

      Delete
    4. It's a totally a fair point. For some reason for the last 2 years it seems like every PC is at the 9" move rate so I've actually started to forget about the possibility for variation there.

      Delete
  16. I use poker chips to track turns in the dungeon. I alternate 5 white and green chips, each representing 1 turn (wgwgw). After the last white chip I add a red chip to the bottom of the stack (representing an hour passed) and start over with the white and green chips. This gives me an easy way to track time in the dungeon.

    When a green chip comes up the pcs roll for a wandering monster check. When a red chip comes up, torches burn out and another wandering check.

    A wandering monster doesn't mean an encounter. Depending on the encounter distance the 'monster' may choose to avoid any contact (monsters with infra vision never being surprised in the open by pcs with light). What each wandering monster group is doing is based on context and location. If they do encounter each other, a reaction roll is made.

    I also make the pcs roll a wandering monster roll whenever they argue, do something 'loud', and after the 3rd or subsequent round of combat.


    The wandering monster check serves two purposes. It puts a time pressure on the pcs. It also creates additional pressure in combat to finish fights quickly.

    I make the pcs roll to emphasize that the passage of time equals additional risk. It has made them move quickly, avoid arguing in the dungeon, and try to avoid combat through negotiation, bribery, guile, and intimidation. They know that they cannot search every square inch of every room without risking danger.

    This also means that every delve has to have a focus. Get in, get your goal (even if that goal is explore a portion of the area) and get out. It warms this old DMs heart to see them sweat as they make the final few rolls to make it out of the dungeon without an encounter; bloodied, laden with loot, and spells depleted. Combined with xp for gold, it makes every delve a deadly chess match. Do they risk one more room to find that big score, or save up their dwindling resources to make out without a loss.

    I used to question the wandering monster roll back in the old ad&d days as well (for the dungeon - always loved outdoor encounters). Since I started playing again and understanding the 'role of the roll', I swear by it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing that! Love the sound of the action at your table. I agree that wandering monsters are the very best, most elegant way to add real tension to the dungeon experience. You can feel the energy rise when I make a roll for it. Also I require checks (for me, one per level) on the way out for similar purposes.

      Delete
  17. I often lose track of exact turns and also agree 1 in 6 is way too many. I've found it easier to just roll 1d20 with a wandering monster on a "1" every turn.

    That gives frequency similar to 1/6 every three turns without the mental overhead of remembering to do something different every third turn.

    If the PCs do something egregious (like drop a bucket down an empty well in the mines of moria) I always reserve the right to roll a d6.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's not bad, and it reminds me that's actually how it functions in the DMG Random Dungeon Generation (Appendix A, Table I: Periodic Check).

      Delete
  18. I replied this late. But I think is a fact interesting to mention

    Mike Carr in In Search of the Unknown says:

    "Every third turn of adventuring, the DM should take a die roll for the possible appearance of wandering monsters at the indicated chances (which are normally 1 in 6, but which may vary depending upon location and dungeon level). Some occurrences (such as noise and commotion caused by adventurers) may necessitate additional checks."

    He was the DMG editor and player with Arneson and Gygax. Maybe this and Holmes is codified from practice in their games. I don't think is a disenchantment from Gygax with wandering monsters, only a less cumbersome way.

    In the City section, he says the rule like it is there somewhere:

    "Check for encounters every three turns as normally, or otherwise as desired." (p. 190)

    Probably Gygax thought he had put this rule somewhere and disappeared in the final product edited by Carr.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those are good catches, thanks for those!

      Delete