engine
 member, 445 posts
Wed 27 Sep 2017
at 20:54
Wandering Monsters
I know that wandering monster and random encounters have fallen a bit out of vogue over the decades and games and editions of those games. I certainly didn't understand them as a teenager in the early 90s. I assumed they were always meant to turn into combat, and a fight with 1d6+2 deer or 1d3 dryads didn't appeal to me. I figured that if I was going to ignore results on the table (and if I wasn't going to edit it or make my own) that I might as well not bother.

These days, I feel like I understand that wandering monsters weren't always meant as immediate calls for initiative. I think now that they were meant as flavor, to show how dangerous an area was and what was to be found there; and as time pressure to keep a party from just sitting around planning, resting, or preparing just the right spells; and as a way to be clever about picking one's battles.

So, I'm looking for advice on running them. Assume I have a table and that it tells me how often to roll.

How best to track time? One major thing I want to put pressure on is time spent on things like interrogating prisoners, or planning/discussion. "Talking" generally doesn't seem like it takes much time, so is there a way to gauge it and make wandering monster checks?

I don't ever recall seeing a lot of information about how much advance notice either the monsters or the party get. Some monsters would be on the hunt and be quieter. Some would be cautious and shy away from even a stealthy party. Some would just lumber about. Is it just a matter of studying the table and the particular roll and deciding case-by-case how much noise they're making or caution they're taking?

Along those same lines, unless it was "there are guards patrolling the halls," I don't recall seeing much about monster motivations. Again, I guess it's about knowing that, for instance, goblins are cowardly and dragons are greedy and a small group is defensive while a big group is bold. Still, I'd open to advice on this too.

And anything else anyone can offer, though with an eye toward making the concept work, rather than discouraging it. I recognize the downsides to it, so I'm looking for constructive advice rather than "just don't bother."
Justisaur
 member, 37 posts
 Dungeon Master since 1979
Wed 27 Sep 2017
at 23:34
Wandering Monsters
Depends on what game & edition.  For 1e AD&D for instance I'll roll a reaction adjusted by the highest or party leader cha and racial preferences if necessary.  Some creatures always attack (or run if outnumbered,) for instance orcs will always attack if there's elves in the party.

I also like to think or roll up a motivation for an encounter.  If it's deer, that's probably going to be eat/not be eaten, and is probably more an opportunity for the party to hunt and cook up a meal.  If you run across a bear, I'll roll a d6 for how hungry and desperate it is.  If you run across some wandering lizardmen I'll try to think of a reason they're there.  If there's nothing obvious, I've used the 3e 'adventure hooks' table to come up with a reason.   I've also made my own d30 table for what an encounter is doing with some twists I'm testing:

1 Hungry/hunting or foraging
2 Guarding
3 Injured
4 Sick
5 Rabies
6 Dead
7 Sign/Tracks
8 Quest (map or rumor of treasure or item)
9 Missionary (bringing word of a god)
10 Pilgrimage
11 Revenge
12 Patrolling/scouting (smaller part of larger group)
13 Selling/Buying
14 Fleeing
15 Arguing
16 Banditry
17 Toll
18 Aid
19 Raiding
20 Ransoming
21 Appeared out of nowhere
22 Lost
23 Turned to stone
24 Cursed
25 Walkabout
26 Insane
27 Gambling
28 Searching for lost person/item
29 Following/escaping prophecy
30 Escaping

I'll also note that Mentzer's commented he will often just say something like "You wipe out some goblins on the way" if he rolls some up when his very high level party are travelling.
Lord Gwydion
 member, 17 posts
Wed 27 Sep 2017
at 23:56
Wandering Monsters
Everything you need to answer those questions is provided in Classic D&D, too.

If you roll for a wandering monster/random encounter, it gives you a die roll to determine distance between parties, a surprise roll to see if either side catches the other off guard, and a reaction roll table to get an idea of how the monsters will react to the party. Oh, and morale checks to determine if they lose the will to keep fighting.

I've borrowed all of those into my 5E game and they're working well.
LonePaladin
 member, 648 posts
 Creator of HeroForge
Thu 28 Sep 2017
at 02:30
Wandering Monsters
Another ruleset that handles random encounters well is Rolemaster. It determines the chance on an encounter by making the PCs roll for how stealthy they are (affected by things like the group size and how fast they're going), while the GM makes an activity roll (modified by terrain and civilization levels). Basically, there's an encounter if the activity roll is higher.

Random encounters aren't just there as window dressing or a steady supply of combats. The point of random encounters is to challenge the GM. If a dungeon complex has every room fully described and stocked with critters, and they just sit there waiting for the PCs, it can be boring to run. But if there's a random chance at any time of having something come traipsing by, then the GM has to keep an eye out for that and be ready to run whatever turns up.

With some dungeons, the chance of a wandering encounter is checked on a regular basis (like once per turn or once per hour). Others use that, but also include an immediate check if the group does anything particularly noisy (like a loud battle, or falling down in plate armor). Some even go so far as to make a wandering encounter automatic with loud noise, which means some fight scenes immediately get harder.

Embrace randomness. There are plenty of tools online to streamline the process of rolling up random encounters. And run with whatever turns up -- it doesn't always have to be a combat, and those things that are looking for a fight don't have to be fair. If your 9th-level party runs into a goblin patrol, let them. Maybe they'll let them go by, or decide to slaughter them just to flex their muscles.

And if that 3rd-level party encounters a pack of trolls? Well, how it turns out depends on how much warning they get. If your PCs know this is a possibility, they should exercise caution when traveling.
engine
 member, 446 posts
Thu 28 Sep 2017
at 17:52
Wandering Monsters
Justisaur:
Depends on what game & edition.

The specifics do, sure. I'm thinking more generally. Full disclosure though: if I used this concept, it would be with 4th Edition D&D. I know that system well enough that I think it can work, but that why I'm asking for some clarification.

Justisaur:
For 1e AD&D for instance I'll roll a reaction adjusted by the highest or party leader cha and racial preferences if necessary.  Some creatures always attack (or run if outnumbered,) for instance orcs will always attack if there's elves in the party.

Okay, so you have a basic sense of the behavior of some creatures. Do you take this from their rules entry, or make it up based on your setting and the region, or what? Is it brief notes like "orcs hate elves" or do the behaviors get more involved?

Justisaur:
I also like to think or roll up a motivation for an encounter.

I think that's key. I think part of why wandering monsters became less of a thing is because the motivations either weren't there or didn't tie into anything or served to pull in a different direction from the "plot."

Justisaur:
I'll also note that Mentzer's commented he will often just say something like "You wipe out some goblins on the way" if he rolls some up when his very high level party are travelling.

I like that. It seems like it's all relative too. The high-level characters mop up some goblins, but the low-level characters might easily take care of some rabid dogs, or something.

Lord Gwydion:
Everything you need to answer those questions is provided in Classic D&D, too.

I believe that, I think I just didn't see them as a coherent whole back when I was using more classic stuff. Separately, it didn't make sense or seem fun to me.

Do you recommend a specific source for some good guidelines or examples?

Lord Gwydion:
If you roll for a wandering monster/random encounter, it gives you a die roll to determine distance between parties, a surprise roll to see if either side catches the other off guard, and a reaction roll table to get an idea of how the monsters will react to the party. Oh, and morale checks to determine if they lose the will to keep fighting.

One thing that worries me about wandering monsters since D&D 3.0 is how it should mesh with the skills that allow for detection. I'm concerned that I'll generate a distance between the parties and it will be within the range someone thinks they should have detected it. I can think of some general ways to handle that, but is there guidance in the rules anywhere, or does anyone have a good system they use?

LonePaladin:
But if there's a random chance at any time of having something come traipsing by, then the GM has to keep an eye out for that and be ready to run whatever turns up.

How do they make ready? Just have a good working knowledge of the creatures on the table?

LonePaladin:
With some dungeons, the chance of a wandering encounter is checked on a regular basis (like once per turn or once per hour). Others use that, but also include an immediate check if the group does anything particularly noisy (like a loud battle, or falling down in plate armor). Some even go so far as to make a wandering encounter automatic with loud noise, which means some fight scenes immediately get harder.

I like that approach more than time keeping. Using 4th edition, it could tie well to a skill challenge, I think.

LonePaladin:
Embrace randomness. There are plenty of tools online to streamline the process of rolling up random encounters.

Could you recommend some specific ones, either here or in a PM? I'll poke around too, but I haven't had much luck.

LonePaladin:
And run with whatever turns up -- it doesn't always have to be a combat, and those things that are looking for a fight don't have to be fair. If your 9th-level party runs into a goblin patrol, let them. Maybe they'll let them go by, or decide to slaughter them just to flex their muscles.

I think I'd generally want my tables not to roll up additional fights, because that's part of what turned me off them originally. I'd much rather that it was an interesting and perhaps very quick situation. If I roll "red dragon" on the table, I assume I can determine exactly what that means. Maybe they see it overhead and have a chance to try to hide from it, but if it sees them it just takes note, roards and flies on. It's got a life, after all. Or, it's feeding, or caught in a trap, or wounded after killing some other group of adventurers. Or, I roll "red dragon" and what shows up is a wandering sorcerer (the dragon in disguise) who scopes the party out, or even offers them a job. Is that still in the spirit of the concept?

LonePaladin:
And if that 3rd-level party encounters a pack of trolls? Well, how it turns out depends on how much warning they get. If your PCs know this is a possibility, they should exercise caution when traveling.

I think this is another reason why wandering monsters are less popular. I remember seeing a table with "1d4 cockatrices" as a possible outcome. I looked up what cockatrices could do and decided I didn't ever want to use them, let alone as something that might just pop up randomly in the middle of a cool and waste the whole party, or enough of the PCs to take the wind out of everyone's sails. If everyone is prepared for high character turn-over (or I can think of something interesting for cockatrices to be doing other than attacking the party) that's something else, but at least in my younger days that was never the case.

Thanks for the advice and feedback. I'm open to more on this topic, if anyone has it.
Justisaur
 member, 41 posts
 Dungeon Master since 1979
Thu 28 Sep 2017
at 22:40
Wandering Monsters
I've run 4e, so I'm familiar enough with it. :)  There's a lot of great stuff in the 4e DMG.

The general motivations like 'orcs hate elves' would come from the descriptions of the monsters in the Monster Manual mostly, but can be changed or expanded from setting and other sources.  With 4e, it's still D&D so you can use the 'fluff' from other editions, ecology of the x from dragon magazines, etc.

One can also use resources for NPC personalities (there's probably at least one in every edition) and apply them generally to a particular encounter.

For instance I just rolled up an encounter with orcs.  Well a quick search for NPC personality generators for 4e came up with this:

https://www.kassoon.com/dnd/npc-generator/

So I use it and ignore the fact I got an elf, and the stats but go off some key points in the description.  Scrawny but still well muscled.  Wears brown.  Bricklayers.  Female.  So I have a group of female orc bricklayers wearing very dirty brown clothes.

Now I might extrapolate - they've escaped the oppression of their tribe, and are trying to find some honest work, perhaps there's a band who's after them, or maybe they got kicked out and haven't eaten in a long time.

That's probably a lot more effort than I'd put into most random encounters, but I got that quickly from a roll on that generator and some quick off the top of my head ideas.
---

For encounter distances, in 3e they had an option that you have each party roll perception and that's the distance in 10's of feet each becomes aware of the other.  If one party is being stealthy, you subtract their stealth roll or score from that.  You'd also adjust for terrain, & visibility, though they could hear each other further than they can see in most instances underground.  I found that works pretty well.

For 1e there's set distances for each type of terrain, with surprise being 10-30'

---

Usually for wandering monsters in dungeons they are meant to be encounters you fight.  They're typically from a small custom chart of things that live in or are exploring the dungeon.  They're meant to provide time pressure and verisimilitude, so that if the party is screwing around, searching too thoroughly, or making a lot of noise they're logical respondents from other parts of the dungeon that will alert other rooms and fight the PCs... usually.

If you're making you own dungeon I'd suggest a making a small chart of between 6 to 20 encounters of things that may be wandering around in the dungeon, and throw 1 or 2 things in that aren't in the dungeon but just wandered in.  One can also mark things off of existing rooms, or the encounter chart as they're encountered.   Taking for instance a small orc enclave, you might have 1-3 be orc patrols, which can also respond to alerts in the dungeon, 4 is a dire wolf that got loose with its orc master in tow, 5 is a swarm of rats, 6 is a slave servant carrying food or refuse.

I'm pretty lose with the time keeping myself, and follow another suggestion I've read in the old school days, which is basically you start rolling dice for encounter checks or just have one automatically when the PCs are boring you or doing one of those things above.

Wilderness encounters are more like what I described to begin with, where you have no idea what's there, and it's just something they run into on the way to somewhere else that may or may not be friendly or indifferent.  They're can be a fight, but they may just provide some punctuation and atmosphere to what would otherwise be a short description of the travel "You travel from the shire to Moria."

I've run whole very long campaigns of what was essentially travelling around to some eventual goal that were about 90% random wilderness and road encounters, the campaign was actually rather fun compared to the typical dungeon crawl too.
Fyrerain
 member, 80 posts
Fri 29 Sep 2017
at 00:07
Wandering Monsters
I look at party level (not throwing cockatrices at a low-level party, but a dragon... maybe!), the environment, and the area. Some things, they'll need to run away from. Other things may or may not be a threat, depending on their reactions.

Most things wandering in a dungeon should already live in it somewhere (I'm big on rational dungeon residents; it's not anything goes in there). If there's more than one evil race, why are they co-habitating in the dungeon? Unified under a BBG? One side's invading to rout out the other race(s) and claim the dungeon for themselves?

Outside, the level of local civilization should mediate results, although there's always a chance that something is exploring the area looking for a new lair, or traveling between points A and B. Or it's a scouting party planning an invasion... or the remnants of a hunting party fleeing something that attacked them, and drove them in the wrong direction. They may be goblins or gnolls, but want to avoid a fight despite that, if they're only there because they have bigger problems.

Motivation is important. Most animals are likely to run on sight and only fight if forced to (unless someone is magically controlling them). In that case, the PCs only see them fleeing, unless they somehow managed to gain surprise. And then the critters flee the next round. If a bear attacks "randomly," look for the cubs it's protecting; even predators aren't likely to attack more than a solo PC, unless there's magical control or disease involved. A group of people aren't an easy meal, so normal predators won't waste the energy. Of course, maybe the animal is encountered because it's dead, in which case, how did it die, how recently, and is the killer still around?

Flying animals can be glimpsed flying by overhead (suggesting there's perhaps a nesting area/lair within a day's flight), or maybe they're on the ground grazing/eating a kill. Pegasi will likely fly off if encountered, but a griffon or hippogriff or dragon would probably defend its kill. Go around, and everyone's fine; challenge it, and there's a fight.

A beast/monster encountered might be wounded... or fighting with another creature... breeding... cavorting in a pool of water... stalking another creature, and the PCs just interrupted its hunt (likely allowing the prey to escape).

For NPCs, maybe they're in the midst of a ritual (seasonal or a special occasion -- maybe the caster(s) are busy summoning something baneful down on some NPC the party's never heard of -- yet!), maybe there's an interrogation going on (who are the good guys and bad guys, though?), someone hunting someone else (escaped slave/murderer/kidnap victim), a secret bargain being made (a traitor betraying someone, buying someone off?), a survivor of some attack, or someone who just slaughtered the family in the campsite just over the next hill, who pretends to be a survivor of it....

As for distance and surprise, that depends entirely on the environment, the encounter, and if the PCs and/or the encounter are making an effort to move quietly, or are naturally quiet -- although even a group in plate mail can surprise anyone at a waterfall, or near rapids; water can be tremendously noisy, and everything but undead stop to get a drink.

I recently had a group randomly encounter a dragonet. They were caravan guards. Unknown to them, it scented gems hidden in one of the wagons. It just watched them go by during the day, but secretly followed. And that night, it snuck into the wagon to try and dig the gems out, a noise which they heard on their watch. They wisely rousted another shift before confronting the chirping, hissing creature under the tarp... then they, and all the NPCs as well, failed saves vs. the breath weapon. The dragonet escaped while everyone was rolling around on the ground laughing hysterically -- although they had interrupted before it got to the gems (which they still don't know about). I'd rolled an exotic encounter, got a dragonet, and it all evolved from the dragonet's nature after that.
StarMaster
 member, 279 posts
Sat 30 Sep 2017
at 02:17
Wandering Monsters
The problem I always had with random encounters was that I suddenly had to figure out the monster's stat while in the middle of an adventure. In a face-to-face game, that tended to slow things down considerably... while you figure them out, the players can eat lunch.

If you figure out the stats ahead of time, it's not quite random, is it?

Remember, too, that a random encounter doesn't have to be a creature at all. It can be weather, or ruins, or a bridge out.

What I tend to do is figure out what things exist in a particular region. If orcs are known to be around, then that's a possible encounter. I don't need a list of 20 such encounters... just 3-4 works fine. Use a file card to jot down stats ahead of time.

As for motivation, for the most part it's as simple as 'why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.' That is, the monster is simply trying to get from Point A to Point B. If you feel there should be more, make a note of 3-4 'motivations' on the file card, and if that encounter shows up, pick one that makes sense. Orcs don't need any more motivation than they want to fight. For the most part, battle is its own reward for them, though they expect to get some loot for their troubles. That holds true for most monsters.

Animals and non-intelligent monsters are usually just looking for food. The solution to the encounter then might just be to offer them food. No combat necessary.
Justisaur
 member, 42 posts
 Dungeon Master since 1979
Tue 3 Oct 2017
at 21:16
Wandering Monsters
I prefer systems where figuring out the monster's stats doesn't take very long.  I usually spent less than 5 minutes doing that for most encounters in D&D, there's tools to help with that too.  NPC party encounters can take a long time though, especially in 3.x D&D.

I do find that random encounters go better if you do pregen all that stuff about them though.

They're still random even if you have all the stats for a party of mercenary orcs but that's just one entry on a list of 20 different possible encounters.
evileeyore
 member, 18 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
Wed 4 Oct 2017
at 01:47
Wandering Monsters
If you have a list of potential monsters why haven't you figured them out in advance.

The list ain't gonna change before play...
LoreGuard
 member, 651 posts
Wed 4 Oct 2017
at 14:01
Wandering Monsters
Yes, random wandering monsters doesn't mean you don't have details worked out ahead of time.  However, I'm all for retaining flexibility in application.

Random means that the different encounters may or may not happen, and may occur in a variety of orders, not necessarily 'encounter 1', then 'encounter 2', and then 'encounter 3'.  If that is what is prescribed, and there is just a random roll to determine when your story progresses to the next encounter, that isn't a wandering monster.

Wandering monsters present a flavor for different 'regions' of an area.  It helps people realize if they have entered a more dangerous region, before they hit one of the big bad's in that area's lairs, for instance.

But I certainly feel that having the 'chart' having the stat block for the 'creatures' encountered and an expected quantity of them would be there.  [although the GM can fudge that based on what seems appropriate at the moment]  Some encounters, like someone mentioned, don't have to be creatures, they could be weather, situation, or event based.  Also, having some expectations would certainly be good to have pre-canned for your encounter table.  However, you don't necessarily want to go into immense detail, as any particular random encounter may never happen. So having the family tree all planned out for each bandit is normally going too far for a particular bandit group.  However, knowing what faction a particular group might be from, might be worthwhile.

If you have an orc encounter on your table, and your PCs just wiped out the Orc tribe, you could adjust it, either eliminating the encounter (potentially giving them XP bonus for dealing with a threat ahead of time) or instead of an Orc raiding party, you make it a party of refugee orc women and children.  Another option would be, if the orc's had been raiding merchants on the road hurting trade, if you roll orc after that, have it be a merchant caravan, freed from the threat of orc raiders now.  [or it could be an Orc hero attempting to avenge his tribe's slaughter by the evil adventurer murder hobos]
engine
 member, 456 posts
Wed 4 Oct 2017
at 17:35
Wandering Monsters
I notice that "wandering monster" and "random encounter" get used interchangeably. I think that was part of my confusion years ago: I tended to assume that a "monster" meant a fight, and so an encounter had to be a fight too. I used the term "wandering monster" because I had recently looked at some tables that were nothing but monsters, rather than things like "caravan" or "old hag."

I appreciate everyone's responses, and I'm open for whatever anyone else can offer. One thing I think I'm getting from this though is that the GM should feel free to interpret the result of a "wandering monster" (or "random encounter") roll very liberally. "Red dragon" doesn't mean that a red dragon appears and has a fight. That's what it means in video games, because they're more limited. But in an actual game, it could mean coming upon the signs of a red dragon (a foot print, a claw mark, some fewmets), hearing it, hearing about it, dealing with something it has caused (a forest fire, a bridge collapse, a stampede). Rolling "orcs" after the orcs have been wiped out could mean coming across unlooted bodies left when orc raiders either ran to defend the clan or fled from rumors of its destruction, or an orc camp or lookout post that has been abandoned.

Basically, it only has to turn into a fight when the GM thinks it's appropriate. If the PCs have been hunting some bandits and the bandits are spoiling for a fight, then rolling "bandits" is probably a fight. Otherwise, it might be, or it might not, and the bandits and the PCs might not even actually run into each other at that time. If the PCs have been making noise and wasting time, then rolling "umber hulk" probably means rolling initiative, otherwise it might just mean hearing strange sounds and rumblings.
Fyrerain
 member, 81 posts
Wed 4 Oct 2017
at 23:27
Wandering Monsters
Okay, here's a couple entries from one of my wandering monster charts (2e) (outdoors/daytime/hilly forest area/moderately civilized [on the edge of it])

Monster (# appearing)/Stats/Reaction/XP)

Hawk (1-2)/HD1, AC6, THAC019, Dam 1-2/1-2/1/Harmless if left alone, will fly away if attacked/65

Humans, Hunters from Kettledon (2-5)/Hp1-6, AC8, THAC020, Dam by weapon/They're hunting deer, boar, or small mammals for food and pelts. They are armed with bows, spears, slings and knives and wear leather armor. They will help an injured party return to Kettledon, but know nothing useful about the Raimos estate or the brigands./15 ea

Kobolds (3-12)/HD1/2, AC7, THAC020, Dam 1-6/Armed with hand axes, clubs, short swords, javelins, and spears; Will ambush any groups they outnumber by at least 2:1 and let larger ones pass by, will run if detected and outnumbered/7 ea

Wild Boar (1-6)/HD3+3, AC7, THAC019, Dam 3-12/Harmless if left alone, will charge if provoked/175

Enough info to run a fight spur of the moment if I need it (I'll roll hp on the fly; first time a target's hit, I roll its hp, then track from there), not so much I've wasted a lot of time prepping an encounter that may never happen. And I include the XP just so I don't have to look it up again, if it does become a conflict.

If I'd rolled up a brigand encounter (on the evening & night charts), I refer to my table of brigands detailed out with race, hp, varied AC & weaponry, and personal loot. Since ultimately the party's going to go up against the brigands, I know I'll use the list, so I invested the time in it. In a random encounter, I take them off the top of the list, and scratch them off as they are killed or captured -- and the group of brigands will be smaller by those individuals when that confrontation finally happens.