his morning I asked my family what I should write about for Wandering Monsters this week. Flippantly, they suggested that I write about wandering monsters. And I thought, "Hey, that's not a bad idea . . ."
Encounter as Story
One of the things that has been stressed at various times and in various places in the history of D&D is that encounters within an adventure should have a purpose—they should advance the story of the adventure in some way. Sometimes, for better or for worse, that purpose ends up being "to get the adventurers more XP and treasure." But in a really well-crafted adventure, every encounter has a reason for being, even if it's not immediately obvious to the players.
At the very least, as described in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide II, "Viewed as part of a larger story, a great encounter has three key ingredients."
. It builds on what the characters have learned in past encounters and previous game sessions.
. The characters must try to accomplish a specific task.
. The characters might easily accomplish the objective, barely succeed, or fail entirely. However the encounter resolves, the outcome matters and relates to later encounters.
To take an example entirely at random, because the original Ravenloft adventure has been on my mind lately, let's look at Lief Lipsiege, Strahd's accountant.
Dusty scrolls and tomes line the walls of this room and are scattered across the floor. In the center of all this clutter stands a huge accountant's desk. A figure crouches atop a tall stool, scratching a seemingly endless scroll of paper with a dry quill pen. A rope hangs next to the creature from a hole in the ceiling.
K30. Office of the King's Accountant
The figure is Lief Lipsiege, an accountant. He is chained to the desk and has no interest in the PCs or their concerns. Under no circumstances will he voluntarily leave this room. Lief will pull the rope whenever he feels threatened.
Lief was pressed into service by Strahd ages ago. Lief keeps all the books for Strahd, recording his riches and conquests. Lief has been here longer than he can remember. He is grumpy because the Count does not allow him to know about all of the treasures. Still, Lief found out where one of the treasures lies. Lief will, if treated with kindness, tell the PCs the exact location of the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Lipsiege will draw a crude map of how to get to the symbol. His map should be geographically accurate, but must not avoid any of the traps or other dangers that may lie in the way. Lief will not necessarily know the most direct route to the symbol.
If the rope is pulled, a tremendously loud gong sounds. Within 1–10 minutes, a monster from Table 6 appears and attacks the PCs. Treat the monster as a normal random encounter.
Scattered about the room under the papers are 20,000 cp; 1000 gp; 500 pp; and 100 reference books on accounting procedures worth 10 gp each.
How does this encounter fit into the overall story of the adventure? There's actually a lot packed in here.
. By this point, the adventurers should know that the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind will help them defeat Strahd (thanks to Madam Eva's fortune-telling early on).
. The adventurers might not immediately realize that an accountant is the ideal person to ask about this treasure, but if they give it some thought it makes sense.
. If they can persuade Lipsiege to draw them a map, they've achieved two significant victories: learning the location of the symbol and getting a sketched map of part of the castle, which can be hard to navigate.
But there's more packed in here than immediately meets the eye. First, notice that it's intended as an interaction encounter but could easily turn into a combat encounter. There's some ambiguity in the read-aloud text, because Lipsiege is described simply as "a figure" and "the creature." But there are also clues that maybe talking to this unknown creature is better than attacking it: the pull rope beside it suggests that it can call for help, which the adventurers should know is not desirable in Strahd's home. And if they look more closely, they'll see that Lipsiege is chained to the desk, which is a pretty clear signal that he's not exactly a willing servant of Strahd and might be persuaded to help the adventurers.
There's also an opportunity here for the adventurers to learn more about Strahd—notice that Lipsiege "record[s] his riches and conquests." The DM is left to his or her own devices if the characters ask him more about Strahd, aided by the information in the rest of the adventure, but it's also an opportunity for the DM to drop hints that the adventurers might really need.
Finally, and not to be underestimated, this encounter offers a bit of comic relief in what can be a truly terrifying adventure. The vampire lord's accountant chained to a desk—I suspect that echoes the feelings of many accountants (Facebook status updates from one accountant I know suggest that's true), but for the rest of us it's a comic image. The grumpy Lipsiege is a welcome respite from deadly monsters and the ever-present threat of Strahd.
And then at the end: If Lipsiege is threatened and pulls on the rope, a wandering monster shows up.
Lief Lipsiege's loud gong summons whatever monster roaming the halls happens to be nearest to his room at the time, as determined by rolling on the random encounter table for the castle:
||1–10 Strahd zombies
||1–8 giant spiders
||1–4 angry villagers
||Special encounter—use Table 7
That special encounter might be 1–4 vampires, a groaning spirit, 1–6 spectres, a helpful spirit, Strahd himself, or . . . 1–2 dreaded rust monsters!
When Lipsiege summons help, this "random" encounter has a clear purpose: to punish the adventurers for resorting to force instead of communication. Depending on how the encounter goes, defeating the monsters might actually give them another chance to talk to Lipsiege and get the information they need out of him.
But what about when the adventurers are just roaming the castle? What good are these random encounters then? In this context, wandering monsters have three purposes:
- They create a sense of urgency. Adventurers don't dawdle as much with the threat of wandering monsters (12 wraiths!) hanging over their heads, and they'll think twice about holing up somewhere to rest.
- 2. They help establish the atmosphere and flavor of the place. An encounter table filled with bats, wraiths, giant spiders, more bats, and zombies establishes Castle Ravenloft as a place of horror haunted by the undead. It's a very different feel than a table populated with regimented hobgoblin patrols, imp spies, trained guard drakes, bugbear thugs, and goblin ambushers.
- 3. They wear the adventurers down. This is related to number 1—the longer the characters take finding Strahd, the weaker they'll be when they find him, because they will have exhausted some of their limited resources fighting off these random encounters (12 wraiths‼).
- 4. A couple of the results might actually help the adventurers instead of adding to the challenge. The helpful spirit that appears on the Special Encounters table will answer one question the adventurers ask it. The foolhardy villagers might provide some combat assistance to the adventurers, even if it's only by serving as meat shields. Of course, on the flip side, they make so much noise that they increase the chances of finding more wandering monsters.
Random encounters in the wilderness serve a slightly different function than those in dungeons. There's not as much a sense of urgency—there's usually not much that the adventurers can do to hasten their pace and reach their destination any sooner. Basically, they enliven the journey, making the process of getting from point A to point B a little more interesting.
Like random dungeon encounters, random wilderness encounters do a lot to establish the flavor of a wilderness area. A forest filled with ettercaps, goblins, and harpies feels very different than one filled with pixies, unicorns, and dryads—though the latter might be no less dangerous.
That's the reason behind an interesting and important shift that happened early on in the history of D&D. The 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide included twenty pages of tables to generate random monster encounters, including tables with names like "Monster Level V," "Underwater Encounters in Fresh Water," and "Temperate and Sub-Tropical Conditions: Inhabited And/Or Patrolled Areas." Each table basically listed every monster in the Monster Manual that would likely be found in the appropriate terrain on a giant table requiring a roll of percentile dice.
Four years later, the Monster Manual II introduced a new approach to encounter tables. Rather than rolling on a percentile table, the DM was urged to roll 1d8 + 1d12 and consult a 2–20 table. Lief Lipsiege would have loved these tables: Thanks to the splendors of statistics, the tables reflected an interesting curve of probability. When you roll 2d6, the numbers 10 and 11 are equally likely to show up, and everything else gets less common from there. On these tables, though, that plateau of maximum probability is spread out over the 9–13 range, giving you five spots on the table to put the most common monsters in a particular region.
Now, most of the encounter tables in the Monster Manual II are just as dry and generic as the ones in the DMG, representing different kinds of terrain in different climate bands. But then the book tells you how to make these 2–12 tables and populate them based on the frequency of the monster (as listed in every monster's stat block back then). Very rare monsters go at 2, 3, 19, and 20. The 4 and 18 slots are very rare or rare monsters. Rare monsters go at 5, 6, 16, and 17; uncommon ones at 7, 8, 14, and 15. And common monsters fill that 9–13 range.
And then come two examples, both "drawn from the temperate, wild, forested areas":
In Example 1, the forest is the sylvan home of elves, plagued by gnoll raiders. In example 2, the forest is a dark woods inhabited by spiders and other foul beasts. DMs are encouraged to tailor their encounters to their own worlds in a similar fashion.
Suddenly, a random encounter table is telling a story. As the adventurers roam the sylvan woods, their random encounters can reveal the nature of the place—three different types of elves live here, and they're beset by gnoll raiders. There's certainly an interesting story to be told about the relations among the wild elves, wood elves, and grey elves that all appear on the table.
What Do You Think?
Do you use random encounters and wandering monsters in your campaigns? Are we on the same page?
Previous Poll Results
How well do the sphinxes described here match with your sense of the iconic D&D creature?
| How you think this is a sphinx is a mystery to me.
| The high school drama was better than this.
| Reasonably sphinx-like.
|Yeah, I recognize them as sphinxes.
|The perfect enigma.
How likely are you to use a sphinx like this in your campaign?
| Very unlikely.
| Pretty unlikely.
| Jury’s out.
|I already know exactly how I’m going to do it.
How have you used sphinxes in your campaign before? Choose all that apply.
| As riddling guardians, pretty much as you describe.
| As glorified hippogriffs, hunting out in the wastelands.
| As mounts for powerful NPCs.
| As perverse mysteries, total enigmas to the PCs.
| As allies to the PCs on their adventures.
| As patrons, sending the PCs on quests.
| As manipulators, using the PCs against other sphinxes.
| Other. (Comments!)
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.