Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stupid Wandering Monster Tricks

Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when designing a new wandering monster chart.

Pick Dice Wisely

I don't want to hunt for special dice every time I need to dice up a wandering monster., so I pick what I'm sure to have at hand. For D&D that usually means a 1d6 or 2d6 chart. For a more percentage-based game like Encounter Critical I might go with one or two ten-siders. And I try not to pick too many dice, so that I don't have to stop and add up results. I often go with two or three dice, so I get a nice bell curve type distribution. That way I can put the most common encounters in the middle of the chart and the rare weird stuff on the ends.

It's Okay to Reference Other Charts (sometimes)

Often I will include an entry that references another wandering monster chart, just to expand the possible options. Like on a level 1 chart I might include "roll on the level 2 chart" or for a forest next to a mountain range each chart might give a small chance that you should instead roll on the other terrain chart. That way you occasionally get hill giants on the plains or swamp beasties in the hills. Occasionally I will put an entry on the chart like "Roll on the Fiend Folio instead", but I try not to overdo that as I don't want to flip through too many extra wandering monster charts.

Not All Entries Have to Be Monsters

The original Traveller wilderness encounter charts included events on them like avalanches and blizzards. In dungeons I often add sound effects or odd smells to the chart, or events like a gust of wind that might blow out torches. Non-combat encounters with ordinary rats and snakes and such also appear on many of my dungeon charts. Things that players can interpret as omens also make interesting entries.

Not All Entries Have to Make Sense

Sometimes I put a monster on a wandering monster chart specifically because it doesn't appear anywhere else in the adventure. I just want a small chance that a leprechaun shows up, you know? And one time I put the smell of freshly baked cookies on a dungeon chart, without there being any good reason for it.

Keyed Encounters and the Chart Should Interact

Say hex 1234 is deep inside the Forest of Doom and according to your key that hex contains a massive warg lair. It only makes sense to include wargs on your Forest of Doom wandering monster chart. For extra fun, I sometimes make a note on the wandering monster chart "remove from chart if warg lair in hex 1234 cleared". Or maybe I'll note that the result "ogre" really means "ogre from room 23", in which case if the PCs kill a wandering ogre then room 23 becomes ogre-free. Another thing I sometimes do is put multiple examples of the same monster on a chart. Say level 2 is mostly devoted to a bigass gnoll lair. I might make an entry for an alert and agressive gnoll patrol, another for punkass gnoll teenagers sneaking off looking for trouble, and a third for some grumpy gnollwives heading to or from the local watering hole with big clay jugs.

Anybody else got any good tips for wandering monsters?


  1. And one time I put the smell of freshly baked cookies on a dungeon chart, without there being any good reason for it.

    Pure genius.

    It's this sort of thing that separates you from the run-of-the-mill dungeon hacks.

    Anyway, my tip is to not use dice. I use cards, instead. (This is mostly for more stat-intensive systems.) I'll put the entire encounter: Type, number, AC, Move, hit points, total xp, total treasure, etc. (including motivations) on a 3x5 card. When I need one, I just shuffle the deck and pull one.

    Also, when the deck is exhausted, there are no more wandering monsters until the players leave the dungeon and other monsters can 'wander' in.

  2. Interesting stuff. I quite often stock a dungeon with a finite number of monsters, of which the wandering monsters are part. During a general alert, it is not unusual for wandering monsters to "jump off the chart" and reinforce keyed encounters.

  3. Dang, Jeff. Every post you make pushes me toward the conclusion that somehow we have a time/space timeshare on certain brain cells.

    Traveller was not the only game to place non-monster encounters on the chart. Gary did it back in T1, though all noises. It was all just monsters (big ones, or large parties generally) in the D series, and in the G series he included, as you do, motivations for the wanderers ("taking a stroll," "going to sleep off a drunk," etc.)

    I keep wanting to go to d% roll tables, as Gary and Jeff did with Castle Zagyg, but as you say, the curves from multiple other dice are much more conducive to common, uncommon, rare, and very rare distributions. The classic is 2d10 or d8 + d12, but with my games I experiment with various dice (and even fudge up the charts a bit with different dice for night and day). I would like to work up a standard (perhaps simply the d8 + d12), but varying the dice allows for different combinations and numbers of encounters.

    Hmmm... food for thought.

  4. When I was a young Evil Dungeon Master I had a random table just for things to scare the players with, and would include a reference to that table on every wandering monster chart as (approximately) and "uncommon" monster equivalent.

    The chart had such things as:

    * Ask a player what his AC from the rear is.
    * Flip through the Monster Manual muttering to myself about how to spell "Tiamat."
    * Pass a note to a player instructing him to snicker, point to one other player of his choice, sign the note, and pass it back.

    I wish I could find the whole chart again; I'm pretty sure I never threw it away on purpose, but it's been a lot of years ...

  5. Traveller was not the only game to place non-monster encounters on the chart.

    And Arduin had an entire table dedicated to dungeon odors, though few of them as pleasant as freshly-baked cookies.

    For my own philosophy on the value of smells see A Kringle in Time, page 28 ;)

  6. I like to make entries that are specific individuals even if they don’t have a keyed home. A wandering encounter can be just as detailed as any keyed encounter.

  7. I liked what I saw in some Necromancer Games products. Roll 1d6, add +2 for wilderness, +2 for night time, and have a chart that goes from 1 to 10. The first two entries are "save" -- you never encounter them in a forest, in the hills, or at night. The last two entries you'll only encounter at night in the wilderness. Entries seven and eight you'll only encounter at night or in the wilderness.