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Where did the Monsters Wander?

1021327_56807440 [1] As a GM, wandering monsters and other random encounters can be difficult to utilize without being a burden on the game. The best illustration of this point I’ve so far seen is in Rich Burlew’s excellent comic, Order of the Stick. [2] But is it true that the wandering monster is nothing but a boring waste of time? Where did they come from in the first place, why did they seemingly disappear from modern games, and are there valid uses for them?

In the early days of RPGs when DnD was the only game available, wandering monsters served the mechanical purpose of whittling down the PCs’ resources based on the time they took, eliminating the possibility of players working around challenges via time consuming and convoluted plans or camping to regain spells after every encounter [3]. Thematically, they displayed to players that an area was alive and dangerous.

Sadly, the wandering monster has fallen out of favor in modern games. While they can still be found with some searching, they’re no longer as prominent as they once were, mostly due to their reputation as an unnecessary time sink and the hobby’s attempt to be inclusive of as many play styles as possible. However, the noble and misunderstood wandering monster has much to offer your game if used effectively and with some care.

Wandering monsters still serve the function of giving an area a sense of life and danger, but a well thought out selection of wandering monsters can also serve to lend flavor to your campaign. Give careful thought to selecting wandering monsters appropriate to the area in which they are found. Also consider other factors that you may wish to showcase, such as season, weather, or holidays or other special events.

Dispensing clues and adventure hooks via wandering monsters is also a way to greatly increase their usefulness. Even if a particular encounter couldn’t plausibly shed light on the current story arc, dropping clues to possible side quests, hidden locations, or even the overarching story is a great way to get extra mileage out of the humble wandering monster without the hint seeming too forced.

Don’t forget that Wandering monsters don’t always have to be monsters. Weather patterns, tracks, hidden caches, small locales not linked to the story, and NPC allies and personalities are all good alternatives to monsters. These other options are usually faster than a combat encounter and can add the same kind of flavor to your game. These are especially good options to mix with standard wandering monsters. Fighting a monster in a storm, by a roadside shrine, or with a notable NPC are all good ways to make a seemingly mundane encounter memorable.

Wandering monsters also give your players new ways to exercise their roleplaying muscles, and try new approaches without the same risks as story based encounters. In games I have run or played, random monster encounters have led to magic item trades, formation of new trade routes, trophy hunting, unusual modes of transportation, cockamamie get rich quick schemes, and unlikely allies.

While wandering monsters can be an element of your game that requires careful planning or quick improvisation, they have the potential to be much more than time consuming speed bumps on the road to more relevant encounters.


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10 Comments To "Where did the Monsters Wander?"

#1 Comment By Lee Hanna On July 30, 2010 @ 7:00 am

I enjoy using random encounter tables when they include more than just monsters, such as sites, items, travelers on the road, weather changes, unusual flora or fauna, whatever. When I have a table like that, I can roll in advance (say, 6 road encounters, 3 woods, 2 hills encounters), and try to weave any patterns into part of the story. By doing them in advance, I can also add rumors or plot hooks. I can save some until later, if I decide that they are too tough, too easy, or inappropriate for the immediate situation.

Twilight:2000 had a very good set of charts, IMO, which is how I learned to think of things like this.

#2 Comment By Razjah On July 30, 2010 @ 7:01 am

This article came at a perfect time. The campaign that I am planning this fall is finishing it’s prep and I’m putting stat blocks onto different index cards. I keep arguing wtih myself about how to use wandering monsters. They do make the world more realisic and give the players reasons to have a night watch.

But to me they always seem like forced encounters to boost XP. In movied and books the monsers only attack the heroes when the plot calls for combat, not because a bear was in the woods at the time.

This gives me some new ways to look at the wandering monsters and use them in my coming campaign. My only ciriticism is that there are no examples, it would have been perfect to see how to dispense plot stuff via wandering monsters. Well, not I’m going to experiment with that myself this campaign.

Fantastic article, Mr. Neagley!

#3 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On July 30, 2010 @ 8:52 am

In movied and books the monsers only attack the heroes when the plot calls for combat, not because a bear was in the woods at the time.

True, but movies and books bombard you with sound and gorgeous visual imagery to achieve immersion. Tabletop RPGs need a lot of help in that area, and as the article says, wandering monsters can help.

#4 Comment By BryanB On July 30, 2010 @ 9:37 am

The wandering monster was a great addition to wilderness journeys. Most of the GMs (myself included) never used them inside of dungeons or towns. But in the wilderness, anything was possible while traveling those uncharted lands or lonely and not often used pathways.

The key to handling wandering monsters as a GM was to prepare the encounters ahead of time. I’d have around six of these ready to go. If there were no random encounters, then I would cut the dead air and start with the arrival of the PCs at their destination. If there was a random encounter, I would roll to see which one and we would play it out accordingly.

I think they went away for two reasons. One, a lot of players didn’t like spending resources dealing with encounters that weren’t part of the “planned” adventure. I never had a problem with this because you could still get treasure and experience.

Second, some people felt that random encounters were unfair or unbalanced. If they came along when a party was tired or unprepared, then you had a higher chance of having a TPK and having that happen on a random encounter would not be a good thing for many.

I’d love to seem them come back as long as some common sense was used with including them. Adjustments on the fly would be a key factor in how difficult the encounter would be and I would certainly never have a random encounter that was too difficult by design.

#5 Comment By drow On July 30, 2010 @ 9:44 am

wandering mosnters are a classic, and i still use them fairly often. if the party has taken an extended rest in the dungeon, a couple of orcs (an easy encounter) nosing around in the morning is a great way to get them up and moving. if the party has a tracker, a wandering monster is a great way to get them heading towards the Next Important Part of the dungeon, by following the monster’s trail back. if they’re getting to the big throne room encounter, but there’s no time this session to handle it, a couple of wandering monsters in the corridor just outside can delay them until next session, and maybe wonder if they’ve blown their surprise.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On July 30, 2010 @ 11:03 am

They can be cool, particularly if you bring them out for overland journeys and other long time periods. They’re a great way to convey a sense of time in an alien land passing.

#7 Comment By evil On July 30, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

I agree with a lot of what BryanB said above. I have tried to use random encounter tables that came with previous sets, and it seemed that the random encounter enemies killed my PCs more times than the actual villains in the adventures. I’ve thrown them out the window pretty much entirely for that reason.

When my games do have random encounters, they’re usually linked to the main story, and a way to kick the players into action in a certain direction. Thus, part of the story, but not necessary unless the PCs get stuck and can’t figure out the next clue. It’s amazing how often they wander across a spy carrying a message or a monster send as a threat. True random encounters, though, have gone the way of the dodo for me.

#8 Comment By Gamerprinter On August 1, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

I use Random Monster Encounters all the time, always have – never stopped. One rule I use, is to make sure all the monsters on the random monster chart are not as tough as the main encounters or the Boss encounter. Never should a wandering monster kill a party, like the BBEG can, otherwise they would be the BBEG and not a wandering monster.

About depleting those resources, wandering monsters still very much do that. I’ve heard all the arguments about the disparity between higher level wizards vs. martial classes, yet have never truly witnessed that in my games. Why? Because wandering monsters use up spells, so the wizard can’t Nova on the BBEG like he wants, as he’s already used some of his good spells against a tougher wandering monster.

If you’re only doing the 15 minute per day adventure, then the Wizard always novas and outshines the party. But if he spent half his load on wandering and lesser encounters, he hasn’t got anything to nova with… no disparity.


#9 Comment By Bercilac On August 2, 2010 @ 1:34 am

I am a fan of wandering monsters, but not of random encounter tables (done with a d100 or a similar mechanism). Generally, these tables take a long time to construct, you sacrifice GM creativity to the dice, you have to roll a great deal of dice (chance of encounter per time period, then type of encounter, then number of monsters, and sometimes more such as treasure rolls). And you don’t use most of the table, particularly the parts you’re most excited by. No thanks.

If I’m using wandering monsters, I’ll usually just jot down half a dozen throw-away encounters. Some wild animals, enemy patrols, a passing merchant (I had a great psychotic gnomish bard/alchemist named “Fezzerbitz Jinglesham” that I created for an urban environment, to be used randomly or in certain scripted scenes… Never used him, so might revive him as a PC next time I play). When I feel the need (based on all of the justifications you listed above for the random monster system in general: keeping the players on their toes, spicing up the game, adding challenges, or adding a bit of flavour) I just pick one off the list. So I never do a TPK because the dice will it, but I have some crazy stuff to throw at my players.

As regards wandering super-beasts (I adore dragons, and have never found them cliche), I’m in favour. But remember that an encounter is just that: an encounter. Perhaps they encounter a dragon obliviously feasting on a recent kill (sheep, deer, damsel, whatever) and wisely avoid it. You can send a chill of fear down the party’s spines and communicate the powers of the region without wiping them out. The hard part is being creative with these encounters. I found a wonderful article on the subject a few months back (may have been on Treasure Tables). If I find it, I’ll post it.

#10 Comment By Clawfoot On August 2, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

I use random encounters, but I try to make them more fun than just me rolling on a table and then telling them what monster’s popped up to eat them.

I prepare about six to ten random encounters, not all of them necessarily combat-oriented (the PCs can get around combat with some cunning or diplomacy, or it may be a distraught parent who can’t find their child that the PCs can decide whether or not to help, or whatever). I give them vague but ominous-sounding titles, and print the titles out on card stock. Then, during the game, when I want a random encounter, I allow a player to pick a random card, and that’s the encounter I run.

Doing the card thing I find is fun. The players feel like they have *some* input, even if it is illusory. They will often jokingly blame one another for a “bad” card draw. And the titles often turn out to be either bad puns or somewhat misleading (e.g. “The Screaming Terror” turned out to be an encounter with a tantaruming toddler).

I have always found it rather odd that random encounters tailor themselves somewhat to the level of the party. So I don’t shy away from putting in an excessively difficult encounter to the deck, as well as an excessively easy one. As a result, my players have learned that “retreat” is a viable option in some circumstances, and that there are interesting moral questions that pop up when a party of five level-10 adventurers catch a sole 2nd-level pickpocket and one of them smites the hapless thief with one blow.